By Nicholas Jose

Everyday and Exotic: Australian Asian Writing

‘Australians are the least monolingual of all the Anglos,’ says Timothy Mo in an interview to mark his new novel, Pure (Turnaround Books, 2012). This is a tease, because it’s all relative. Anglos are notoriously monolingual, and Australia is not much better. The statistics for foreign language learning and expertise in Australia show a lamentable decline over the last few decades. But if there’s a perceptible difference between Australia and other Anglo cultures in this regard, it may well be that there’s a relative capacity in Asian languages here, though nothing to congratulate ourselves on. Canberra’s Australian National University, for example, ranks high in world university rankings partly because it is one of few universities in the world that teach Sanskrit, Burmese, Thai, Tetum and other Asian languages. Multilingualism is not part of Australia’s image of itself, not even as potential, so it is interesting to hear it expressed by someone from outside the country who has lived and worked in parts of Asia, especially South-East Asia, for a long time. Presumably Mo meets quite a few Australians in those places who surprise him with their language skills.

Timothy Mo has written the best novels of Hong Kong and East Timor and continues to write and publish fiction set in the transforming societies of different parts of Asia. Pure deals with the secession struggle in the Muslim regions of southern Thailand. He was ahead of his time in taking literary fiction out of the confines of the old Anglosphere, and, after being shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize and never winning, he spat the dummy, rejected the metropolitan literary racket, and began publishing his work on his own terms, out of Asia. Those books have a different pulse, as Mo provides new ways of seeing a demanding, exciting, actual world.

From that perspective, Mo is in a good position to note the affinity Australians have for what he is doing. He says hilariously: ‘increasingly, Australians realise they are tall, conscripted Asians whose feet are already in thongs’. But we don’t actually have a way of talking about the fact that huge numbers of Australians live, work and travel in many parts of Asia, at every level, from ambassadors, journalists, teachers and business people to surfers, backpackers, activists – many of them attending the writers’ festivals there, largely initiated by Australians. To name just one, Michelle Garnaut, a woman from Melbourne, started her own literary festivals in Shanghai and then Beijing, linked to her successful M restaurants in those cities, creating a space that hadn’t seemed possible in China. It didn’t happen overnight, of course: she has put in the hard yards for more than 20 years.

Then there are probably similar numbers of people from Asia who, one way or another, live and work in Australia: citizens, business people, international students, refugees, tourists, family members. And among all those people, there are lots of comings and goings, visits, exchanges, activities of every kind, including, fundamentally, encounters and relationships. That creates a space for communication and expression: a cultural space. Yet we are only just now finding a way to recognise and talk about it. For literature, that fluid and portable art, the Australian Asian world is an open avenue.

Imaginative engagement with the Asia-Pacific region, despite its proximity, has been limited in Australia’s literary past. The cultural cringe was about Europe, and that’s where literary ambition and creative energy were directed. When Asia was a subject, it was usually to mark distance and difference. There are honourable exceptions: The Far Road (1962), George Johnston’s novel of the Chinese civil war through an Australian journalist’s eyes, remains one of the best of its kind; and The Year of the Peacock (1965), a set of stories written collaboratively by Mena Abdullah and Ray Mathew, evokes Hindu and Muslim Indian lives in Australia with freshness and dignity. But generally Asia and Asians have been exoticised or demonised in Australian writing, when they have been visible at all. Even in sensitive and well-intentioned hands, otherness has been the predominant trope. Robin Gerster writes well about the larger attitudinal context for this in ‘Representations of Asia’, his chapter in The Cambridge History of Australian Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2009, edited by Peter Pierce). ‘In the contemporary era,’ says Gerster, ‘a peculiar combination of suspicious insularity and neo-colonial assertiveness and self-centredness has marked the way Australia sees its region and itself in relation to it’.

That landscape is changing, however, with the advent of writing produced in Australia by writers of Asian background. Such work is characteristically transnational in its sensibility, exploring human mobility and mutability in its sophisticated new-century dynamism. It doesn’t necessarily foreground any Australianness. The characters in the novel The Lost Dog (2007) by Michelle de Kretser, for example, bring multi-ethnic lineages to their interactions in Melbourne. Nam Le’s ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’ (2006) triangulates Vietnam, Australia and the Iowa Writing Workshop in a powerful story of refugee father and differently filial son. The White Tiger (2008) by Aravind Adiga, set in India, mentions Australia in passing (it’s where the author finished high school). Look Who’s Morphing (2009) by Tom Cho brings play and fantasy into a polymorphous Asian-Australian space.

At the same time other writers are shaping their work in response to their contact with Asian cultures in art, literature and philosophy, often through residencies in situ. The recent poetry of Judith Beveridge, for example, is profoundly Buddhist in awareness and approach. Quite a number of contemporary Australian poets are drawn to write in Asian forms, or otherwise adapt and transmit Asian knowledge and experience. Ali Alizadeh (ghazals), Michelle Cahill (Sanskrit sacred poetry), Jane Gibian (haiku) and Mike Ladd (pantun) are some of the names here. Asian Australian? Australian Asian? No one likes to be labelled. The question of whether a literary work can or should be interpreted in terms of its author’s ethnic identity or biography requires consideration of how that authorial position is represented in the text – whether it’s relevant or not, whether different meanings are generated by reading that way. Where Asian-Australian writing, hyphenated, might be a category determined by background, Australian Asian writing could suggest an experiential and imaginative alternative, allowing a looser set of permutations and interactions. This need not mean that the politics of writing is thrown overboard. The politics returns in the writer’s insistence on imaginative scope and capacity. As Julia Leigh said at last year’s China-Australia Literary Forum:

The inner-world is the real place. Better yet, the place and the inner-world are interdependent, and one cannot exist without the other. I was imagining what it would feel like to be told I that couldn’t publish a novel set in a particular place – say in one of today’s forbidden cities, in a forbidden place, forbidden – and I confess this made me deeply uncomfortable.

Small Indiscretions: Stories of Travel in Asia (Transit Lounge, 2011) by Felicity Castagna includes in the wide scope of its Asian settings a freezing place in Inner Mongolia, a dangerous place on the Thai-Burma border, and cities such as Shanghai and Macao that are extreme in other ways. These are stories of Australians in Asia today, whose ‘travel’ has a particular, varied but continuous, inflection and meaning. They are at home there, as well as being away from home. The title indicates an interest in subtle distinctions rather than stark differences, in calibrations of affinity rather than impossible otherness. That is something new in Australian fiction.

‘Learning Indonesian’ shows this beautifully. It begins, ‘This summer is the summer of Schapelle Corby’. A simple opening tethers the story to a flagrant case of media-fuelled tribal identification. The nexus of fear, fantasy and stereotyping that the Corby case invokes is immediately present. ‘No one in this house is ever going to Bali,’ says the narrator’s mother, glued to the television. But the daughter, ‘so unlike Schapelle’, understands her mother in a more attuned way. ‘Schapelle overwhelms my mother with sadness – or perhaps it is a kind of longing. I am not sure.’ But the daughter knows her mother well enough to call her when she gets to Bali and pretend, saying she has arrived safely in Singapore.

What is this young Australian woman doing in Bali? She observes with a quiet wit, in prose that is careful and sparing with adjective and adverb. She deflects the invasive behaviour of men she meets, local and tourist alike, in a crudely sexualised world. She appreciates the space she is in, where the images of her mother and Schapelle can recede, where the guesthouse garden becomes a populated biosphere, and where simplistic constructions of things yield to something else as she connects to where and who she is in a changed version of herself: ‘The rain clouds become a part of me, for this short while, like my blood.’ What she experiences is quiet, qualified and highly significant:

What I want my mother to ask me is, ‘Where are you really?’ I want to explain it to her so she can see how familiar it all seems, how everyday and exotic it can be at the same time.

That sentence marks the woman’s arrival at an expanded, eased awareness, beyond the anxious binary of self and other. She is learning Indonesian, counting things in another language, born again as she floats, like baby Moses in the Bible story from her childhood. She recognises that she is reaching for something that she ‘can’t put a name to’.

Such unknowing, in its release from restrictive certainty, is part of her new knowing. It is the small indiscretion that allows her to avoid the larger indiscretions, the collisions of misunderstanding, that are happening around her, as epitomised in the newspaper report of Amrozi, the smiling assassin, being allowed to scream ‘infidel’ at Corby as she exercises in the yard of the prison they share. In Castagna’s story these things are said in an understated way, through nuance and ellipsis in the relaxed, casual flow of the narrative, where the rare linguistic flicker, the smallest obtrusion, underlines the transformative nature of the experience: ‘time falls by before you notice it’.

Throughout the book, Castagna is showing us ‘how everyday and exotic it can be at the same time’; ‘it’ is the transcultural experience her characters achieve. They are highly individuated people, parents, lovers, children, friends, mostly middle-class Australians, between youth and age, recognisable but also surprising. As with the settings of her stories, all specified in place and time, the author resists the broad brush when it comes to her characters. She works against the generic in depicting the ways culture and society are organised, and in literary form too. Hence the many indiscretions ironically present in her title. To subtitle a work of fiction is unusual, and to do so with a phrase that pushes literary art into the highly shareable (but generally artless) subgenre of travel story is intriguing, a further self-effacement after an already modest main title. Then to reach for the generalities of ‘travel’ and ‘Asia’, the broadest, most meaningless of marketing categories, looks like a further indiscretion: ‘Asia’ is a problematic idea of Asia. The unsettling title prepares us for the equally subtle displacements in the stories that follow.

To publish a book of short stories, each with its own habitat, protagonists, encounter, within an overall coherence of style and vision, is also unusual to the point of being another indiscretion. This book takes me back to an earlier phase when the short-story collection was the site of the best new writing, where the new culture was defined: by Murray Bail in Contemporary Portraits and Other Stories (1975) and Gerard Lee in Pieces for a Glass Piano (1978), both published by UQP, and Milk (1983) by Beverley Farmer, published by McPhee Gribble. It also reminds me of In Our Time (1925), Hemingway’s stories of Americans travelling in Europe around World War I, where his spare prose and critical eye capture a cultural shift.

Castagna is not easy on her Australians. She understands the ambiguity of our desire to be at home in the world, our wish to connect, to be liked, the do-good impulse that goes along with a sense of entitlement as Australians travel in Asia. In the story called ‘(un)familiar’, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the ubiquitous ‘bohemian-backpacker-intellectual’ is encountered: ‘ “I’m trying to get funding,” one of the young men tells you, “from the Australian Council for the Arts. I want to make a documentary on disenchanted aid workers.”’ There’s a persistent curiosity the author admires too, however, a capacity for wonder and concern that is a driving, shaping force.

Interestingly it is in Shanghai, out of all Castagna’s Asian cities, that a limit is acknowledged. The English teacher sees in her students ‘some world I’ll never be able to access’. That recognition, that sense of an unsighted destination, of work remaining to be done, is an important part of the aesthetic and the ethical weight of the new Australian Asian writing. It includes a degree of humility. The Shanghai student shares this lesson as she writes in her diary: ‘Teachers says … Sometimes it takes a long time to work out why you’re HERE.’

The suffering involved in being here is the theme of Chi Vu’s new novella, Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale (Giramondo, 2012). Again the subtitle is disquieting. Australian Gothic, especially as written by women, has a strong lineage, with Barbara Baynton’s 1896 story ‘The Chosen Vessel’ as one of its core texts. Gothic refers to the medieval-style architectural ruins which give rise to extreme tales of ghostly and demonic visitations from the world of the dead to the living. In the Australian literary context, the development of a style and a form that made the country itself a site of horror answered to unspeakable feelings of fear and guilt at the violence that formed the new society. The picturesque ruins that some critics felt were the necessary stimulus for fiction - missing in Australia – found an equivalent in the hauntings of colonial history. Chi Vu continues this line with her own transposition of the Gothic into a horrifying imaginative narrative of the experience of Vietnamese refugees in suburban Melbourne as they deal with their demons in the years after arriving as ‘boat people’.

The story is tightly focused on Đào, who rents space at the back of her house to other Vietnamese. The physical locale of her shabby dwelling, near a highway where the suburb gives on to wild spaces of riverbank and scattered industry, is imagined from within the lives of a group of Vietnamese who have survived the journey to Australia. They struggle every day to accumulate the means to go forward, as they make an existence that enables them to deal with trauma, to remember and honour their old home, and to find relief from pain and loss in a new life. That is only possible through the most severe psychodrama, which Chi Vu stages through the story of Anguli Ma, a foul, blood-thirsty monster demon from Vietnamese folklore who, disguised as an itinerant worker-scholar, enters Đào’s house. The consequences are chilling.

The tale is told prismatically, in shards, from the different perspectives of those involved, and not always linearly, as moments recur in a cycle of bondage that links the characters together in mutual debt and obligation, self-help relationships, shared migrant struggles, and re-enacted memories of the world they have left behind, as they carry their culture forward in a new place. As a determined woman, for example, Đào must create a new gender role for herself. In parallel with Đào’s drama is the dialogue of the Monk and the Brown Man that takes place by the river: a radical Buddhist lesson in killing attachment. It is vividly presented in terms of a profound entering into the natural environment, while also seeming to happen in another dimension, symbolic and darkly spiritual. A void is filled, but at great cost. At stake is escape from a terrible past that continues as destructive force in the present. ‘The truly present moment has no connection whatever with the past or the future’, says V. R. Dhiravamsa in The Way of Non-Attachment, quoted by Vu as an epigraph. But what can such a radical break with the past mean psychologically in terms of people’s histories in contemporary Australia? Đào in her house in suburban Melbourne is still in the boat that brought her. She carries her Vietnamese experience as freight, in Vu’s disturbed evocation: ‘She was tossed in the murky waves, churning, churning, churning in violence’. Meanwhile her opponent achieves a kind of escape in the nature of the place they have come to:

Everything is inside everything else. The river red gums have within them sunlight and soil and rain clouds and wind. Within each thing is its other. That is the nature of Emptiness.

Chi Vu locates the horror precisely. It happens at the ‘fish trap created by the land’s first inhabitants’, a river crossing of stones (at Maribyrnong). It happens at a time when the country is talking about ‘a baby in the Northern Territory, either killed by its parents or taken by a dingo’ (in 1980). The author knows where fear and haunting live in this seemingly ‘unmarked’ place: ‘In this country, the dog eats the man’, says a Vietnamese man, and they laugh ‘so hard their bellies hardened in ache’. They are about to eat dog meat, a treat in this life, according to a traditional song, before you go to hell in the next. For Đào too, as she tries to hang on, Australia is hell.

The writing in Anguli Ma has an extraordinary specificity of texture, mood, and angle of vision, as Chi Vu moves back and forth between close attention to realistic detail and hyperreal, noir, hallucinogenic coloration. She has written in an essay about 1.5 Generation writers (who mediate between the first generation non-English-speaking Vietnamese and the English-speaking second generation) that:

Realism is a useful strategy … However, beyond describing the ‘what’ of interstitial identity, realism does not wholly convey this shifting identification (the ‘how’ of being in-between cultures). Hence the need for some 1.5 Generation writers to turn to impressionism to mitigate against the invisibility of the ‘seamless translation’.

That might include her own work. Đào works in a garment factory finishing pieces for track suits – ‘a shoulder piece, a lower leg, a torso panel’. She hordes and reuses these parts. It offers an appropriately workaday image for the dismemberment that the novella is concerned with at every level. The trauma it narrates is stitched into domestic suburban ordinariness with dark, sharp brilliance, to produce ‘a jewel of terror’. That is Chi Vu’s highly original achievement.

Here and there, the everyday and the exotic, the familiar and the unfamiliar (family and un-family): these are abiding conundrums in the travel of literature that are being explored with new sensitivity in the space of Australian Asian writing.

Castagna’s last story is called ‘Making Stories’ and it ends with Kate, a determined writer, transcribing words in her notebook that are adapted from Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem ‘Questions of Travel’. ‘It must be our lack of imagination that brings us to such imaginary places,’ writes Kate. ‘Should we have stayed at home instead and thought of here?’ That’s a question for all of us in a world on the move. It may not be a matter of choice. Questions of Travel is also the title of Michelle de Kretser’s much-anticipated new novel, due later this year. Perhaps there’ll be an answer there.

Bishop, with reference to her beloved Brazil, is an insistent questioner, recognising the double bind not only of travel, but of the creative imagination:

Oh, must we dream our dreams and have them, too?

Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?

It’s that last taunting counterturn that keeps us on the road. But there’s no going back.

Portrait of Nicholas Jose

Nicholas Jose

His seven novels and two collections of short stories include Paper Nautilus,The Red Thread and Original Face. His acclaimed memoir Black Sheep: Journey to Borroloola appeared in 2002. He was general editor of theMacquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009) and has written widely on contemporary Australian and Asian art and literature. In 2002-05 he was President of Sydney PEN. He was Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, 2009-10, and is an adjunct professor with the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney. He was Chair of Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide 2005-08, where he is now Professor of English and Creative Writing.

Further reading

Australian Asian writing

Jane Sullivan in the Age: ‘Asian authors offer a new perspective of Australia’.

Brian Castro on ‘Writing Asia’ in Australian Humanities Review.

Timothy Mo’s Pure

A review in the Guardian.

Chi Vu’s Anguli Ma

Reviewed on ANZ LitLovers blog: ‘Every now and again, along comes a book so interesting that it almost takes your breath away, and Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale by Chi Vu is just such a book.’

Felicity Castagna’s Small Indiscretions

Read an extract from Small Indiscretions in the Herald Sun.

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