Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian migration literature
Last week I reviewed Gabrielle Gouch’s memoir, Once, only the swallows were free, in which she tells of her family’s migration from Hungary to Romania to Israel, and then her own on to Australia. While Gouch focuses more on the brother left behind, she does touch on the challenges of migration – the dislocation and loneliness that often ensues. One of the commenters on that post, Ian Darling, suggested that “Australia must have produced some particularly fascinating emigrant accounts in its literature”. We have, and way too many to list here.
It would be worth some time exploring the changes in that literature over the two or so centuries since white settlement – from the early days of British confidence, through to the changes that came as different nationalities started to appear (such as the Chinese on the goldfields in the nineteenth century and the Italian and Greek migrants after the Second World War), to the Asian migration of the later 20th century. But, that’s not what I’m going to do here. It’s nearly Christmas, so I’m going to take it easy and just list a few I’ve read in recent years that I found interesting. Migrant literature, as you’d expect, crosses genres, particularly literary fiction and memoir.
Yasmine Gooneratne’s A change of skies (1991)
Gooneratne emigrated to Australia from Sri Lanka. I first knew of her as a Jane Austen fan and English literature lecturer at Macquarie University, but then my reading group read her novel, A change of skies, about the experience of migration. She writes about educated middle class migrants – like herself I presume – who work to find a balance between fitting into the new culture while at the same time preserving their Sri Lankan identity.
Melina Marchetta‘s Looking for Alibrandi (1992)
Marchetta’s book is a young adult novel about the daughter of an Italian family and her desire to fit into an Australian world against the family pressure to live the old Italian way. She’s young, bright, and in the last year of high school. She wants to meet boys – and not just Italian ones. She wants to live as her friends do. Gradually, she learns to make peace with her family, to recognise the rich heritage she belongs to while at the same time showing them that she can walk two worlds. It was a hugely popular book when it was published and was later adapted into a successful movie. It is I believe taught in high schools.
Arnold Zable‘s Cafe Scheherezade (2001)
I read this novel a few years before I started blogging. It was inspired by the eponymous cafe in Melbourne at which Jewish immigrants – survivors mostly of the Second World War – would meet, talk and provide support for each other. It is a gorgeous novel, about the power of stories to provide support and aid survival. Zable is a warm, generous writer. I remember the book for that, but I also remember it for teaching me about the various ways Jewish people came to Australia. I didn’t know, for example, how many had transitioned through Shanghai. Zable’s The sea of many returns, which I reviewed early in this blog, is also about migration and yearning for home – and about the power of stories. Stories, we know, are a powerful mechanism for preserving culture – whether it be our national identity or the micro-culture of our families!
Nam Le‘s The boat (2008)
Le’s book is a collection of short stories, many of which are not about migration, not specifically anyhow. However, two of the stories – ““Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” and the title story “The boat” which closes the collection - are autobiographical, and draw directly on his life and on family’s experience of migrating to Australia from Vietnam as boat refugees when he was just one. The interesting this is that, while most of the stories aren’t specifically about migration, they do tend to all be about survival, which suggests, to me anyhow, that the experience of migration has strongly informed Nam Le’s world view.
Alice Pung‘s Unpolished gem (2007) and Her father’s daughter (2011)
As with most of the books in this list, I read Pung’s memoir, Unpolished gem, before I started blogging. It tells the story of her growing up in an immigrant household. She focuses particularly on the challenges of being a child growing up in a culture that her parents are unfamiliar with, of being caught between two worlds. While I loved the book, it bothered me a little that she didn’t empathise with, or try to understand her parents as much as I would have liked. I guess she was just young! However, she rectifies this in her next memoir, Her father’s daughter, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. She starts to understand two things – what their lives were like and what they’d lost/sacrificed, and why they had worried about her and tried to protect her the way they did. I loved this recognition in the book:
She started to see her mother and father in a new light. They had a sense of humour! They knew their private lives were completely separate from the world their daughter had described in another language.
Hats off, I say, to all those families who traverse this tricky ground.
Kim Scott‘s That deadman dance (2010)
Up to this point, I’ve presenting this list chronologically, but I wanted to end with this one, because it is, for Australia, the ultimate migration story. Written by an indigenous Australian, it explores the first meeting in Western Australia between British migrants and the indigenous inhabitants. Drawing from documentary evidence, Scott tells a story in which arrogance reigns over good will, setting Australia down a path from which we haven’t yet recovered. Bobby, the main indigenous character, says at one point in the novel:
We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything of ours. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours.
I think I’ll leave it there …