Q&A with Miriam Jones

The camera  application screen on a smart phone has been edited to read "The Suburban Review Issue #17: THEFT". The image captured by the camera shows a background of varying greys, like paintbrush strokes. In the foreground of the image captured by the camera, Miriam Jones smiles out of a square of scenery, behind her are suburban houses and green grass.

MIRIAM JONES teaches, plays music, and writes on Wangal land in Sydney. She has written on murder ballads, feminism, early childhood education, and care work for Overland.

Our ex-Deputy Editor (Prose) Dinu Kumarasinghe interviews Miriam Jones about her non-fiction piece ‘We Live in Sydney’ for #17 THEFT.

I’m interested in how you allude to taste being a differentiating factor within the ‘middle-class’. I think of ideas like the ‘cashed-up bogan’, where an equivalent yearly pay check is no longer enough—even within that there is a hierarchy. Can you speak to the source of that difference, and the consequences?

In terms of class, some things are quite clear cut. If you are a landlord, you have power over your tenants. If you are a boss or a business owner, you have power over your employees. If you are a casual worker or a migrant worker on a temporary visa, you are more liable to be exploited than someone who was born in Australia, someone with permanency, or someone working within a unionised sector. These are fundamentally economic relationships and it’s easy enough to see where power lies (although our political leaders still try hard to obscure these power dynamics, as exemplified in Scomo’s recent comments, ‘There are no more unions or bosses. There are just Australians now.’ (!)).

Other power dynamics that shape class position are more complex and nuanced, and I find these really interesting. The cultural disparagement of the ‘cashed-up bogan’ is a good example of how one’s value as a member of society is determined by more than just income. When you ask someone (let’s say a liberal, middle-class person) why they find the cashed-up bogan unpalatable, they will probably find it hard to justify, because tastes and dispositions are hard-wired and tend to operate below the level of consciousness. I think about someone like Pauline Hanson – whose politics I detest – but who is often ridiculed and written-off for her accent, her hairstyle, her clothing, her background as a fish and chip shop owner in Ipswich, rather than for her political views.

So, hard-wired tastes and dispositions that are indexed to class structure cultural ideas about whose voices and perspectives are worthy of attention. You just need to look at our Parliament to see how few members come from working class backgrounds, migrant communities, or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. And so few women and queers, let alone non-binary people.

Value systems around taste also shape our aspirations and desires. In the piece, I write about how it’s so hard to escape the aspirational psychology of real estate: I have a roof over my head in a beautiful house that is relatively stable (although the position of a rental tenant is never really stable), but nonetheless I still attach dreams to other houses in other suburbs because of what I’ve been taught to value. The main character Pano in Peter Polites’ latest book, The Pillars, is a great example of this: he knows that his background as a Greek guy from Bankstown holds no social cachet, and at times ruthlessly pursues social advancement via connections to certain people, suburbs, brand names, etc. He is at once incredibly self-aware, while also being swept up in the unhappy logic of aspiration.

Another thing that really interests me is class flexibility, or the relationship between someone’s current class position and the cultural, social, and economic resources they have that could be mobilised to move elsewhere. In my case, both of my parents were the first in their families to attend university and my family was traditionally working class. But does that matter now in terms of my class position? Not much it seems, not now that I have grown up in a house full of books, taken music lessons, moved through tertiary education.

In public discourse, my work as a university-educated early childhood teacher is devalued with the same gestures and policies that devalue other childcare work. My shitty wage is only a little better than my TAFE-educated colleagues’ even shittier wage. Our struggles for recognition and remuneration are the same. At the same time, I know that I have other options if needed. I chose to be an early childhood teacher because I think the work is important and I love it, but I used to work as a violin teacher and get paid over double the hourly wage I do now. During this COVID-19 crisis, some of my colleagues who are on temporary visas have had no choice but to keep working. In my case, I have been able to choose to stop working so I can continue to care for my mum who is very unwell, but this is only possible because of my citizenship status as well as my connection to my partner and family members who can support me financially. So in terms of my relationship with my colleagues, in some ways we share a class position and in other important ways we don’t.

There’s so much to say! Pierre Bourdieu is the big guy in this area, but there are lots of contemporary thinkers who have updated his ideas to account for gender and race and other phenomena. Thanks for the great question.

As you acknowledge, any commentary on the unfairness of housing access can’t ignore the inescapable unfairness of this nation’s origins—that we live on unceded lands. How have you tried to grapple with this in your own work, and can you recommend any writers, artists or other sources or experiences that have added to your understanding?

As with all practices of solidarity and allyship, I think the most important thing is to be listening to First Nations people and supporting grassroots struggles. There are so many wonderful Aboriginal writers working in this country at the moment, and reading their work is one way to listen. I’m thinking of Melissa Lucashenko, Alexis Wright, Nayuka Gorrie, Evelyn Araluen, Nakkiah Lui, Alison Whittaker, Tony Birch, Bruce Pascoe, and many, many others.

In terms of the many amazingly hard-working but underfunded grassroots groups, there’s Grandmothers Against Removals, Protect Country Alliance, Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network, Sisters Inside, Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, Indigenous Social Justice Association, and Firesticks. Writers and other kinds of artists often have large networks or audiences that can be mobilised to ‘pay the rent’ and support these groups to continue their work.

Your piece is incredibly personal and political. How did you approach integrating your own personal experiences with the cultural analysis that is a consistent undercurrent in your piece?

I’m sure it’s the same in other big cities, but in Sydney it feels like real estate is everywhere. Not housing, but real estate. Before the pandemic, when I used to catch the train all the time, I would sometimes look at people’s phones and everyone would be scrolling through domain.com. For people of a certain age (my age!), it is part of the social template to aspire to buy a place, if not actually buy one. And this brings up all kinds of questions which are at once personal and political: what kind of relationships do I want to prioritise in my life? What would being a homeowner enable and what possibilities would it foreclose? What could home ownership look like outside of the hetero family unit and without the banks? What does it mean to own property on stolen land? Etc., etc. These were the kind of questions that were buzzing around our sharehouse when I wrote this piece and that are unlikely to stop buzzing around any time soon.

I didn’t really make a conscious decision to integrate the personal and political in this piece of writing, nor do I really know how to disentangle the two. It’s like Sara Ahmed says in Living a Feminist Life, once you start perceiving the world in a certain way it’s very hard to take that lens off as if it were an optional extra: “having let the world in, screening it out would require also giving up on the subject you have become.” At university I studied political economy and was involved in student activism (can you tell!) and this has really strongly shaped the way I engage with the world. All the writers I love most, like Anne Boyer, Saidiya Hartman, and Maggie Nelson, bring their political life to their intimate life and vice versa. A constant interplay of the bird’s eye perspective and the minutiae of intimate experience. It’s frustrating to be stuck within this language where we have to talk political as opposed to personal, but it’s almost impossible to get around it.