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Letters to the Editor – April 1991

April 1991, no. 129

Letters to the Editor – April 1991

April 1991, no. 129

In last month’s Telecom Australian Voices essay, Robert Dessaix discussed the ways in which multiculturalism divides up the Australian literary scene, concluding that “in a word, it’s time our multicultural professionals stopped marginalising multicultural writers”. The response of Sneja Gunew, who was quoted in that essay, is printed in its entirety here, along with other letters prompted by the essay.

First, let me sincerely thank Robert Dessaix for gathering together so many of the misconceptions surrounding multiculturalism in its specifically literary form. It gives me, and others, the chance to respond to them.

The legend on the front of the issue trumpets ‘the abuses of multiculturalism’. Since there is no qualification, or even a simple question mark, the ABR appears to be endorsing these charges.

But of what are we being accused?

1. In the first instance, that ‘we’ are a group, hinting at a conspiracy. If this is so self-evident then why is Sue Hawthorne, for example, placed in both camps? The truth is that ‘we’ are inadvertently united only in the common problem we have with currently prevailing definitions of Australian literature.

2. That ‘we’ are self-serving academic careerists who use multiculturalism as tendentious ways of furthering our careers.

What exactly does this break down in to? The snide title and references to fellowships and academic salaries merely indicates that some of us are part of academic institutions? Is this in itself a crime or could it be that this is an appeal to the grand Australian tradition of academic­bashing? Unlike some of my schizophrenic colleagues, I don’t actually apologise for being either an academic or an intellectual. I should also point out that there are easier ways of achieving those same salaries and fellowships.

The ANU fellowship to which Mr Dessaix refers was given as part of that year’s focus on feminist theory (not multiculturalism) so I actually have shifty aliases as a feminist theorist and even as someone whose higher degrees were (gasp) situated in the area of Anglo-Irish Literature (Yeats, ‘Flann O’Brien’, etc.) As to the supposed institutional ‘vested interests’, Mr Dessaix is obliterating the fact that our modest achievements relate in my own case to ten years work and that indeed it is only recently that I have persuaded my own institution and the Australian Research Council that this research is a valid activity.

3. That we harm rather than help the writers we promote (anthologies are apparently the kiss of death). I have edited and co-edited four such collections and in the case of Beyond the Echo (mentioned by Dessaix), as a direct result of its publication, three writers had their own collections published: Langford, Vavere and Giles, the last of whom, I’m glad to see, makes it into the top echelon at the end of the essay. It appears the anthology tactic of promoting writers does work after all.

The reason I spent so much time producing anthologies is that I want to promote these writers in any way I can and my own previous experience comes from women’s writing which was another illustration of pointing to an absence and subsequently redefining the field. In the case of women, the tactic of anthologies was a primary step in simply giving con­crete examples of what was meant by ‘women writers’ and ended up achieving its aims. Individual writers were then enabled to publish more of their work and are now an accepted part of the literary canon.

But canons incorporate, by their nature, processes of exclusion. What exactly is wrong with examining those boundaries and rendering them more flexible? Ultimately we all gain from this by having, in this instance, more good writing to delight us. But first we have to know who these new writers are – hence the anthologies and bibliographies. Does Mr Dessaix also object to the mammoth Bibliography of Australian Literature currently being compiled by the Australian Studies Centre at Monash?

4. That we (or I) foster French male theorists/orthodoxies (‘single strain of French social theory’). When names are mentioned these appear to be: Edward Said (Columbia, New York), Terry Eagleton (Oxford) and Salman Rushdie (London).

Part of the problem here is that Dessaix homogenises deconstructive, psychoanalytic, Marxist and post-colonial theories under the general heading of the perfidious ‘French’. The wittiest rejoinder to this phobia concerning foreign intellectual contamination was produced by Meaghan Morris ten years ago in the first Foreign Bodies Papers, where she states: ‘Diatribes on the dangers of “French ideas” always remind me irresistibly of the phrase attributed to Bjelke-Peterson, “Just because a few wog want their spicy tucker doesn’t mean Australian health has to be put at risk”.’ The quotation is apt on a number of counts.

5. That we use abstruse arguments in inaccessible language. Why exactly does Mr Dessaix choose to quote from two articles written explicitly for academic publications? I/we have also written for different audiences and he could easily have chosen a more populist example. If I produce these essays for a few colleagues (both here and there, OS) then this is because we are indeed part of that group who are concerned with the business of setting curricula and of having an input in defining our national literature. They form part of a larger project, echoing moves all over the world, to make cultural difference a category in critical analysis similar to class and gender. If I use certain bodies of theory it is because these are read with interest around the world and have become part of the critical apparatus and dialogue.

6. That we homogenise 75% of the Oz population as Anglo-Celts and that we force the other 35% to toe the line.

I am always careful, given my research background, to make distinctions between England and Ireland. I also draw attention to the fact that England is not a unified cultural field. None the less, literature in English is to be distinguished from English literature since the former includes the old Commonwealth as well as the US and indeed Australia itself. I’m not sure why there are some who wish to contribute to see Australian literature as simply a sub-branch of English literature. There is now a growing body of research which examines the whole field of English studies and simply does not take for granted that we all share the same assumptions about the best examples of writing in English and that they exist in a historical and political vacuum.

As to whether we act as a kind of police force to keep the poor multicultural writers in line, well that assumes that our activities are simple and one-dimensional ones. For the record, my own work ranges across many activities: trying to make visible the writings of as large a group as possible; the setting up of basic research tools such as courses, archives and bibliographies (as an academic my task is to foster research); and the promotion of writers to as many publishers, editors, teachers as will listen. Many of the writers themselves have no idea (poor lambs) that this is what I’m doing. Whether they identify themselves as multicultural is entirely their choice. The fact that the term is often seen as a patronising one is something many of us are trying to change, taking heart from the fact that woman writer or black writer is no longer a term of abuse or denigration. It is all about redefining our culture to take into account the contributions of Aboriginal peoples and these others who come from the rest of the world, not simply England and Ireland.

7. That we promote a centre/margins model. In an early piece I actually suggested the rhizome as set up by two Real French theorists, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. This is a way of indicating that in most of my work I have always questioned simplistic applications of what is, after all, a metaphor for power relations. My own preferred model is that of visibility and invisibility; absence/presence. If something I value is not there, I want to know why this is so.

8. That we take the high moral ground in which we accuse opponents of being reactionary and then ourselves resort to fascist terms like ‘must’. The ‘must’ was the result of frustration over the ten years of work mentioned earlier. I was tired of seeing the waste of talent in our country. Note that I suggest the need for dialogue in the same sentence. As to the accusations of labelling those who disagree with us as liberal voters, far from it, the confusions concerning multiculturalism exist, alas, on both sides of the political fence.

9. That the absurdity of our efforts are exemplified in the Australia Council’s policies regarding multiculturalism. These policies are less absurd when multiculturalism is revealed as consisting of the influence of traditions and cultures beyond English and not simply equated with the migrant experience (see below).

In response to all these accusations or listing of ‘abuses’, R. D. asserts:

1. That migrant writers writing inevitably only of the migrant experience simply can’t write English very well. When they do write, they can at best produce only ‘plain story-telling’ and are incapable of having a playful attitude to language. As many of us have argued ad nauseam, ‘multiculturalism’ is not a term we choose but one that is current along with ‘ethnic’ and ‘migrant’. If these are the terms, the only intelligent response consists of using them strategically and of widening their definition. Multicultural writing is not simply produced by migrants but also refers to those who draw upon languages other than English and cultural traditions deriving from other than England or Ireland. These make up a third of our Australian population.

In most of my own articles, the writers I choose to focus upon (because of personal subjective preferences) are usually precisely those who do play games with the plain story-telling that is the supposed mark of the ‘migrant writer’ according to R. D.

We are accused of concentrating on the same few writers and in the same breath are damned for trying to widen the group by working on bibliographies (incidentally the one on which we are working promises to include about 1000 writers) – a no-win situation.

2. That real readers don’t care a fig for these arguments.

R. D. poses as the common reader, a common ploy. He distinguishes between the reader who simply wants a good read and the culture brokers who merely speak incomprehensibly amongst themselves. It may be that these ordinary readers can answer for themselves. If they don’t care a fig then our abstruse articles and machinations will not affect them anyhow and they can continue along their blissful ways.

3. That these multicultural writers are often the product, particularly if they come from the Mediterranean region, of sexist and racist cultures and we don’t want these values contaminating our pure shores. Oh dear, I hear a distinct echo of those old arguments that we’ve heard for forty years or more; they come here because they can’t live there and then they proceed to change our ways (see Joh’s quote above). Thus we have most recently, Muslim bashing, etc. This is another version of let’s keep Oz intellectually pure. My own suggestion is that we raise the prices of imported books even higher so that no one at all is able to afford them.

4. That these whingeing writers inhabit self-imposed ghettos which prevent them from holding dialogue with the rest of Australia. They’re simply losers condemned to plain storytelling and no wonder nobody reads them. If they do land on R. D.’s shelves and keep company with the elect or manage to win ABC prizes, then how dare they complain.

Could it be that we ‘multiculturalists’ (and there are actually more of us than are mentioned here) are perhaps passionately committed to these questions because they will foster constructive debate and link us with the whole of our diverse population as well as with the rest of the world? If we manage to incorporate these enterprises into our various careers then good luck to us. I can reassure R. D. that the ‘nice work’ receives neither universal academic, nor other kinds, of endorsement.

Sneja Gunew


Dear Editor,

The acidity of Robert Dessaix’s witty and courageous essay, ‘Nice Work If You Can get It’, was just to my taste. I thank him for his passion. His grip on absurdity is certain.

There are many examples of the travesties of which he speaks. For those readers of ABR who enjoy games, puzzles or comedies of contemporary manners, the NSW Ethnic Affairs Commission, for instance, offers a very good annual one: its exclusive award to a writer of ‘non-English speaking background’ is for a work written in English. Is one being rewarded for being a ‘good ethnic’ or a ‘bad ethnic’? Women’s Redress Press, too, knows a culturally silenced group of people when it alone sees one. It is currently calling for submissions of writing from second generation immigrant women. Let me never grow so cynical as to misinterpret such worthy and socially progressive paradigms as tokenistic, fetishistic or insulting.

But, as a writer who happily agrees with Dessaix’s main thesis, I urge readers not to dismiss all argument in this area because of the inadequacies of some. Just because there are bad cultural policies, injurious to their nominated concerns, doesn’t mean there aren’t or can’t be valuable ones.

In his essay, Robert alludes to the need for a ‘good’ languages policy in a multicultural society such as ours. A policy defined in language usage and predicated in the development of translation practices is central to Australian literary culture, an excellent one, representative and expansive. It would be a cultural crime if the nonsense, even the racism, of a policy set in spurious notions of ethnicity, were to deny all Australians such a possibility.

Robert is too cavalier in his regard of what lack of access to the mainstream of language usage has meant to Australian writers in languages other than English, and to Australian readers. And, as he says, he ‘treads a perilous path indeed in trying to summarise the arguments of supporters of multiculturalism in literature’ – or in unduly conflating them. There is too much elision here. Significant differences of political perspective inform those critics that Robert names. Sneja Gunew is just one working vigorously towards meaningful languages policy. The interests of this debate are best served not by summary but by people reading Gunew and others.

George Papaellinas


Dear Editor,

It was heartening to read Robert Dessaix’s fine essay on multicultural writing. Without reverting to the pure criteria of judgement of Good Writing, he has exposed the anomalies in the arguments of many who march under the now uncertain banner of Valets of the Oppressed. If it is the case that the Others are finding more certain and stronger voices, then I agree that it is time for the Valets (who are really the Masters) to stop interpreting according to that same old pattern of ‘the authentic voice discovered (by me), always silenced by the majority and now finally emerging’. As he demonstrates, productive rereadings in the field of multicultural writing can occur without this narrow theoretical machine in operation. Let’s hope that his stimulus will lead to more inventive reading and theorising of all sorts of writing in Australia.

Stephen Muecke

University of Technology Sydney

Dear Editor,

Robert Dessaix’s splendidly refreshing article raises the issue of why it is that artists are so readily categorised (stigmatised) according to their ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds – after all we don’t hear of multicultural physicists or medicos or ethnic judges. Determined interest groups aside, is it also partly because the funding system tends to promote a welfare view, making it easy for lobbyists and bureaucrats to portray artists working in minority languages or traditions as disadvantaged rather than as capable of enriching cultural life? Instead of allocating a percentage of their budgets for ‘multicultural artists’ (whatever that means) bodies such as the Australia Council might profitably work to identify and mitigate constraints facing writers. Our scarcity of competent literary translators has handicapped immigrant writers seeking to enlarge their audience here. Good language teaching with specialist training, awards for translation and more courses presenting a range of world literature and cultural traditions would do much to raise the level both of linguistic skill and awareness of various world views.

Jan Mayhuddin’s call for first, second and third generation non-Anglo­Celtic writers horrified me. Gillian Bouras and Mary Rose Liverani would not find a place in the Deakin bibliography of multicultural writing although their husbands and children, provided they’d been published, would be eligible. The emphasis is not on subject matter or expertise but on blood lines. It seems racist to me.

Morag Loh

Toorak, Vic.

Dear Editor,

Few established writers in Australia can make a living from their work, so they are scarcely affected either by marginalisation or by centralisation, if indeed such categories exist. This is precisely because ‘literature’ is a specialised category itself, and despite the ballooning myth of the common reader is, unhappily, not a value upon which common assumptions can be based. Like the rise of the novel, which turned the sacred into an idea, multiculturalism is a historical phenomenon which merely re­states the fact that values, beliefs and ideas have never been synonymous, except perhaps in times of war.

It hardly matters that some people see themselves as Catholic, Jewish, Black, Multicultural, American or Australian. Once a manuscript takes leave of the type­writer it comes open to use, misuse, type­casting and categorisation, despite the mu­nificent advice of those who warn of the dangers of ghettoisation or prejudice. What does matter is whether this categorisation becomes an object of promotion or vilification. Surely the latter is the more pressing problem to be addressed by all parties?

Brian Castro

Springwood, NSW

Dear Editor,

While Robert Dessaix raises some arguable issues in his critique of multicultural writing vis-a-vis the Australian literary scene, he is reasonably correct in his view that multiculturalism has had a polarising effect between indigenous, or Anglo-Celtic, writers and those, non-Celtic, more recently arrived.

Almost needless to say, such a consequence was not for an instant intended by the architects of the policy; which is one of the reasons why any manifestations of polarisation are saddening. The basic thrust behind the multicultural ideal remains no less valid today than it did when the term was coined; nor is it any less logical, decent or humanistic; while it also conforms so well – and certainly far more edifyingly than the earlier assimilationism – both the basic individual human nature and to the continuing demographic and cultural evolution of an increasingly outward-looking post-war Australia.

With the wisdom of hindsight, what seems to have been at fault is not the sentiment implied by the term ‘multiculturalism’ but the choice of word. With ‘multi’, by definition, meaning ‘many’, it has left open a loophole permitting certain exclusions. And because, as a consequence of an aberrant application of the term, ‘multiculturalism’ has too often become synonymous with ‘ethnic’ or ‘migrant’, and so on, and come to carry a positive discriminatory programme (sometimes too strident) in favour of these, it has been the Anglo-Celtic who has, almost ipso facto, been excluded.

At the end of the day, what the multicultural/omnicultural issue boils down to is the desire of ethnic writers of merit – and truth is that they do exist! – to be recognised in their own right as integral contributors to the Australian literary landscape and not to be overlooked or given short shrift when journal editors receive their submitted material, or anthology editors commission works, or publishers’ editors contemplate their manuscripts. Multiculturalism – for which read (and switch perhaps to) omniculturalism - is not some sinister conspiracy aiming to undermine one group of assert the ascendancy of another. It is not a dialectic between two irreconcilable adversaries. It is rather an all-in co-existing and (better still) mutually-fructifying interaction by all participants at work and play within the Australian community.

However, having said all this, until worthy minority-group writers and their works are integrated into the canons of Australian literature in keeping with this omnicultural ideal, the work of academics, researchers, bibliographers, anthologists, and so on – the ‘professionals’ as Dessaix so gratuitously pooh-poohs them – will have every justification for going on.

To this end, the advice that one should wish to tender is precisely that their work circumscribe the whole ambit of Australian literature and organically integrate their particular researches into that whole rather than peck away doggedly at some marginal super-specialised pocket of it while snubbing noses at that whole and reaching none beyond a few other incestuous ‘in-crowd’ of look-alikes.

Serge Liberman

Caulfield, Vic.

Dear Editor,

Ever since the controversy regarding the ‘ethnic’ writers started, I have been waiting for someone influential to take a stand, point a finger and shout in one big voice: ‘Look, they are all naked!’ Someone brave enough not to be intimidated into silence by the ‘ethnic’ lobby. The signs of the present state of affairs have been visible for some time now and have led to the creation of a new fast growing industry, that of multiculturalism professionals who took it upon themselves to keep the issue alive.

Though I agree with Robert Dessaix on most points, I can’t accept his outright rejection of ‘ethnic’ writing. He stated that to be an Australian writer one must be born into the language. What to do with writers who were not born here? I am an immigrant, English is my second language. According to R. Dessaix, I should have packed up my pen and paper instead of writing in English and left authorship to those who were born here. Perhaps I should have, but I didn’t. I started to write in English more than twenty years ago. English grammar and I were not on the best of terms, and sometimes I felt like a colour-blind painter.

I have always wanted to be a writer, not forseeing that between the dream and its realisation there was to be immigration, followed by twenty years of muteness. Whatever I have published was accomplished through the usual channels according to the established professional ethics. I have never sought special treatment, or relied on ‘privileges for the underprivileged’, trusting that if my work has any integrity, it would be accepted. Throughout my life I have strongly objected to the practice of exclusion, whether it was motivated by sexist, racial, or religious considerations, and I can’t stand divisions, especially in the Arts.

The absence of ethnic writers in prestigious Australian anthologies doesn’t necessarily reflect lack of talent among writers of non-English background, but might rather reveal an editor’s literary taste, ever his/her inbred bias. Not every deserving story is published and the above observation doesn’t apply to ‘ethnic’ writers only.

I treat my work seriously and work hard. I read Australian books, some with admiration, others without. I am glad that Australian literature has expanded in the last decade or two, that it looks healthy, but the time to feel cocksure hasn’t yet arrived. Many books are written and published but only a handful will survive the test of time. For no one could conjure literature by demand and lucky is the country which would produce one literary giant in one generation.

Maria Lewitt


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