What is the Australian identity? This question is posed every three years during a Federal election, with each party claiming to be more ‘Australian’ than the other. The simple truth of the matter is that the Australian identity is a combination of all identities, all nations combining into one giant multicultural casserole pot; at the time of the 2006 Census, 43 percent of all Australians were born overseas or had at least one parent who was born overseas.
This issue of Southerly, the Journal of the Department of English at the University of Sydney, focuses on the dislocation and complex affiliations of people at home in Australia, while maintaining strong attachments elsewhere. As the back page blurb explains this ‘issue asks how this feature of late modernity dismantles and re-creates notions of identity, home, family, nation and literature. What is the role of writing in this circulation and how does it shape the dynamic mapping of Australia.’
Bill Ashcroft opens his essay ‘Australian Transnation’: ‘the world is more mobile than it has ever been and in many different fields, most notably literary studies, it has led to a growing, and now well established interest in cultural and ethnic mobility, diaspora, transnational and cosmopolitan interactions.’ Ashcroft considers the Australian identity, from the Union Jack in the corner of our flag , through Ernst Bloch’s definition of heimat, Bloch’s word for a utopian home. Heimat was appropriated by the Nazis to represent Germany as the Aryan homeland. In response, Bloch, a Jewish Marxist philosopher, made a distinction between the political soil and the utopian aura of heimat. This distinction is central to Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell, where Miller interprets the Aboriginal connection to land, ‘“this is our soil” his uncle said – as if he said, this is your soul’. Ashcroft continues with an analysis of Arnold Zable’s Café Scheherazade, discussing the theme of the novel, a direct account of the diasporic memory of immigrants who meet in a café named after the storyteller in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, appropriate as the namesake relied on stories to keep herself alive.
Ashcroft’s essay highlights the ethereal nature of place, a consideration of ‘not where you are but who you are’.
This issue is heavy in poetry, something we don’t see enough of in literary journals (☺). There are standout standalone poems from A S Patric, John Carey, two from π.o. and ‘Absurdity’ by Shu Cai as translated by Ouyang Yu.
Poetry also features as central to four of the prose pieces in the journal, namely; Kit Kelen’s ‘A Transnational Apprenticeship for Poets’, Meg Tasker’s ‘“When London Calls” and Fleet Street beckons’, George Kouvaros’s ‘The Generation of the Photograph’ and Glen Phillips’s ‘An Aspect of the Valtellinese Diaspora’.
Kit Kelen teaches Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Macau where he assists in the production of anthologies of contemporary Australian poems translated into Chinese. Kelen’s essay discusses the issues around translations of poetry, a poem can have multiple interpretations, the translator suffers an intense apprenticeship as the end product should not merely be an imitation and single interpretation but rather a poem worth reading in its own right. Kelen describes the relationship that has to develop between the Australian poet and the Macanese translator, including discussions of grammatical experimentation and compromises of definitions.
Meg Tasker analyses Victor Daley’s ‘When London Calls’, a poem that has as much resonance today as when it was first published in the Bulletin on 8 December 1900. The poem (printed in its entirety within the issue) opens:
They leave us – artists, singers, all – When London calls aloud, Commanding to her Festival The gifted crowd.
The poem is somewhat of sour grapes, Daley having penned the poem after reading the English reviews of his first collection At Dawn and Dusk, Daley believed that his work would sell better in England than in Australia ‘for the simple reason that most of my verse is not distinctly Australian at all. There is a sad lack of dingoes and wombats, gidya-gidya, spinifex, wattle, mulga etc., in it, which I deplore but see no means of remedying.’ The collection sold poorly in England as the English reviewers interpreted the absence of bush imagery as an attempt by Daley to elevate himself above his ‘position’ as a colonial. Tasker expands in the essay on the futile efforts of Australian writers’ to impress the English market and the perception that literary merit could only be judged by mother England, delving into the lack of identity suffered by writers, such as Daley, Henry Lawson, Louise Mack etc.
George Kouvaros’s essay ‘The Generation of the Photograph, or, Those Left Behind’ opens with ‘The City’ by C P Cavafy
You said, “I will go to another place, to another shore. Another city can be found that’s better than this.
The poem explains the desperation of someone seeking happiness, dissatisfied and blaming the present place for all ills, but, as the poem explores, place is but a state of mind. Kouvaros describes the walls of his grandmother’s house lined with photographs of current Australian family members, Cypriot ancestors and a younger image of the grandmother walking a South African street during her ill-fated first marriage. This take on transnationalism looks at bringing the distance and the past into the here and now as an old lady holds on to her stories.
Glen Phillips studied the Valtellinesi diaspora for his poem ‘The Entombed Miner, Easter 1907’, in particular, immigrant Modesto Varischetti who, like most of the immigrants from the Lombardy region of Italy around the start of the twentieth century, came to the Australian goldfields seeking a better life. The poem, as Phillips explains in his seven-page explanatory notes leading in to the poem, symbolises the hopes and dreams of the immigrants and the dangers faced; Varischetti having been trapped in a floodwater filled mineshaft for nine days until deep sea divers Frank Hughes and Thomas Hearn could reach him to rescue.
The issue collects essays, stories and poems that are definitively Australian in that they are borderless, highlighting the fact that the Australian identity is held within the collective of its people rather than the borders of its land.