Are We there Yet?: Asian Australia in the Arts
In 2018 there seems to be a renaissance of Asian-Australian content in theatre, TV and literature. With the success and high profile of individuals such as Benjamin Law and Alice Pung, and with a diversity of offerings across mainstream platforms, it seems that there’s never been a better time for Asian-Australian representation.
But there are still anomalies. The publication of Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, a white writer telling the story of a young Vietnamese refugee, won the Children’s Book Council Award. Beyond being a case of cultural appropriation, this is one of a long line of Vietnamese stories that has been used by Westerners to come to terms with their ‘white guilt’ and the ambivalent legacy of the Vietnam/American War. Miss Saigon is another famous example of this.
It goes without saying that we still need programs embracing Asian-Australian voices and sensitivities. One successful such program is the Lotus Playwriting Project, run by Contemporary Asian Australian Performance and Playwriting Australia.
Initiated by Annette Shun Wah, the program focusses on supporting emerging Asian-Australian playwrights. Consisting of a series of workshops and mentoring sessions, the weekend intensive analyses material that centres on Indigenous people and people of colour, such as The Golden Age by Louis Nowra and The Tribe by Michael Mohammed Ahmad. The outcomes last year included the reading of eight plays at Cybec Electric as part of AsiaTOPA at the Melbourne Theatre Company. Jean Tong’s Hungry Ghosts was included in the MTC’s main season.
That Jean Tong was able to have her self-proclaimed “lesbian pop musical” Romeo is Not the Only Fruit show at La Mama Theatre the week before Hungry Ghosts, a production about Malaysian politics and the disappearance of MH370, only demonstrates the potential for diversity in the Australian performing arts scene.
Has the bamboo ceiling been broken for Asian-Australians in the arts? Yes, for some of us. Still, we must remain vigilant to ensure that we are not trapped by Western expectations of us and for us. All Asians are not the same, and some are represented more than others. The traditionally accepted migrant story—of the model minority, of the migrant made good—is not the only story to come from the Asian diaspora.
Merlinda Bobis’ Fish-Hair Woman was awarded the Most Underrated Book Award by the Small Press Network, at the same time as being awarded the Philippine National Book Award in 2013—a case in point. She has also written a self-reflexive essay on cultural production, commenting that the stories behind the publishing of works by writers of colour are just as important as the works themselves. Bobis discusses the nature of the diasporic migrant story—the accepted narrative of migrant writers, and the obligation she feels as an Asian-Australian writer to have to justify her existence in the publishing landscape. Her epiphany is when she articulates that she is a transnational writer—not ‘just’ a migrant writer—and she can go beyond the expectations of the gatekeepers of white publishing:
The Australian market trusts an ‘Asia’ set in Australia or told by an Australian voice, or a story set in exotic Asian locations familiar to Australian tourists, or an Indian story because of the Rushdies, Mistrys and Rays who have paved the way for Indian literature’s place in the international literary canon. These stories will get published and will sell, because readers know these stories. [Readers want] the easy passage through that hyphen in ‘Asian-Australian’—and passage is easy if the Asian half of the brand is also Australianised.
(Bobis, ‘Voice-Niche-Brand’ 122)
Though this remark was made ten years ago, it still holds some truth today.
The current wave of Asian-Australian writers draw on self-referential content, such as Michele Lee’s Banana Girl, about her sex life as a young Hmong-Australian woman, and Going Down, which alludes to her experiences as a writer and theatre maker. There is also Chi Vu’s Coloured Aliens, about a Vietnamese-Australian playwright with a white boyfriend who submits a play under her name on her behalf. These works also contain socio-political commentary about being a writer of colour.
Lee asks questions about authenticity, drawing on traditional cultural content to make art for a Western audience. Vu comments on the expectation felt by some writers of colour to write about food to cater to the Western audience. She uses cross-racial casting to demonstrate some of the absurdities asked of women of colour, such as being asked what is ‘Vietnamese enough’. Both plays use self-reflexive commentary to explore white audiences’ perceptions and expectations of them as Asian-Australian playwrights. Coloured Aliens was nominated for a Green Room Award for scriptwriting—a mainstream endorsement of Vu’s culturally complex and challenging ideas.
These are just two examples. Other contemporary ones include Single Asian Female by Michelle Law, The Family Law by Benjamin Law, Ronny Chieng’s International Student, Diana Nguyen’s Phi and Me and Maria Tran’s body of films. Recent books of critical acclaim include: Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities, Roanna Gonsalves’s The Permanent Resident, and Mirandi Riwoe’s The Fish Girl.
These different narratives, from a wide range of Asian voices, have added complexity and sophistication to the Australian cultural landscape. Other incubators, such as the partnership between Pencilled In and Writers Victoria to financially assist Asian-Australian writers, and the Sweatshop workshops co-funded by the NSW Writers Centre, promise to encourage more culturally diverse talent to feature in the mainstream. The success of Asian-Australian publications such as Peril, Mascara, Liminal and Pencilled In, and the corresponding wave of new Asian-Australian voices being heard points to the possible changing of the gatekeepers and the Asianisation of the Australian literary marketplace.
Let’s watch this space.
Bobis, M. (2010) The Asian Conspiracy: Deploying Voice/Deploying Story. Australian Literary Studies 25 (3)
Bobis, M, (2008) ‘Voice-Niche-Brand: Marketing Asian-Australianness.’ Australian Humanities Review 45 (Nov. 2008): 119-25