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.

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Nam Le on a storm

Australia is not all surf, sand and sea, as much as the tourist industry likes to have it so. We actually do have “weather”, as many quaintly call anything that is not fine, sunny and calm. It is, in fact, autumn here now … after a rather unusual summer (in most parts of the country). It wasn’t as hot, and we had a lot more rain than the average. There have been, in different parts of the country, fires, floods and cyclones, all wreaking their own special form of damage, so I thought it was time for a description that wasn’t sun. What about storms?

Storms in literature, of course, usually have a symbolic as well as literal function, and this is the case in Nam Le‘s story “Halfhead Bay”. Storms can reflect strong emotions or conflict, herald a disturbance, suggest chaos or violence, and/or imply divine intervention. In King Lear, for example, the storm reflects his growing madness and, as is generally regarded, signposts divine intervention. But, symbols like that are most effective when they work well on the literal level first. King Lear feels the power of the actual storm as we readers see its import. Nam Le’s storm, too, is visceral:

And she was right, the storm was coming in – it was streaking like a grey mouth snarled with wind, like a shredded howl, rendering the land into a dark, unchartered coast. The bay turning black. For centuries, fleets had broken themselves against the teeth of that coast.

It’s not unusual to personify storms … but this one here is particularly powerful, not to mention rather malevolent sounding.  Some storms can be powerful in a beautiful way. This, however, is not one of them.

Note: I read Nam Le’s award-winning short story collection, The boat, a couple of months before I started blogging, so you won’t have seen a review here. It’s an astonishingly versatile collection and well worth reading.