It’s a motherhood statement of sorts, even as it was actually my father who was prone to repeating, “well, Eleanor, learning something always hurts a little”.
The phrase comes back to me repeatedly in the development of this collaborative co-edition between Peril Magazine and 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. We work to the cheeky title of “Like Black on Rice” and leave form, content and narrative choices to our invited authors.
Australian histories, even now, regularly imply that ‘Australia’ began in 1788, eliding neatly – and sometimes violently – over Indigenous Australia and the uncomfortable anomalies that refute the fiction of terra nullius, anomalies like Macassan trepangers (sea cucumber traders) making contact with Aboriginal people along the northern coastline, creating trading networks that spanned from China to the Kimberly and Torres Strait. If archaeological evidence suggests that this trade (and arguably diplomatic) relationship existed perhaps as early as the 1600s, just what sovereign peoples were these Indonesian traders negotiating with? Answers to questions like this remain uncomfortable for ‘Australia’ to answer in many quarters. Yet, as Henry Reynold’s work, North of Capricorn points out: when you stand on Cape York, at Australia’s northernmost tip, you are closer to Vanuatu than Canberra; as close to Manila as Melbourne.
Excited by these ideas, by the coming possibilities of this edition, I conduct a random ‘everyman’ experiment, asking a housemate at the place I am visiting what he thinks of when he considers the relationships between Indigenous and migrant Australians, especially Asians. I love sharing these stories, and I want to sound out his energy – as someone who I presume identifies as ‘Australian’ – for these ideas. He answers that there “aren’t really any”. He asks if I am forcing the issue. The ghosts of Japanese and Filipino pearlers intermarried with Aboriginal communities in Broome sink into the ocean. Probing further, I ask about White Australia Policy and its enduring legacy. He explains to me, forcefully, that that didn’t apply to migrants, “it was about breeding out the Aboriginal people”. ‘Piebald’, multiracial communities on Thursday Island in the early 1900s efface like a child’s drawing in wet sand. So assertive is he that the White Australia Policy didn’t apply to migrants, that I personalise the explanation and fumble, “well, I guess in the communities I am a part of, we use White Australia Policy to talk about restrictions on non-white immigration here, you know, from Federation to the mid-seventies”. I trail off lamely. Another day, a different day to this one, the sun beats down on internment camps in Tatura.
Something in me hurts. I tell myself I’m learning something.
Then the works come together – arriving in fits and starts, some emailed through the Great Firewall of China and others arriving electronically from mere suburbs away. Set together, they create their own perfect, faulty logic – connections appear and disappear, fissures open up in the intellectual territory and we grow wiser in our inability to draw definitive conclusions. No one is referencing oft-forgotten policies, but they are all considering the way that ‘contact’, whether masked in the frameworks of political, legal or economic exchange – is always personal. People come together, people meet, people exchange ideas and no one truly leaves their culture behind.
Assembling the stories, I cry at Mridula Nath Chakraborty’s translation of Raj Paul Sandhu’s Punjabi story, Mungo Man, which was previously published in a Hindi translation in the esteemed journal,
Contemporary Indian Literature. Set over the course of a single evening, it follows a taxi driver in Sydney through fear, trepidation, panic, connection, humanity and release as he picks up four Aboriginal men for a transformative cab ride. I smile gently as Michelle Law blends a family’s memories of Cathy Freeman’s Olympic win with a conflicted sense of love, separation and unease. Later, my heart aches at Marie Munkara’s memoir of first Australians’ efforts to provide asylum to a small group of Timorese based in Darwin in 2000.
Some things I read hurt me, some delight me, always I learn something.
The sweat beads on my brow as Virat Nehru’s narrator pokes his head out of the window on a visit “home” to the “magical cupboard of nostalgia”, while Eugenia Flynn’s “Heading South” evokes the confusion of ‘running to’ and ‘running from’, especially where home is concerned. When Jannali Jones’ short story is steeped in regret for a vulnerable and fractured friendship, it reminds me to email a friend I’ve lost contact with. In contrast, Ouyang Yu’s “Short Short Stories” are barbs and sorties – I can’t help but switch on my brain as I open the newspaper in an airport lounge to read the headlines.
Late one evening, I read Sylvia Nakachi’s tender exchange between generations, missing my grandmother with all my being, before the violence and ambivalence of Paola Balla’s childhood recollections makes me fearful for my newly born nephew, not yet aware of his potential ‘difference’ in a country long been obsessed with racial purity. When it all gets too much, I soothe myself with Jeanine Leane’s poetry, summoning an entire day’s energy and beauty in Yangshou. Written while Jeanine was in China, where she presented on Aboriginal Australian writing to students at Sun Yat Sen University, Guangzhou, I feel a delight at the idea that the work is in the process of translation and soon a new readership of Chinese readers can experience that same beauty.
To counterpoint these new stories, we also feature two extracts and short interviews in Like Black on Rice. Giramondo Publishing and University of Queensland Press have generously provided us respectively with extracts from Chris Raja’s The Burning Elephant and Samuel Wagan Watson’s Love Poems and Death Threats, allowing us an opportunity to delve deeper work that provides beautiful insight into the complex interplay of ‘Australian’ identities. Neither writer is necessarily trying to teach us something, but we are nevertheless learning.
Set beside the stories are images from the State Library of Victoria‘s digital collection, spawned from key words featured in the works, embracing the occasional incongruence of the images, the documentary invisibility of either Asian or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Searching for my own name gives rise to the image featured above of “America’s First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt wearing Red Cross uniform walking in front of a line of W.R.A.N. personnel”. My mother often asserts proudly that I was named after Eleanor Roosevelt.
Other times she says she thought it best that my brother and I had “Anglo names”.
The idea hurts not a little, but then again, I try to learn something.
As always, your comment and interaction with these works and these writers are integral to this conversation. On behalf of myself and co-editor, Ellen van Neerven, we welcome your voices to it.