An immigrant experience from Down Under

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Neha Kale is a Sydney-based writer and editor whose work explores art, culture, people, places and identity. She was born in Mumbai, India, migrated to Perth, Western Australia as a seven-year-old and has also lived in London and Melbourne. She’s the editor of VAULT, a contemporary art and culture magazine, writes a fortnightly column for SBS Life and regularly contributes to a range of Australian publications including the Sydney Morning Herald’s Daily Life, Broadsheet, The Collective and more. Here, she tells us about building a career in freelance journalism and the challenges, payoffs and myths that surround the Australian ‘immigrant experience.’

How did you get into your field?
I’ve wanted to be a writer and journalist since I was really young, probably about 7 or 8. I read obsessively, everything I could get my hands on, as a kid and there was literally nothing else I wanted to do with my life. I studied professional writing and cultural studies at Curtin University in Perth (where I grew up) and moved to London for a little while before relocating to Melbourne. I always knew I wanted to write freelance but it was very difficult and highly competitive. Also I needed to pay the rent! I worked corporate writing and communications jobs during the day and would wake up early most mornings, about 4 am, to pitch to editors and write stories so I could build my portfolio. Then about four years ago, I decided to make the leap to Sydney and try to work as a freelance journalist and writer full-time. I started pitching my stories around and writing regularly for places such as The Sydney Morning Herald’s Daily Life, Broadsheet, The Collective and VAULT, the contemporary art magazine which I now also edit while balancing other freelance writing work. I’ve always been incredible passionate about art and culture, both high and low, so I feel really lucky that I get to combine these things in my work.

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What was your immigrant experience like?
My family moved from Mumbai to Perth, Australia when I was 7. Back in the 90s, Perth was an incredibly suburban place and although the suburb we settled in and school I went to was pretty multicultural, it was still difficult as a young child. The contrast between India, which is such a sensory overload but also brings with it this in-built sense of culture, community and connection, and Western Australia, which was beautiful and welcoming but also a little sterile in comparison, could be difficult to navigate. There were also those instances of ignorance, the questions about my background and ‘where I really come from?’ or the surprise that I could read and write English really well that stuck with me and were really hard. This is particularly true when you’re a teenager and just want to be like everyone else.
But looking back, that experience of being an outsider when I was really young really shaped my life and, I think, made me turn the fact that I had a perspective that was different to those who perhaps fitted in more, into a strength. As a writer and journalist, your job is to be able to question the status quo and point out things that other people don’t and I think that having to inhabit multiple identities and perspectives really teaches you to do that.

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Is it harder for an immigrant to get ahead than it is for others?
Definitely – although Australia is a relatively multicultural and inclusive place, we still struggle with racism here, subtle and otherwise. In creative fields such as media and publishing or art, it’s hard to get ahead without connections so you do have to work twice as hard to get known and produce work that you’re really proud of. You also have to hone a sense of entitlement, particularly in a creative career. A lot of people who do succeed in creative fields have wealthy parents or access to money and capital. If you come from an immigrant background, you probably don’t have that and have to figure it out yourself which can make it doubly hard. There’s also that pressure to be exceptional and to not fail, which can really be quite destructive. I think the Indian community in Australia is incredibly diverse – I grew up in Perth surrounded by a sprawling extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins, which looking back, was really special and formative. – CINEWS

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