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Monday musings on Australian literature: Asian Australian writers

November 7, 2011
Brian Castro

Brian Castro (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Australia is an immigrant country, with the first immigrants, the original Aboriginal Australians, believed to have arrived 40-60,000 (there are arguments about this!) years ago via the Indonesian archipelago. They established what is now regarded as one of the longest surviving cultures on earth. Today, though, I’m going to write on some of our more recent immigrants – those from Asia. The first big wave of Asian immigrants came from China, during the Gold Rush in the mid 19th century. Since then people from all parts of Asia have, for various reasons, decided to call Australia home – and have enriched our culture immeasurably.

I’m not going to focus on the political issues regarding acceptance, promotion and encouragement of Asian Australian writers because, like any stories to do with immigration, it’s too complex for a quick post here. I hope that things are improving, but only the writers and communities themselves can really tell us that.

As has been my practice in these sorts of posts, I’m going to introduce 5 Asian Australian writers to get the discussion going. After that, I’d love you readers to share “immigrant” writers you know and love …

But first, a definition. My focus here will be on writers who emigrated from Asia, rather than those from subsequent generations. I will not therefore be discussing writers like Shaun Tan and Alice Pung.

Brian Castro (Hong Kong born in 1950, emigrated 1961)

Castro is one of the most prolific and most awarded writers among those I’m listing today. He came here as a child, and started writing short stories in 1970. He has, to date, published 9 novels, many of them winning major Australian literary awards. Lisa at ANZLitLovers suggests he is a contender for Australia’s next (should we ever have another one) Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1996, in the Australian Humanities Review, Castro said this about Australia and Asia:

The situation currently is that Australia needs Asia more than Asia needs it. While the West seems to have run out of ideas in the creative and cultural fields, relying on images of sex and violence, reviving old canons and dwindling to parody and satire in what can already be seen as one of the dead ends of postmodernism, the Asian region is alive with opportunities for a new hybridisation, a collective intermix and juxtaposition of styles and rituals which could change the focus and dynamics of Australian art, music and language.

Strong words – but they make you think! My sense is that Australia is now seeing (accepting?) some of this hybridisation that he speaks of – not only from Asia but also from our indigenous authors like Kim Scott and Alexis Wright. I wonder if Castro agrees?

Yasmine Gooneratne (Sri Lankan born, emigrated 1972)

Gooneratne is one of the first Asian Australian writers I read. I have chosen her for that reason and for some sentimental reasons: she holds a Personal Chair in English at my alma mater, Macquarie University, and she is the patron of the Jane Austen Society of Australia! Long ago I read her first, appropriately named, novel, Change of skies (1991). Like many first novels, it has an autobiographical element and explores the challenges of changing skies, of migrating to another place. It was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. She has, in the last decade, received a number of awards here and in the South Asia region for her contribution to literature.

Michelle de Kretser (Sri Lankan born, emigrated 1972)

Like Castro, de Kretser emigrated to Australia in her youth (when she was 14) and made quite a splash with her debut novel set during the French Revolution, The rose grower. Her second novel, The Hamilton case is set in Sri Lanka and represents she says her “considered” farewell to her country of birth. Her third novel, The lost dog, is set in her home-city (now) of Melbourne, but its main character migrated to Australia from Asia when he was 14 and struggles to find his identity. Her books are not self-consciously migrant but tend, nonetheless, to be informed by the experience of dislocation.

Nam Le (Vietnamese-born, emigrated 1979)

Nam Le is our youngest migrant in this list, arriving here when he was less than 1! His debut book, the short story collection, The boat (2008), won multiple awards and is remarkable for its diversity of content (setting and subject matter) and voice. I, like many others, am waiting to see what he produces next.

Ouyang Yu (Chinese born, emigrated 1991)

To my shame I hadn’t heard of Ouyang Yu until relatively recently, but I do have an excuse. He has only written three novels in English and two of them very recently: The eastern slope chronicle (2002), The English class (2010), and Loose: A Wild History (2011). He is, however, a prolific writer, of, apparently, 55 (yes, 55!) books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and translated works in English and Chinese. He’s translated Christina Stead, no less, and even Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch. If this is not contributing to cross-cultural understanding I don’t know what is.

I’ll close with some words from an interview with Michelle de Kretser in which she articulates rather nicely I think the experience of being a migrant (using the character Tom from The lost dog):

But I think that like a lot of people who come to Australia, Tom is trying to escape something. You know, people come here often because they’re trying to get away from war, or poverty or persecution — or merely from perhaps difficult family situations. And I think Tom coming here as a child simply delights in the kind of freedom and anonymity that Australia offers him, which is a classic experience of people moving countries, or indeed if you go back to the 18th century people moving from the city to the country; the city at once offers this kind of blissful possibility of inventing yourself anew, a kind of wonderful freedom from inherited ways of thinking and being identified and categorised. On the other hand that is also simultaneously — can be — a very lonely and disconcerting experience, again.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2011 10:44 pm

    Hmm, in a rather poor showing I’ve only managed to read Name Le. I would also add Alice Pung, who I have read, and Anh Do, who I haven’t read yet. But will one day.

    • November 7, 2011 11:17 pm

      Some more for your TBR eh! I’ve read Alice Pung’s first – liked it well enough but I thought it lacked a bit of maturity resulting it its perspective being a little too narrow for me (as I recollect). I’ve started her new one and it seems better – her life experiences are catching up now with her writing ability I think!

  2. November 8, 2011 5:22 am

    I think what Brian Castro says is right, and it is exactly what Paul Keating was saying when I went to hear him at the Recital Centre on the weekend. The seminal event of our era, which will transform the world, is that China will take back the place it had formerly had in the C18th as the largest economy in the world, and power and cultural influence will shift from west to east. Australia as a middle power should be positioning itself for the transformation, not worrying about irrelevant institutions like the Commonwealth (whose biggest achievement at the CHOGM was not to tackle the problem of human rights and anti-democratic commonwealth countries like Fiji and Zimbabwe – but to drag an irrelevant monarchy into the 20th (not the 21st) century by changing the rules of succession to allow for gender equity.)
    Australia does need Asia more than it needs us.

    • November 8, 2011 9:59 am

      Ditto to everything Lisa said! I’ve spent the past year reading books about China, both fiction and non-fiction, and I’m convinced that as America slips into decline China will become the super power of the 21st century.

      • November 8, 2011 9:39 pm

        Oh yes, of course kimbofo. You had that time there didn’t you. I’ve read a bit of Chinese American writing (Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Ha Jin) but not so much Chinese writing. I need to do more.

    • November 8, 2011 9:37 pm

      Thanks for this Lisa … it certainly makes great sense to me. China is clearly a major force and we do need to recognise our geographical imperatives as well as our cultural ones and recognise also that our cultural ones are changing.

  3. November 8, 2011 2:55 pm

    I had no idea that Yasmine Gooneratne was Australian! They say you learn something knew every day and it seems its true (for today at least!)

    • November 8, 2011 9:34 pm

      So you’ve heard of her? That’s a great start as I suspect many haven’t even heard of her. Anyhow, I’m glad to have been the instrument of your learning today Becky!

  4. November 8, 2011 7:40 pm

    I’ve only read Nam Le here, and loved his stories, still very vivid in my head. I must read Yasmine Gooneratne! and I’ve never opened a Brian Castro book, though totally agree with the quote from 1996. Or at least find it a very interesting topic to discuss.

    I do wish I could read faster.

    • November 8, 2011 9:33 pm

      I do too Catherine — read faster or find more time to read or both! I like reading slowly, savouring all the words, but I don’t like the fact that the things I want to read are piling up!

      Nam Le is great isn’t he? I hope his next book works too. Such a hard act to follow after all those accolades.

  5. November 8, 2011 10:03 pm

    Two out of five!! 😛

    • November 8, 2011 10:44 pm

      Nam Le and De Kretser (The rose grower, I know. Have you read others of hers too? I can’t recollect.)

  6. November 9, 2011 2:38 am

    The only one on your list I’ve heard of in the States is Nam Le and I have not yet gotten around to reading him. I hope Lisa is right and Brian Castro wins a Nobel because then he’ll get published here and I will be able to find his books in my local library!

    • November 9, 2011 9:49 am

      I think that’s an excellent criterion for choosing the Nobel. I think we should pass it on to the judges for their consideration.

  7. November 23, 2011 8:30 pm

    I’ve heard of some of the writers but alas, have not read any. Thanks for the list.

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