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Roots with South Asian Today: Being a Brown journalist in (White) Australia

Season 1, Episode 08 with Bhakthi Puvanenthiran

In the eight episode of Roots with South Asian Today, Dilpreet speaks with renowned Australian journalist Bhakthi Puvanenthiran. A part of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, Bhakthi  is the editor of ABC Everyday (previously known as ABC Life) and has worked with Crikey, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. She has previously judged various awards including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize and is a current judging board member of the Walkley Foundation.

The conversation explores being a South Asian journalist in Australia, how do we tell our own stories and the possibilities around breaking structural barriers.


Dilpreet 00:00

You're listening to Roots with South Asian today. This podcast is being recorded in Australia on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to the Elders past, present and emerging. Sovereignty was never ceded. You're listening to Roots with South Asian today, my name is Dilpreet. And today I will be chatting with one of the most renowned faces in the Australian journalism industry, Bhakthi Puvanenthiran. As you all know, I am an independent journalist, a migrant and a former international student in Australia. And let me tell you, folks, it is not easy. So let's unpack and explore the role of South Asians in storytelling down under. Bhakthi is the editor of ABC life previously, she was a journalist and editor at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, and she is the former managing editor of Crikey. Crikey, Bhakthi, that is an impressive resume you have there. 

Bhakthi 01:10

Thank you so much. That's a very generous introduction. 

Dilpreet 01:14

So Bhakthi, tell me about your journey in journalism. How did you get into it?

Bhakthi 01:19

Something I've always loved is reading, writing, you know, the kind of classic roots of a journalist if you like, and my grandmother was an English teacher back in Jaffna, where I was born in Sri Lanka, she really instilled that love of reading and writing in me. And that was an advantage in some ways, because she could really help me develop my English at a young age, also a disadvantage because feel sad that I didn't speak more Tamil when I grew up, but yeah, I really excelled in those fields. And I had always loved news and politics, I was a debater at school. I studies media and law at uni and like straight away, my goal to become the editor of the student paper at Melbourne Uni, which is Farrago. and I found myself really drawing away from the law school. And that scene, it just, it wasn't speaking to me at all. Even though I was doing, back then this was, you know, I'm a little bit older because they still they had double degrees at Melbourne Uni, which they don't do now, I found law really cutthroat and awful, which I now realize the media is also very cutthroat. And I'm not sure why I thought that was easy. But I certainly enjoyed hanging out with the media kids more, if you know what I mean. Like there's so many people in his industry who want to really have, like, in depth, thoughtful, tempestuous discussions about what's happening in the world. And so I felt like they were my people. So I edited the student paper. I didn't get into media straight away, even though I kind of did all the things you're supposed to do. So I volunteered at 3CR, co hosted a show with lots of other Tamil young people, just kind of reflecting, we were kind of talking about contemporary issues affecting young people, but also young, you know, Tamil migrants here, but also talking about what was happening in Sri Lanka. And that was really the big inspiration for me to become a journalist was realizing how press freedom was so stifled in my home country, that the freedoms that I had here, I just thought, well, like it's, you know, it's, it's my responsibility to make the most of those. And then from there, I kind of got one of those phone calls that people, you know, just dream about, like really, truly didn't believe that something like that would ever happen to me, but asking to me to apply for a job. as deputy editor of The Age, I remember getting the voicemail and listening to it, like, maybe three or four times and being like, "Am I am I delusional?" I went for the interview, and I got the job. And so but as you say, the rest is history. So I worked at the age for nearly five years. Then I moved on to Crikey where I was for two and a half years. And now I've been at the ABC for just over 18 months. So and then before that, like I said that ABC so probably been full time employed for about home nearly a decade now. 

Dilpreet 04:28

Right. Wow. That's, that's an interesting story. And I remember when I came to Australia to pursue journalism, I had a bit of a different experience, I reckon. Back in India, you know, there are so many stories to work on. And I think I felt less gate kept back home. But in Australia, all the internships that I did, I was always looking for another South Asian face. You also observe that and if so why do we not see many South Asian journalists in Australia?

Bhakthi 05:03

It is a very difficult industry for anyone who is not from a European white background to succeed. It's not just South Asians, we we don't have anywhere near enough Indigenous people on our screens. We don't have anywhere near enough East Asians. I mean, Arabic is the second most spoken language in Australia outside of Mandarin. So Mandarin one Arabic two, but how many Arabic speaking journalists do you see? Very few. So it's an endemic problem where I think there's a lot of things going on here. Ultimately, it's it's an issue of who the bosses of Australian media think of when they think of as 'Aussie' -  they think of white people. That's really concerning. And that is changing in some parts. And I know that there are people that are working really hard in certain organizations to kind of improve that. The other thing is, so there's a, there's a recruitment issue. But then there's also when you are in there, as you said, you feel very alone. And that sense of isolation, I think drives people out, it's really hard to explain how lonely some of those interactions are. When you're a journalist, every  time you write something you do feel it as part of your identity, or every time you produce something, it's an extension of your identity. And if you're having to constantly cut that back, edit it down, not say the real idea, you know, have your ideas pushed away or not have your expertise in your community recognised that's just it's a soul crushing experience. And it happens to a lot of people. I mean, for me, it's complicated, because I have I have been very lucky, I have been very, you know, successful, really, you know, achieving my goals. But at the same time, I've had to have a lot of difficult conversations. And then there's also the silences. There's, there's the things where you don't even realize until you left a workplace. Wow, that was actually really toxic. Because for years, there was that guy who always called me the other brown reporter's name, or it was really toxic, because oh, did that person think that I wasn't very good because of my race? Or did they think I wasn't very good because of my gender. They are holding on to a certain audience, and they're not interested in these other audiences. And that's something we really fight back, say, okay, well, if we're going to do a story about dating, we're not just going to have white perspectives on dating. This is a story about Sri Lankan people. This is a story about dating, and we're going to have a Sri Lankan perspective or a Japanese Australian perspective, or whatever it might be.

Dilpreet 07:48

Right. I agree with you, I think there's this idea of who is Aussie and who looks Aussie, right, that's a social structure that a lot of people of color are familiar with. But at the same time, I also find the media industry as you also slightly touched upon,  not being very open. So many grants and internships and even cadetships. So I did my masters in journalism from Melbourne Uni. And I came from India, I think, three years ago, and I was like, "Oh, this is the best university for doing journalism". It'll open gates and stuff. But once I graduated, only my fellow white Australians were allowed to even apply for cadetships. I wasn't even eligible to apply because they're only open to Australian citizens or permanent residents. So I would love to know your thoughts on how do migrants and international students interested in journalism even break those barriers, considering those barriers are often just blocks and bans and you know, you're not even eligible so.

Bhakthi 08:56

Such an interesting point, and honestly, I have a lot of privilege in that I did grow up here. I have an Australian accent. That's this incredible privilege that comes with that, right. Because when you pick up the phone, people don't. I mean, sure, my name is, you know, unusual to, you know, a lot of white people in this country. But anyway, so getting back what you're asking, I would say that yeah, of course, that's something that I'm like not an expert in why they are creating these barriers. I'm not sure what the HR or industrial reasons are for that. But it's it's something that I honestly think you could speak to Media Diversity Australia about I don't know if you have raising it, that'sbecause it should be tackled from, you know, it's one person alone tackling that that's not possible. that's a that's a huge thing. But I would say as well that community radio offers, you know, each and it should offer those people who don't enjoy the you know, the rights of PR and citizenship it, it should be open to everyone and my experience with certainly places like  3CR in Melbourne is that they are welcoming to more people, but I understand what you're saying like those mainstream places are where you want the experience. Right? 

Dilpreet 10:20

Um, yeah, I think you know, it's it's a very daunting and haunting experience because I think all these things are not told to people. And this idea of an open industry, open media industry is often sold to international students. Right. And I think I also think of it on a on a, on a lower level, I think even universities need to be explicitly saying this, right? Because if I'm going to leave my life at the age of 23, to pursue journalism, and to then know that, oh, I'm not even eligible, you know, like being rejected is a different thing. That is a different aspect. But even not being eligible is something I think, a lot of students after they graduate, it comes as a shock. So Bhakthi, I would also actually love to talk to you about what kind of stories do you think South Asian diaspora in particular, you know, should be talking about or should be addressing or producing in Australia, I think there's so much that as a community we don't touch upon, tell me some of the topics that you think South Asian Australians must address specially as journalists and storytellers. 

Bhakthi 11:35

Hmm. Yeah, I mean, off the top of my head, the big ones are casteism, colorism and homophobia. I think those and, and misogyny and those are the big issues. I think that we, you know, that the broader South Asian community, and then smaller communities within that, because it's almost like it's a community of communities. Right. You know, for an example, I wrote last year about arranged marriage and, and I had a bisexual man in the story as well, because, to me, that's as much as relevant as anything else. And yeah, I don't think that's when we talk about these issues, we're not inclusive enough. And the other thing to talk about is, I know, in my case, I can really only talk about the Tamil community with any even mild authorities, a lot of people who are in my generation of migrants, as in their families came out in the 80s and 90s have a lot of privilege compared to people who have left following the war. That needs to be talked about more. I don't think there's as much solidarity between these more recent migrants and, you know, my generation as there could be. Certainly you  do see it sometimes in religious settings. But I think there there should be more kind of secular ways for us to do that as well share each other's experiences. 

Dilpreet 13:04

Oh, absolutely. I could not agree more with you. So as someone who is a recent migrant, I am very much on the receiving end of a lot of stereotypes that the older diaspora holds, you know, being called FOB -  Fresh Off the Boat -  or being shocked that "Oh, I thought, you know, Indian people don't have brands?". and you're like, what India, do you have in mind? You know, I think these ideas have been passed on to by their parents, obviously, and it was quite shocking coming here. And, you know, you think that you will have a community of brown people in the West, and then you realize that you're actually just a FOB and there's huge gap between the diaspora and the West and you. So I personally felt as much alienated from the brown community, if I may say, so. 

Bhakthi 14:02

It doesn't surprise me at all. I do think there's a perspective that if you didn't leave at a certain point in history, well, then you've made the wrong choice. And that's probably because there's something wrong with you! That's not how anything works. And it is we do know also that there's there's casteism in those more established parts of our communities, because a lot of people that could afford to leave back then were upper caste families. So that's something that also needs to be discussed is the privilege of having had that time to set up. 

Dilpreet 14:43

Absolutely. And I think abolishment of caste is something that at South Asian Today, we have really, really dived deep into. We get a lot of stories from the diaspora and not just Australia but the states, UK, US Germany. So you know, whatever South Asians go cost goes with them. So I think it's a huge conversation to have regardless. But other thing about the diaspora that I was about to mention was, it's a funny thing that I share with everybody. When I came to Australia, I would find a lot of anger among the among the brown diaspora about chai and chai tea? And the first time I heard it, I chuckled and rolled my eyes. I was like, eh , whatever. And they were like, oh, no, you don't understand. This is a huge issue. And I'm like, oh, okay, really? All right. I mean, if someone had said that, that in India, we would have been like, whatever, who cares about white people, and we would just have moved on, because there is so much bigger shit to deal with. Right? 

Bhakthi 15:46

Right. Right. I think it's the thing where people are more comfortable talking about the symptoms of something rather than the deeper ramification, right? You're happy to correct people and try it, but you're not happy to interrogate your own classism or you're not, you're happy to correct you know, like, be really proud of chai, But if it's something, you know, like, discrimination in the workplace, or in, you know, national identity, it like, oh, no, we just talking about the cricket. You know, probably a bit more to it than cricket. Although it is annoying when they say chai tea!

Dilpreet 16:24

No, of course it is that you know, naan bread and all that it is annoying. That's exactly I'm like, it's just annoying, but it's like not the movement of my life?

Bhakthi 16:36

I can see why it's the start of the conversation. But it should not be the end of the conference. 

Dilpreet 16:40

And or the all of it, right? Yeah, I think I started becoming a bit like, oh, my God, are you guys still gonna talk about chai-tea? Like, I just want to talk about other stuff. So, you know, that's, that's how basically one of the main reasons that South Asian Today came to be because I was like, oh, we can't stop here. You know, this is not, this is not an ending point at all. Yeah, no, no, it's been, it's been good to find a lot of like minded people in the diaspora as well. Um, and Bhakthi, my last question to you is something that I ask all my guests, and it would be if you had to define representation in a single sentence, what would you say? 

Bhakthi 17:27

I would say that representation is a fundamental right of our psychological well being. Because it, it grounds us in our place in the world. And if that isn't available, I think there's just a spiral of of ramifications that come with that. And I also want to say that representation is not just about the big names and brands like yes, it's gonna be great to have a brown Disney Princess or whatever. But it's also about sovereignty, doing our stories on our terms, and doing it with community and the strengths of the community as the starting position.

Dilpreet 18:24

Wow, thank you. That was very profound. No wonder you're a journalist. Thank you so much for joining me Bhakthi, I had a lovely time chatting with you. 

Bhakthi 18:36

Oh, thank you so much. And I'm sorry, it's just been an absolute nightmare to try and pin me down. It's um, that's I'm truly not as busy as potentially I make out, I just been it's, it's been it's tough for a while with all the cuts in our team and yeah, it's it's been it's been a big year for us. It has been for many others. 

Dilpreet 18:56

I mean, we got there in the end right now. 

Bhakthi 18:58

Yeah. That's right.

About the author

Dilpreet is the founder of South Asian Today. More about her can be found here.




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