Stralian Stories: Joyful Strains
Gurt by Sea: the freedom to be from somewhere else
Patrick White once said that he hoped Australians never found out what it was to be Australian. I agree with this sentiment. Time and time again, whenever this sort of equation is rolled out for public picking (Anzac day, Grand Final day, Melbourne Cup day, Australia/Survival day, Olympic gold in the pool) in the hope that the “Aussie” baseline will be somehow be clarified, we end up in a debate over meat pies, the Cronulla riots, footy Vs rugby, kangaroos, mateship, sinking piss, boat people, off-shore processing, Aboriginal people, white people, yellow people, otherness.
Things ultimately go the way of that inadequate, overused description ‘un-Australian’, punctuated by default absolutes that arrest the discussion. Australian culture is a never-ending story. There are Australian traits, Australian ways, and ultimately an Australian culture, but who would want to capture, cage and tag such a wild, loveable, liquid beast?
From its ancient earth, Australia has forever, offered agency for change, life, renewal. Aboriginal people were the first to experience this 60,000 years ago or more. Convicts changed their fortunes here, and became landowners by usurping Aborigines. Previously barren women, who left the polluted, poverty stricken English cities, were suddenly able to conceive when they arrived; such was the fertile, clean and health-promoting environment. We have the Eureka stockade, our twenty minute civil war, where an array of miners from many ethnicities and cultures joined forces against colonial authorities. Australia absorbed post WWII immigration which brought Europeans en-masse, admittedly through a white-Australia-policy, and the Vietnam War created a need for Vietnamese refugees to run for their lives, many of whom ended up here. Today the political football that is boatpeople punches above its weight and has potential for many to be a vote-changing issue, such is the perception of its substance socially, morally, and economically. But this is what it is to be Australian – not so much the drab platitude that “we’re all immigrants”, because the nature of time belies this – what we do have is the freedom to be from somewhere else.
The essays in Joyful Strains are hard to read at times, because the racism and inequality experienced by some of its contributors doesn’t represent, I would argue, the views and sentiments of Australian readers of this particular text. Yet all Australian readers know that racism lives and breathes in the broader community mutating and manifesting pervasively at esoteric and more obvious levels. Bumper stickers that say “If you don’t love it, leave it” key into nationalistic sentiment that ranges from soft nostalgia and Banjo Patterson to hate-filled National Socialist movements. There is also the barrage of Southern Cross “Eureka” flags that are appropriated for everything from the Union movement, to that of a more extreme nationalism married with outlaw imagery and underdog messages. Ballarat City Council, a pillar of strong governance, accountability and transparency I’m sure, also uses the Southern Cross for its identity. Nothing is wrong with this. All robust cultures and communities need to offer avenues of identity, freedom of speech, freedom to associate. Many writers in Joyful Strains reflect on how difficult it was to accept the freedom Australia offered to simply be.
In Joyful Strains we find disorientation, beautiful accidents, serendipity and kindness in a pure form. Discovering early on that his homeland wasn’t where he wanted to be, Chris Flynn was happy to leave his native Ireland, so beginning “the process of reinvention”. A change of longitude and latitude fitted his plan of personality and identity change, and this “automatically promoted” him to Ambassador of Ireland complete with cute accent. Dmetri Kakmi found that anonymity was impossible in a Turkish village, “privacy an incomprehensible concept. Neither one of these words existed for me until I came to Australia”. His essay pulls into focus the changes and adaptations he needed to make as a new arrival. The same experience came for Malla Nunn who suggested that Australia was “a country that offered us freedom and anonymity” which contrasts the family’s previous environment.
Growing up in public is one thing, getting used to being nobody is another. Chi Vu suggests that “one task of a migrant is to move from a sense of alienation in the new country to a sense of being comfortable with that alienation”. Alienation is a key indicator for life before acquiring a personal Australian narrative. The development of this narrative, or new roots, is the essence of Joyful Strains in my view.
After reading a few essays a deeper theme emerges within Joyful Strains and that is the individual owning two stories, loving two places, or constantly comparing where they have come from to what they are in the moment. I have two histories myself, being born and taken from my mother, put into state care then adopted to join another family history. I feel lucky to know both of my stories and how my attachment to this world came to be. Yet coming from another land, another culture, another language, must be both a blessing and a hindrance. Having to rely on the trust of strangers, the patience and the support of the unknown> interlocutor in order to communicate is a risky preoccupation. The old cultural roots, at times, must be ignored for the new roots to take hold and to develop. It is convenient at times to trade on either story, and it must also involve a sense of betrayal. I have personal experience of this having to manage the ownership and filtering of information, but only within one culture. This is the conundrum faced by those who have come from somewhere else. Michelle Aung Thin states that she is “well versed in seeing two places at once” and admits that “committing to one place isn’t so easy. It is hard to focus. There is always the possibility of a life lived somewhere else”.
Near my little country town, Newstead, there are canoe trees and carved, patterned trees, signposts from the Jaara people. There are Chinese graves from one hundred and fifty years ago in the cemetery and Anglo Saxon graves there are separated into antiquated religious strains, baggage that came with owners. These are simple, profound reminders that Australia has been taking on new arrivals forever, and laying them to rest, and taking care of them, in their adopted home. There is room of course for those who aren’t committed to Australia. I am sure there are thousands of people who, disappointed in the result of their efforts to get here, daydream of leaving Australia. Surely however, there are millions daydreaming in the opposite direction, most notably those who are tantalisingly close, and stuck in the offshore processing system. Joyful Strains proves that Australia is big enough to accept faults, inequalities, discuss them, and try to address them with an open ended dialogue. The big ones, like colonisation-Invasion will be unending and will remain a defining feature, a “state of state” if you will.
Other issues like the perception that a monoculture runs Australian media, raised by some within Joyful Strains, is possibly realistic but morphing. It is a story the world over that the ruling class decrees the ruling culture. The ruling class in Australia is certainly white, middle class, privileged, yet I would argue open to ideas, criticisms, dialogue, and at times, warranted verbal abuse. Australia is a multicultural society that rests on the reliance on the meta-narrative of a strong dominant culture that allows broad movement within its bubble. This is a fact. If pure equality were to exist somehow, somewhere, it could not include religion, this is proved daily throughout the world. There is racism in Australia, there is inequality, there is goodness, and honey. If something better is waiting, if the gap is to be closed, it relies on people to get out there and do something about it.
Joyful Strains, Affirm Press, rrp $24.95 – affirmpress.com.au/joyful-strains
Neil Boyack is a writer and social worker. He is creator and director of the Newstead Short Story Tattoo. His new book Self Help and Other Works is out now, Check www.neilboyack.com and newsteadtattoo.org
This article originally appeared in Trouble April 2013