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Telecom Australian Voices | ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’ by Robert Dessaix

February–March 1991, no. 128

Telecom Australian Voices | ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’ by Robert Dessaix

February–March 1991, no. 128

The Australian literary scene is described, by the multicultural professionals, as divided into ‘centre’ and marginalised ethnic fringe. In this first essay in the new series of Telecom Australian Voices, Robert Dessaix questions the terms used to define both this centre and these margins. For all the postmodern theory, Dessaix argues, multiculturalism is not necessarily helping either the writers usually categorised in this group or Australian writing.

‘I don’t see myself as a Greek person working in the theatre ... I don’t want to be the multicultural other – just the other.’ (Tess Lysiotis)

‘People are always very curious about nationality. They will go to great lengths to pigeonhole someone. They think this knowl­edge gives them power.’ (Seamus O’Young in Brian Castro’s novel Birds of Passage)

‘The children of migrants from the Peloponnese are conscious of being Greek, often aware of a Periclean heritage, [but] see Australian culture as a nullity, a thing of football, meat pies and Crocodile Dundee.’ (Jim Davidson)

‘No,’ Ania Walwicz said at the Melbourne Festival when asked if she was an ethnic writer, ‘I’m a fat writer.’ We laughed and applauded.

The multicultural professionals, however, may not let her (or Tess Lyssiotis) off the hook so easily. I have in mind that small but eloquent band of people, usually from institutions, who actually have a vested interest in keeping constructs like Anglo-Celtic/non-Anglo-Celtic, English-speaking background/non-English-speaking background alive and functional.

Even as you read these lines, they’re out there compiling bibliographies, devising curricula, writing articles for right-thinking journals, and editing damning reports, all in ways designed to lock our writers into categories they have willed into existence in the first place. They’re out there combing through Edward Said (a favourite), Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, and Althusser in a strenuous effort to make the Australian reality validate French social and literary theory of the 1960s and 1970s.

Well, let’s hear it for the fat writers, I say. I’d like to ask (as in fact Foucault did about the sane/insane polarity in earlier centuries) whose actual benefit the polarity works for, because I believe there are winners and losers in the present game. The losers, as always, are the patients, those dubbed ‘multicultural writers’, while the winners (no surprises) are the doctors who staff the clinics, the academics, the multicultural professionals. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, I don’t think an ounce of bad faith is involved – I just think that’s the way the world (and its institutions) work. ‘Multicultural literature,’ as George Papaellinas has put it, ‘has never, as a category, been anything other than a creation of the marketplace.’ That’s to put it at its simplest.

I don’t, by the way, vote Liberal, I live in Fitzroy not Glen Waverley, I don’t believe in cutting off immigration, I only read The Australian on Saturdays, I don’t regard Britain as my motherland and I’ve read more widely in foreign languages than in English. I only mention this because one of the commonest ploys of those who argue in favour of and promote multiculturalism is to pigeonhole anyone who disagrees with them as ‘right wing’ at the very least and at worst racist. Even as good-humoured a commentator as David Carter of the Institute for Cultural Policy Studies at Griffith University, after asking if we should ‘throw multiculturalism out the window’ because it’s so hard to define, writes in Island Magazine: ‘I think not, if only because the term continues to upset conservative commentators such as the editor of Quadrant, Peter Coleman.’ Well, at least David Carter has laid his cards on the table. In the same vein, writing in The New Diversity which he co-authored with Ken Gelder, Paul Salzman claims that ‘the attack on multiculturalism has centred on a return to oppressive and homogenised notions of nationalism’. Not this one. One of the reasons I live in Australia is to escape the ‘oppressive and homogenised notions of nationalism’ rife in the countries of origin of so many of our migrants.

I tread a perilous path indeed in trying to summarise the arguments of the supporters of multiculturalism in literature. People like Sneja Gunew, David Carter, Pam Gilbert, Susan Hawthorne, Rudi Krausmann and researchers at the Centre for Multicultural Studies at the University of Wollongong argue from a variety of positions, warning of a variety of dangers, but there is, I believe, a common thread to their argument and I would like to make some attempt at least to summarise it.

The argument, it seems to me, comes down to this: there is a body of writers in Australia with non-English­speaking backgrounds of one sort or another who have been marginalised into a kind of semi-silence. The finger of blame is pointed in several directions, but most consistently in the direction of people whose background is called Anglo-Celtic and who, in general terms and in many ways, perpetuate the dominance of a monoculture. Steps must be taken to break down the marginalisation and make the monoculture multicultural. There’s a general consensus that the most desirable kind of multicultural Australia would be a decentralised one, a culturally pluralistic entity, avoiding the danger of a patchwork of discrete monocultures at one extreme and a kind of well­blended soup of all nations at the other.

Well, that all sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it? If you look through the writers represented in Murray Bail’s Faber Book of Contemporary Australian Short Stories (1988) or Helen Daniel’s highly successful Expressway collection (1988), to mention just two very recent prestigious anthologies, you’ll find not a single writer of non-English-speaking background mentioned except Judah Waten. All the surnames do indeed seem to come from Cornwall and Wales, England and Ireland. Someone must be marginalising someone, you’d think. Even Pam Gilbert, in her book Coming Out from Under: Contemporary Australian Women Writers (also 1988), has written chapters One to Nine on people with surnames like Garner and Hanrahan, Anderson and Bedford, and reserves Antigone Kefala for Chapter Ten, given the unfortunate title of ‘Postscript’. Well, you ain’t get much more marginalised than that. (Mind you, it’s a chapter seething with indignation about marginalisation – and not only of Antigone Kefala.)

Oddly enough, collections from earlier in the eighties, such as Don Anderson’s Transgressions (1986) or Frictions: An anthology of fiction by women (1982), include rather more authors with non-Anglo-Saxon surnames.

And so, despite all those bibliographies, anthologies, rectified curricula, conferences on multiculturalism, Australia Council guidelines, government reports and learned articles in respected journals like Meanjin and Outrider (despite Outrider for that matter), and despite all those academic salaries and fellowships and special project grants (Sneja Gunew’s hard-hitting article ‘De­naturalising cultural nationalisms: multicultural readings of “Australia”’ was written on a fellowship from the Humanities Research Centre at the ANU, for example) – despite all that, those Anglo-Celts just will not sit up and pay attention, apparently. You can see it’s a tough nut to crack.

In case you’re intending to follow up on some of the theoretical arguments, I should warn you that they’re not in the main for the average reader, not even for the educated reader with native English. For a start, they’re full of sentences like this: ‘Cultural closures are located in natural features and read as paradigmatic classic realist texts.’ Now, given her formidable level of linguistic awareness, the author of this sentence cannot be unaware that what she has written will be a totally closed book not just to ninety-nine per cent of the population, but to 99.9 per cent of the population. The dialogue here, if it is a dialogue, is being conducted by design at a level that excludes all those not professionally interested in its continuance.

I don’t know how to interpret this use of excluding language (it’s not gobbledygook) by institutionally supported writers except as heavily encoded both to warn non-institutional intruders off the occupied territory (to silence them, in effect, and relegate them to the margins) and to attract the admiring attention of other members of institutions. By way of comparison, Stephen Hawking’s discussion of infinitely more complex matters in A Brief History of Time or Paul Davies’ in God and the New Physics is informed by a passion to be understood, a delight in making intricate arguments accessible to any educated reader, an almost naive commitment to opening up territory to outsiders and to tearing down the border posts. They’re read by millions, of course.

If you do ignore the ‘Danger – Keep out!’ notices and venture in, you’ll be confronted by something almost disarmingly old-fashioned: argument in the canonical style of the preacher. First, close to the top of the first page, you’ll find quoted an authority figure, a passage from his canonical writings (it might be Said or Eagleton, perhaps, or Barthes – it won’t be an Australian and it won’t be a woman). Then it will be suggested to you that the formulation arrived at by this undoubted authority can be applied to Australia and then, in a rush of abstract nouns, it will be applied. QED.

An example: ‘“History”, as Salman Rushdie informs us, “has been described as an interview with the winners”. Much the same may be said about literary history ...’ Those are the first lines in an article called ‘Multicultural Literature’ by Sneja Gunew. The last line reads: ‘The interview between winners and losers must metamorphose into a mutually informed dialogue in order for Australia to create a more representative national literature.’ Note the ‘must’. I feel as if I’m in St Swithen’s, Glen Iris. And we shouldn’t forget that Salman Rushdie now also appears to believe that Mohammed ascended to heaven on a horse.

However, let’s presume you’ve ventured in, braving the formidable array of imported canons and the assumption of shared (mainly French) cultural values. You’ll now find a description of the Australian literary scene as divided into ‘centre’ (Anglo-Celtic, monocultural, marginalising) and marginalised ethnic fringe.

This quaint description is based on a perception that literary production and distribution in Australia are in the hands of Anglo-Celts who, working from certain culturally imposed Anglo-Celtic assumptions, marginalise writers who do not share those assumptions – publishers reject manuscripts the virtues of which they fail to apprehend, literary editors don’t give due attention to books by writers who fall outside recognised categories, reviewers are not equipped to appreciate what they read, book buyers, and borrowers are manipulated into reading Anglo-Celtic texts.

To be scrupulously fair, the actual mechanisms for marginalising are rarely, if ever, spelt out, except in one regard of particular interest to the cultural theoretician: the tendency of critics (whether acting as publisher, editor, reviewer, or course-setter) to define what is ‘good’ or what is ‘literature’ according to culturally imposed criteria. Russians, in other words, think Pushkin the greatest poet who ever lived. English readers can’t understand what they’re talking about. Writing which isn’t seen as ‘good’ or ‘literature’ is thus marginalised.

What I would like to argue is that, firstly, the patronising picture of a marginalising Anglo-Celtic centre and a marginalised body of ethnic writers exists only in the heads of the culture doctors and the ‘cures’ work to their benefit, not the writers’; secondly, that those who uphold it are causing considerable harm to writers of non-English-speaking background; and thirdly, that the true picture contains problems to which the second law of thermodynamics is the only solution.

The idea of a centre is, I admit, immediately appealing. It’s simple (good old Occam) and it’s French (replace ‘centre’ with ‘middle’ and you straight away feel less comfortable with it). It echoes fashionable postcolonial theory about centres and margins and, in a most satisfying way, invites engagement with psychosexual theory about patriarchy and the centralising phallus. It also identifies an ‘other’ to do battle with. But why is this the chosen model out of all the possible models?

Is it after all supposed to be the centre of a three-dimensional space or a two-dimensional space? Is the space square, rhomboid, circular or camel­-shaped? Perhaps it’s a tube? Does the centre function as an axis or just a blob, a dot or a spiderweb, a conglomeration of dots or a pumping heart? The choice of model does make a difference. Are Anglo-Celts perhaps better described as the rice in the pilau, the meat in the sandwich, the foot in the sock? Are ethnics just the fleas on the dog, the icing on the cake, the fringe on the surrey? Why should our literary culture be described as a space with a centre? Because, unlike camels, cakes and sandwiches, it’s a simple image that fits in well with the new imported orthodoxy and, most importantly, it serves institutional purposes by entrenching the deviance it seeks (honestly) to cure. That’s how institutions (and fly-spray companies) work. In other words, it keeps the fools on the ship and the doctors on dry land.

As those of us know who work down on the ground in the production and dissemination of Australian literature, there are many modes of influence and power in Australian literature, in publishing, criticism, promotion and the formation of public taste. Most of the surnames of the people involved have their origin in Britain and Ireland, as you’d expect in a country where about seventy-five per cent of the population (74.6 per cent in 1988, if you want to be pedantic) trace their origins to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. There’s the odd Polynesian, Mauritian, Frenchman, Canadian, German, Arab, Romanian, Greek, Italian, Pole, Sri Lankan, Dutchwoman, and Austrian (I’m just reeling off nationalities randomly as individuals come to mind) involved in the production of literature and the formation of public taste, but yes, most of the surnames of the people involved at the decisive points in getting books out of heads and into hands will be of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish origin – and, I hope, native English­speakers.

To describe these people as ‘Anglo-Celts’, however, is misleading, just as it once was to describe delirium, phobia, depression, hallucination and brain disease as ‘madness’, a definition that suited the power structure and the medical profession but did little for the ‘mad’. If there are Anglo-Celts, there must also be non-Anglo­-Celts. Well, yes, and there are, too, in a way, as part of a word game, just as there are one-legged Finns and non­-one-legged Finns, but as a description of the Finnish population it gets you nowhere, unless you’re an artificial leg salesperson – which, of course, is rather my point.

But if, by dividing the population arbitrarily into Anglo-Celts and non-Anglo-Celts, you mean to suggest that 74.6 per cent of the population share a cohesive set of ideas, a ‘monoculture’, a ‘centralised and stultifying orthodoxy’ (to quote Nikos Papastergiadis) about what good literature is, then I think it’s supercilious nonsense. Why anyone should assume that, say, John Bryson, Helen Daniel, Jenny Lee, Elizabeth Jolley (or is she ethnic?), Barbara Hanrahan, and Marion Halligan, not to mention Gerard Windsor, Kerryn Goldsworthy and Stephen Knight, share anything very much in common at all except the English language and a knowledge of historical and literary canons, I can’t imagine. I can’t see the point of colouring them red on the basis of their surnames as opposed to, say, George Papaellinas, whom you colour blue on account of his father’s ethnic background. I think it’s patronising humbug. On some questions George may line up with Beverley Farmer, on other with Vasso Kalamaras or Dinny O’Hearn. When you actually talk to individual writers, critics, editors, and academics about their tastes, their reading, their criteria, their literary theories, their sacred texts – I mean the actual people who decide what will be published, how it will be packaged and promoted and discussed – the description ‘Anglo-Celtic’ becomes absurd.

It’s a category that exists only in language (like ‘mad’). The search for a signified for the signifier ends in the kind of absurdity the Australia Council is saddled with: you’re ‘multicultural’ (and eligible for a grant to revisit your ‘homeland’) if one of your parents was a non­-English speaker!

While so many of our institutional thinkers have canonised a single strain of French social theory to the point of a fetish, there’s no evidence at all that those who evaluate literary output in Australia – the publishers’ readers, the publishers, the literary editors, the reviewers, the course-setters and teachers – are the unthinking products of a monoculture. What objective data are there to show that people such as Louise Adler of Heinemann, Bruce Sims or Susan Hawthorne of Penguin, William Fraser of The Sydney Morning Herald, Philippa Hawker of the Sunday Herald, the ABC’s Jill Kitson, Martin Harrison, or Stephen Muecke of the University of Technology in Sydney, not to mention the hundreds of other men and women who form taste, are locked into some sort of ‘Anglo-Celtic’ idea of what good literature is? Males with British backgrounds may be prominent in the academy, but the academy is by no means the only site of intellectual nourishment in the community, perhaps not even a very important one, except in its conversation with itself.

Ah, but don’t you see, the multicultural professionals say to us, in their best bedside manner, with the best will in the world you’re still the Prisoner of Paradigms – unless, possibly, your father was Norwegian or Quebecois. Even Joseph Chetcuti, former President of the Victorian Association of Multicultural Writers, one of the more realistic commentators on the subject, feels obliged in an interview with Rudi Krausmann to allude to a ‘problem of paradigms, of what is perceived to be “good” or “bad” poetry or prose’ when asked why multicultural writers are underrepresented in anthologies. What are these un­identified paradigms, exactly? Held by which unidentified people, exactly? I mean, who are these people who think Tennyson is ‘good’ and Tsvetayeva, Cavafy, Rimbaud, Lorca, and Sanskrit love poetry are ‘bad’ and are imposing these views on the general public? Chatcuti doesn’t – and couldn’t be expected - to say.

Pam Gilbert (with Sneja Gunew’s acknowledged help) does have a go at saying in her ‘Postscript’ on Antigone Kefala. Her point, actually made with reference to another ‘marginalised’ writer, Faith Bandier, is that our literary culture privileges ‘consciously wrought textuality’ over plain storytelling, particularly unadorned first-person accounts of life experiences. (Bandier ‘describes her work in non-literary terms, thus confirming her own marginalisation’.) Well, naturally, because that’s what ‘literature’ means, as opposed to shopping lists, history books and chats with the neighbour over the fence: the denotational is no longer privileged over the connotational, paradigmatic, and syntagmatic semantic structures. The more textuality, the more meaning. That’s true wherever people tell stories in their native language – in Iceland, Botswana, Tonga, and Arnhem Land.

There’s nothing mystically universalist about this. It’s just a description of how a certain English word is used to describe a worldwide linguistic phenomenon. Soviet structuralists would go further to claim that by ‘good’ the speakers of an astonishingly wide variety of languages mean texts that are productive of large, intersecting webs of meaning. The larger the webs, the greater the number of intersections, the ‘better’ the text – in Japanese, Swahili, English, and Estonian. That’s why everybody, except an advertising executive, thinks a Beethoven sonata is ‘better’ than a Kellogg’s jingle. That’s the way real people, living real lives, open their mouths and speak. Of course it’s ‘subjective’, but the subjectivity is widely shared.

The reason so much migrant writing is ‘marginalised’ is that, in this basic sense, it’s often not very good – and for obvious reasons: the author’s English simply doesn’t allow him or her to produce meaning at the same number of levels – to intersect with the same number of other texts and contexts – as a native speakers. No matter how good the story, ‘literature’ demands more – good stories are two-a-penny.

Ania Walwicz and Rosa Cappiello are often held up to us as examples of the kind of marginalised writing we Anglo-Celts would have missed out on if it were not for the efforts of the multicultural activists. Now, I think Ania Walwicz (pronounced Wall-wits, by the way, not in the Polish fashion) is terrific, particularly the first three or four times you hear her prose-poetry read:

pipe burst call mister plumber he come greek landlord mister next door please come in he tell call greek plumber come they look come go hello go for a look go back yard have see what talk greek i don’t understand a word don’t understand a word what did come again tell me please he he he landlord is tell me what fix did the greek plumber greek land­lord come in to my kitchen ...

Very funny, multivalent, inventive, transgressive – in a word, very good. But it doesn’t actually ‘interrogate socio-cultural conventions, notions of linguistic competence and gender certainties’, as Sneja Gunew assures me Walwicz’s writing does any more effectively than writing by scores of women and men with Irish and British surnames. Not really.

It’s the situation of being a writer from non-English speaking background in an English-speaking country that marginalises writers and labelling writers with that background ‘multicultural’ that keeps them chained to the margins. It’s impossible to choose a new book by Angelo Loukakis, for example, without thinking ‘Greek Australian’. The reader is put in the position of having to opt consciously to read a ‘Greek Australian’. Similarly, a new short-story collection called The Blue Mountains in Mujani by Latvian-born Aina Vavere is categorised on the cover as ‘stories of immigrant experience’. Sartrians and pious multiculturalists may queue for it, but no one else is likely to. On the other hand, The Blue Mountains in Mujani, stories of witchcraft and delusion and the pain of building a new reality, by the Australian writer Aina Vavere, might have had a fighting chance.

It was in the context of the categories created by the multiculturalists that Lolo Houbein, when asked by Rudi Krausmann what possibilities there were in Adelaide for multicultural writers, answered, ‘None, since Andrew Deszery’s publications are now defunct.’ If he’d asked her what the possibilities were for writers in Adelaide, the picture would have been brighter - indeed, the next year Lolo Houbein went on to win the ABC’s Bicentennial Literary Award for Fiction.

Lolo Houbein’s remark appeared in an astounding document, issued by the Australia Council in 1987, called ‘Literature’ in a series entitled Multicultural Arts Today in Australia. It’s written and edited by Rudi Krausmann and consists basically of interviews with twenty-two ‘multicultural writers’, overwhelmingly of European origin. It encapsulates in twenty-three profoundly disturbing pages the speciousness of the multiculturalists’ arguments, the harm they are causing the writers they wish to help and also the reasons many so-called multicultural writers would do better to take up ceramics, market-gardening, photography, or perhaps even to return to their countries of origin. No amount of Edward Said or Terry Eagleton or Sneja Gunew can turn these losers into winners.

As we might now expect, Krausmann’s Foreword opens with a canonical quotation from a male European writer: ‘There is beauty and there are the humiliated ...’ (Albert Camus). Krausmann’s aim seems to be to identify foreign origins with humiliation in Australia and to encourage the ‘humiliated’ to give vent to their rage, ‘to pee publicly’ on Australia as Clem Christesen once said in another context. (Like ‘marginalised’, the use of the past participle passive ‘humiliated’ introduces a useful ambiguity, suggesting an identifiable humiliating or marginalising other.)

Margaret Diesendorf, a poet of Viennese origin, gets off to a good start with yet another quotation from yet another canonised male European writer, Thomas Bernhard: ‘One’s definition by one’s country of origin is a lifelong yoke.’ Diesendorf, atypically in this booklet, then speaks of an interest in Australian literature, mentioning novelists such as Randolph Stow and Christopher Koch and a whole range of poets she obviously knows well and loves. Elsewhere, Krausmann’s questions about the writers these poets and novelists read elicit long, predictable lists of non-Australian writers – Cavafy, T.S. Eliot, Mickiewicz, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Shakespeare, Maupassant, Tolstoy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Salman Rushdie, Hemingway, Ungaretti, Lorca, Rimbaud, Celan, with hardly a mention of any Australian writer except David Malouf.

Tad Sobolewski admits to ‘admiring certain Australian writers such as Henry Lawson, Patrick White [and] Katherine Pritchard’ but qualifies his enthusiasm by saying ‘it is not exaggerating to say that, in matters concerning the mind [Australia] is still a barbaric n country compared, for example, to a country like Poland’. ‘In Turkey,’ Nihat Ziyalan tells us, ‘nearly everyone considers himself a poet, which shows a general interest that doesn’t exist here.’

Lolo Houbein is less damning but still barely interested: ‘I don’t read much of mainstream Australian literature, because it is so depressing. I think there is a lack of Vitamin B in the diet of Australian writers.’ Another writer, Lidija Simkus-Pocius, who came here when she was seven, when asked how she ‘reacts to the Australian literary scene’ says, ‘My reaction is one of non-reaction’. Liliana Rydzinski is deeply indignant that ‘you will actually be criticised for ever on the basis of your English ... We are constantly exposed to and almost shocked by the flat, artificial, unbearable jargon of many published Australian-born poets and prose writers ... we expect some sensitivity from the Australians, at last.’ (At last?) Most fascinating of all, only two of the twenty-two writers admit to reading any other ‘multicultural’ writers at all!

This wilful silencing of Australian voices, this declaration of Australia as terra nullius two hundred years after the British tried the same trick, will certainly lead to marginalisation and deservedly so. These voices from the late 1980s really belong to the 1950s, to the time of Voss, when Australia was seen as a spiritual void, removed from a centre of value in Europe, needing to be mapped by Europeans. Well, things have actually changed.

Rosa Cappiello’s migrant characters in Oh Lucky Country (1981) like to refer to ‘this bastard society’ – another way of declaring those who came before illegitimate, unworthy of serious attention, below stairs. Indeed, in this novel, Australia simply isn’t there. Australia is just the despised, unmentionable other. The only kind of dialogue with Australians that Cappiello’s parodic heroine is capable of is this one:

I’ll give you something sensational you fucking, big-nosed, tropical-climate bitch Together with the migrant masses I am contributing to the process of your civilisation, to widen­ing your horizon which doesn’t extend any further than the point of your great ugly nose. I tear the weeds out of your ears. I give you a certain style. I teach you to eat, to dress, to behave and above all not to belch in restaurants, trains, buses, cinemas, schools. You probably don’t know, but I’ll tell you in confidence, for your information, that your country, which is now mine too, is based on a gigantic belch. Its flag flutters in the wind created by the toxic gases produced by your stomachs which are choked up like sewers. The myth about being happy and lucky is based on your drunken bouts. Go on, then, drink. You offend us. You don’t like wine? You prefer beer? Waiter, a huge bottle of beer for the lady.

Australia is a wasteland in more ways than one. Cappiello’s rambunctious (but unfortunately not Rabelaisian) heroine is so hermetically sealed inside a closed system of sexual, racial, and cultural taxonomies that no possibility of dialogue with the Australian other can exist.

Is it not time we, all of us, looked at more helpful, more realistic models for Australian literary life than the institutionalised centre/margins, Anglo-Celtic/non-Anglo-Celtic, monocultural/multicultural ones?

The fact is that there is no such ‘group’ as multicultural writers. There are writers with little English, writers with native English whose parents spoke Greek sometimes (or all the time), writers whose parents spoke perfect English but who identified with other cultures, writers whose chromosomes are all British who identify with other cultures, writers who had a step-mother who spoke a foreign language and yet who feel Australian, writers who are Russian but feel Jewish. And the Albanian Muslim with working-class English probably doesn’t give a fig for what the Vietnamese Buddhist who went to Harvard thinks or writes about anything.

I think we all have to recognise that the sine qua non of literature is language. Literature presumes a readership willing and eager to play various kind of games using language and a readership with a sophisticated knowledge of the language and its history. To ‘be an Australian writer’ (as opposed to just writing in Australia) you have to have a native’s knowledge of English – or your translator does. It’s futile to rail against the need for a writer to have this kind of English in Australia – if you don’t, hundreds of other do. You can be a Vietnamese Buddhist, a Maltese forklift operator, a Bolivian Catholic mother of seven, a French lesbian separatist, an expert in Nigerian oral poetry – anything, but to be taken seriously your English or your translator’s must be as inventive, as playful, as historically conscious, as good as a native’s.

Writers from non-English-speaking backgrounds who are eager to offer Australian readers other ways of viewing the world and describing it would do well to remember that a list of native English-speakers whose recent fiction does just that would have to include, at the very least, Barbara Hanrahan, Nicholas Hasluck, James McQueen, Beverley Farmer, Blanche d’ Alpuget, Christopher Koch, Tom Shapcott, Marion Halligan, Nicholas Jose, R.F. Brissenden, David Malouf, Elizabeth Jolley, Michael Wilding, Tony Maniaty, Morris Lurie, Zeny Giles, George Papaellinas, Angelo Loukakis, Brian Castro, Thomas Keneally, and a whole swag of writers who explore the mental and physical world of Papua New Guinea, from Louis Nowra to Nigel Krauth. That’s just from casting my eye across my own bookshelves without putting my glasses on.

It’s probably worth our bearing in mind too that, while migrant writers’ taxonomies may indeed challenge the dominant taxonomies of the Australian intelligentsia, many of those taxonomies, especially if they have their origin around the Mediterranean basis, will appear to most Australians both sexist and racist. Polarities such as penetrator/penetratee, father/mother, truth/falsehood, believer/infidel, masculine/effeminate, straight/gay, national/non-national and so on, which may be taken for granted in many monocultures and enshrined in their mores, will be looked at askance by the bulk of a writer’s prospective readership. You can march through Sydney streets with ‘Kill Rushdie!’ banners, in other words, but you will be marginalised if you do.

It must also be admitted that, while the ‘migrant experience’ is of interest to some people, so are many other things – quasars, particle physics, horticulture, Aboriginal bark paintings, Catherine the Great, P.D. James’s detective fiction, Tolstoy’s relations with his wife, the theatre of Wole Soyinka, renovating Federation houses, vegetarian cooking, rainforests, Mozart, Hitler, the French Revolution, proto-Indo-European linguistics, sexuality in Ancient Greece, Patrick White, Papua New Guinea, Madonna – any number of things. Readers are not obliged (outside institutions) to read what migrants and their descendants write. At the end of the day it’s literary skills (and there’s no such thing as Anglo-Celtic literary skills) that make the critics and the public sit up and take notice. Up to now, statistically, not many writers from the ethnic communities have had them. Even the multicultural professionals are reduced to examining the same half dozen over and over again.

But then, in my experience, writers whose native language is not English should not expect help from the professionals. Their advice either peters out in a welter of abstractions or becomes self-serving.

Nikos Papastergiadis, for example, after quoting Foucault, writes:

The project is to render boundaries of exclusion as meaningless. To liberate ourselves from a centralised and stultifying orthodoxy. To tolerate a network of multiple classification which allows connections to be made over and across each other. The system, if at all, must be loose and open-ended.

It gives you a warm feeling, but not much else. David Carter advises ‘a form of internationalism based not on universalist assumptions of a dominant culture but on pluralism, on the circulation of differences, on regionalism held in suspension’. This is actually what is happening out here, under the bedlamps of Australia, but it’s not what’s happening, evidently, in the academy. Do they really think we’re all nodding off to C.J. Dennis or The Fortunes of Richard Mahony?

Sneja Gunew writes with almost breathtaking candour at the end of an article called ‘Multicultural Literature’ in the American journal Antipodes: ‘What then might the strategies be for including this group?’ (Sneja is discussing here ways to include non-Anglo-Celtic writers, whom she evidently considers a ‘group’, more fairly in the broader spectrum of Australian writing.) Her first answer is, of all things, the anthology, a useful tool for course-setters, librarians, students and other denizens of institutions, but little read in fact by the general public. Moreover, one of the two examples she gives of a suitable anthology is the one she herself co-edited, Beyond the Echo. Her second answer is ‘a great deal of bibliographic and archival research’ to uncover lost writers. Sneja Gunew is herself engaged professionally in undertaking precisely this area of research for Deakin University. She amplifies this point a few paragraphs further on: ‘We need to assemble books and bibliographies, and we need to persuade institutions to recognise this area of study so that researchers may have access to a centralised body of such material.’

No, we don’t – no ‘we’ I know of. No established migrant writer needs to appear in an anthology, and no migrant writer who isn’t established should be caught dead in an anthology, unless he or she wants to be marginalised for life. The analogy with another, equally disappointing, minority literary area, gay writing, is instructive: Elizabeth Jolley, Patrick White, David Leavitt, Edmund White, and possibly Sasha Soldatow can appear in a gay anthology to no ill effect but don’t need to, whereas John Smith of Padstow can’t. It’s also worth contemplating that Mary Fallon’s Working Hot, Andrea Goldsmith’s Gracious Living, and Susan Hampton’s Surly Girls have had the reception they’ve had this past year or so neither because of nor despite the fact they’re ‘lesbian’ – which doesn’t mean they’re not deliciously subversive. They’re primarily neither lesbian, in fact, nor non-lesbian. They’re just good books.

The most successful multicultural writers are actually those who listen to the local conversation before attempting to join in, writers such as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Bharati Mukherjee in the United States (Mukherjee defines herself as an American, not Indian writer), Vikram Seth who married Pushkin with the American West Coast, Shashi Tharoor who rewrote the Mahabharata through the prism of modern Indian politics, I. Allan Sealy, who wrote a family epic as a Moghul nama, Salman Rushdie of course, Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru, Kazuo Ishiguro and Timothy Mo in England, the Americanised Haruki Murakami in Japan and, closer to home, Christopher Koch who gave us the Ramayana in the form of The Year of Living Dangerously, Angelo Loukakis who captures the halfway point in a migrant’s experience so subtly. Few of these names appear in the abstract discussions here about ‘solutions’ to multicultural writers’ problems because, I would say, these people have broken out of the clinic, they don’t need the doctors. Mind you, they do break down taxonomies of every conceivable kind, they do pass brilliantly beyond the kind of storytelling most of our migrants are mired in and they are internationally successful, in some cases on a massive scale.

As you’ll have gathered, I think it’s time for the passengers on the ship of fools to disembark, to look around them with interest and a desire to understand, to learn the language – or find a first-rate interpreter – and then to join in some of the myriad conversations already taking place in the country they’ve arrived in. I think most serious attention will be given to those who seek to interpret, to weave old patterns with new yarn or perhaps the other way around.

And I think it’s time our culture doctors closed down their clinics, forgot their definitions about who’s mad and who’s sane and applied their considerable intellectual skills and financial resources to making their ‘fools’ feel at home – investigating how a culture can exist, for example, without its material base, the problem of non-convergent cultures, the actual function of bilingualism in an English-speaking country in 1991, ways to professionalise translation (already of interest to some, such as Sneja Gunew), and ways of making Australia’s many cultural strands and their histories accessible to those not born here. I think, in a word, it’s time our multicultural professionals stopped marginalising multicultural writers.

From the New Issue

Comment (1)

  • Thank you for publishing this again.
    So relevant, still!
    Posted by Andrea Breen
    05 December 2021

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