Asian Australian Diasporic Poets: A Commentary

By | 1 August 2012

For some migrants the nation-state of origin is a marker of identity, though this affiliation depends on which nation-state they came from and the particular ethnic profiles of these states. For example, Ee Tiang Hong (born in Malaysia) and Kim Cheng Boey (born in Singapore) have written of the situation for Straits Chinese living in a predominantly Islamic region. For Ee the trauma of leaving a nascent Malaysia (which won independence from Britain in 1957) is complicated by the marginalisation of Chinese by the dominant Malay political class that emerged in its nation-building phase. Ee is a Malaysian-Chinese poet who migrated to Australia in 1975. Never anthologised in an Australian collection, he continued to address the same themes after his exile, though he did extend his thematic in poems that address Australia as the host nation. Kirpal Singh writes that

Newly independent Malaysia had provided him with a sufficient reason for voluntary self-exile … Ee Tiang Hong suffered the most in terms of disenchantment and disenfranchisement … A poetic register based on linguistic economy and understatement found itself deflected, after I Of the Many Faces (1960), into brooding on the consequences of Malaysian nationalism.1

Ee’s late Australian period poems in Nearing a Horizon (1994) show a ‘stoic grace and ironic poise’2, but the neglect and obscurity of Ee’s work in Australia was perhaps due to his late arrival there and to his ambivalent relation to the host nation, and that the readership for his poetry was not able to appreciate the situation in Malaysia. Like Yeats, his humanism interrogated the process of how a dream of colonial emancipation is made, distorted, and bastardised to fit the times3. For Ee and his fellow Chinese, the national imaginary became a nightmare. Nevertheless Ee expresses the sense of a liberal ideal that can survive and be passed down to the next generation:

One quiet evening you will return
To join your elders speaking
Of Freedom hanging in the sky, and
Inspired, you will relate on wings
Of such eloquence the burden of a dream
That your children, discontented,
Will take up your theme,
And seek their godhead, feel their age.
So it will go on and on,

(from ‘Myths for a Wilderness’)

Kim Cheng Boey is a remarkable inheritor of Ee’s project. Nick Terrell’s review of Kim Cheng Boey’s memoir, Between Stations, notes that he migrated from Singapore to Australia in 1977 after years of watching the Singapore of his childhood succumb to ‘the cycle of tear and build that is the philosophy of progress.’ Terrell writes:

His increasingly autobiographical poetry began to register his growing identification with an international class of writer-nomads alongside his pessimistic sense that modernisation was eroding a better world than it was creating.

Boey’s poems often invoke ancestors: the grandmother, the father and many others, and his work is often concerned with duality and ambivalence within identity: with ‘Chineseness’ and Australianness. Feeling settled is challenging, as is the question of identity and what it includes and excludes. On the one hand the Chinese Australian poet is somewhat uneasy about this duality. While celebrating multi-ethnic cuisine, and the lingua franca ‘Singlish’, this inheritance carries the huge weight of Chinese tradition. The sense of lost competence, lost certainties about identity, is acute. Identity is founded on – but not restricted to – the potency of the Chinese language to name and bridge the gaps in broken genealogies of the Straits Chinese, but these delicate connections, if not nurtured, are easily lost:

Last week, at the Queen Victoria Building, 
we stumbled on an exhibition
of the life of Quong Tart, the Chinese
pioneer who made it good in White
Australia. A tea merchant,
he married a Scotswoman, sang
Border ballads and wore tartan kilts;
he fed the Aborigines
and played cricket with the whites.
The catalogue printed his original
name Mei, our clan.
I could not explain
to my daughter the déjà vu, but her hand
was already pointing out the Mei
below Quong Tart’s portrait,
the tap of the finger
wiring us, connecting us
in a tremble of recognition.
She has finally learned
the character of her name.
(from ‘Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB’)

What then is home if not both there and here? Travel between the “stations” enables a reconnection of place, memory, and home, even though the stations are existentially distant. Only writing enables the recovery of the lost. In one of Eileen Chong’s poems (dedicated to Kim Cheng) accumulation of cultural detail serves to intensify the poignancy of the poet’s loss and subsequent recovery of fragments of an eroded Chinese tradition. This problematises the whole question of whether Chineseness “belongs” only to those who use the Chinese language. If we essentialise Chineseness, what then happens to its myriad regional differences?

Inside, surrounded by smells of home, my tongue loosens
then slips into the cadences of Singlish. I tell you of the afternoons
my grandmother fried sambal belachan in the house. You wrinkle 
your nose: these memories need neither grammar 

nor elaboration. You offer me an antidote for sadness: 
recite Wang Wei, Du Fu, Meng Haoran. But where you go
I cannot follow – I lost the language years ago. Outside, 
the rain has stopped. We drink our tea and split the bill.

(from ‘Winter Meeting’)

Ambivalence – ‘splitting the bill’ – marks many Asian Australian poets who can celebrate Australia and critique it at the same time. Hong Kong born Louise Ho, for example, strikes a tone of irony, satire, or cynicism as she takes aim at Orientalism in the Australian university:

Today five acclaimed Australian Sinologists
Stride out
From a page of the Higher Education supplement

I should add my mother’s name.

(from ‘Found Objects’)

Similarly Sudesh Mishra, a Fijian Indian by birth, eloquently locates Australia and the Pacific within an interdependent colonial space. In a poem about the early British and French agents of imperialism Cook, Bligh, and Bougainville, Mishra imagines them returning to the contemporary period, which is no more or less noble than the 18th century:

Would that all could journey to these hilariously
Confused archipelagos of the eighties,
Where half-baked natives fight chauvinism
With chauvinism perusing the New Testament
Through the sights of an old Imperial gun.

(from ‘Solid Forms’)

Mishra’s 1994 collection of poems, Memoirs of a Reluctant Traveller, satirises aspects of contemporary India and Southeast Asia, especially its venality, excessive bureaucracy, and fake religiosity. In ‘Lines in a Retiring Room’ Mishra notes the irony of his own attempts to overcome his disappointments as an exile:

I am my ancestor fleeing its famine.
Looking in the mirror I see only him.

The colonial and cultural upheavals that mark the experiences of older Asian Australian poets also concern a newer generation who have managed to contemporise their diasporic inheritance. Michelle Cahill’s poems speak back to the colonial master through the voices of the subaltern. Encounters with India are central to her poems, which are richly populated with ancestral figures, gods and goddesses, as well as postmodern media avatars. Cahill’s originality consists in placing the Hindu-Buddhist tradition in a postmodern, and feminist context. This makes perfect sense if we see Hinduism as a perpetually evolving system: Indian and worldly, local and international, as traditional and it is modern. Of the goddess Kali she writes:

I’d argue for your cosmopolitanism,
a global denizen, you’re adroit in drugs and aphrodisiacs, a nude 
Dominatrix, a feminist export with a sadomasochistic bent. 

(from ‘Kali from Abroad’)

Jaya Savige grew up in Bribie Island with his Australian mother, and despite the fact that his father was Indonesian, his poems to date makes few overt assertions of a deep connection with Asian identity. For him, his paternity is background to a more European-oriented oeuvre. His poem ‘Currency Lad’ addresses his mother as a product of a specifically Australian colonial structure. She becomes a metaphor for the first generation of Sydney women (mostly convicts) who gave birth to ‘currency lads and lasses’, a name given to the first generation of Europeans born in the new colony. The self-confidence of this generation overcame earlier prejudices against the offspring of convicts, and as it is today Eurasian Australians are often seen as model citizens. Cleverly, the poem addresses Savige’s Asian heritage within this colonial history, and positions his father as a mysterious and virtually unknowable sub-altern figure who can’t speak but through his son. The poem is a subtle if ironic ode to his parents’ wild romantic upbringing, and resistant to stereotyped descriptions of young male Asian migrants. Addressing the mother, the poem states:

Further south you took an Indonesian lover
& left him windswept,
		beguiled by your gyre.

I cannot remember 
whether you said he was a
               a) boatperson
               b) philanthropic businessman
               c) free-wheeling drug dealer
with little other expertise.

from ‘Currency Lad’
  1. Kirpal Singh, ‘Poetry and the Politics of History: Revisiting Ee Tiang Hong’, Asiatic, Volume 3, number 2, December 2009
  2. Kirpal Singh, op. cit.
  3. Singh, op. cit
This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.