As a writer living with mental and chronic illnesses, finding community online has been one of the key factors in my health and recovery. Yes, there’s chaos. There are algorithms built to work against marginalised folks and there are people who’ve spent a lot of time trying to make my online experiences miserable. However, the connection and care I’ve experienced far supersedes that. Every vulnerability I’ve shared online has been met with someone reaching out their hand to either share their own lived experience or to show compassion.
Event: EWF20 Ambassador – National Writers’ Festival
There’s a squeal. The screen whirls, mission brown, monstera green.
“Stevi?” my sister says.
Someone else is speaking at the same time. Everyone pauses; the slight delay induces this odd speech traffic ? like seven people trying to walk through one door all at once. Stevi screams again, the other faces on my laptop screen wince.
“Why did he give her the phone?” I say about my brother. “No one can talk.”
The camera turns back on my niece’s cherub face.
“Can you give Dad the phone please Stevi?”
A tiny head shake and she’s running again, the world lurches, a collective groan.
“I’m getting a beer,” I say. No one seems to notice. When I get back Dad is showing us his nostrils, my oldest brother’s face warps so he has enormous almond-shaped eyes and green skin, then there’s my sister aiming the camera at her new kitten. She’s talking but not loud enough to be heard through all the other voices.
“It’s bedlam,” I say to my wife.
“Stevi,”she says. “Can you stop running with the phone?”
Event: Kiss Me Thru the Phone
A few months ago, while watching videos of Grace Chang (a popular 1950s Chinese singer-actor also known as Ge Lan) on YouTube, I noticed a black and white thumbnail. It showed the side profile of a lone female in a pale cheongsam before a microphone. I clicked it.
The video opens with the dramatic notes of a piano, panning from the skylight of a ballroom to a shadowed figure. The spotlight comes on as Linda Lin Dai begins to sing, “Wang bu liao wang bu liao…” My heart wobbled as she reacts to an ex entering with two women. At the song’s climax, Lin zig-zags between the tables, makes it to the lobby, and faints. The film cuts to the couple’s happy memories.
I immediately posted the song on Facebook with the first few lines, a translation and crying emojis. I deleted the translation the next day, but left the emojis. I am not convinced that ‘I cannot forget’ is accurate. Surely, from her wavering voice and pained expression, she is singing ‘I will never forget’?
Events: Lunchtime Lit: Writing Close, Amazing Babes
Like most things in my life, I’m a late bloomer. Let me explain. So for example, I’ve always started a fashion trend at the ass end, when it’s on its way out. I also discovered late in life that people aren’t born with perfectly shaped eyebrows. I had no idea that you could get them waxed or even pluck the bloody things to make them look good, so for years I was walking around with a unibrow and, shamefully, I have pics to prove it.
Now the internet and being online is no different. I remember when I first started using the internet and a “man” (and I use this term loosely), sent me a dick pic. A picture of his very white penis. In the shock of this pic, there was also revelation as I discovered I don’t like white penises.
Event: Lunchtime Lit: Writing Through Crisis
For as long as I’ve been on the internet, I’ve been honing the craft of being vulnerable online. Being nameless allowed me to shed the preconceived notions others had projected onto me. For the first time I spoke without shame, sharing anecdotes about being sick, being bullied, and being abused (though I did not and would not name this until I was much older). Almost all at once the world felt much larger, more expansive and impermanent.
I remember once asking, “has anyone here ever run away?” and received what might now be a Wikihow article in response. I never did run from home, but knowing that I could made the air around me feel breathable again. However unprecedented, however unpredictable and chaotic, connecting through the internet provided me with the care I needed to feel far less alone.
Events: Space Mall ? Choose Your Own Adventure, Experimental Digital Writing & Editing (part of National Writers’ Conference)
Last year I made a friend and in May we added each other on LinkedIn: the app that’s all about connections. LinkedIn’s chat functionality has suggestive text that is pretty good at sustaining a conversation. A lot of our early communications looked like this:
MAY 22, 2019, 4:12 PM
Thanks for endorsing me
MAY 23, 2019, 8:35 AM
Tell me about it
MAY 24, 2019, 3:58 PM
MAY 25, 2019, 6:53 PM
Please keep in touch
We kept our LinkedIn conversation active until October and then I stopped replying. We flew interstate together and we wrote a piece together (mostly about LinkedIn and connections) and now we are housemates.
One month into isolation they LinkedIn’ed me from the next room over: Where are you based? and I said back: You’re welcome/What do you do?
Event: Writing the Climate Crisis, Powered by Pecha Kucha
During COVID-19, Facebook has suddenly become the packed peak-hour train and the inner-city night market. Previously silent Facebook “friends” are waxing lyrical on my newsfeed. Spoken word poets, hungry for the stage, are spouting their iso woes. Page poets, wanting in on the action, are sitting in garden chairs recording with silvery tongues.
I find myself engaging social media for comic relief from the uncertainty and the chaotic leadership. A nuclear family singing a Les Miserables number iso-style. Randy Rainbow turning presidential incompetence into a satisfyingly hilarious song parody. The bin isolation outings of people walking to their kerbs as mummies and bananas in pyjamas.
As for Facebook Messenger, I am responding in one-line statements and dreaming of a proper cafe debrief and being served coffee by an overly friendly bearded person. The rest of the time, I have opted for book pages I can smell and Netflix with a kitty whose life remains unchanged. Poetry has been confined to the page, where I have been putting the finishing touches on my new poetry collection; completed between the bin iso outing of a human-sized crow and viewing a dog dressed as Girl with a Pearl Earring.
EWF Program Co-ordinator
As a chronically ill writer myself there’s been months where I lived online, unable to physically leave the house. I spent my days on Facebook groups talking to other chronically ill people, sharing memes about being sick and co-ordinating rosters to help pick up medications and food for one another when we could. I don’t know how I would have survived if these caring online spaces didn’t exist!
One thing I’ve always loved about EWF is its commitment to accessibility and its Digital Writers’ Festival – allowing chronically ill people like me to tune into literary events from the comfort of our own bedrooms, as well as providing better access to people who might face economic and/or location barriers to attending IRL events.
I hope this greater accessibility will continue across the board long after lockdowns are lifted. I’ve found the most amazing writing community online too, where other writers have taught me how and who to pitch my writing to. I’m excited to now be able to pass that sort of thing along to other emerging writers through this festival.
Event: Playlist: Joy
There was a heatwave the summer that I turned 12, so I suddenly found myself with vast swathes of time indoors. With nothing else to do and a recently upgraded ADSL connection, I turned to Exit Reality, a virtual world game recommended by – of all people – my dad.
My avatar in this game had a studded leather jacket and ripped jeans; I fell in love with another avatar in a tuxedo. “ASL?” the other avatar asked, which stood for Age/Sex/Location. “17/M/Ottawa,” I lied, even though I was a 12-year-old boy living in north-west Sydney.
We added each other on MSN that afternoon, and we chatted about our favourite bands, our angsty dreams, our favourite things about where we lived ? the Canadian Museum of Nature, I said about Ottawa, after a quick Wikipedia search. Then the conversation ended, and we never talked again – despite my best efforts – but it’s my first memory of being head over heels in love, online or otherwise. And sometimes when I’m online dating, I still think about what could’ve been (realistically: nothing) between me and tuxedo man.
EWF Artistic Director
I didn’t get the internet at home until year 12, which was untimely because I ended up tumbling even further into the void (previously only visited for an hour per day at the library) when I should have been studying. I had friends IRL but honestly, being very much online was what made me truly comfortable with sexuality, gender and race. I think that’s why I was so obsessed with forums and role play and MySpace as a teen.
The internet taught me a lot of really important things about myself and the communities I find connection in (online queer communities of colour are truly very special). It also taught me things that school really didn’t, even if it was meant to. Grammar and spelling, for example, have never been my strong point. It wasn’t until I spent my time creating characters, plots and storylines online with a community of other people (some of whom are still friends I cherish and adore, though that part of my being online is long over) that I learnt the difference between “wear”, “were”, and “where”.
Growing up, I heard about online being the Bad Place a lot but actually, maybe, it’s the Good Place? Or at least a Good Place. That’s what I hope we can highlight with EWF20 ? that even in this time of apartness, we can be a community in this other way that is equally valid and creative and supportive.