In her final essay, literary scholar Sneja Gunew (1946–2024) explores the affective dimensions of migrant writers’ transit between languages, capping a lifetime’s advocacy for those whose participation in the national culture ‘is grounded in their differences’. We present a lightly edited version of the essay ‘Multilingual Affect’ with reflections on Gunew’s life and work by Ivor Indyk and Eda Gunaydin.

Ivor Indyk

Sneja Gunew’s death, in early January this year, after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, was a shock to those who knew her. She was a great fighter, and now she was gone. I felt, as I imagine many others did – those who had worked beside her as companions in arms, as colleagues, as students influenced and guided by her work – a sadness that could not easily be dispelled. Partly, no doubt, because the battle she had fought, and in a sense led, for a larger and more inclusive understanding of Australian literature is not over, despite appearances to the contrary. Partly also because she was a fighter, and had been wounded by the attacks upon her – attacks she answered with vigour, until she decided she had had enough, and departed Australia for Canada, where she felt her work would be better appreciated.  

There is a sense of unfinished business in her passing, in other words, unfinished for those who remember her, though not for Sneja herself, for she had achieved much of what she aimed for, and set the terms on which her achievement might be measured. As she noted in Framing Marginality (1994): 

Roughly five kinds of activity have been involved in setting up multicultural literary studies in Australia: the production of anthologies and bibliographies; the establishment of collections of multicultural literature; the framing of theoretical structures for the study of such materials, including the setting up of academic courses on it; reviewing and publishing multicultural writing; and working with government agencies on multicultural policy. 

The anthologies and bibliographies and archival collections which Sneja undertook, often in collaboration with others, are an enduring testament to her commitment to the gathering, mapping, and study of what she saw as the neglected area of ethnic minority writing. It is in the third area, the framing of theoretical structures for understanding this writing, that her work attracted controversy and even opprobrium. She was restless as a theorist: beginning with women’s studies and feminism, her theoretical scope included post-colonialism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, cultural studies, psychoanalysis and post-modernism. Then later, diasporic studies and cosmopolitanism. She shared this eclecticism with many others; after all, the different theories often had a lot in common. And there was a poignancy in Sneja’s use of theory – since she was engaged in a battle for recognition, on behalf of those who had been ignored or marginalised by an Anglocentric establishment, you understood her need to draw on all the weapons she had to hand. Of course, there were many who didn’t understand, or wouldn’t understand, the urgency of her mission. 

From my point of view, Sneja’s most important contribution was in the fourth task she undertook: the reviewing of works by writers of migrant background. Her analyses of Antigone Kefala, Ania Walwicz, Anna Couani, and Rosa Cappiello are illuminating, exacting, and still today pioneering essays in criticism. All of these writers pose difficulties to conventional forms of reading, but that was precisely the point – they offered an assertion of difference and a challenge to interpretation which she readily accepted. 

In December last year, I received from Sneja, for safe keeping, a large batch of letters written to her by Antigone Kefala over a span of almost forty years. Sneja’s part of the correspondence I expect will be found in Kefala’s papers, now lodged with the State Library of NSW. Around the same time, she sent me the essay which appears here, her last piece of writing. Sneja was putting her affairs in order.  

I thought this essay, ‘Multilingual Affects’, was important for two reasons. First, it built on a line of attack presented in Sneja’s most recent book, Post-Multicultural Writers as Neo-Cosmopolitan Mediators, against the monolingual paradigm prevailing within Australian literary studies, towards a richer understanding of the multilingual affects which can be felt particularly in the work of writers of migrant or non-English speaking background (see also her essay, ‘Museums of Identity and other Identity Thefts’). This focus on what she calls ‘the acoustic noise’ of multilingualism ranges across a number of features, from the interpolation of languages relegated in favour of English as a result of migration and displacement, to the modulations of voice, accent, mood, rhythm, and syntax, some of which can be very difficult to pin down as to their origins and affects. This helps to explain Sneja’s continuing fascination with the writing of Ania Walwicz, in which these features are dramatically enhanced.  

Sneja often compared Walwicz with Kefala – the one flamboyant, the other understated – but in this essay the comparison she draws is between Walwicz and a much younger writer, Eda Gunaydin. The discussion of Gunaydin’s writing is important because it demonstrates the continuing relevance of Sneja’s argument about the acoustic affects of multilingualism in Australian writing across the generations. Unfortunately, the discussion ends prematurely, presumably because of Sneja’s deteriorating health. As a prompt, I sent her a copy of Gunaydin’s short story ‘Fuck Up’ in issue 3.7 of HEAT, with its rich tableau of voices. The story clearly demonstrates her point about language in writers of migrant background being ‘a site of affective energy and unexpected propulsions’. Sneja replied that she loved the story but regretted that she no longer had the time or the energy to work it into the essay. 

Eda Gunaydin

Before she passed, Sneja Gunew and I had a brief email exchange over the Christmas period. Conscious that our time was limited, I furtively slipped away from familial duties and punched out responses that I knew I needed to imbue with import and timelessness. It is because of Professor Gunew’s legacy – one that has expanded the remit of Australian literature, opening it to multilingual writing – that I feel compelled to introduce here the Turkish term anmak, better suited to my purposes than any English synonym. It means to commemorate, to memorialise – not simply to honour the memory of, as if it were all past, but to remember actively, to make mention of, to reference or to cite.  

Gunew and her contemporaries already did much of the work to slap down the fuddy duddies who might once have made it necessary for me and other multicultural writers to go to bat for our right to our artistic choices. Her response to Robert Dessaix’s 1991 critique of multicultural writing neatly defends the idea that migrant writers can do craft, can even be quite playful, and can, indeed, capture worlds of affect, within and beyond the English language. She also dismantles the assimilationist notion that stepping from the margins into the mainstream requires less fetishisation of one’s alterity in order to avoid being one of those ‘whingeing writers inhabit[ing] a self-imposed ghetto’.   

It is Ania Walwicz’s work – another late luminary – that brought many of these debates to a head. And it’s because I was assigned Walwicz to read, remember, and cite during my English undergraduate degree in 2015 (by which time Gunew had already retired her role as Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of British Columbia) that I wrote the first short story I ever published. That story’s protagonist is inspired by Walwicz’s ‘Australia’, and by many other migrants I have known who, yes, did not like living here that much, did not like many aspects of the dominant culture, and did whinge and were not grateful, and never imposed the ghetto on themselves, but rather had those ghettos imposed upon them. It has since been an important project of my work to clarify for readers that what you might characterise as a ghetto is considered home by those who make a life there.  

In the email to Ivor that kicks off my brief dialogue with Gunew, I write:  

I’m … grateful academic work is being produced about the topic of (non)translation in Australian migrant literature – it’s come up repeatedly with regard to Root & Branch, and is the question people are most curious to discuss in interviews about the book etc. I’m struck by how well [Gunew] captures all the tensions at play (turning the tables of alienation on the Anglophone reader; protecting family; the implications of recruiting only a limited number of readers into aspects of the text).  

All of this is true – it’s the question I’ve been asked the most, and the formal dimension singled out for praise in the judges’ comments for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize for Nonfiction. Although I have a scripted response ready now, I admit that mostly I didn’t think much about it at all, and nor was a rationalisation requested of me, at the time. Please don’t mistake me for an artless ingenue, not crafty enough to do anything other than ‘plain story-telling’. It’s just that there is too much other writing that includes untranslated text for my use of it to be considered unique, remarkable, or even creditable. It’s because of these interventions, which took place years before I was unlucky enough to be born, that I didn’t have to think about it. The words of my friend Kyle, quoted in Root & Branch, spring to mind: ‘It must be nice, you know, not to have anything to have to make peace with. You can just go.’ It is a gift not to have to innovate, not to have to coin, or disrupt, or trailblaze, or shit out a new landmark.  

Millennial multicultural writers are often dubbed urgent, a term that has always bothered me because it evokes sloppy – the image of someone dashing something out on the back of a used napkin – as if the writer had turned their attention to the work at the same moment that wider Australian society decided their subject was important, and not well before.  

Apart from this issue (of the Anglocentric gaze), urgency is also a demand made by late capitalism, with its temporal qualities of crisis, acceleration, relentless productivity, and fetishisation of novelty. That focus on speed risks effacing what came before, as time shrinks into a series of presents that no longer link meaningfully to either the past or the future. Thinking about two writers who are separated by a generation makes available a reparative genealogy that threads past, present, and future back together. This was the timescale that Gunew operated on.  

In our emails, I try to take a moment to reflect on legacy, attempting to convey – without being unbearably hokey – that the house that we start to build (or dismantle) may not be finished in our lifetimes. Our working lives are long, even if the days pass too quickly, and the intellectual traditions we write into are even longer and should be remembered, commemorated: anılmalı. How humbling to sit still and silent for a moment.  

Multilingual Affect 

We have become familiar with analyses exploring the ‘language of emotions’ but what about the emotions that accompany bodies of languages as entities in themselves?1 This affective element is particularly stark in what have been titled ‘language memoirs’ by those authors who consider themselves part of a diaspora or exiled from other countries, cultures, and specific languages.2 Their inhabitation of more than one language means that their perception of a sanctioned national language and culture is often at odds with their monolingual fellow citizens. Recent overdue efforts to maintain and revive Indigenous languages in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere have sharpened awareness of the ways that links to language help with healing the traumas of genocidal colonialism and other upheavals associated with migration. Postcolonial writers over the past decades, such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1989) and Patricia Grace (1999), have alerted us to the visceral trauma of being forced to speak only in the colonial language. What’s been explored to a lesser extent is that such restitution or recognition is also a factor in the languages of migration: languages are part of the freight carried by migrating subjects. Not surprisingly, the rage of migrants and refugees is something that often bursts forth from such accounts and clearly resonates with efforts in decolonization that inspire current debates.3 The negative emotions expressed by those labelled ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’ are often associated with a devastating loss of language and the denigration by the host culture of languages other than the national language. For example, Agota Kristof’s book, The Illiterate, translated from the French, describes the loss of her first language, tantamount to all language, when she is forced to flee Hungary to a French-speaking part of Switzerland: 

I also call the French language an enemy language … this language is killing my mother tongue … Five years after arriving in Switzerland, I speak French, but I can’t read it. I have become illiterate once again. I, who knew how to read at the age of four. I know words. When I read them I don’t recognize them. The letters correspond to nothing. Hungarian is a phonetic language. French is the exact opposite. 

This essay will look at the emotions associated with being prevented from using one’s first language and being restricted to the use of the dominant (often colonial) language: in this case, English. The wider implication of this study is that affective terms, taxonomies of emotion, in a particular language cannot be seamlessly translated into another language system; they thus place the current framework and critical terminology of theories of the emotions into question.   

Losing or suppressing a first language: the affective consequences 

Language itself is too often treated like an invisible factor in cultural studies of the emotions. For example, here is a statement from the editor of Affect Theory and Literary Critical Practice: A Feel for the Text, a recent compilation of literary criticism in relation to affect: 

The essays collected here seek to move forward our understanding of how particular affects, as well as affect conceived more broadly as modulated intensities, can determine character development and narrative form, and can influence those who come to texts open to the promise of worldmaking they offer. 

Clearly the ‘worldmaking’ invoked takes place in an English that remains the unquestioned default language, even when dealing with translated texts. Most recent work on the histories of the emotions, and affect studies in general, acknowledges its debt to Raymond Williams’ concept of ‘structures of feeling’, but how can one not relate this to specific languages, and why do we default to a universal abstract language whose materiality remains invisible? Consider, for example, this comment by the poet Denise Riley:  

There is a tangible affect in language which stands somewhat apart from the expressive intentions of an individual speaker; so language can work outside of its official content … Nor is it a ‘reification of language’ to consider its effects of torsion. On the contrary, the truer reification would be always to conceive of language as our tool. This stance that insists on language as an instrument of willed control glosses over its directing rawness. (My emphasis) 

Affect with respect to a generalised language system is an interesting phenomenon. The affect generated by hearing or speaking or writing a language, in a more general sense, is a different kind of analysis, one in which ‘language is the object of emotion rather than the vehicle of its expression’ (Fenigsen, Wilce and Wilce, 2020). For example, the Canadian writer Kamal Al-Solaylee, in his study of the elements animating the desire to return to specific places, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic, finds these held together as much by the desire to return to language – in his case, a deliberately suppressed Arabic: 

How will I express what I feel to the people I want to share this homeland with when my Arabic has atrophied over the years? I’ve become so conscious of the effort it takes to sustain any serious conversation in Arabic that I often feel like a stranger – and a tongue-tied one at that – in my own community. 
Arabic was my birthright. How did I squander it? 
… My dereliction of Arabic was a conscious move and part of a journey of reinvention I embarked on in my late teens … English became more than a second language; it drew a personalized road map to freedom, dignity and sex … For me, there can be no physical return without a linguistic one. 

The impact of a ‘global language’ is analysed further by Aamir Mufti in his recent book Forget English!, where (following Emily Apter) he argues for the need to recognise, and come to terms with, an inherent (and welcome) core of untranslatability in world literatures. That constitutive untranslatability is true as well of the terms associated with emotions and could usefully be acknowledged within contemporary studies of affect and emotions. In my most recent book Post-Multicultural Writers as Neo-Cosmopolitan Mediators, I consolidated some of the emotions that English generates as a global language with a colonial history. I consider, for instance, how English functions thematically in a range of texts from the Chinese diaspora. One such example is Xiaolu Guo’s recent novel, A Lover’s Discourse, which produces a narrator who is made aware of the ways that the Chinese language constantly reminds her of her feelings of alienation or distancing from the contexts in which she lives. At the same time, her partner, with German affiliations, also introduces her to German terms that in turn distance him from the Anglophone contexts in which they both reside. The affective relation to a generalised language is exemplified in this quotation by Guo’s narrator: ‘I don’t come from this alphabet. I came from the non-alphabetic. I come from ideograms. I came from 50,000 characters’.  

Unlike literary critics, linguists have been arguing for over a decade that the importance of specific terminology for the expression of feelings needs to be taken seriously. Studies of bi- and multi-lingual speakers show how ‘emotion words’ change the meaning of emotional expression significantly, depending on the language used. As Aneta Pavlenko states: 

Language emotionality is undoubtedly present in monolingual speakers and can be studied with regard to word type effects, but differential language emotionality and its impact on language choice are best studied with bidialectal, bilingual, and multilingual speakers.  

Pavlenko and others have all examined the use of ‘emotion words’ in bi- and multilingual speakers to show how such words emerge from their embeddedness in specific linguistic and cultural contexts. While their work is largely based on empirical studies of speech, they have looked as well at texts, including memoirs. At the forefront of examining how emotional terms are rooted in, and acquire their nuanced meanings through, specific cultural contexts, these linguists have unsurprisingly analysed and mined the language memoirs of bi- and multilingual writers. As Mary Besemeres states in her study:  

Insofar as they write of the absence of direct counterparts in English to the emotion words they use in their other languages, their narratives lend support to a view of emotions as culturally relative, rather than universal. 

I will focus on the work of two generationally distinct Australian writers, Ania Walwicz and Eda Gunaydin, to show how multilingual affect disrupts the language of emotion. I draw attention to the affective dimensions of particular languages often by pointing to the disruptions produced by elements of untranslatability as well as to the status of a language in relation to a national linguistic context.  

Walwicz came to Australia in 1962, and Gunaydin is the daughter of Turkish immigrants and was born in Australia. Both use languages other than English in their writing: Polish and Turkish respectively. What distinguishes both these writers is their acute understanding of the potentially anarchic dynamics inherent in all languages as well as of the conventions that operate within mainstream genres. Both also reference the various stereotypes that permeate the field of ‘migrant writing’ in the Australian context. 

Ania Walwicz: Performative experiments  

In her early work, Walwicz ventriloquizes many of the stereotypical voices associated with migrant writing in a consistent and devastating critique that punctures Australian normative cultural conventions. Her poem ‘Australia’ exemplified a certain moment in the reception of migrant writing as multicultural literature and now, finally perhaps, as literature. Anthologized many times, it was first seen as a prime exemplar of the ‘ungrateful immigrant’: 

You big ugly. You too empty. You desert with your nothing nothing nothing. You scorched suntanned. Old too quickly. Acres of suburbs watching the telly. You bore me. Freckle silly children. You nothing much. With your big sea. Beach beach beach. I’ve seen enough already. You dumb dirty city with bar stools. You’re ugly. You silly shopping town. You copy. You too far everywhere. You laugh at me. When I came this woman gave me a box of biscuits. You try to be friendly but you’re not very friendly. You never ask me to your house. You insult me. You don’t know how to be with me. Road road tree tree. I came from crowded and many. I came from rich. You have nothing to offer. You’re poor and spread thin. You big. So what. I’m small. It’s what’s in. … You don’t have any interest in another country. Idiot centre of your own self.  

Using the supposed ‘broken English’ of immigrants for whom English was not their first language, Walwicz savagely satirised the racism she experienced as an artist and writer after the appearance of her first two collections of prose poems, Writing (1982) and Boat (1989). There were numerous attacks on migrant writers in the following years, but it also galvanized others to challenge the terms of engagement for such writing. This eventually led to more serious interaction with her work, leading critics such as Ann Brewster to argue, a decade later, that Walwicz was now ‘canonical’ and that her work ‘constitutes a moment of globalization in Australian Literature’.  

Yet three years after her death in 2020, Walwicz’s work is largely unavailable.4 This is true even of her award-winning last text, horse (2018). In her final work the psychoanalytical motifs present from the beginning are linked with academic discourse in a variety of ways.5 As exemplified by the cover portrait of the author as Freud (complete with beard), Walwicz is at pains to demonstrate satirically that she is now an accredited expert, authorised to frame an auto-ethnography/analysis that, in one way and another, has been taking place in all her work. However, she does this in a manner that also interrogates the assumptions concerning ‘expertise’ on the basis of which many immigrant scholars were judged and denied their professional and academic credentials, and were reduced to working in the unskilled jobs that were the primary concern of Australia’s postwar labour recruitments. This was a persistent theme in her earlier work in which parental figures become ‘small’, while their children, culturally idiomatic, are designated appropriate mediators and become ‘large.’ In horse, she uses the framework of the well-known Russian fairy-tale of the simpleton youngest brother, Vanya, the same trope of the holy fool found, for example, in Dostoevsky. Vanya/Ania tries to survive the traumas of an abusive childhood where the Tsar/Freud/father fails her at every turn, but the little hump-back horse comes to her aid: 

All boundaries collapse. I form an idiolect, a private language. I can’t tidy up. I desire the bad object. I want this. I enter the abject self through writing. This is my little horse now. I ride it. 
In the court of the Russian tsar, where I am the stableboy, groom, horse trainer, the servants gather to tell fairy tales, they tell stories, they make them up now, they confabulate now, I make me up as I go along now. Tell me more and more now. They want me to read my work and I do it. I like doing this now. It is doing me. It is doing itself by doing. It is rolling off my tongue now. 

A shaping power that can offer false meaning, the consolation of complete understanding, language ripples through Walwicz’s work. The fact that language is often plural for migrants adds to my argument that language in general is a site of affective energy and unexpected propulsions. When readers are bereft of the certainties provided by monolingualism, it is harder to take refuge within the linguistic solace of unambiguous meaning (surely, the dominant legacy of deconstruction). When there are competing terms that attempt to capture an event or a state, monolingualism becomes less credible.  

It contributed to the many mis-readings of her work that Walwicz played from the outset on the anarchic aspects of language, using its hypnotic surface tensions to access other layers of semi-conscious processes. This was always a dominant motif in her work that she linked throughout to questions of power: who has power with respect to the deployment of language or its definitive interpretation? Her early writings often stage the banishment of a first language, and the parents who have authority within that language, to the wings and to non-communication, reducing them to children accessing another language (English) in inadequate ways. For example, ‘So Little’: 

We were so big there and could do everything. When you have lots you know it. Lucky and lucky and money. My father was the tallest man in the world. Here we were nothing. There vet in the district and respect. The head of the returned soldiers and medals. Here washed floors in the serum laboratory. Shrinking man. I grow smaller every day. The world gets too big for me. We were too small for this big country. We were so little. We were nothing. We were none and naught and no money. We were no speak. There we were big and big time. Here we were so little. Hardly any. We grew tiny. Scared lost not knowing how to speak. … And we were at one another. We turned on one another. And quarrelled. And I ran away. And he ran away. … And we were lost. And he could not do his job. And had to pass exams. And we didn’t have any money. And the landlord came. Two little girls hid under the bed. He saw through the window and felt sorry. I had to be old early and ashamed of what happened. … To get to a place where we were less and had less and were less and less and grew smaller every day. 

The parents increasingly shrink under the pressures of alien social processes and rely on their children to negotiate the social apparatus. The children, in time, disintegrate under this burden. The poem begins by invoking the childhood fantasy that parents, particularly fathers, are all-powerful and are able to confer these privileges on the whole family (‘We were so big there and could do everything’). Following an oneiric logic, the shrinking father, in turn, diminishes the child narrator. Words structure reality, as in Freud’s analysis of dreams, where words are treated ‘as if they were things, with all the same affective and sensory properties’ (Silverman, 1983). Social impotence is represented as literal shrinking and a gradual fading away; loss of speech is equated with loss of existence. Within their alien environment the migrant subjects progressively dissolve: from ‘tallest … in the world’ to being confined to a house, then a room, a box, to hiding under the bed, to nothing (‘the white snow that was nowhere’). Even names, those potent signifiers of social identity, disappear, a common motif in ethnic minority writing that is specifically associated with the dislocations of migration. That trauma is also generationally inherited, as may be observed in Gunaydin’s work. 

The question that arises is what becomes of the affective power of the first language? It is explored in many poems, for instance, ‘translate’, ‘Poland’, and amplified in red roses as well as the final text horse. While the motif of Poland is present across all her work, the poem ‘Poland’ transforms memories of the previous culture into a sustained fabrication, stories told by a child self:  

I forget everything. Now. More and more. It gets dim. And further away. It’s as if I made it up. As though I was never there at all. Not real. Child stories. Told over and over. Wear thin. This doesn’t belong to me anymore. 

Once again meaning is dependent on words organised in terms of objects with a material and existential reality: memory, like a piece of cloth, fades and then unravels. Those who have gone ‘over the horizon line’ have effectively died. Initially, the link is provided by dreams, ‘I went back every night’, but when these are not confirmed by daily life, the past place and the past self disappear. Poland becomes simply a name on the map which one reads about in the papers. Underlying the vehement tone of Walwicz’s poem is the harrowing implication that the self constructed ‘over there’ in Poland has no currency in the present ‘here and now’, in Australia: a self derived from a particular cluster of signifying systems has become irrelevant, ‘This is finished and finished . . . gone and it is gone’.  

Derrida’s essay ‘Des Tours de Babel’ reminds us that the recognised need for translation ‘ruptures the colonial violence or the linguistic imperialism’ upon which the notion of a universal language is predicated. This in turn focuses our attention on the political aspects of entering a homogenised or unified language, where the values incorporated by those who arrive (the immigrants) remind those already there of the laws governing initiation and entry (Sollors, 1986). Immigrants affirm the identity of the dominant group by functioning, in Gayatri Spivak’s terms, as ‘self-consolidating others’. Migrants are rendered legible for sociology and oral history as unproblematic informants who deliver unmediated experience: that true-life story or paradigmatic narrative which consolidates the unified subject who, in turn, confirms linguistic and other imperialisms. 

One of the most effective ways of upsetting such cultural imperialisms is to insert other tongues into the prevailing English idiom. Those who derive from non-Anglophone cultures and languages, and are forced to negotiate a new symbolic (in Lacan’s sense of the term), find that the name-of-the-father which dominates in the old symbolic has become delegitimised in the new country. Since Western culture is predicated on binary oppositions (and there seems only one place for the dethroned father to go), the delegitimised name-of-the-father is re-assigned to the maternal position – not simply that of the biological mother, but of that pre-symbolic realm of the semiotic, which Julia Kristeva has described as consisting of pulsions and a rhythmic babble, an accurate description of Walwicz’s approach (the bibliography of horse makes it clear that Walwicz read a great deal of Kristeva’s work). 

In his essay on translation, Derrida also plays with notions of legitimation, moving from the Father/God as origin of language to the plurality of mother tongues: ‘God the father would be the name of that origin of tongues. But is also that God who … annuls the gift of tongues … This is also the origin of tongues, of the multiplicity of idioms, of what in other words are usually called mother tongues’. In Walwicz’s words, ‘The semiotic mother tongue that I dance now that dances me’. The importance for nationalist enterprises of an original sacred and legitimising language has gained new and terrible currency with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The question Derrida poses is not simply how to convey the necessary plurality of languages, but how to achieve this in translation. The Polish language in ‘Poland’ functions, for those who don’t understand it, as the untranslatable which is, paradoxically, the contradiction at the core of all translation. It emphasises the importance of recognising both the need to translate and translation’s inherent impossibility.  

The narrator speaks of trying to renovate her house in conjunction with difficult memories of the Polish language, abode of the former life that she has almost forgotten. ‘Self’ and ‘house’ are familiar metonyms for one another. At the same time, we are informed that the renovator, as with all authority figures, will not come on call. Before that we are given the dwarf (krasnoludek), possibly, again, the father reduced and refashioned as trickster, transgressively associated with pissing. This could be read as the symbolic father returned to the semiotic space of the body criss-crossed with spasms and pulsions. The carnivalesque is also suggested by references to play and the theatre – the lost scene of childhood and language where words are synonymous with old or discarded toys. In a 1987 interview with Ursel Fitzgerald, Walwicz associates these ‘tragic old toys’ with war, an image of damage and cruelty to the self, and cruelty perpetrated on a child. In the video version, the red hood and trousers of the narrator are linked with a plaster garden gnome, which visually recalls the stunted adults of other poems.  

Another frame of reference for the poem is all those after-hours English classes held in schools, in which adult immigrants are squeezed into children’s desks. Here, the implied Anglophone readers are put into the position of being assaulted with a language they cannot understand, ‘you be on the out for bit’. In addition, the piece caricatures the first-person mode: the ‘simple’ telling of one’s life story, the ‘simple’ identity of the migrant subject. From the assumption of authority in the language lesson, the narrator moves to explore other advantages of having access to another language: the ‘foreigner has some extra’. Whether by being able to discuss other people openly on a tram or having the knowledge of another country in the back of their heads, migrants are emphatically not defined through either the lack of English or its supposed corollary, the lack of cultural plenitude. 

The poem begins, ‘inne different’, ambiguously suggesting indifference as well as being situated within difference. Absence of difference precedes the acquisition of language with its concomitant assumption of subjectivity. The subject cannot return to a pre-linguistic self. In the video version we are given the shot of a pickled tongue. The old tongue cannot simply be pickled or preserved in a meaningful way, ‘foreigner has some extra at back of head is another country my old words sleep wait’. Some of the complexities explored in this early poem are revisited in the final text horse where the narrator states, ‘I never forget Polish’ and this excavation of a language is rendered even more affectively complicated by being linked with a hidden Jewish self. 

In an interview with Alison Bartlett, Walwicz speaks of red roses, her first book-length work, as being generated by the death of her mother. Its shape owed to Walwicz’s revisiting postwar Poland and pondering the ways that her engagements with memory and a first language functioned in terms of auto-analysis. Interestingly Walwicz abandoned the project for a while because she found this element too intense and uncontrollable. Returning to the text later, she changed it into ‘everyone’s mother’, a process that she describes consistently in relation to her first-person narrators and the mining of her own experience.6 Whether the judge is the medical diagnostician or academic gatekeeper of a national or global culture, the languages employed by Walwicz undermine any easy interpretation; there is always a minefield of contradictions. In horse the various elements used throughout her work coalesce: 

The tsar uses a broken language now. The broken language of the destabilized signifier. The subject undergoes fragmentation as a result of unresolved Oedipal issues. The triangle of the maternal and the paternal is unresolved. The speech is thus broken, segmented, fragmented. The signifier and the signified do not adhere, do not sit on top of another. There is a dispersal of the sign and the meaning now. The word does not align with the subject (matter). This is the deviance of the transgressive signifier that does not adhere to that which is signified now. The symbolic meaning is refuted, pushed aside, dispersed, shifted, crushed, torn. The letter is written and torn to pieces and thrown out of the window. It is collected again and stuck together with sticky tape but in the wrong order. The meaning is deciphered but remains incomplete and concealed. The meaning is hidden. The unconscious is revealed here, written like a puzzle, a rebus, a riddle. I can work this out now. I know what I mean to say here. I understand me now. I know what I do and what was done to me. I get to know my story here. … The insertion of the sign. The mouth as a site of trauma. Language as a site of trauma. Traumatised words and story now. Saying everything indirectly, oblique narrative, the fragmented self and the fragmented narrative of my story. The broken word, the cut   tongue, the betrayal of a child. The word is broken now. The symbolic meaning is destabilized here. I don’t   trust me. The story is incomplete and becomes another story and another story … Always another story. 

Eda Gunaydin: Intergenerational inheritance 

‘Despite having been born here and having been lucky enough to be nourished on Dharug land’, Eda Gunaydin refers to Walwicz’s poem ‘Australia’ as a way to introduce her own cultural alienation: ‘a kind of bleakness that I associate with living in a settler-colony as a settler. None of this is mine, but I have to find a way to be here’. In a manner that resonates with Walwicz’s textual tactics (particularly in her final work), Gunaydin embeds these autobiographical statements within the structure of the academic essay – in her case, political analysis mixed in with a psychoanalytical framework. Her writing echoes Walwicz’s pervasive and iterative analyses of trauma, both individual trauma and the general trauma embedded in migration: 

Migration is a trauma, among others, and trauma pulls you away from the world: generates an implacable sense of distance between oneself and everyone else, an estrangement that tells you that you could not possibly be like others, relate to others, to be present where you are. I am trying to fiddle with a new definition of home, with the idea that it is not the same as a homeland. 

It is a trauma that she explores as well in her travels to Europe, including Germany, where she finds Turks perceived as the workers of Europe subjected to similar forms of racism that she encountered growing up in Australia. 

But what is innovative here is that she turns the tables: while offering the tantalising inner life of migrants and their secret language, she does not translate significant Turkish passages. Sometimes one can guess the meaning, but often, when there appear to be revelations concerning family secrets, the Turkish is not translated and there is no reassuring glossary. So, the language here provides a challenge to readers – ‘if you want to know what’s going on, learn that language’ – in a reversal of what migrants have been told for generations. To complicate matters further, she states in her conversation with Fiona Wright: 

I always feel as if the Turkish I speak is not one that is sort of tapped in to the Turkish in Turkey! Mostly it’s the Turkish of the Günaydin family, and I think it carries not just the language itself but our values, our ways of relating with each other … And I think I internalised not just the words, but also how they have made me feel and relate to the world, etc etc. And again, it’s just the issue with diaspora, you sort of get frozen in amber, none of us are sort of updating the way we speak … So yeah, I am really interested in the language that my family speaks, and one day, in my head, I’d like to write a book around all of the idioms I’ve been taught, because Turkish idioms are so much more complex, as well as profane, than English words. So I’m always stockpiling them, every time my mother says something. 

In relation to the confessional impulse, Gunaydin states that ‘to confess is to transform something previously non-discursive into discourse’ and one speculates as to what this non-discursive element involves: does it pertain to the domain of affect as untranslated sensation? Once affect enters the discursive domain, other factors come into play. Gunaydin is always alert to the presence of power and the language in which the confession occurs is riddled with power: when it remains in Turkish, it recruits a limited number of readers familiar with Turkish and additionally the Turkish Australian diasporic experience.  

Like Walwicz, Gunaydin is compelled by psychoanalytic terms and concepts insofar as they provide a repertoire for describing forces that are not fully conscious. And like Walwicz she runs into the ambiguities of auto-analysis (or the relatively new field of what Lauren Fournier calls ‘autotheory’). One might consider that language, a specific language, functions as the analyst and that as with classic analysis, there is transference and projection. This question is particularly evident in the chapter on ‘Literacy’ that begins with a discussion of Lacan. Taking off from Lacan’s pronouncement that the unconscious is structured like a language, she goes on to ask whether language is structured like the unconscious? As in the case of Walwicz, the first-person narrator is also mesmerised by the mother who refuses the norms of Australian motherhood and who significantly, as we learn, taught her to read. However, the solipsistic pursuit of knowledge runs parallel to the suicidal ideation that permeates these essays: ‘I learned to love writing when I learned it made me leave my body’. It is interesting to juxtapose this with Walwicz: ‘But there’s such a close connection between the language and the body for me. One embodies the other and of course the breathing factor is the crucial thing in writing’. 


1 While I’m not distinguishing here among those terms, I have in past writing separated affect as sensation before it is put into words that indicate specific emotions – all part of taxonomies of emotions which exist in many language systems. 

2 Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation is a paradigmatic text in this sub-genre. 

3 It is present as well in contemporary writers exploring popular genres such as science fiction. A brilliant example may be found in Rebecca Kuang’s Babel

4 While there is some information at the online archive dedicated to her work, I’m inserting longer extracts from her work to compensate for this deficit. 

5 The text of horse draws substantially on her doctoral dissertation in creative writing. 

6 See also the extended discussion of red roses in her conversation with Jenny Digby in ‘The Politics of Experience’. 

Works Cited

  • Ahearn, Stephen. 2019. “Introduction: A Feel for the Text.” In Affect Theory and Literary Critical Practice: A Feel for the Text, edited by Stephen Ahearn, 1-22. London: Palgrave Macmillan.. 
  • Al-Solaylee, Kamal. 2021. Return: Why We Go back to Where We Come From. Toronto: HarperCollins. 
  • Besemeres, Mary. 2006. “Language and Emotional Experience: The Voice of Translingual Memoir.” In Bilingual Minds: Emotional Experience, Expression and Representation, edited by Aneta Pavlenko, 34-58. Cleveland, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters Ltd.  
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  • — with Fiona Wright. 2018. “Six degrees from the city.” SRB.Podcast.7. November. 
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  • —. 2018 horse. Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing.