[Brain Mill Press] Behind the Bamboo Screen

I have been reading for as long as I remember. My mother claims my reading accelerated my short-sightedness, and I’d like to think that my ability to read a book while walking has allowed me to flourish when it comes to texting or tweeting when I’m on foot. I read and reread my mother’s collection of Enid Blyton books, lived through the release of the Harry Potter series, and devoured as many high fantasy novels I could get my hands on. I then become enamoured with the classics, before settling comfortably into a diet of literary fiction.

Somewhat ironically, I never really read much Australian fiction. I was convinced that most, if not all Australian literature waxed lyrical about the outback and the bush, and that really wasn’t something I was willing to spend my time on. I subconsciously resisted reading anything that identified as Australian literature until I was forced to – in the second semester of my fourth year at university. By a strange twist of fate, I had to take two Australian literature courses, and I was mentally preparing myself for a boring semester.

Boy, was I wrong.

Hsu Ming Teo’s Behind the Moon was the first text on both of my reading lists that caught my eye. Quite honestly, I was probably just excited to read a piece of writing by an Asian-Australian author. Indeed, Behind The Moon turned out to be the first novel containing characters I could truly identify with. Justin Cheong is the son of Singaporean-Chinese parents, and Tien Ho the daughter of a Vietnamese mother who fled her home country during the Vietnam War. There are snippets, here and there, of cultural commentary – innocuous to those who don’t know of their significance, but monumental to those who do.

Justin’s father, Tek, doesn’t speak of his son’s transgressions. In reciprocation, Justin is the very embodiment of filial piety, afraid of disappointing his father any further, a hotbed for problems to come. Tien, enamoured with the film The Wizard of Oz, always “felt as if there was a Tien-shaped treasure box inside her that she could never quite manage to open” (24). Their friend, Gibbo, to his friends’ chagrin, desperately wants to be Chinese. It is a novel about identity, about family, about desperate attempts to just belong.

At their very core, isn’t this what all novels are about?

I love the slips of Chinese, secrets shared in plain sight. After years of British and American popular culture references, there is an uncanniness in seeing references to Woman’s Day, the shortening of McDonald’s to “Macca’s”, the HSC. But perhaps most importantly of all, Behind the Moon verbalises the internal struggle of being Asian in Australia – of not being seen as Australian by white Australians, in addition to not being seen as Asian by Aunties and Uncles, of the older generations.

If we are not Australian enough for Australians, and not Asian enough for Asians, then who are we? Where do we fit?

Teo has also written about the amputated self, of an identity where “the intellectual, cultural, social, spiritual, familial, emotional and psychological do not align. There are awkward gaps everywhere” (“Amputations of the Self” 137). These gaps may be uncomfortable, but arguably, necessary. They facilitate a fluidity of identity that is freeing and confusing, all at the same time. These gaps are the places in which our true selves – whatever they may be – lie.

Encouraged by my experience with Teo’s novel, I eagerly set out to find writing from other Asian-Australians – in particular, South-East-Asian-Australian women. This enthusiasm was doused when I realised this would be no easy task. The Australian fiction section in my local Dymocks store took up a whole aisle, and yet I could only find The Boat (Nam Le) and Questions of Travel (Michelle de Kretser). Call me cynical, but I’m pretty sure the only reason they were even in Dymocks was because they had won awards. I ended up resorting to an Australian second hand online bookshop – even the Book Depository didn’t have most of the titles I wanted. I looked for one particular novel, Simone Lazaroo’s The World Waiting to be Made, for a whole year, even emailing Lazaroo to ask if she had any spare copies. I finally found it on a dusty shelf in a second hand bookstore in Sydney while I was on holiday.

The scarcity of Asian-Australian writing is frightening, and for me, deeply upsetting. When the 2011 census was conducted, 2.4 million people, or 12 percent of the population, identified as Asian-Australia. More up to date figures will be available after this year’s census, but I would not be surprised if this number is now even higher. Most importantly, there is no way this figure was, or is reflected in the percentage of Asian-Australian novels in the market. Behind the Moon didn’t just introduce me to characters with whom I felt a strong cultural connection – it also gave me some kind of confidence that there was space in Australian dialogue for people with names like “Hsu-Ming Teo”. It was something of a guiding light amongst the murky waters of my parents’ quiet disdain at the career I had chosen to pursue.

Peering behind the bamboo screen, or indeed, completely tearing it down, presents its own unique set of issues. Promotion and reviews of Asian-Australian writing often fall into the trap of Orientalism, of exoticising the author, their characters, or possibly even both. These books might not sell well, perhaps because they are attached to an author with a “weird looking name”, or because they confront issues people don’t want to read or think about. It is easy to be ensnared by stereotypes, especially if they have been framed as part of everyday life. And then there are the slight but significant differences between Eastern and Western cultures, especially as they pertain to the value of education, obedience, and racism.

In spite of such obstacles, there needs to be space in the Australian literary vernacular for Asian-Australian writers. We have stories to tell. These are our stories, and our parents’ stories. They may be painful and disconcerting, but they are just as important – if not more important – than those written by middle aged, middle class white men. Australia seems awfully well versed in the practice of ignoring or denigrating anything that would tarnish our rich, just-over-200-year-old history. Doing so doesn’t do our country any favours. It simply gives us licence to repeat previous mistakes, over and over and over.

Wresting the pen away from white males will always be an uphill battle. Awards for female writers like the Stella Prize are beginning to make headway in the industry, but there is still a long way to go. Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, has only been awarded to a writer of Asian descent once in its 59 years. Of course, these issues cannot be resolved by a single person or organisation, let alone a young student with a considerable lack of credentials to her name. At the same time, I don’t want my children growing up in a world where they are 20 years old before they are even aware that they have access to stories with characters and stories to which they can truly relate.

The Australian arts industry is currently under a huge amount of stress, what with the threat of parallel importation restrictions and increasingly drastic cuts to funding. However, Asian representation in many, if not all forms of art in Australia has been considerably lacking for an even longer period of time. The conversation has only recently shifted seriously to tackle such issues, and I can only hope that we will continue on such a trajectory. Until then, I will be doing all I can to champion Asian Australian writing, both old and new. I might not be able to influence a whole country, but if I go about it one person at a time, maybe – just maybe – I might be able to start the process of tearing down the bamboo screen.

This piece was originally published on Brain Mill Press, as part of their ‘The Best I Ever Had’ series. The original link is here!

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