Q&A with Sam Elkin

A close-up photo of a person, their head and shoulders are in frame. They have light skin, short brown hair, and are wearing a red top with thin black stripes on it. They have a relaxed smile on their face. The background is out of focus, but there seem to be white cupboards and a white door.

Sam Elkin is a writer and community lawyer living in Melbourne’s west, and one half of the trans cultural history radio show Transgender Warriors. Sam has previously been published in Overland and Homer magazine, and is currently working on a memoir.

Our deputy editor (prose), Dinu, interviews Sam about ‘Tops’, published in #16 UNFUNDED.

Sam, I loved reading your piece for this issue, it’s poignant and political. ‘Tops’ talks about the financial and emotional strain of necessary surgery, as well as what is at stake without it. Why do you think deeply personal art like yours can be so political at the same time? Is it important that art does both things at once?

People are motivated to write for different reasons; some want to explore what it means to be human; some write to convey a political message, some write for the sheer pleasure of making something beautiful, or the intellectual challenge of playing with form. I don’t think there’s a hierarchy.

For me, I am motivated to interrogate a cultural moment I am a part of, where trans and gender diverse people (in certain parts of the world) are gaining access to gender-related medical care. This is a contested site, where governments, policy makers and activists are unsure whether this care should be offered on a cosmetic, user-pays model, or whether it should be part of a universal healthcare system. I’ve always been really interested in the way systems impact on individuals, whether it be Centrelink entitlements or the provision of disability care, so I guess it’s not surprising to me that I would turn the gaze on myself to describe the way trans people like me are traversing this contested site of medical care. 

You work as a community lawyer, how does creative writing affect your work, and vice versa?

Well, on a day to day level it makes it really hard to find time to write as it is a difficult, all-consuming job that can be very emotionally draining. On the other hand, the part of being a community lawyer I really love is having the privilege of a person telling a part of their life story; why they did what they did and how it led to the charges they are currently facing, for example, and then telling that story to a court in a way that will hopefully inspire a judge to demonstrate empathy for my client by giving them a sentence that takes into account their life circumstances and future dreams. So, it also gives me a good chance to hone my storytelling skills, though of course I can’t share my own client’s stories beyond the courtroom. 

You are a very busy person; you travel, you host radio shows, you do such important legal work, and you write! The lack of arts funding and consequently, the lack of financial security for independent artists means that creative labour often happens amidst competing demands. How do you maintain the energy to be creative while giving back to your community, and taking care of yourself as well?

The issues that affect the arts sector are the same as those that affect the not for profit legal sector too; the competitive, short-term grants funding, the difficulties in attracting long-term, philanthropic support, and the need to constantly innovate to a rapidly changing world. I never thought I would spend my life scrambling around for money to run a community law program, but that’s what you have to do to keep projects going, which can be really frustrating, as it does divert energy and creativity away from the actual core job at hand. So, I guess I like to travel to get out of the stress bubble of worrying about the funding cliff that is constantly looming in my work! I have also found hosting Transgender Warriors really sustaining, because it’s basically an opportunity for me to spend an hour learning from older trans people about how they’ve managed to life rich, varied lives while fighting for respect and equality, and taking time out from the fight to look after themselves when they need to. It’s been really inspiring.