(Luang Prabang 2008)
The French taught me to eat baguettes:
the French gave me French
and I saved them my furious backchat.
They gave me a poetic:
how ‘the hour to be shot at dawn’
was as beautiful
as the sun that ‘wakes’
behind the clouds.
The French taught me
ways to roast pigeon,
and how to know
the romance of the words
ténébreuse & ombre
inflected and improved
by monsoonal lassitude.
Now I teach them:
here are the caves we hid in,
here are the bomb casings
& the baguettes we fill
with canned paté.
Sir, here is your rocking chair,
your beautiful hotel,
your café au lait.
Here is the dawn,
and the bowl for alms
& this is the way of giving
that sets you free.
There a white straw hat
you taught us to weave.
Here is me, that man
who forgets dismay,
& sleeps again, one eye open
in the shade
of his charming decay,
in a glorious swelter,
the imageless afternoon.
‘the hour / to be shot at dawn’, from Tomaž Šalamun’s “Words” in Feast: Poems, edited by Charles Simic, Harcourt Inc, 2000 “March 22, 1993”
As I write this, the Tour de France is underway – my bleary-eyed office colleagues collect each morning around the water cooler to trade words like peleton and domestique as naturally as can be. There’s general banter about the beauty of the countryside and whatever regional cheese was spruiked most ardently the evening before. Seems the French have given us all a little “je ne sais quoi”.
But the French have “given” Adam Aitken something slightly different, both the stomach to digest the anti/post/colonial and the mouth for furious backchat – a poetic combination that seems historical, bodily and personal in equal, gentle measure. Pinned to Laung Prabang in north-central Laos, penned by a writer with an Anglo Asian background, “Le Colon” evokes for me a key beauty of Adam’s work, a mixture of the sardonic and intellectual. I feel like I should crack the spine on a history book about south-east Asian military theatres and find somewhere to get a gin and tonic.
Adam began to seriously write poetry when he was about 15, when he was able to stay for a few months in David Malouf’s flat while he was overseas. Unsurprisingly, this prize-winning author had an extensive library and Adam took the opportunity to browse: “I discovered old Australian poetry journals, European translated volumes, and of course David’s own poetry, which my mother and I read to each other”. He then went on to study English Literature at Sydney University and “enrolled in every poetry course he could, in addition to workshopping poems at lunchtime in Dennis Haskell’s office”.
For Adam, his writing influences were deep and diverse, and not necessarily what one would expect of a writer and editor who has considered Asian Australian writing with such thoughtful measure:
“Reading German and European poets in translation was very influential on me, but also my English teacher at High School loved teaching poetry and I will never forget his lessons on Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. My mother and I also read WH Auden intensively, and perhaps many of the themes in his work took root in me. On the whole, poetry was not a matter of themes or core question as such, but a kind of lifestyle. I enjoyed going to poetry readings at Exiles Bookshop and book launches at pubs. There were a whole bunch of eccentric and bookish poets who lived in my neighbourhood in Newtown and Darlinghurst in the early 80s. It was very energetic and a bit of party. University gave me some theory and a sense of traditions and literary movements, so I felt that my writing life had a larger meaning, that I was participating in a larger thing called Ozlit.”
While Adam does see himself as an Asian-Australian, he acknowledges that:
“the term contains the sense of being bi-cultural, though honestly I am not very Thai in my ways. I don’t speak Thai fluently and don’t spend much time with Thais, except my mother, who hasn’t lived in Thailand since the mid 60s. I don’t even go to Thai restaurants in Sydney. ‘Australian’ still signifies a certain white European antecedence due to our history, but that’s breaking down now. My memoir is really about both strands of my ancestry, and I really have enjoyed writing about my father’s Anglo-Scottish heritage as much as my mother’s Thainess. I live my life like most inner city, middle-class Australians, but my imagination is different, I think, to those people who don’t have bi-cultural background.”
For Adam, the “bi-cultural experience” is more important a factor in “who he is” than “what race he is”. In this way Adam perceives that “anyone of Asian background who lives in Australia” as an Asian Australian and the term can also include “people like him who are mixed Anglo Asian background”. Although Peril Blogger, Eurasian Sensation, embraces the term, it is true when Adam notes, “these days hardly anyone uses the term Eurasian or Anglo Asian because of its colonial overtones”. At the same time, while Adam thinks of himself as Australian by upbringing and education, because he came here in 1968, it is material to his writing that his mother is Thai and he has Thai relatives who he feels “emotionally linked to, though our life spheres are very distant”. He states:
“I am very comfortable with the term Asian Australian as long as people realize it can denote a huge variety of people. When I am in some countries, like Hawai’i I learned to tolerate the local term for ‘mixed race’, which is hapa, a pidgin Englisn term meaning ‘half’. I suppose people would use the term without offence, but Hawai-i is not without racial tensions. In Thailand I have been called a luuk khreung, which means ‘half-child’. This term has slightly negative overtones I believe, since there is a strong strand of Thai nationalism that does not tolerate hybridity. In Thailand, there has been many years of ideological campaigns that define the ‘True Thai’, the ideal Thai citizen, and the prohibitions on difference and otherness. I don’t feel comfortable with terms that are based on blood quotient racial concepts, but race is still a powerful concept by which people are categorized and it is difficult to escape conceptual habits.”
In the 1980s, when Adam started publishing, many of his peers felt that he should not make too much of his Asian ethnicity, as they felt that writers who had any avant-garde ambitions should not need to commodify themselves as ethnically different to others. He retains some sympathy with the idea that writers should be judged on their writing alone – yet he acknowledges “on the other hand, 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.”
That’s a fitting comment to make, when you consider that Adam (together with co-editors Kim Cheng Boey and Michelle Cahill) recently launched the Contemporary Asian Australian Poets collection, perhaps addressing that homogenising and reductive power of the writing world. About the collection and what it offers to a contemporary Australian literary audience, he says:
“There’s been a huge growth in interest in Asia, in Asian Australian artists, film-makers and writers, and poetry is part of this wider cultural ferment. Although poetry is a small market, it’s also a world-wide art form, so in that case it’s a very large market geographically. Poetry needs to be part of this huge interest in Asian art and film. Australian poetry is also now becoming more open to poetry in bilingual translations. There are more anthologies of Australian poetry finding translation in Chinese, Japanese, and Bahasa Malayu. The distinction between a local and a ‘foreign audience’ is breaking down due to the reach of Internet publications. I regularly read on-line journals that come out of Hong Kong, Singapore, and India. The potential for bigger audiences is there, and I would say that in Australia there are more and more community-based projects that can include poetry events, and these communities are intimately connected with homelands; diaspora culture can only be good for our poetry.”
This intimate connection seems in direct contrast to Adam’s early experiences as a writer, where he recollects “there was also a strong a knee-jerk reaction among some critics that migrant writing was second-rate or too limited to social commentary, to biography and to ‘where-I-come-from’ genres, so at times I felt it might be better to avoid the label migrant writer.” As a “migrant child”, however, it was natural for his writing to address these themes, but he also hopes that the above Asian Australian poets anthology “will demonstrate that Asian Australian poets write in a wide variety of styles and genres, and do it skilfully.”
Like many of the writers interviewed by Peril for this project, Adam wants his “writing and those of all Australian writers to be able to draw on all kinds of cultural sources, including Asian ones but not limited to material sourced in Asia”. For Adam, there is a clear desire to emphasise this “in order to liberate the Asian Australian writer from thinking they HAVE to write about something Asian”. As a reader, he is looking now to European literature for inspiration and learning the French referred to in his poem. More broadly, Adam’s work spans a range of topics, styles and “energies”, if that is not too new age a term to apply to a body of work that is challenging at times, references widely and entreats the reader to “stay awake”. About his writing, Adam says “I think my sense of identity and use of identity categories is a strategy for bringing attention to these Asian traditions and influences”. Reflecting on what motivates him to write, he says:
“I think because I started so young and was surrounded by other writers and come from a book-reading family, I see myself as destined to be one. When nothing much was progressing, or I wasn’t enjoying writing, I have thought of giving it up, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the next book, or the next poem, and wanting to complete something. Also, like many writers I am a bit vain, I want to be seen as an important artist. Now I teach writing and I am too old to be re-train and make a living in some other way!”
In response to the theme, Adam was generous and enthusiastic:
“I love maps! I like to get a bird-eye view of a network. Maps help us to travel, physically or in our imaginations. I see mapping as already inherent in lyrical poetics, in the sense that even the most abstract of poetry is situated in recognizable times and places. A map need not be a static representation of the poetic experience however, but could offer direction for the reader and writer to go where they want to go, or to find a space they didn’t know about before. I see maps as a tourist or adventurer needs a map to navigate to the new place. But you always transcend the map once you get to your destination.
An interesting question is whether there is a conceptual centre to the map like a zero longitude, a point of departure etc; or it is ryzomic and de-centralised. I think, though, Australia is as good a point of centrality as any other point, for this project at least. I suppose we are starting from a certain sense of familiarity of place and situatedness. How the poems travel out from there will be fascinating to watch.”
Here at Peril we can only hope that readers will “transcend the map” when considering the project as a realised whole as Adam foreshadows, for sometimes this mapping process has been exactly the kind of sombre, obscure, mysterious and impenetrable sensation that is conjured by ténébreuse.
– Interview with Eleanor Jackson, Peril Poetry Editor