Coming out Asian Australian


Meet Eleanor Jackson, Peril’s poetry editor. She wants to meet more Asian Australian poets. For dinner and dancing, maybe some long walks on the beach. But probably just reading poetry.

I updated my blog the other day.

For anyone who knows me, that’s actually unsurprising and uninteresting. I blog a lot, I keep meaning to stop. I made the decision the other day, however, to make a small amendment to my biography. Where once it said I was a poet, performer, arts producer and radio broadcaster, I put:

Eleanor Jackson is a Filipino Australian poet, performer, arts producer and radio broadcaster.

I’ve often wondered about the necessity of naming your ethnicity as an artist or even more generally as an individual. Textaqueen beautifully captured my feelings about discussing my Filipino background in her recent blog post for Peril, where she describes that disclosure of her Indian heritage gives rise “the perception that I am a link to ‘authentic Indian culture’, an expectation that I can only disappoint”. I have one (admittedly kind of bizarre) acquaintance who says “but, E, you’re the least ethnic person that I know.” Which hurts marginally less than my family regarding me as a banana. When questions like this arise for me, I’ve often think of Lia Incognita’s poem “Typography”, with its “heaving ambivalence” and the “need to choose” as she asks just how to define herself as an [insert modifier] Australian.

For my own part, I have usually omitted the Filipino from my creative biography, deeming it sufficient to allow the passport of my birthplace to take precedence over a more complex reality. I know that my family history and culture are important to me, even if I have a very specific and perhaps not “very Filipino” take on that heritage. I might not name it in all circumstances, but it’s there for the asking and I don’t shy away from the question “so where are you from?” even if I sometimes think the question isn’t very original.

Reading Eurasian Sensation’s Peril blog post “Where are all the Asian men?” a little while ago I was reminded, however, of many of the stereotypes applied to Filipino Australian families. I worried, is the real reason that I don’t mention that I am Filipino by family and Australian by bureaucracy and birth, is that I’m still somewhat ashamed of the fact?

You see, I grew up in Ballarat in the early 80s. It was not an unusual occurrence for people to ask me directly if my mother was a mail-order bride. Sometimes I knew women who were described as “mail-order brides” and I was a part of plenty of social occasions and community events that featured “Asian women … in the company of white husbands or Eurasian children”. A great number of people let me know, subtly or in strident ways, that there was something shameful about being Filipino Australian, not because I was either Filipino or Australian but because, in being the combined outcome of the two, I was surely the product of something implicit and terrible. For those who need the other shoe to drop, I learned early on that some people thought my mother was a whore and my father a people trafficker.

Chris’ post reminded me of the many ways that I became activated as a feminist, as queer person, as a writer. I’ve only recently joined the Peril team, but I’ve long enjoyed the work shared here and the diversity of opinions and creative work that reflects that there is something subtle and powerful about acknowledging and questioning who you are, even if you don’t particularly want to pin that down. Having Filipino heritage doesn’t mean anything definite and defined to me, because imbuing my own racial identity with intrinsic qualities feels as simplistic as the tools used for racial prejudice.

I can’t say that I agree with all of Chris’ conclusions (I’m happy to say I think that the space for different opinions is one of the great values of Peril), but I can say that his post reminded me again why I don’t mind “coming out” Asian from time to time, why I keep having to do it, both for myself and others. Not because it is my personal responsibility to combat racial sterotypes, which are surely the laziest kinds of thinking, but because being invisible is almost worse than having superficial labels applied to you because you conveniently fit into a particular group. And I’m certainly not ashamed of the fact.

Author: Eleanor Jackson

Eleanor Jackson is a Filipino Australian poet, performer, arts producer and community radio broadcaster. Eleanor Jackson is a former Editor in Chief and Poetry Editor of Peril and currently Chair of the Board.