We have many writers in today’s Australia – they are almost an underclass – who cannot, or cannot be stuffed, answering concisely generic questions about home and identity, marked as they are by what Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman calls a ‘bicultural fate’ (there is such a thing as ‘tricultural fate’ too). Many of these writers came to Australia deaf and mute, growing English at the same time as they were assembling, piece by piece, a new reality. Those who came as children often acted as interpreters for their parents and neighbours, learning early the power of language and the desperation of not having a voice. For those who came as adults or near-adults, and I count myself among them, their relationship with the English in which they now write was deepened immeasurably by their knowledge of other language-worlds and by a secret, mobilising shame at their own linguistic inadequacy. And for those writers who happened to be born in Australia and to speak English only, the language or languages of their family sit deep in their body.
The writers of whom I write are not in any meaningful way group-able apart from their shared experience of sooner or later (sooner rather than later for most) hitting the wall of the monolingual literary culture that insists on a particular kind of restraint, on a so-called technical mastery, on what I have come to think of as the cult of the understatement. Last year publisher and academic Ivor Indyk wrote brilliantly about this very thing in response to a reviewer’s lament that Alice Melike Ulgezer’s debut novel ‘The Memory of Salt’, which he published (and was clearly proud of), suffered from some naive and undisciplined writing:
Writing that is openly expressionist is likely therefore to be regarded as excessive, ill-mannered and – to the extent that it is not hedged or qualified by irony – as naive… The baroque, with its emphasis on the uninhibited emotions, on theme and variation, repetition and elaboration, gesture and performance, appears to have hardly any legitimacy at all…
The prevailing literary culture encourages a certain headmistressy sensibility.
Emotions, we learn by reading the texts that this culture celebrates, should be controlled in such a way that they don’t end up saturating the narrative with their juices, lest the prose gets wet, soggy, sticky or swollen (bad, bad things). Prose should be muscular, taut, unsentimental. ‘Powerfully understated’ – great. Less is more. Things, important things, should be left unsaid (this reminds me of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgard telling how instead of taking bad, overwritten stuff out as every writing course tells us to, he kept putting more stuff in. I cried with happiness when I heard him say that.)
Another curse – the way a certain kind of storytelling is pushed onto authors from different cultures who are attempting to enter the mainstream, with an emphasis on personal narrative or fictionalised exotica, until it starts to feel gagging. (By the way, I am leaving poets out of this post. I don’t know enough about their plight except that for them it must be even more complicated.)
Globalism, multiculturalism, yes, I’ve heard of those, except the centre seems to be holding pretty strong so far. Michelle de Kretser, Ouyang Yu, Nam Le, Alice Pung, Shakira Hussein, Chi Vu, Ali Alizadeh, Dmetri Kakmi, Michael Sala – of course, I’ve heard of them too. But for every writer with, to put it crudely, a non-Anglo sensibility, celebrated and read widely – or, more importantly, just read and allowed to continue working and publishing – how many are left feeling like they’ll never break through?
I was privileged to be involved in the inaugural CALD Mentorship program run by Writers Victoria. ‘Privileged’ is a sugary word, a bureaucratic word, except I don’t know how else to express my sense of being put in this very special place where I could be trusted by five powerful, generous, gifted women writers to work with them on their books, essays, fables and bits of writing still searching for their shape. Vietnam, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, Greece – I wish we could have spent months and months simply talking to each other.
What have I learned? I’ve learned how desperately we need to open our doors to the worlds and words of Hoa Pham, Lian Low, Fatima Sehbai, Hariklia Heristanidis, Beverly Almeida.These writers come from cultural traditions infused with alternative kinds of storytelling and oratory, traditions that give a special place to the ghosts and the dead, that see family – with all its demands and dizzying forcefields – differently, that are not scared of the poetical, the metaphysical or the fabulistic, not scared of the power of language used as an incantation, a chant, a shield, a rousing scream. How foolish it is to keep these writers from speaking to us all, how utterly self-defeating to try to bring them into the fold, to cut them down to size, to make them turn down the volume, to teach them some decorum…
Thank you wholeheartedly, Writers Victoria. I am looking forward to there being one day a mentorship scheme in which CALD writers mentor non-CALD writers on how to liberate their prose from the constraints and booby traps of monoculturalism.