From the Editors - Summer 2015

Asians and Australians: when one group is asked about the other, the immediate response often abounds with stereotypes.

To Asians, Australia has been viewed as a Californicated England – a vastness of middle-class Anglo Saxons enjoying an outdoors life of surfboards, ripe wines and Commonwealth sports. Aussies are what Brits become when clouds and wind are permanently shooed away by a hot, dry sun, and starched collars are discarded for untucked linen shirts. Australia is a land blessed with both abundant mineral reserves and a vibrant democracy – a rare combination in a world where nations are too often endowed with one but not both assets.

To Australians, Asians have been their antithesis. The Asian world is one of chaotic growth – other-skinned people scurrying up and away from histories long mired in poverty, conflict and repression. Their energy seems relentless, sometimes threatening. Asia is life spice – a piquancy for an otherwise stable or bland existence, flavouring that enlivens local communities with diversity, energises economies, and stirs up the native cuisine. ‘’Roo tails cooked in coals’ have given way to ‘’roo curry’, according to aboriginal Yugambeh writer Ellen van Neerven.

However, as with all constructive dialogue, continuing engagement reveals a far more complex and subtle picture. Firstly, Australia and Asia are anything but homogeneous: each contains large populations of people whose identities – race, religion, values, politics – differ widely, often violently. To many of them, labels such as ‘Australian’ or ‘Asian’ are too broad to be meaningful. Furthermore, few things are more dynamic or vexing than human interaction. As observer, as analyst, as scribe, any of us at best simply tries to keep up with what’s going on. Inevitably, labels – inadequate though they might be – can at least provide a useful frame for further questioning.

In mid-2014, Australia’s Griffith Review set out to create a virtual com­munity of Australian and Asian literary talent by inviting writers born after 1970 to reflect on contemporary Asia and the tumultuous change that the region has undergone during their lifetimes. The collection was jointly edited by Griffith Review’s Julianne Shultz and Asia Pacific Writers & Translators’ Jane Camens, and produced in collaboration with the Asia Literary Review. This issue of the ALR is a selection of articles that appear in Griffith Review’s New Asia Now, being published in parallel.

What themes have emerged from the resulting dialogue? Naturally, many of the Asian authors have chosen certain well-established topics when addressing audiences from Western countries such as Australia. As expected, there is politics, where comparisons between Asian and Australian systems highlight current or past inadequacies – and hilarities – in countries such as Indonesia (Maggie Tiojakin), the Philippines (Miguel Syjuco), Vietnam (Andre Dao) and Malaysia (Omar Musa). Asian contributors have also felt compelled to open up on human rights shortcomings, whether in Kashmir (Majid Maqbool), China (Murong Xuecun), North Korea (Jang Jin-sung) or Hong Kong (Joshua Ip). The Australian writing has a different resonance, some using Asian motifs such as manga (Sally McLaren) and origami (Siobhan Harvey) to tell their stories, while others explore the prickly and seemingly intractable issue of racial tension (Jessie Cole) that exists in some Australian communities.

Many of the pieces represent a reaching out by disparate types of people who have shared a common experience (Asia). They acknowledge that many differences in perspective exist, but so too does an irrepressible desire to bridge the gaps. Their writings are a nudge for action or a plea for better understanding.

More tellingly, though, many of the works that simply explore an author’s own world reveal an essential universality amongst all of us. Stories detailing family conflict – an unwanted pregnancy in China, father-son alienation in India – speak to anyone confronting the compli­cations of everyday life. The tragedy of death or dementia, whether it occurs in Japan or Thailand, flattens any person whose loved one has been so victimised. A Nepalese poem that eerily foreshadowed the recent earthquakes reminds us all of our frailty in the face of nature’s stirrings. Yet, in our lighter moments, as we contemplate how information tech­nology has transformed our lives, we also can’t help but wonder about call centres in the Philippines or India and what human melodramas might be playing out amongst their legions of cheerily-voiced agents.

Most powerful is the metaphor of Gondwana, the southern half of the Pangaea supercontinent that separated some 200 million years ago to become the continental landmasses familiar to us today. As Gondwana itself fractured, some of it drifted north to collide with Laurasia (the northern half of Pangaea) to form India and the Himalayas, while other parts settled in the Southern hemisphere to form Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica. As explained by author Ellen van Neerven in her essay ‘Half a Butterfly’, the geology, flora and fauna between the various parts of Gondwana share much in common, though they are now oceans apart. That many similar species of fauna, including dogs and butterflies, exist in India, Papua New Guinea and Australia owes much to the migra­tion of humans that have continued throughout history. In short, we have been and always will be wanderers, as well as wonderers. Our indi­vidual perspectives and fortunes seem forever destined to follow courses that intertwine, then merge. Advancing technologies, widening human liberties and increasing dialogue only accelerate that process. Collectively, though oceans and hemispheres may divide us, our commonality is a seismic force more impactful than the shifting of tectonic plates beneath our feet.


Phillip Kim

Martin Alexander 

More Non-fiction

Please Register or Login

Register now for full access to News and Events, Web Exclusives, Blogs and Comments.

If you've already registered, please login.