Creative migration: ‘to emigrate inwardly’

No one, particularly an intellectual or artist, migrates just for money (1). In my case, I didn’t even entertain thoughts of migration when I left for Australia in mid-April 1991; I went there to merely pursue academic studies in the hope of getting a PhD degree.

In the process of securing my PhD, from 1991 to 1994, however, my instinct for wandering took hold and I found myself coming to the decision to get my PR (permanent residence) in Australia and, at the end of my PhD studies, I said no to the offer of an associate professorship from a university in China.

I recorded my thoughts and feelings in a book of poetry that I wrote in 1995, Songs of the Last Chinese Poet,

three years on
i no longer know what nationality i am
i am a bit of everything
i was reading herman hesse some ten years ago
in a wuhan university library
and i had the impression that i not he had written the entire book
should i owe the success to the translator
or to the author
i should owe that to myself
to that something within that is capable of infinite metamorphosis
that something that at once denies the existence of my own being
and creates a totally alien one
was it that that prompted my friend to say that he had not realized
that he had been living all along like rousseau until he read him
in chinese translation

or put it more simply
is this an unconscious spiritual colonization
by an unwitting colonizer
are we willing conspirators
in an increasingly unbalanced international game?
but we have lost forever lost
like thieves
our writers steal from them
and stuff their notes
and who are praised for being so much like us
the slit-eyed and single-fold eyed
no longer exist
for they have all gone to their western/ized doctors
and had the double-fold-eye operation

i am thinking of a time
probably in a hundred years
when all over china and asia
macdonalds are the standard meal
teams play american or english or australian football only
presidents premiers party chairmen professors
converse in admirable oxford harvard or even aussie english
everybody drives a car
nobody needs a divorce as nobody really marries
freedom is as easily available as a can of coke
and as easily disposable
critics judge according to the rules set by marx engels nietzsche
Derrida Lacan Foucault Bhabha Said Barthes
anyone who speaks a european language
has sunken eyes big nose and armpits that need constant
with deodorant
writers are proud of the fact that they can speak and write in a
language better than they do in their
their mother
raped then force-married by the newly-found
and the masses
once you give them something good to eat
they will go with you
if you give them a skin for free
they’ll wear it
if you give them a colour
they’ll take it as long as it is whiter than their own
and freer of charge
god must have said somewhere that this world eventually will
be under christianity and an english one at that

what would you do when that happens

ah well
i’ll speak chinese
i guess

It’s perhaps interesting to note that one chooses to live in an English-speaking country with an English-speaking future while electing to speak ‘chinese’. But isn’t that the paradoxical reality of being a migrant, accepting to live the place but not the language? That being the case, I decided early on to cut through the jungle of academic obstruction and social rejection, in a country known for its previous, and still lingering, harshness on migrants from Asia in general and those from mainland China in particular by travelling down the lonely path of bilinguality, bent on creating a career out of nothing, literally from scratch. And the result is what everyone can see: nothing if not creative, and for this I thank migration for the impetus and inspiration that it has brought me over my Australian years, thirty by 2021.

One of the first things that has to be said is that self-translation for translation as part and parcel of this migratory process and self-translation, even more than other forms of translation, serves as an empowering way of moving into an alien language and culture. I recall one early poem I wrote in Chinese that I subsequently self-translated into English. It goes thus,


You are lonely
You wander all alone across the boundless heavenly desert, east to west, ignored
You are lonely

You are not wanted
You pace in vain before the door, on the window, around the bed, all asleep now
You are not wanted

You are insomniac
You think through the night in dream, with an unclosing eye that gazes upon the world
You are insomniac

You are not understood
Described by some as a white rabbit under the laurel tree, by some as lifeless and cold
You are not understood

You are mine
You shed liquid brilliance on me and find yourself in my eyes
You are mine

One immediately notices that this poem, written in mid-1985 in China, did not see the light of the day till 1995 when it appeared for the first time in my first collection of English poems, Moon over Melbourne and Other Poems, many of which contain self-translated poems without calling themselves so. Poetry, it seems, has a way of migrating into another language by hook or crook, much the same way migrants did in the 2015 crisis when they found their way into European countries, any European country really.

But my way is more metaphysical than physical, more poetic than financial, living and writing both languages in an alien space never felt to be entirely one’s own till well into the twenty-first century. My first novel, The Eastern Slope Chronicle, for example, is a story-based long meditation on the process of migration, in which, Dao Zhuang, the protagonist, muses in a poem thus,


the voice
when silenced
creeps out of fingers

the words
when silenced

the trees
when silenced

the heart
when silenced

Indeed, the mind, when expatriated and transplanted, creates, and it creates a hell lot of stuff that otherwise would not have come into being. Consider James Joyce who did most of his work after he migrated with his partner to continental Europe in his early twenties. Consider, too, Samuel Beckett, who wrote in both English and French, translating himself into either language, and spent much of his life in Europe, including France. One’s own native country, in this case China—I happen to recall a remark that a former university classmate of mine made—is a nationwide prison, a prison the size of the country. How can you imagine someone writing in that prison being a creative person without putting himself in peril? One migrates, after all, to break prison and seek freedom outside it even if it is only an illusion.

One may argue that Emily Dickinson never migrated. Nor did Fernando Pessoa. They could, it seems, do their lasting creative work secure at home, a homeland that, in my friend’s opinion, might have been dismissed as another prison in either case. For, after all, less than a dozen of her poems published had to suffer heavy editing to ‘fit the conventional poetic rules of the time.’ The very fact that her poems and Pessoa’s poems had to be published posthumously is evidence enough that they have to, if they are creative enough to go against the grain, migrate from death back to life again, securing themselves a permanent place in human history, rather than the so-called this-worldly successes that die when they die. May I add that Pessoa spent ten years in Durban, now part of South Africa, from thirteen to twenty-three, before he returned to Portugal permanently, writing in both English and Portuguese, managing to self-publish four slim books of English poetry and only one book of Portuguese poetry before he died?

What a writing life is that, one might wonder, having to publish one’s own work by oneself, in the case of Pessoa, or consigning one’s own work to obscurity, in the case of Dickinson? But that is exactly what migration—mental, spiritual and creative—is all about. You create your work, going against the grain, as Joris-Karl Huysmans did in his novel, Against Nature, the English version of À rebours (1884), convinced that that is what you want to do, not what the world want you to do, not what the critics want you to do, not what the professors want you to do and, ultimately, not what the publishers want you to do. They can all be damned by giving way to your imagination in migration. And it is indeed in migration that one can truly create.

It is encouraging to know that Beckett’s first novel was rejected so many times that he ‘decided to abandon it,’ only to see, in his death, its publication in 1992, three years after he died. I say ‘encouraging’ because I’m having the same difficulty with my fifth English novel, which has been rejected so many times that I no longer care although I have not, like Beckett, ‘decided to abandon it.’ For me, the only thing that matters is to ‘emigrate inwardly’ by migrating into writing, be it poetry or fiction or any other genres that take my fancy. If freedom is but an illusion, one’s effort in migrating away from the prison one happens to find oneself in, be it China or Australia or anywhere else that is humanly constructed, will have to move along creative lines where one can truly breathe and live; anything less would be unwanted.

A migrant that goes into the mind by way of going against the grain is a stranger, and a total stranger at that, who will not be tamed and contained by the so-called ‘English language’ but he must go against it till the very going-against bursts into creative flames. At one stage, in my case, the more boring stuff I read in English the more mistakes I made until I realized these mistakes were so valuable that they could be turned into what I later termed ‘creative mistakes’. A short poem could serve to illustrate what I mean by that.

Reading Dana Gioia, Wrongly that Is

I thought I saw
 Peel pain

 But I was disappointed

To see

 “feel pain”

when I read it again

Lately, these ‘creative mistakes’ have reached a new height, not only in Chinese but also in English. I find it hard to resist the temptation to offer a glimpse into what I did recently although I hesitate to quote my lines written in Chinese. One fragment will serve to show how they can work or unwork in English.

Con Neck Ted


Anyone with a good word sense can see that one must be mad to create such shibboleths. But why would poetry succumb to ‘anyone with a good word sense’ anyway? They have enough money to worry about other than poetry.

More a migrant miner than a migrant worker, I mine the cultures wherever I go. If one is born with one’s mother tongue, which in my case is Chinese, and one is also given the gift of one’s father tongue, which in my case is English, why can’t one bring the long estranged two together and what better form or genre than poetry in which one can make that happen? So it is towards this goal that I, the migrant miner, am mining a new form that combines the two in a happy reunion. I’ll show you a poem that does exactly that, inspired by an abstract painting that an artist friend of mine did in which he plastered dead flies in the shape of war planes all over the canvas to represent a war.







I’m sorry if the Chinese characters sound and look daunting. But if the world will speak an English language in twenty years, as an agent in Australia once proudly and unashamedly predicted, the world will perhaps have to balance that by speaking a Chinese one, too, or at least by understanding a Chinese one. Or else they’ll miss half the show.

Perhaps the following one makes a bit more sense although I’m not entirely sure. We’ll see:


无所thing thing的I,

To do nothing if not creative, to live as an eternal migrant, both physical, metaphysical and poetical, and to live a death that one migrates into with dismal want of success, is to achieve denial, rejection, non-publication, non-inclusion, and anything and everything that goes with a no.

A Chinese editor’s remark sounded loud and clear, and it still does, when he commented on my inclusion of large tracks of English in my Chinese novel, titled, Taojin Di (《淘金地》) [A Land of Gold-diggers], about how the 17,000-odd Chinese landed in Robe, South Australia, in the mid-1900s and went on foot to the Victorian goldfields, published in early 2014, by saying: one English word in your novel will cause us a loss of one hundred Chinese readers. Fair enough and bad enough, Mate! If one is an artist whose sole purpose is creation, one can’t afford to keep issuing free passports to people whose sole purpose is making money, can he?

For years, I have been writing work in English that has met total rejection, only to end up being published by the publisher who first rejected it and going on to win prizes, unfortunately. Why unfortunately? Well, because it never somehow manages to make the publisher rich marketwise. In this regard, if a migrant miner mines to a sufficient depth for spiritual and artistic gold, he is sure to be denied entry to any country whose only concern is its own welfare of bed, breakfast and bath, and everything else that goes with it. Suffice it to say that the same thing happens in China, on an even more massive scale, like Portugal with Pessoa, America with Dickinson, Ireland with Joyce, Austria with Kafka, England with BS Johnson, and any number of countries where the heart and mind are being suppressed, forcing them to ‘emigrate inwardly’, if not outwardly.

Sometimes, one does wish to stay put at home in the truest sense of the word, striking roots as deeply as one can, remaining relaxed and comfortable, and tame, and creative to an acceptable and successful degree, never going beyond the limit, never stepping out of the comfort zone and submitting to the restrictions and restrains other people want you to submit to, without for a moment thinking of migrating, not even mentally and metaphysically, happy to be a domesticated animal, eating out of the authority’s and the funding organizations’ hands, and playing their game with the fixed rules. But do listen to this poem, which I wrote about thirty-six years ago in China—for, long before I physically migrated, I had already done so in the depths of my heart.

The Wanderer

you have walked for a long time in the territory of the heart
hovering around the edge and dreaming of the freedom on the other shore
your reality is iron bars
the shadows of the sun ten thousand miles away perhaps not joined

you are lumbering towards there in response to the voiceless call
you encounter identical days and nights
everything keeps you at a distance and everything is laughing
you hear secret cries in the middle of a desert and ocean

the bone marrow has turned into fossil before trails of blood burst into flowers
submerged in sunshine, bars of iron are poking through seams of cloud
before you catch the sun you have been sunken by the stars
bearing yourself you fly with wings bound by the universe

wherever you go it comes back to you
you are yourself and the loss of you
hovering around the border and dreaming of the freedom on the other shore
you have walked for a long time in the territory of the heart

Still, one remains part of that species that will be forced to migrate from place to place, from country to country, from time to time, from space to space, and, ultimately, from life to death and, possibly, back to life again when one is long gone, for the world will always be happy to kill more Pessoas, Dickinsons, Becketts and Joyces by refusing to publish them or forcing them into obscurity because their work defies the norm and they do not bring in profit and they confuse the mediocrities. Let them have a field day while they are alive for who knows if they do not die deader than the ones rejected by them.



(Title) Adam Thirlwell, ‘The death of Bohumil Hrabal,’ in Bohumil Hrabal, I Served the King of England. London: Vintage Books, 2009 [1971], p. xxvi. This article is based on a talk I gave at Connecting Spaces, Zurich University of Arts, in Hong Kong, on 12/11/15.

(1) This statement, as rightly pointed out by Nicholas Birns and I thank him for that, may beg the question that there really are what’s known as ‘economic migrants’ throughout world history, often originating in the under-developed or developing countries and moving towards the developed countries, mostly in the West, though not excluding China as more and more Africans have taken to living there in recent years, an issue worth another paper. Still, in view of what is in question here in this paper, I think it makes aesthetic and artistic sense to make the statement.


Image: Casa Fernando Pessoa, Wikimedia Commons


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Ouyang Yu

Ouyang Yu is a poet based in Melbourne and since his first arrival in April 1991 in Australia, he has published quite a few poems. His eighth novel, All the Rivers Run South, is forthcoming with Puncher & Wattmann in 2023.

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