Monday musings on Australian literature: Peril, and Asian Australian literature

A decade ago, I wrote a Monday Musings post on Asian-Australian literature, in which I named, as I often do in such posts, 5 Asian Australian writers. Given the increasing problems of discrimination faced by Asian communities in western countries alongside, perhaps paradoxically, the increased visibility of Asian Australian writing here, I thought an update might be in order.


I didn’t know when I wrote my last post about the online magazine Peril which had been in existence since 2006! If I had known, I’d have referenced it. Peril focuse, says its About page, on “issues of Asian Australian arts and culture”. It is free, and is supported by donations from its readers, plus the Australia Council for the Arts, Creative Victoria and other organisations.

Do read its About page for a full description of them, but, essentially, they want

to showcase new literature through diverse forms, including poetry, drama, translations, creative writing, memoir, essays, biographical profiles, interviews and other story structures. We are also interested in writing about the visual arts, theatre and film and other cultural arts practices. 

In the sidebar on its Home Page, you will find a list of its editions, from Edition 1 Nerds to Edition 44 Feminist Journeys.

Hoa Pham, Lady of the realm

Nerds is introduced in an editorial by Peril‘s founding editor, Hoa Pham (whose Lady of the realm, I’ve reviewed). It is a small edition with pieces by Hoa Pham, S.K. Kelen and Tom Cho, among others. Hoa Pham explains the origin of the name, Peril, as coming from the “so called Yellow Peril that labelled the wave of Chinese immigration in the 19th century. We are perilious (sic) and take risks but not in the way that the Pauline Hansons of the world think!” Well said!

In its now 15 years, it has published 44 issues, which is a great achievement. Contributors have included – and here I’m naming some of the writers I know, so it’s highly selective and not, necessarily, the most prolific contributors: Ouyang Yu, Alice Pung, Benjamin Law, Jessica Tu, Merlinda Bobis, Roanna Gonslaves, Eileen Chong, Shastra Deo, Melanie Cheng.

Edition 22 particularly captured my attention. Titled Black on Rice, it’s

A collaborative co-edition with the State Library of Queensland, Indigenous publishing initiative, black&write!. Together with co-editor, Ellen van Neerven, we consider six Indigenous and six Asian Australian writers whose work we love, whose work we like to see side by side, writers whose take on the relationships (or otherwise) between migrant and Indigenous Australia we would like to hear.

The writers included several Indigenous Australian writers you’ve met on my blog, like Ellen van Neerven, Marie Munkara and Jeanine Leane, in addition to Asian Australian writers like Ouyang Yu, Eleanor Jackson and Michelle Law. Even though, historically of course, their situations are radically different, the “othering” that both groups face binds them. I am often moved on shows like The Drum by the empathy Indigenous and immigrant Australians (of colour) regularly show each other.

There is, naturally, a strong political underpinning to the writing, as edition titles make very clear, like Why are people so unkind (8), We’re queer here (28 & 29), You don’t sound Asian (32), History Repeats (36). Peril is a rich source of contemporary writing, on tap whenever you want it – but do consider donating, if you read it!

Asian Australian writers, update

Now, I’m going to add 5 more writers to the 5 I listed in my first post, but I’m not limiting this list, as I did then, to writers only born elsewhere. Most of these writers have written and published more than the books I mention below – short stories, poetry, etc – and are actively involved in promoting diverse writers and writing.

Merlinda Bobis

Merlinda Bobis Fish-hair woman

Born in the Philippines, Bobis has written four novels, including Fish-hair woman (my review). Her most recent novel, Locust girl: A lovesong, won the 2016 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. She is also a visual and performance artist, and has won multiple awards across all her artistic endeavours. She is committed to Asian (indeed migrant) Australians being recognised for their “real” value and contribution rather than being exoticised as other.

Julie Koh

Born in Sydney to Chinese-Australian parents, Koh has had two short story collections published, Capital misfits and Portable curiosities, the latter of which was shortlisted for several awards and won her a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist award in 2017. A review at The Guardian reports that ‘Koh says her stories are essentially about “the entrapment of the individual in social structures”’. 

Hoa Pham

Born in Hobart to Vietnamese parents, Hoa Pham’s first novel, Quicksilver, was published in 1998. She has since had four novels published. Her second novel, Vixen, won a 2001 Sydney Morning Herald’s Young Writer of the Year award. As mentioned above, she was the founding editor of Peril, and I have reviewed her latest novel. She is passionate about about achieving equality for the Asian Australian community, and the role of literature/culture in supporting this.

Mirandi Riwoe

Mirandi Riwoe, The fish girl

Born in Brisbane, with a Chinese-Indonesian father, Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review) won Seizure’s Viva la Novella V, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Queensland Literary Award’s UQ Fiction Prize. Her latest novel Stone Sky Gold Mountain won the 2020 Queensland Literary Award for Fiction, the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize, and has been longlisted for this year’s Stella. Both these works confront Asian people’s experience under colonialism.

Elizabeth Tan

Born in Perth to Singaporean parents, Tan’s debut novel, Rubik (on my TBR and reviewed by Bill) was well received. Her follow-up collection of short stories, the wonderfully named Smart ovens for lonely people (also on my TBR and reviewed by Bill) won the 2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction and is longlisted for this year’s Stella. She writes about a range of contemporary ills, including climate change, capitalism’s failures, and racism.


In Peril Edition 41 AA17 (March 2020), Hoa Pham wrote “We’re a movement not a moment”. She looks how the Australian literary landscape had changed in the fourteen years since she founded Peril, and asks whether it was still needed. You will surely not be surprised to find that she concludes yes. (Do read her argument if you’re interested.)

And now, a word from Mirandi Riwoe:

I admire those authors who bring us stories and perspectives that reveal unfamiliar worlds. I’m talking of diverse writers, who favour a perspective that is not mainstream. I love books that are beautifully written but are also saying something.

Is saying something an important part of your reading choices?

Festival Muse 2019: Alice Pung in conversation with Sam Vincent

Muse FestivalFestival Muse, a literary festival run by one of our favourite places in town, Muse, now seems to be a fixture on the Canberra Day long weekend calendar. For the last two years Mr Gums and I have attended the Opening event, which this year was titled Moments of Wonder. As Opening Night was also International Women’s Day, the event was dedicated to women: it featured Sarah Avery, Aunty Matilda House, Kate Legge, Alice Pung and Annika Smethurst talking about their moments of wonder. Unfortunately, due to illness in my family, we had to cancel our attendance this year, but social media tells me it was excellent as usual.

However, I did fit in a one-hour Saturday afternoon session – and was accompanied by Daughter Gums, who was in town.

Alice Pung in conversation with Sam Vincent

Alice Pung will be known to most Australians. Based in Melbourne, she has written several books, including  two memoirs, Unpolished gem (read before blogging) and Her Father’s Daughter (my review), a young adult novel Laurinda, and Close to home, a collection of essays which inspired this conversation. She has also edited an anthology titled Growing up Asian in Australia, and she writes for Monthly magazine. Pung was in conversation with Canberra-based writer, Sam Vincent, whose 2015 book Blood and guts: Despatches from the whale wars was short and longlisted for various awards.

Sam Vincent and Alice PungThe back cover blurb for Close to home describes it as covering “topics such as migration, family, art, belonging and identity.”  However, given migration is the major theme running through Pung’s work, the conversation focused on this and the migrant experience in Australia. What was both interesting and chastening was that her family’s experiences were (are?) so very like those of indigenous Australians that are shared in Growing up Aboriginal in Australiaexcept that indigenous Australians get called different names and aren’t told to “go back to where you came from”! It’s particularly chastening because of the generosity with which so many migrants and indigenous Australians respond to the racism they live with on a daily basis. Pung talked about the racist comments yelled at them in the 1980s – the “go back to where you came from” variety – but commented that at the time Australia was going through a recession so the anger was understandable.

Pung talked quite a bit about her family, but much of that is covered in her two memoirs, so I won’t repeat them here. Vincent asked her about the difference between the subjects of her writing and her readers. Pung agreed that yes, her mother’s generation, the subjects of her stories, is not very literate. Consequently, the people she writes about rarely read what she says, and the people who read her tend to be middle-class white-haired white Australians. Guilty as charged! She doesn’t mind, though – as long as people are reading her books!

Alice PungPung talked a little about the traditional narrative arc of the migrant success story – and her desire not to write that. She talked about how when you sit people down to interview them their voice changes into this narrative of success, but she wants their own voices.

What I found particularly interesting was her discussion of racism and class. There’s the obvious racism – the name-calling, the “go back where you came from” shouts, and so on – but there’s also the softer, more patronising racism from people who believe themselves not racist. Questions from university-educated people, she said, such as “your mother has been here for 20 years, why doesn’t she speak English?”, indicate a lack of understanding of migration.

Continuing this theme, she understands, for example, people who follow Pauline Hanson while saying to her, “Youse are the good ones”. People she said are kind individually despite the confronting stickers on their cars. She understands “working class racists” because own parents are working class.

She talked about how “class” underpins racism. As a young qualified lawyer, she was getting nowhere in her interviews for law jobs because she was not dressed the way a middle-class white Australian professional would dress. She appreciated honesty from her friends she said, such as the one who explained her dress issue to her. As soon as she changed her dress she started getting interview call-backs, even though the content of her interview responses hadn’t changed. She realised then how class works.

She referred, during the conversation, to a number of migrant and/or refugee writers including Christos Tsiolkas, Benjamin Law and Anh Do. She quoted Tsiolkas who has said that the middle class can write what they like – be as liberal as they like – but refugees will always be placed in working class communities!

Pung has a broad, historical understanding of racism. Since white settlement of Australia, she said, some group has always been ostracised – the Irish, then Greeks and Italians, then Asians, and so on. (Such racism, she argued, is not confined to Australia.) She also teased out the oft-criticised racism found in migrant communities themselves. Her parents, for example, suffered significantly under the Pol Pot regime before they came to Australia. What settled, established migrants fear, she suggested, is not so much “other” but civic unrest. She also noted that migrants from unstable countries trust democracy and, in doing so, trust and believe Australian newspapers. A newspaper like the Herald-Sun, which the educated middle-class might reject, is perfect for many migrants because it uses simple sentences. Racism, she said, is nuanced – and has less to do with colour than with class.

Vincent also asked her about her voice, her use of vernacular, in her books. She talked about wanting to use the language used by people like her parents, a less formal language. You can talk like Kevin Rudd, she said cheekily, and have only 30% of what you say be understood, or you can talk simply to be fully understood. She appreciated her first editor who left usages in like “youse”. She also talked about her parents’ humour, and their wonderful use of metaphors despite their basic English. She admitted that she was fortunate to have been perpetually embarrassed by her parents! She said she had to write her first books carefully because she “didn’t want to tell a success story, but an Aussie battler story”.

Regarding her intentions for her writing, she strongly rejected having a didactic aim – no one wants a message, she said. However, she hoped her books did inform and educate. She reiterated this during the Q&A when she was asked what she would say to Pauline Hanson if she ever met her face-to-face. She said that she doesn’t believe you can change someone by saying something to them in a one-off situation like that, but that books might change people.

She agreed with Vincent’s suggestion that there’s a dearth of working class voices in Australian literature.

Q & A

There was a Q & A, but I’ve incorporated the main points into the discussion above. However, Daughter Gums’ final question went down a different path. The question was inspired by the work Pung does with school students, and concerned whether school students ask different questions to those asked by adults. Yes, said Pung, they don’t have the filter that adults have, so can ask bald questions like “how much money do you earn?” Pung gave us her answer, explaining the numerical and thus economic difference between an Australian best-seller (10,000 books sold) and an American one (10,000 sold per week!)

She shared some entertaining and enlightening anecdotes throughout the conversation and Q&A, but I reckon we should all read her book(s) to enjoy those!

I must say that I found thirty-something Pung articulate, warm, and grounded. She makes serious points, and tells difficult stories at times, but with a grace that’s inspiring. A big thanks to Muse for including her in this year’s event.

Alice Pung Close to home
Festival Muse
Saturday 9 March, 2.30-3.30pm

Monday musings on Australian literature: Asian Australian writers

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.