Editorial: Not another Asian Australian anthology?

Photo credit: Hayden Golder Photography

In 2008, Alice Pung edited a groundbreaking anthology, Growing Up Asian in Australia which featured short stories and poems by over fifty Asian Australians.  However, prior to the book’s publication, Pung was advised by an industry person that her  “heavy introduction” which detailed the invasion and dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, the White Australia policy, including information about the racist violence towards the Chinese during the 1850s and 60s, would scare away Border bookshop customers.

Alice strategically took this advice, editing her introduction, so that she could infiltrate popular culture with “stories about how integral Asian-Australians are to our national identity”.  Alice accomplished her goal: Growing Up Asian in Australia is always stocked on bookshop shelves and features on the Victorian senior high school curricula.

In 2009, Peril published her original introduction in full.

I wanted to include in this editorial, a quote from her introduction as it beautifully encapsulates in a historical context the struggle of Asian Australians in Australia’s literary culture.

“Throughout Australian literary history, Asians have often been written about by outsiders, as outsiders. Our outside identity oscillates between being a grave threat to white nationhood and being the obedient racial group least likely to offend, depending on the political climate. In 1996, a fiery-headed maiden declared in parliament that we were in danger of being ‘swamped by Asians,’ who ‘have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.’  We were back to being the Peril again.

Many people continue to subscribe to a particular version of Australian history – one that spans only two centuries, and one that tries hard to cram everyone into a very rigid national narrative. Perhaps the reason Asian-Australians find it difficult to fit into this national narrative is that we rarely get to do the storytelling”.

 – Alice Pung, “The Original Introduction to “Growing Up Asian in Australia”, published in Peril #8, “Why are people so unkind?”, 2009. 

Earlier this year, we began the Peril Map project with the idea of incorporating all of Peril’s creative platforms – prose, poetry and visual arts, including audio and video elements featuring a range of Asian Australian artists on the theme of “terra/land/place”.  As our ideas developed, we realised that it wasn’t possible to produce such an ambitious project with the funding that we had.  We decided that we would focus on poetry and spoken word, drawing from Poetry Editor Eleanor Jackson’s extensive experience creating, producing and curating an audio poetry mapping project –  Melbourne Poetry Map: Audio Graffitti.  The Peril Map would be an experiment, a possible way of framing some of our future work.

We brainstormed a list of writers and poets that we’d like to include in this compilation, some of them drawn from Peril’s past contributors.  Working with Asian Australian poets meant that we are also coincidentally featuring poets who were published in another groundbreaking anthology – Contemporary Asian Australian Poets edited by Michelle Cahill, Kim Cheng Boey and Adam Aitken, launched not too long ago at the Sydney Writers Festival.  While there are cross-overs in terms of names, the writing featured are all previously unpublished work, with one exception – being Peril co-founding editor, Hoa Pham’s poem –  “Thich Nhat Hanh – Zen Master”, published in Peril #4 “The Meaning of Life”.

As our rationale is about featuring narratives by Asian Australians, it’s interesting to consider some of the responses to the above anthologies. Take for example, Ali Alizadeh’s Overland review “Unsettling received notions”, about Contemporary Asian Australian Poets.  Ali introduces with scepticism when first hearing about the editors’ plan to compile an anthology focused primarily on Asian Australian poetry:

As a Marxist universalist, I felt troubled by the proposal for yet another defensive – and potentially ghettoising – proclamation of particularism and cultural identity. As a poet, I felt troubled by the possibility of the further fragmentation of a notoriously conflicted poetic milieu along ethno-racial lines, creating yet another unnecessary front in the abundantly unnecessary ‘poetry wars’. And as a reader, I felt that the very last thing I needed to be subjected to was yet another poetry anthology, particularly since I had only recently been subjected to quite a number of mediocre instances of the genre.

While, overall, Ali Alizadeh’s review of the anthology is positive, and in conclusion he lauds it as “one of the most compelling poetry anthologies published in Australia”, it still bothers me that an anthology of Asian Australian writing can be viewed as “defensive”, “potentially ghettoising” and potentially provoking further fragmentation along “ethno-racial lines”. (I won’t disagree with his examples of mediocre anthologies, however!)  This scepticism could be the same question asked of the Peril Map, or even Peril more generally.

In Farah Faroque’s review of Growing Up Asian in Australia in The Age (2008), she acknowledges the dearth of Australian arts and cultural voices from Asian backgrounds, speculating that many Asian immigrants were channeled “into the doctor/dentist/lawyer and IT pathways to afford much public introspection about simply ‘being’”. She welcomes the publication of the anthology as

[A]n expression of assertiveness and confidence when the experiences of a group – hardships as much as triumphs and easy self-deprecations – are shared broadly. If you’re going to be empowered as a community, it’s surely as important to migrate into the public space as much as the surgical suite?

Peril’s existence is premised on promoting the creativity, agency and representation of Asian Australians in Australian arts, society and culture.  While our regular editions have always and will continue to feature work from authors who are not of Asian descent, our magazine still operates from a lens foregrounded in questions of racial and cultural heritage because Asian Australian writers are still marginalised from the dominance of Anglo-Celtic cultural narratives.  This unfortunate reality in 2013 is still being counteracted by programs like Overland’s CAL Connections, in recognition of the lack of diversity in Australian publishing.

In Eleanor’s interview with Adam Aitken (one of the editors of Contemporary Asian Australian Poets), he sympathises with writers wanting to be judged only by their writing without being categorized by their ethnicity, however,

“the reality has been that writers have been pre-judged on the basis of their ethnicity, for good and bad, and so we can’t just ignore the issue. Sometimes the writing world is blind to its homogenizing and reductive power, especially when literary values in Australia have been, for so long, based on the Anglo-European and American canon.”

While the White Australia policy is long gone, perhaps what remains as a pernicious legacy is the “polite racism of the educated middle class” as discussed in Waleed Aly’s Age article “Curse of Australia’s silent pervasive racism”.  In our interviews, Eleanor and I try to wrestle with questions of identity, as much as we discuss influences and the writing process.  We acknowledge the difficulty of using such a broad term as “Asian Australian”, however we were interested in finding out how poets and writers identified themselves and whether their heritage had any bearing on their work.  Needless to say – the answers to our questions were incredibly varied.  While some identified as Asian-Australian, others identified as Australian, and some identified more specifically with their particular ethnicities.  Some didn’t identify with any categories at all. Some acknowledged that their heritage had some bearing on their work, while for others, it wasn’t an influence.

In my interview with playwright and activist, Dominic Golding, he tells me that my first question to him about identity is problematic.

“For me, I’ve been denied being called Australian for most of my life.  But I’ve come back to acknowledging that I am a banana.  I lived in Vietnam for a period of time.  To be honest with you I just like to call myself an Aussie of Asian descent.  I don’t really relate to being Asian because I don’t have parents of Asian background likewise I don’t identify myself as an Asian-Australian because I don’t have relatives who are Asian.  This question is only applicable to a certain demographic of the Asian population in Australia not to the intercountry adoptee communities.  I just call myself an Aussie born in Vietnam.”

Dom’s reasoning was specific to his experience, and made me really think about Asian Australian as a category.  Being perceived as an outsider from “both in the dominant culture as well as the Cantonese community here in Melbourne” was an experience that Australian-born Loretta Miauw also experienced.  In reflection of her experience growing up, Loretta says,

“[o]ne of the things that have come from this experience has been the learning that oppression, especially that of racial oppression is an effective strategy in isolating and dividing communities; as communities police their own borders of membership and belonging.”

This policing is also addressed by Adam Aitken whose heritage is Thai-Anglo-Scottish. In Thailand, he has been called a “luuk khreung, which means ‘half-child’”, which according to him has negative overtones.  In Eleanor’s interview with him, he tells her that Asian Australian for him “contains a sense of being bi-cultural”, rather than a statement of “what race he is”.

While we’ve chosen to feature Asian Australian writers, being reflexive of the representations, power dynamics and definitions under that very broad category “Asian Australian” is as important an interrogation as using the category as a cultural marker for our compilation.  In her interview with Misbah Khokhar, Eleanor reflects on her interview experience:

This process of interviewing so many writers, has given me pause for reflection about my own “Asian-ness”, there is so much difference and commonality between myself and the writers I’m talking with, so much amplitude and excitement between them all – and yet is it allegedly suitable to group us all together under that great banner “Asian-Australia”? Every writer in this collection is describing something very specific to them, and difficult to define. Like trying to keep vapour in a jar.

It is a hard wrestle, and I think we’re compelled to this journey of exploration which is as much about individual self-discovery as it is about the Australian communities represented under the very broad and diverse category of ‘Asian’.

We have in the Peril Map compilation an incredible calibre; from award winning writers to those who are just making a mark in the literary scene.  The Peril Map as a whole is a collection of points that writers have marked their biography and/or writing with.  Some writers will have more than one point on the map.  Some have chosen not to pin to a place.  Some points on the map are literal, and some imaginary.  How you navigate or orientate yourself with the Peril Map is something I’d like to hear.  Perhaps there’s a point of interest or perspective that you hadn’t thought about before, or perhaps you got lost on the map.  Nevertheless, whatever your experience I hope that the journey offers some thoughtful insights for you along the way.

* * *

Here is my contribution to the Peril Map which I pin to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia the place of my birth; Glen Waverley, Victoria where I spent my adolescence; and Coburg, Victoria – where I live now.

Empty portraits of the dead

Jalan Kent Empat, Kuala Lumpur

We mourn the dead with prayers, joss sticks, paper money and houses, and sometimes real food thrown into the fire bin – the gateway to the celestial

I was 4 or 5, very young when Prince died of worms.  Prince was bigger than me, Prince was older than me, Prince knew Ah Kong’s pats on his head.

Five months after Ah Kong died, I was born into a mourning home.

Every year after this year of death and birth our family commemorated
His death, with joss sticks, prayers, paper money and houses
My birth, with birthday cake, candles and presents.

As I grew older, death still an abstract concept,
Ah Kong looked on infinitely serious,
a black and white centerpiece in the family home,
Always remembered.

The gates were left open, when the tyres rolled over Gustav, my stray puppy.
I ran out too late, scooped his little limp body in my arms; tongue lolling, bloodied. I buried him near the papaya and coconut trees, by the back fence where the dogs shat. I marked his grave with a garden rock, his name brushed in orangey-red acrylic paint. Then I lit joss sticks and prayed for a better re-birth.

Death only touched me when my dogs died.

Glen Waverley, Melbourne

When you rang, you asked for Mother
I asked you, “Ah Ma, baik?”
“Ah Ma, baik” (“Ah Ma, good”) you replied,
despite what you won’t say, despite your swollen pain.

My last conversation with you
this short platitude in Malay,

I pass you onto Mother,
who rushes into Hokkien

Coburg, Victoria

It’s 10 years since you’ve passed.
In my home there are no portraits of you, no portraits of the dead
that I choose to honour on my walls or my bookshelf.

This absence of mourning haunts me
Your ghost in my heart

No joss sticks, paper money or houses thrown into the fire bin when you died.

What I won’t say, what I find difficult to write or talk about,
is the impossibility that happened
that sickly silence
surrounding your death, our painful family secret.

Years of looking after your
father (at nine after your mother passed),
It was impossible for you to say more than,
“Ah Ma, baik”.

Author: Lian Low

Lian Low is a writer, editor and spoken word artist. She’s currently at large in Peril‘s outer orbit. Previously editor-in-chief (2010-2014) , prose editor (2009-2014) and on Peril‘s Board until 2016. Find her on http://lianlow.weebly.com/ and Twitter @Lian__Low

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