During this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF), I attended the ‘Second-Generation Narratives’ session, hosted by Arnold Zable and featuring other writers from migrant backgrounds: Maxine Beneba Clarke, Randa Abdel-Fattah, AS Patrić and Alice Pung. The event posed the question: How does an understanding of place, home and family inform storytelling – and increase understanding about migration?
In terms of diversity, the audience was one of the better attended that I’ve seen, perhaps unsurprisingly. I’m sure that, like me, some of them would have been intimately familiar with the subject matter but were drawn to the succour of a discussion that they could relate to, because writing about one’s own culture is as much about escaping it. And those writers on stage represented all the things that can and can’t be escaped.
The Vietnamese have an epithet for people like me: Việt Kiều, for a Vietnamese person who lives overseas. It can be used derisively, ironically, or endearingly. I first heard it from my aunt, who found it enormously funny, on a trip back to Vietnam in 1996. At the time I thought I was returning home, a chance to complete the broken loop of myself, but this label made it clear it wasn’t going to happen there either.
Technically I’m a first generation person. I was two when my family joined all those others to become Việt Kiều, but because I was introduced to English at a young age, rather than having to learn it as an adolescent or adult, I think I’m more closely aligned – or at least have access – to the privileges and anxieties of the second generation.
The use of language delineates generations. As children of migrants or asylum seekers the estrangement from one’s cultural identity can happen almost immediately through loss of language. For children that grow up in homes where another language is spoken, much of the development of the mother tongue is lost as soon as they get to kinder or prep, or as soon as they’re old enough to start talking to older siblings who had done so before them.
If two first-generation parents are a snapshot of an ethnic group, then each subsequent child of their union is another f-stop away from it, creating an increasingly blurry facsimile. When you lose that language connection, then you can also lose that connection to your parents’ culture. In Australia, this is compounded by each generational iteration, becoming increasingly monolingual and monocultural.
Following from her MWF event, I asked Alice Pung, whose family fled the killing fields of Cambodia, if there was a point when she felt this sense of separation from her parents.
‘Sometimes there is no clear point, and sometimes it’s a number of feelings, and I remember one of the strongest was embarrassment, when I became thirteen and in high school … I started to feel embarrassed about my parents’, she said.
I asked Alice if she thought this experience was common in more recent migrants.
‘I think this experience is universal … I do some work with Les Twentyman’s foundation. At the moment there are a lot of kids from Africa, and you can tell they’re really embarrassed when their parents come on parents’ information night, because the dads would wear their best suits and the mums would come in full-on ball gowns, and the kids are so embarrassed.’
But while cultural separation can happen over only a few years, other, less obvious connections can linger for longer.
Inherited, or transgenerational, trauma isn’t new. It was first documented in the descendants of holocaust survivors, and then in the children of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees.
For me it’s expressed in social awkwardness, sudden violent thoughts, and an irrational fear of always being about to stuff my life up. I didn’t recognise it until, like many kids who grow up in families that were granted asylum, I realised I was probably brought up in a household and a community suffering from PTSD.
All the prodigious drunks that wet themselves at house parties, all the family fights in those early years that weren’t about anything except venting the frustration of trying to figure out how to survive.
‘Until you move out of home, you don’t realise how anxious your home life is’, Alice said. ‘You don’t realise how unreasonable some of your parents anxieties are, or the way they deal with certain things, you don’t realise it’s probably not the healthiest way to [live] … they used to have – they still do have – these irrational reactions to ordinary stresses of life, which kind of made me really stressed as well, living at home.’
For some kids, turning to writing can help extricate themselves from these stresses, either to vent or to escape, and give shape to thoughts and frustrations that can’t be shared with family. And so the language that isn’t their parents’ language is what they use to better understand themselves, to begin to piece together an identity that they find neither belongs to their parents’ culture or the mainstream one in which they’re growing up.
I think it’s safe to say that outside of the enclaves of literary cliques, it’s not considered normal to be a writer. It’s an ‘outsider’ occupation, like being a skateboarder or rodeo clown.
For a person from a migrant or asylum seeker background, born outsiders, who can grow up not wanting to be seen, wishing to be able to disappear into the background and be normal and unremarkable, there is an irony in discovering that we want to write; outsiders who are drawn to an outsider occupation.
And the tension in the irony is mitigated by accepting at some point that it’s actually okay to not be ‘normal’.
I didn’t start writing about my experiences as an Asian-Australian until my mid-20s, but it’s now the stuff I’ve had published the most. For the panelists in that MWF session, the work they are known for owes much to their personal cultural legacy. Do writers in this country from migrant backgrounds have the freedom to do what Japanese-English writer Kazuo Ishiguro did with The Remains of the Day, and write something completely removed from their parents’ cultures? Is there even a reason why they should? And would Australian publishers or readers let them? These were writers who even at the stage of negotiating interest from publishers, were at times pressured to make their work more accessible. Maxine’s The Hate Race was encouraged to have a more pleasant-sounding name. With one publisher, AS Patrić had to make a point to keep his grapheme ć.
I went away from the event reminded again of the double-edged sword of writing about my parents’ culture – my culture – and its legacy to me. But I’m a Việt Kiều, not wholly one thing or the other. In a society where that’s increasingly controversial, I’m finally coming around to that being normal for me.