In winter 2020, as Australians huddled indoors to avoid the coronavirus, the SBS network launched a national competition for emerging writers. In keeping with the broadcaster’s multicultural orientation, competitors were to submit a short personal memoir on the topic “Growing up in diverse Australia”. First prize was set at $5000 and the runner-up would receive $3000, with the winning pieces published by SBS.
If the broadcaster advised on a competition webpage it was seeking entries from those of ethnic or indigenous background, especially women, it did encourage submissions from non-heterosexual writers and the disabled, indeed, the webpage assured that writings on the theme would be accepted from anyone who cared to compete. There appeared just two firm limits. Besides a maximum length of 2000 words per entry, the contest was open only to those who had not previously produced a book with a professional publisher (writers who self-published books could compete).
In December the inaugural winners of this award were announced. Over 2000 entries had been received, a daunting number to assess. Nevertheless, the two judges—Benjamin Law, author of SBS’s television drama The Family Law, and the indigenous novelist Melissa Lucashenko—had agreed on Alana Hicks as the overall winner and Nadia Johansen as runner-up, while pieces by Amy Duong and Nakul Legha were highly commended (for which the authors each received $1000). All four entries were promptly published on SBS’s website.
Diversity in a multicultural sense certainly describes the final four. Juggling stylistic qualities and emotional content with political overtones, the selection is mixed. The two winning entries portray their authors as quietly suffering in communities riven with bigotry. One gets herself out of this bad situation. The other does not. These pieces are quite a contrast to the two highly commended memoirs, which are psychologically rich reminiscences of migrant families dealing with cultural dislocation, and convey much about growing up in an ethnic minority.
With so many entries reportedly received, a question mark surely hangs over the process used to winnow submissions. How was writing vetted before acceptable pieces were passed to the judges? Were authors matched against non-literary categories? Did a management committee have input? Given that, of the chosen four writers, one is of mixed race, another is indigenous, a third is an immigrant, and the last is the Australian-born child of refugees, readers must wonder if bureaucratic boxes had to be ticked.
Noticeable, too, is how SBS bent its own competition rules for one of the winning entries. Duong has kept her tender memoir to a few words under the 2000-word limit, Hicks’s well-crafted reflection on her adolescence is a comfortable 1600 words, while Legha delivers his hilarious account of childhood in a quick-paced 1200 words. These three authors work within the award’s guidelines, and they carry it off well. But at nearly 2200 words, Johansen’s disjointed piece on education—runner-up in the overall prize—clearly exceeds the stated maximum length. Why was this rule, required of all competitors, waived for an indigenous writer?
Amy Duong’s carefully nuanced entry is framed at beginning and end with thoughts on plastic chairs. In itself this utility item has little seeming value. “It is cheap and versatile, and it goes with absolutely no one’s décor,” she affirms. Yet for Vietnamese families custom has weighted the plastic chair with meaning, because these chairs—lots of them—are necessary for community events, traditional family gatherings and essential rites of passage. “It weighs almost nothing; it represents so much,” the author continues. “It is culture. It is nostalgia.”
This is a roundabout and subtle way for Duong to introduce arrangements for her aunt’s funeral, which occurred a decade ago when the author had left home and was attending university. She reflects on this senior family figure, a connection to a vague past, who spoke Chinese-accented Vietnamese and had endured much before fleeing communist repression by clambering aboard “a fishing boat in the middle of night to set sail for an uncertain future”.
Fixing upon her strained relations with this figure, Duong muses over the bafflement of immigrant parents and relatives who helplessly watch their Melbourne-born children grow up not as another generation of Vietnamese, but as young Australians with different aspirations and outlooks. The adults are not pleased. Duong counts the number of Vietnamese words she can remember—it shrinks each year—and recalls her childhood, realising with sadness that previously shared customs, ideals, values were lost as the years advanced, and how she was unable to communicate fully with her aunt’s generation:
The languages my family spoke were languages I was shedding, deliberately at first but then, completely by accident. I was like other immigrant children I knew who had been raised on Cheez TV and starved of representation. Australian perfection looked like Dolly magazine and Home and Away; it sounded like Kylie and Savage Garden. I wanted to speak that language too. I wanted to answer my mother’s calls on the bus without drawing attention.
This is self-evidently good writing. It’s not just Duong’s firm clean prose, and the evocative imagery she handles to give form to memory, but her underpinning grasp of human psychology, how she continually analyses. Describing going through her aunt’s belongings with her mother—worn clothes patched and patched again, shabby jumpers, homemade shirts, a cache of new polyester items still with price tags, everything packed neatly into drawers—the author is illuminating a life and its cherished values.
At the same time Duong intermittently nudges the reader, reminding us how her own story typifies a transformation experienced by many, many migrant families. This is familiar ground to historians of immigration, indeed John Molony’s The Native Born: The First White Australians (2000) identified this pattern emerging as early as the days of Macquarie. He showed how the early settlement was very much a social melting pot, with families surprised at how their offspring differed in attitudes and values.
That was the famous social rift between so-called “sterling” and “currency”, where new generations consciously spurned the county accents, dialect words and behaviour patterns of settler (and former convict) parents, thereby shaping a distinctly new hybrid culture—the emerging culture of Australia. We may no longer call the independently-minded, locally-born daughter of immigrant parents “Betsy bandicoot”, but we do know the consternation and emotional turbulence these girls provoke in their families and communities. So if Duong writes as the child of Vietnamese who came to Melbourne in the late twentieth century, on another level the changes she undergoes mirror what occurs to so many migrants: Italians setting down roots in post-war Adelaide, say, or even families from Shropshire arriving in early Hobart Town.
Amy Duong concludes her poignant memoir by returning to its introductory motif, a cheap red plastic chair: “So I picked up the chair in my hands and brought it closer. It was so light. It weighed almost nothing. In that moment I saw it for what it was: an anchor to a place I knew I would not inhabit forever.”
Under different circumstances one might expect to come across Nakul Legha’s piece in an old copy of the New Yorker. With a strong sense of the ridiculous, his writing exudes that relaxed manner of classic American humorists. The tone is smart, urbane and infectiously funny.
Legha recounts his efforts to embrace Australian values after arriving in this country at nine years of age. There is a rub. Having previously lived in Bhutan, where the media was tightly controlled, the youngster was overwhelmed by the unrestrained opinions heard over Sydney’s airwaves. Instantly he became an avid listener of commercial radio’s talkback kings: Stan Zemanek, John Laws and Alan Jones:
Like Homer’s Sirens luring unwitting sailors, these men first entranced me from the tinny speakers in the back seat of Kuljit Uncle’s ’92 Corolla, the grand chariot on which my parents and I made our entrance into Australian life.
It’s a familiar tale of migrant child and inappropriate electronic media. While his parents struggled with low-paid shift work, the impressionable youngster gobbled down every word uttered by “Jonesie” before school, “Stan” in the evenings, and “Lawsie” in mid-morning during term holidays. Why? What drew him? The author lists their appeal:
These were confident, articulate men who knew everything there was to know about being Australian. About being an Aussie battler. An Aussie father. An Aussie patriot … Most impressively, they were always right. Everyone who called in agreed with them. And if you didn’t, they would shout at you until you did.
This allure makes even more sense when Legha mentions, in passing, how he was being teased at primary school. Other children would mock his Indian accent, his mannerisms, his food preferences, and there were clumsy attempts at mimicry. So he craved their acceptance; “I tried everything to fit in,” he emphasises.
Yet Legha does not grumble. Not once does he ease into self-pity. Instead, he fixes on the hilarity of the situation, how he would sit alone on the small balcony of the family’s flat sipping glasses of Milo while listening to a blaring transistor radio. Attentive to the cultural markers, he changed accordingly. “I picked sides and chose favourites. Ford vs Holden. Warney vs Murali. 2UE vs 2GB,” he recalls; and he aspired to be “that guy wearing the Aussie flag as a cape at every sports event”.
His baffled parents tried to keep up: “I impatiently corrected dad’s pronunciation when he offered to make Wedgie Mite on toast for breakfast or take us to Pijja Hut for dinner.” But when, due to employment difficulties, they talked of moving to India, the youngster insisted he would only leave Australia if given a collection of Slim Dusty albums to take with him.
Throughout Legha uses humour to identify, and unpick, the patterns relentlessly used on-air by successful radio personalities, the sentiments they traded in, their use of cloying stereotypes, the bullying eruptions if a caller dared disagree. At points, this is not far from They’re a Weird Mob (1957), the post-war novel of working-class Australia as seen from the viewpoint of the newly-arrived Italian immigrant Nino Culotta (later revealed as a pseudonym for local boy John O’Grady). Still clinging tenaciously to much the same opinions and idols, Sydney’s blue-collar “battlers” seem hardly to have changed in the six decades since.
Legha does make a cultural faux pas at the end by casting Australians as displaced Englishmen. It’s one thing jibing at the national flag’s colours, but are we really to believe the other pupils befriended at his Parramatta school were all of “Anglo” descent? Nonetheless, Legha delivers an adept piece. Each line is put to use, and his wit sparkles.
The consciously literary piece by Alana Hicks is also about craving acceptance. Like Duong’s and Legha’s entries, it employs a high level of self-reflection where the mature adult recalls, and critically examines, a less aware younger self.
Starting with a short vivid passage in which she describes parts of her body as different skin shades, the New Guinea-born Hicks details the anguish over her identity she experienced in her teens. She explains that her family was then divided by geography. Due to poor public safety in New Guinea—Hicks recalls the family’s car being ambushed—she and her Melanesian mother had moved to her deceased grandparents’ Sydney home, while her European-descent father and older siblings remained in Port Moresby. If safe now, she struggled with a potent memory of thugs menacing her mother with a machete. It wouldn’t go away.
By the age of fifteen this unhealed trauma had led Hicks to what youth counsellors would call problematic life choices, all connected with marijuana:
I didn’t smoke weed to rebel. I smoked to quiet the night terrors. My shaky foundation reverberated in my brain. Made it hard to sleep. To turn my brain off I needed something, and found it. With weed I found other alone-people, others who were trying to suppress a tremor.
She details her involvement with a teen circle trying to be different in those predictable ways of the late 1990s. They puff dope to reckless excess, sport items of punk attire, wear Doc Martens boots, of course, and are drawn to American “grunge” culture, to the bleak rock music of Nirvana and its suicidal singer Kurt Cobain. Hicks stresses this took place in one of Sydney’s insular affluent suburbs, although her prose style invests everything with the tawdry, rundown appearance of a beatnik slum world. The writing is most evocative—Hicks has a gift for description.
She settles into her crush on “Honda Boy”, a pizza delivery kid and pot distributor. She names him this after the battered, duco-flaking Japanese car he screeches around in on Friday and Saturday evenings, dropping off Hawaiians or Margaritas ordered by phone with side orders of marijuana. She had not previously had a boyfriend. There have been interested youths, although their vulgar preliminaries to asking her out (“You’re not Asian, are you? Because I don’t date Asians”) had turned her well off.
During her sixteenth year, she and Honda Boy became a couple, and life melted into a mellow fusion of dope, pizza, sex and thumping music inside the ageing caravan parked behind her family’s weatherboard home. For her everything seemed fulfilled until one day, when the pair were loitering aimlessly in a street, and her beau made an offhand remark: “You know, I wouldn’t be with you if you looked like your mother.”
Those wounding words were a wake-up call. Feeling utterly used, the adolescent takes stock: “Through Honda Boy I saw teenage white culture, the music and skating, the casual misogyny, the cruelty of class. I was white enough to be accepted …” In an implicit way she has witnessed her mother made victim again; which leads the teenager to have a hard look at those she knocks about with, how they scorn her Melanesian background: “I recognised it in a lot of the boys, they wanted a me without my culture, without my mother. A mask.”
So Hicks pulls away and, gravitating to Sydney’s inner-west, now seeks out friends who will accept her for who she is. Emotional growth is taking place.
Under the title “How it feels to be a First Nations person inside a colonial education system,” Nadia Johansen writes of attending university from the standpoint of someone who identifies as indigenous. Her very personal narrative, which is as much polemic as memoir, is structured around a tertiary seminar dealing with Aboriginal material. She attended it during her studies at the Queensland University of Technology, and interweaves the session with flashbacks from her past.
Efforts to take account of the history and culture of indigenous peoples became a national priority in the wake of the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations. Concerned educators, with input from community leaders, have extensively rewritten the school curriculum to embrace an Aboriginal perspective. Universities have also made it a priority in degree studies to address where possible contemporary Aboriginal issues and pressing legal matters, along with proactively supporting indigenous-focused research work.
Johansen, a young person residing in Brisbane, has been at the receiving end of these broad reforms and innovations. The seminar in her memoir—which occurred in QUT’s Creative Writing program—introduced young tertiary students to Yothu Yindi’s 1991 rock song “Treaty”, a recent poem by the contemporary Koori writer Alison Whittaker, and television footage from a 2016 Four Corners exposé on the treatment of teen males imprisoned at Darwin’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. An indigenous guest speaker also gave a presentation.
This seminar sets Johansen reflecting on her education; although there does appear a snag. When the tutor urges students to talk openly (“C’mon don’t be afraid to say what comes to your mind”), the author, who avoids mixing (“Make sure not to sit next to anyone who’d talk to me. The woman is calling me but I ignore her”), reveals she does not approve of non-Aborigines discussing indigenous issues (“I breathe out, preparing to be discussed by the kids who learned from the coloniser’s textbook”). A gloomy soul in a seemingly happy room, she is already set against discussion before anyone speaks.
It soon emerges that fellow students are unfamiliar with Yothu Yindu or their music. Johansen thinks this disturbing: a potential indicator of myopic white tastes? Later another student is curious about how, in a version of the emperor’s new clothes, the guest speaker would not acknowledge her Caucasian forebears but identified as solely black. Johansen reacts as if referring to white ancestry is appallingly racist. It doesn’t occur to her that the matter ought to be discussed in a university seminar. After all, even that champion of black political rights, Nelson Mandela, was puzzled when visiting Australia that some mixed-race Aboriginal representatives he met considered themselves intrinsically black.
And so the piece runs. She may refer to interstate prisons and colonial history, but Johansen does not cite any instance of people at university or school behaving badly towards her, or Aborigines generally. Instead in an aggrieved manner she finds fault by picking over what others say or do. This leads her to fix on trivialities, like shaved legs and dark slacks, to jeer about “dowdy, unkind teachers”. Who is being prejudiced here?
It may aspire to the big statement, yet Johansen’s laboured piece is awkwardly arranged. Some sections have headings (“Last night”, “Earlier that day”, “Last week”, “Now”, “Minutes later”) and there are unflagged flashbacks. Jarring switches in prose style occur, from lyricism to internal monologue to political cant. It also doesn’t impress that “Aborigines” is misspelt by inserting an i before the e. But the main weakness is the author’s bitter tone, her intense nihilism.
Taking a “them-versus-us” view of educators and academics, Johansen not only scorns coverage of indigenous issues in university and school, she impugns the disciplines of history, anthropology, even medical science, as somehow tainted by race, and therefore not to be trusted. To this purpose, she uses an unidentified textbook from her primary school days as a straw man to knock down ideas she rejects.
She quotes that unnamed book on the early impact to indigenous health of alcohol, sugar and incoming infectious diseases: “Far more of the aboriginies [sic] died due to diseases, such as smallpox, than they did in skirmishes with the settlers. Their bodies were incapable of fighting off the diseases European people brought with them,” the passage ends. Johansen angrily responds, “Lies. A flat-out, blatant, glossy lies [sic]”.
Even as government acts to shield Aboriginal communities from the COVID-19 pandemic, Johansen offers no evidence to back up this medical claim; nor does she appear to grasp the historical technicalities involved. Smallpox first broke out at Port Jackson in April 1789 and proceeded to rip through native communities around Sydney Harbour. Survival rates for the virus have since been quantified by medical science, which in turn has enabled statisticians to use the known numbers of Aborigines in the region during the 1790s to help estimate the indigenous population before settlement. Much the same goes for areas afflicted by assorted diseases across the continent, statisticians using known post-epidemic Aboriginal numbers in geographic regions when approximating original populations.
Quoting again from her unspecified schoolbook (“Indigenous peoples don’t view the land like Europeans do. They believe they can’t own land because they are part of the land”), Johansen sweepingly accuses all scholars of ignoring Aboriginal perceptions of nature, adding, “White historians can’t see that every single thing in the world is connected.”
This is manifestly wrong. Understanding how indigenes construe their world has been a goal for historians and anthropologists for a century at least—the pioneer of field research Bronisław Malinowski wrote in 1922 that modern anthropology aims “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world”. The outcome of this in Australia has been an ever-expanding corpus of books, journal articles and conference papers on how native communities traditionally perceive and act in harmony with their environment. One cannot miss that copious material when seriously studying Aboriginal culture: not that Johansen exhibits familiarity with even the standard authorities or studies.
Her most exaggerated claim is to declare that Aborigines have “been storytelling and creating art for a hundred thousand years. During which time all life in the British Isles has been wiped out by four separate ice ages.” Science doesn’t support this. Lack of evidence means no date can be put on this “storytelling”. While there is cautious debate about ancient rock painting here (some traces are dated at over 21,000 years), no intact painted composition here has been dated prior to 15,000 years ago (in comparison paintings at Lascaux, France, are nearly 17,000 years old, and at Altamira, Spain, 18,000 years old). Pigment traces at archaeological sites suggest body painting and painted objects were part of Aboriginal funerary rites before this, but a line must be drawn with the arrival of humans in Australia at around 50,000 years ago. And that timeframe was defined through electron spin resolution dating of the Lake Mungo remains, and other sites in Asia.
As for the entire flora and fauna of Britain being exterminated not once, but four times over in the time cited, this is fantasy. Glacial episodes meant there were periods when humans withdrew south, but nature continued. Given the tenor of the piece it is tempting to wonder if we see a Freudian slip here, cataclysms being visited upon the evil colonisers’ forebears.
Clinical psychologists would spot a telling difference across the four memoirs selected by SBS’s judges. Alana Hicks, Amy Duong and Nakul Legha reflect upon and explain the behaviour of themselves and others. There is psychological insight to their writing. Sticking with surface actions, Nadia Johansen hardly does this.
Likewise there are differences in the prejudiced behaviour portrayed. Hicks and Legha endured nakedly racist attitudes and taunts from their young peers as they grew up. Their memoirs discuss their struggle to deal with this. In contrast Johansen frets and upsets herself over what others around her, who neither mention race nor attempt any harm, do or say.
Then there is evidence of trauma. Hicks is deeply troubled by memories of an assault on her mother in New Guinea; and the aunt at the focus of Duong’s piece at times furtively alluded to living through the wartime Tet offensive, as well as encounters with bandits and pirates. In a method symptomatic of violence survivors, both these people bury personal memory, pushing direct experiences behind them. Medical professionals will identify this behaviour straight away; likewise for relatives of some former soldiers. The trauma sufferer avoids saying what happened to them, keeping their minotaur at bay.
Johansen does not behave like this. Instead, she obsesses about events either in interstate prisons or centuries before she was born, raking over brutal things. The award’s judges praise her for exposing ongoing trauma, and an undercurrent of suffering within schools and university campuses; but I can’t detect involuntary responses here, those telltale signs of inner distress. Concealment and avoidance are missing. Actually, as recreation before her university seminar Johansen sat up much of the night viewing videos of physical abuse (“Death and violence in all their forms press in close to my body”). This is inconsistent with trauma. Rape victims, for example, do not watch films featuring rough sex.
Elsewhere Johansen recalls how as a child she brought into the “colonial” schoolroom views aired at home (“Mum made sure I knew my history and I was glad my classmates would be hearing it too”), and there is a flashback to related family car trips. By her account those childhood drives were accompanied by a gory parental commentary: natives were killed along that road, her mother said, Aborigines fought and died over there, or a battle occurred by this hill. She didn’t stop. When Johansen’s brother asks to play “I spy”, their mother forbids it, saying, “They massacred your ancestors around here.” So the impressionable children had to sit mutely and imagine men “chasing the car with whips and shotguns”.
“Those poor kids,” I thought on reading this. “What a way to grow up.”
Christopher Heathcote, who lives in Melbourne, is a regular contributor to Quadrant on art, film and society