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 …

15 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian migration literature

  1. WG: I’ve read them all – not sure that I could as succinctly outline them as you have done – i do admire your effort. My love for the literature which showed us ourselves (our Australian selves, I mean) really began strongly after spending a lengthy time abroad with my wife – around the world and back again – as one did – with periods out of my/our linguistic depth – in Madrid and in Munich – covering close to a year – before returning. The immigrant/refugee experience is different while throwing up lots of similarities nonetheless. And then my involvement in TESOL. But in any event I grew up in a street of immigrants/immigrant background – even in rural Tamworth – English and Scottish and Chinese and German and Irish and Dutch and Italian – and an Indigenous family. A grand-parent on either side were immigrants – driving before and after the Great War. When we lived in Mudgee – it was working on a farm adjoining that of the farm where Henry LAWSON (LARSEN) grew up up which set me on the pathway into Australian writing – and that same landscape and people was explored in poetry by the great social reformer priest – the Revd Ted NOFFS. But it was the writing of my hero Judah WATEN which most drew me to the literature examining the writing of new beginnings in another land – not only in his classic Alien Son (1952) but via almost every other book he published.

      • Auto-correct can be infuriating can’t it Jim? Thanks for your response … I know there are many other books but I wanted to do ones I’ve read. Glad you have too.

        You know, I’ve never read Waten. That is something I must rectify one day.

  2. Nice list and I even remember you writing about some of them. Migration literature is something our two countries have in common. Being a country of immigrants, a melting pot or salad bowl or whatever metaphor is the going one these days, is both a point of pride and a source of anger for large sections of the US. I suppose there has always been conflict, but these days people seem to only like immigrants who are already well off, forget the give us your tired and poor and hungry. And heaven forbid if the new arrivals don’t speak English within minutes of entering the country. Do you have similar issues in Australia?

    • Oh yes we do, Stefanie, from certain sectors of the community. What happened to the kinder, gentler nation do you reckon? One of my favourite pieces of recent American migrant literature has to be Eugenides’ Middlesex.

  3. I’ve written two novels on the subject of migration – Silver City was a tie-in for the movie but it was an unusual assignment in that Penguin gave me carte blanche to make if the screenplay what I would . The story , by Sophie Turkewicz aided by Tom Keneally, had I discovered some historical howlers one of which had significant bearing on the central character who was based on Turkewicz’s mother and caused some dismay when the book was released. The story was about Polish migrants and is in the process of being translated into Polish. But the interesting thing is that the exercise awakened an interest in me about my own migrant background, that of my family ‘s to America and my own to Australia, which led to my writing Sapphires. And I’ve been recently working on an oral history archive of American migrants to Australia for the NLA – I’ve hardly scratched the surface but we’re proving to be a fascinating subset.

    • Oh Sara, thanks for adding this. I’ve only read West Block, many years ago, which my reading group enjoyed. And I have Schemetime waiting in the wings, I’m embarrassed to say.

      As I recollect, Joan Long produced Silver City? I once had a Silver City promo t-shirt which I rather liked. I don’t think I realised the book was a tie in. Sapphires sounds like something up my alley … I love that you’re doing work on the subject of American migrants to Australia for the NLA.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s