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All In That Space: On Asian Australian Writers

As the date of the twenty-first anniversary of my arrival in Australia approaches, I acutely sense the space between ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’ in ‘Asian Australian’, which is how I refer to myself. This space divides not only two words but two worlds, a fact that I, as a bilingual writer and translator of more than two decades, know only too well. Crossing this space is a process of positioning, consciously adopting and abandoning a myriad of reference points between common perceptions of what it means to be ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’.

This space – a gulf, if not an abyss – works differently to the hyphen that is the glue in the term ‘Asian-Australian’. Originating from Greek huphen ‘together’, i.e. hupo ‘under’ + hen ‘one’, hyphen is used to both connect and separate, as explained by Leah Jing McIntosh, founder and editor-in-chief of Liminal. ‘Asian-Australian’ writers, in McIntosh’s conception, are Salman Rushdie’s subjects, ‘standing within two cultures, whilst simultaneously falling between’. It is a struggle, she writers, to ‘navigate the bothness of which I am composed’: ‘This bothness which makes me fuller, stronger; this bothness which sees me diminished, attacked, or flattened to stereotype.’

McIntosh is of course referring to Rushdie’s famous commentary on the imaginary homeland of the migrant:

Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, we fall between two stools, but however ambiguous and shifting this ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy.

By using a hyphen, McIntosh defines the space between ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’ as being ‘liminal’, a transitional space akin to the ‘initial stage of process’ where writers like her can begin to ‘be seen as we are: not as halves, but as beautiful, complex and whole’.

But to me, this space between ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’ is exactly as Rushdie describes it – a ground that is forever ‘ambiguous and shifting’, a flexible space that is purely a product of imagination, invented to exist between two similarly imagined spaces that are ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’ identities. Both identities further signify the imagined communities that are ‘Asia’ and ‘Australia’, which are, following Benedict Anderson, socially constructed entities established and standardised by those who perceive themselves as part of them. In spite of their fluid nature, imagined boundaries between national, cultural, ethnic and even religious identities can seem to be as solid and powerful as geopolitical borders.

To return to that space between ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’ – ‘liminal’  not only means ‘transitional’ or the ‘initial stage of a process’ but also points to a ‘boundary’ or ‘threshold’. To feature the ‘bothness’ of Asian Australian writers requires more than just a hyphen to connect the imagined ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’ spaces. Rather, it calls for a deliberate, constant and continuous process of sense-making to establish and standardise the ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’ identities as well as the ground in between. When we examine the ways in which ‘Asia’ and ‘Australia’ are imagined as connected yet separated spaces by Asian Australian writers, we see how and where these writers position themselves as ‘beautiful, complex and whole’ – in that space in between.

Since 1997 I have been investigating the formation, standardisation and circulation of cultural identity. In my doctoral research I examined the construction and representation of Chineseness and different types of Chinese cultural identity by authors of Chinese descent in multicultural societies such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Some of these authors strive to escape the ethnic and cultural ‘labels’ allocated by readers and critics; a prominent example being Brian Castro, who declared of his Birds of Passage (1983) that ‘[people] will go to great lengths to pigeonhole someone. They think this knowledge gives them power‘. Other authors set out to present China and Chinese people as the ‘other’ to ‘the West’, which itself is an imagined and exceedingly generalised entity; in the words of Ouyang Yu, those ‘who have elevated to literary stardom for their tales of concubinage, foot-binding and political oppression’ have helped making ours the ‘golden age’ of Chinese writing in diaspora. Still other authors just want to tell a worthy story, and it is this process of storytelling that sheds light on the nature and significance of the many types of ‘Chinese’ cultural identity represented in their stories.

I will provide just one personal example here. In March 2016, I applied for and received a grant from the United States-based Carl Brandon Society to attend the 55th Australian National Speculative Fiction Convention in Brisbane. That was the first time I ever needed to explicitly identify myself as a ‘person of colour’, a term that is primarily used in America but has increasingly found traction in Australia in recent years. I felt awkward about this, before asking myself why I felt so. Does it really matter how I identify myself to others? To what extent does our self-identification impact on how others identify us? I still have no answer, but reflecting on the question allows me to better appreciate why Lia Incognita, a fierce supporter of trans and gender diverse artists and performers in Australia, used to self-identify as a ‘Shanghai-born cultural commentator living in Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri country’. Now writing broadly and professionally on LGBT communities in China and Taiwan, Lia appears as ‘Qian Jinghua’ or ‘Jinghua’ online, ‘a gender-fluid writer born and based in Shanghai after a long and formative intermission in the Kulin nations’. I sympathise with eir need to be seen as an ‘insider’ while reporting on queer issues across the Chinese world. It is for the same reason that I use my Chinese first name ‘Yunn-Yu’ in this essay on Asian Australian writers. In other contexts I might just introduce myself as Christine.

A similar sense of awkwardness is conveyed by Eileen Chong in a recent essay titled ‘The Common Table’. Chong’s 2016 collection Painting Red Orchids was shortlisted for the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry. In her essay, she describes the acute awareness of being the only person of colour seated at the awarding ceremony at Parliament House. ‘I feel like a fraud’, she writes, when the only other Asians she can see are chefs, waiters and cleaners. She feels ‘ashamed’ when she wonders whether someone’s misunderstanding of her work is due to ‘how I look’. When a prominent poet compares her poems to ‘recipes’, Chong finds herself ‘speechless’, ‘put in my place’ and again – ‘ashamed’. Worse, the staff at Parliament House, ceremony organisers and security guards direct their attention to her husband, who is ‘six feet tall, with ash-blonde hair and blue eyes, particularly dashing today in a suit’. They assume he is the shortlisted writer. ‘My husband and I exchanged meaningful looks. He said, It’s the suit. But we both know better.’

Chong’s essay demonstrates that the space between ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’ can exist not only externally but also within the self. The first and foremost indicator of this space in Chong’s account of her career as a writer is diligence, widely accepted as an ‘Asian’ characteristic: ‘Work is always a valid excuse. Work comes before family; without work there is no family.’ Then comes the need to make one’s family and culture proud:

‘Try harder’ is a catchphrase I have heard all my life. ‘Better luck next time’, ‘bad luck’, ‘too bad’. Ours is a family that tries harder. Ours is a culture that believes in better luck, next time.

This, in turn, inspires determination: ‘[My psychologist] tells me I have already won. But in my world, winning is not winning until you have won completely.’ Finally – self-affirmation:

Some of my poems might look like recipes, because my first words are gleaned from the need for nourishment, from the obsession over how to feed a family, how to keep them clothed, safe, warm. I am safe, warm, and fed. I am writing, and I am seated at the table. My people exist. You know who we are. Look at us. Speak with us. Listen to us. We are one, and we are many. Let us feast together.

In an interview with Robert Wood, Chong argues that common cultural traits such as ethnicity, social-economic background, educational level, gender, sexual orientation, age and even one’s chosen profession may be used to create and normalise privilege. Food, in particular, is often enlisted to validate or dismantle an imagined cultural boundary. While Chong named her recent book The Uncommon Feast (2018) to highlight the significance of food in her life and writing, her vision of culture – ‘Asian and Australian’ – is something like a smorgasbord:

The more people you bring to the table, the more kinds of food you will have access to. There can be room for everyone. We must make room… What’s important to me is that no one gets left out of the meal, and of the community, whichever community you choose to be part of.

Being left out of the meal is a metaphor used by both Isabelle Li and Melanie Cheng to illustrate the cultural and emotional isolation felt by their characters. Li’s A Chinese Affair (2016) is a collection of sixteen interconnected short stories offering glimpses into the lives of various Chinese migrants across the globe. Tormented yet somehow comforted by the intimacy of their secrets, these lonely souls delve into the past while yearning for something to anchor them in the realities of their adopted life. One protagonist, Crystal, is a Chinese interpreter in Australia who wears Chinese costumes for their ‘decorative value’, ‘which makes me feel like a porcelain vase, exquisite and brittle, to be treated with care, by others and by myself’. Seen by her Australian husband and his family as an ‘inscrutable oriental muse’, whose words are ‘exotic, amusing, controversial and not to be taken seriously’, she can tolerate cultural differences as long as everything Chinese remains her own private ‘Chinese affair’. It is when the two cultures clash directly in her life that Crystal becomes agitated, as she is forced to confront the futility of making a stand for her beloved motherland – or, as hinted by her father, the futility of being ‘sentimental’.

Other cultural differences exist among members of the same community and compound to enhance the sense of isolation each migrant feels. For example, in ‘A Fishbone in the Throat’, Hua’s glory as a volleyball coach in China is diminished by his wife and daughter’s ideological and dietary preferences in Australia. In ‘Pebbles and Flowers’, Raven, who ‘with her super-organised efficiency and pragmatic approach to life, would be able to formulate and execute a good plan’, can only face ‘sympathetic silence’ in China and ‘years of life before her like a river, carrying with it rubble and debris’ in Australia because she is childless. In ‘Amnesia’, Ben, a neurologist, drifts away from colleagues and friends as he falls for a mysterious female Eurasian patient. In ‘Further South’, the first-person narrator detests her life and work in Singapore and ends up fleeing false accusations made by her compatriots. Finally, in ‘Lyrebird’, another first-person narrator housesits for a living. ‘All the places I once called home have disappeared now, leaving me completely free.’ Yet the price for such freedom is a perpetual sense of loss:

In the years we lived together, [my parents] were so preoccupied with guilt that they forgot to love me… [My mother] said she knew I was passed around among the relatives, but she did not have a choice. I nodded and turned away. Mum, it was I who did not have a choice.

In ‘Lyrebird’, whenever the narrator moves into a new residence, she does a thorough search of her client’s house, combing through every corner and carefully examining their personal belongings.

I do not interfere with them. I only want to see what is there… The void of loneliness is everywhere. When I discover it in other people, I feel connected with them, as if my own void is filled by theirs.

This narrator’s isolation may also remind us of Stanley Chu in Melanie Cheng’s short story ‘Australia Day’, who has passed the Citizenship Test and is now, supposedly, ‘one of us’. Yet, no matter how ‘sweet’ he is and how familiar he is with everything in Australia, a space remains. ‘He’s no Eddie’, says one character. Not that Stanley would take offence, as he himself also senses that ‘void’ which can only be filled by ‘albums of traffic noise downloaded from the iTunes store’:

Now, in the impenetrable blackness of the bush, he finds his earphones and plugs himself in. As he listens, he pictures himself back on the balcony of his parents’ Mong Kok apartment, perched on a plastic stool between a sagging clothesline and a dripping air conditioning unit. He imagines himself looking up at a sky that is not flat and blue and interminable, but choked with smog and cut into neat slices by the blades of the buildings.

Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, Australia Day (2017) is a collection of fourteen short stories that share a common theme – crossing boundaries. The book’s title hints at a certain hopefulness about a common goal. Cheng’s narrative gaze lingers on that space that separates ‘Asian’ from ‘Australian’, and in so doing she pays tribute to the multicultural nature of both imagined communities.

More importantly, by bringing together individuals of considerably different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, Cheng forces her characters to examine the ways in which they define themselves and are defined by others. This in turn prompts readers to reflect on how cultural stereotypes affect their subjects, particularly when definitions are driven by self-assigned representatives of public opinion who are prepared to reduce the complexity of their targets to manageable labels. Take ‘Big Problems’ as an example, where London-born and raised Leila, who is of Syrian background, is gifted a five-day trip to Alice Springs to get a taste of the ‘real’ Australian people and culture. Among the members of her tourist group are the stereotypical Americans and white South Africans, so Leila, who knows all about Islamophobia, has to be the sensible character who spends hours reading a book on Aboriginal history and then speaks out against racism. Other examples are found in the stories ‘Mecca’ and ‘Ticket-holder Number 5’, in which two protagonists attempt to add a bit of humanity to their services to the public. Both are rebuffed by their colleagues with cynicism and ‘expert advice’ that ‘it is their problem, not mine, not ours, not yours’.

You should remind yourself of that… You should say it to yourself at the beginning and the end of every day. Help the poor buggers as much as you can within the confines of this room, but whatever you do, don’t take their shit home with you.

The space between ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’ in ‘Asian Australian’ is a site where ideas of race, representation and identity are constantly contested. It is crucial to recognise, however, that self-identity as ‘us’ does not and will never exist without a hasty or calculated identification of ‘them’. With this, my attention is drawn to Cheng’s ‘Hotel Cambodia’, where an Australian nurse volunteering in Phnom Penh begins to sense something disturbing in her desire to help those in need. It can be risky for Asian Australian writers – myself included – to submit to common perceptions of  both Asian and Australian identities.

The short story ‘First Person’ by Roanna Gonsalves is important in this context, as it illustrates how we as ordinary Australians form, standardise and circulate certain identities. In an interview, Gonsalves, the 2013 winner of the Australian Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endeavour Award, confesses:

It’s extremely hard as an immigrant to do anything creative. I’m not a very good migrant in the sense I’m not really interested in a full time job so I can buy a huge house with a huge backyard. I’m more interested in contributing to the culture.

Gonsalves is being self-deprecating as she draws on the stereotype that Asian migrants are hard-working ‘model citizens’ aspiring to establish a safe, steady and successful life in their adopted countries. She is aware that the stereotype exists both within and outside of Asia and has long been accepted as an ‘essential’ cultural trait in numerous (self-)representations of Asian migrants. Her work doesn’t offer either an easy endorsement or rejection of such stereotypes.

Gonsalves’ The Permanent Resident (2016) is a collection of sixteen short stories featuring the ambitions, hopes, grievances and losses of contemporary Indian migrants. Like their counterparts from other Asian countries and regions, these individuals struggle to fit in, having to confront cultural differences both within and outside of their communities. Life is particularly hard for female Indian migrants, as they face the triple problems of having to survive among mainstream Australians, among male Australians, and among male Indians. Prejudices already prevalent yet often endured back home become intolerable once they are carried overseas – or the exact opposite may occur due to a long-cultivated sense of fellowship, as explained by the first-person narrator in ‘CIA (Australia)’ in a case of sexual harassment:

In Bombay I would have hit him with my umbrella or with my handbag. I would have caused a scene in that particular city that was finally looking in the mirror. But at Central Station in Sydney, although I felt defiled, I could not ignore the fact that he was a fellow Indian, the underclass of an immigrant underclass who didn’t even know that Bondi was pronounced with an ‘ai’ at the end and not an ‘ee’. He was from a small town back home, still deciphering the whorls of power in the biggest city of an alien country…

‘I’m very, very sorry, madam,’ he said. I heard the servility in his voice deferring to my privilege, grateful for my turning away. I should have intercepted this gasping to say this was not about class but about him as a man taking advantage of me as a woman. I should have said that he should not depend on other Indians to feel sorry for his filthy self and let him off the hook again. But those thoughts were just angry blobs then, not yet formed well enough in my head to be articulated effectively.

I am here reminded of Sang Ye’s (in)famous book of oral history, The Year the Dragon Came (1996). The author was accused of having selected the most negative views of recently arrived Chinese migrants about Australia and China to make the case that the two societies had incommensurable social and cultural values. In his own words:

Nearly all of the interviewees have referred to Australians as “devils” (guizi) or “foreign devils” (yang guizi) or the slightly more polite “foreigners” (laowai or waiguoren), apparently oblivious to the fact that in Australia, it’s they who are the foreigners.

Not surprisingly, readers in both countries found the book confronting, yet for different reasons. Australian readers were stunned by those Chinese migrants who obviously did not appreciate their being accepted by Australia as permanent residents or citizens. As Linda Jaivin, the book’s editor, observes, it appears Sang intended to ‘shake up those [Australians] whose ideals of multiculturalism have more to do with colourful “ethnic” customs and foreign soap operas on SBS than with the harder issues of ethnic and cultural clashes between the dominant and immigrant communities’. Meanwhile, if what Sang claimed is true, that ‘China is a country with a strong xenophobic, isolationist tradition; a place where deeply racist sentiments are not uncommon’, then Chinese readers would undoubtedly prefer to ‘keep the family’s ugliness from people on the outside’.

On a similar note, I am willing to admit that I shied away and still feel uncomfortable when reading Shu-Ling Chua’s part-memoir, part-literary criticism essay ‘Through the Looking Glass’, in which she bravely announces: ‘I see my sexual awakening as a cumulative process, where the physical, psychological and intellectual bleed into one another.’ I use the adjective ‘bravely’ here to signal my own reluctance to tackle issues relating to sex. I was born and raised in a certain type of Asian culture where the social norm is to never talk about these issues in public. I now see this as a clear example of the considerable and complex differences that can and do exist between any number of Asian Australian writers.

In ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and elsewhere, Chua praises London-based Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007) as ‘a heartbreaking meditation on dislocation, growth and the self lost in translation… the cleverest, most original love story I have read’. In her search for Asian feminist texts, Chua pays specific attention to the following sentence in Guo’s book, one that appears in both Chinese and English:

我变得如此渺小,而与我无关的这个英语文化变得如此巨大。我被它驱使,我被它强暴,我被它消灭。

I have become so small, so tiny, while the English culture surrounding me becomes enormous. It swallows me, and it rapes me. I am dominated by it.

In Guo’s book, the protagonist’s sexual awakening is nuanced only in part by her own shame and naivety about sex, as the results of a long process of sense-making that lead her to think of it ‘naturally’ as ‘pornography’: ‘We cannot have words like this in Chinese. We too ashamed. Westerner has nothing too ashamed. You can do anything in this country.’  More importantly, the sentence quoted above, a striking inconsistency exists between the Chinese and English versions. While the English version reads ‘the English culture surrounding me’, in Chinese the protagonist actually says ‘this English culture that is irrelevant to me’.

In Guo’s book, the Chinese sentence is followed on the next page by its English version as an ‘Editor’s Translation’. As a bilingual writer and translator, I see this inconsistency between the source (Chinese) and target (English) languages not as a simple error in translation. Rather, it is a perfect and deliberate example of what Fiona J. Doloughan has observed of translated texts: ‘power is always a factor in language use’. Guo’s protagonist is a Chinese speaker studying English and living in London with her English-speaking boyfriend. As such, she strives to survive in public and domestic environments where English speakers feel exonerated from learning other languages. Her ability to lead a happy and fulfilled life overseas hinges on her English language capacity and she feels her grasp of it can never meet the standard dictated by its native speakers. On the surface, the violent metaphors she uses point to the fear she holds of ‘being tied up, as if I am living in a prison’:

I am sick of speaking English like this. I am sick of writing English like this… I am scared that I have become a person who is always aware of talking, speaking, and I have become a person without confidence, because it can’t be me.

On a deeper level, in translation, the ‘irrelevance’ that Guo’s protagonist expresses about the English culture disappears replaced by the relatively benign adjective ‘surrounding’ in the ‘Editor’s Translation’ of her Chinese words. Not only is her voice distorted in this process, but it also illustrates how her identity as a Chinese migrant is swallowed by the mainstream English culture. In some cases, translation does not help in crossing and even closing the gap between the dominant and immigrant communities. It can do quite the opposite instead.

As an overseas-born Australian writing in English as my second language, I understand this as a fear shared by those Asian Australian writers who struggle to straddle and often fall between two or more languages and their attached cultural baggages. However, it may be difficult for those Asian Australian writers who were born and raised in this island continent to even start imagining the fear that Guo describes, for ‘the English culture surrounding me’ is one of the fundamental reference points in their continuous mapping of the space between their imagined ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’ identities. I return to Chua’s reflection on writing about sex:

I want to believe my decisions are mine, that I’m doing or writing about something because it’s my choice rather than because I’m Asian, because I’ve assimilated or because I’ve ‘sold out’ to whiteness. This feeling is something I’ve grappled with for years and I still feel it… In writing about sex, I wanted to challenge the stereotype of Asian women as meek and conservative. I’ve build this image of a sexually confident Asian woman – partly true, partly performative – but what if I’m feeding a different stereotype? That of the femme fatale. I can’t win, can I? I can’t control how people see me and my work so I’m focusing on what feels right for me. As one of my closest friends said, ‘If you’re writing honestly, can it really be a stereotype?’

As Asian Australian writers, we do share the same pigeonhole. Yet in this space, we choose different ways to position ourselves, each seeking our own unique balance between Asian and Australian.

Works Cited:

Brian Castro, ‘Writing Asia’, Writing Asia and Auto/biography: Two Lectures, Canberra: University College, Australian Defence Force Academy, 1995.
Eileen Chong, ‘The Common Table’, Meanjin, December 8, 2017.
Shu-Ling Chua, ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Meanjin, January 17, 2018 (retrieved on February 14, 2018)
-‘What I’m Reading’, Noted, May 2, 2017.
Fiona J. Doloughan, English as a Literature in Translation, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
Xiaolu Guo, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, Chatto & Windus, 2007.
Kumud Merani, ‘‘I’m not a very good migrant’ – Author Roanna Gonsalves on redefining the status quo’, SBS, November 17, 2016.
Leah Jing McIntosh, ‘Liminalities’, Liminal, March 20, 2017.
Wenche Ommundsen, ‘Not for the Faint-Hearted – Ouyang Yu: The Angry Chinese Poet’, Meanjin, Volume 57, Number 3, 1998.
Luke Pearson, ‘Who identifies as a person of colour in Australia?’, ABC News, December 1, 2017.
Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991, Penguin Books, 1992.
Christine Sun, ‘Sites of Belonging’, Overland Literary Journal, September 23, 2015 (retrieved on January 31, 2018).
Robert Wood, ‘A Conversation with Eileen Chong’, Liminal, January 26, 2018.
Baya Ou Yang, ‘A Conversation with Shu-Ling Chua’, Liminal, February 18, 2018.
Sang Ye, The Year the Dragon Came, University of Queensland Press, 1996.