Asian Australian Diasporic Poets: A Commentary

By | 1 August 2012

If traditional verse culture marks the poetry of older poets such as Ee Tiang Hong, Kim Cheng Boey and Yasmine Gooneratne, the younger poets are clearly grappling with debates over poetry’s postmodern possibilities. It is interesting to see how the younger Asian Australian poets critique identity as a commodity or as a form of cultural capital. A few of these emerging poets are engaging in LANGUAGE-influenced experimentalism in place of confessional, lyric, self-projection and ‘identity exploration’. Melbourne University Arts/Law graduate and poet Bella Li writes:

In the year of the Hegira 622, driven from the city and exiled, I arrived at the
mountains of the        . The journey was arduous. But I was ‘armed with the
terrors of the sword.’ And the movement of the heavenly bodies (the western
side of the city entirely round) filled the sky. The city was entirely round; the
inhabitants remarkable for their treachery. Concerning the treacherous
mountains. Concerning the origin of the name  ‘        ‘ (in the palace, there was
a small        ). Here the young prince – concealing his deformity with a veil – 
saw in the heavens the terrible        rising. And ‘the phantom drew back his
veil.’ Massacred, according to custom, the vast number of the inhabitants.

(from ‘E 44 10 N 33 15’)

The elisions in Li’s poem interrupts – or as the semioticians say, puts under erasure – a Chinese diasporic narrative, while echoing the mythic epics of Imperial Chinese history, with their references of massacres, princes and the supernatural (‘heavens’). Again, the poet addresses ‘naming’ as absence of identification, and the mode is hardly lyrical or confessional but continues to engage with historical crisis and human exile.

Also experimental is the recent work of Filipino Australian Ivy Alvarez. Her poems have developed an edgy compression since her earlier imagistic work. In ‘The Pastoralist Speaks’, Alvarez explores the iconic subject of Australian literature: the Australian farmer, the drought, and the well-documented disappearance of indigenous presence. The poem confidently and subverts the imperatives of a white settler genre:

At the edge of the close-cropped lawn 
laps the drought, thirsty tongue all out. 
Every change of name pocks its mark. 
A scratch of smallpox on a survivor. 
The squatters clear a small place. 
A tongue licks dry lips. 
A hand swats a fly, its buzz an airplane overhead. 
All lawns a transplant, every ant a scavenger. 
Under sod, a small tear, a drop of blood. 
A bead of sweat collected in a dry swell 
of pale earth. What birds wheel on Mulberry Hill? 
On the face, carved eyes look down. 
Make space. This land is too wide. 
Plant feet on it to make it mine.

One of Alvarez’s strengths is her cosmopolitan engagement with non-Anglo languages poetry and cultures, such as the Latin American Spanish:

echoes in the caves whistle clean through
some gypsy song splits the night in two
reaches the town
its multiple ears prick at the notes
(from ‘En las montañas’)

For Alvarez, Australia is as important a subject as the rest of the world she knows through travel and overseas study (the US in particular), but the diasporic link continues through her investment in Spanish as one of the first the colonial languages of the Philippines.

Asian Australian poets have been writing feminist poetry at least since the early eighties. Dipti Saravanamuttu’s poetry offers a radical discourse on the Asian woman (grandmothers, mothers and daughters), and lesbian feminism. Her work is deeply concerned with how the different phases of Western feminist thought inform and shape the body and emotion. Saravanamuttu is a cosmopolitan for whom a sense of home is to be found equally in Sri Lanka (her birthplace) or in Melbourne. Saravanamuttu’s last book is remarkable for its extended love lyrics and for its travel poems set in Sri Lanka, a territory she sees through the critical eyes of a Western educated outsider who is also indigenous, given that she speaks Sinhalese and her relatives hail her as one of them. The cosmopolitan poet (she grew up in Sydney) is fraught by her own estrangement from her historical and ethnic identity as a Sri Lanka of Tamil-Sinhalese descent, an hybridity which is put under further pressure by the fact that Sri Lanka’s civil war has exacerbated the Tamil/Sinhalese split.

For West Australian poet Miriam Wei Wei Lo, having a Chinese grandmother matters just as much as the fact that she is settled with a family in Perth. Lo’s work relationships within the extended family provide the stage on which identity and gender emerge as key to a semiotics of power and cultural inheritance. Lo’s poetry is inquisitive about the extent to which the conservative space of the Australian suburban home allows cultural difference and similarity to play out. Like Sylvia Plath work, or Gwen Harwood, Lo pushes the boundary of what can be said about the familial and the female/feminine and the gendering of family roles and domesticity. Lo’s work includes a bilingual richness and an awareness of Chinese history and tradition and how her Christianity resolves the distances between a Confucian ethics of filial piety and a Western concepts of the liberated woman and mother.

Bilingual Asian Australian poets

Bilingual Asian Australian poetry has become more prominent recently, and marks an evolution away from the old Commonwealth literary model. As there are as many trajectories and genealogies as there are poets themselves. Scholar, poet and novelist Merlinda Bobis has set a high standard for Asian Australian literature. Her poems are both lyrical and linguistically experimental and complex in their use of Tagalog and English, often laid out in parallel columns of text (see Mascara 9). Bobis is remarkable for incorporating feminism, with mythic folklore, in lyrical critiques of postcoloniality. Her work has always been passionate, skilful and performative, and works on multiple levels of sound, gesture, and affect. Her texts are as much drama scripts for the stage as testaments that demand complete involvement of the reader:

after you bomb my town
I’ll take you fishing
or kite-flying or both
no, it won’t hurt anymore
as strand by strand, we pluck
the hair of all our women
to weave the needed string —
oh isn’t this a lovely thing?

(from ‘Covenant’)

Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng, who arrived in Australia from Vietnam in 1974 under a Colombo Plan Scholarship, is a truly bilingual practitioner of Australian poetry, writing in both Vietnamese and English, and this gives his work a vigour that refuses to be ‘translated’ or glossed for easy consumption. Nguyễn’s vision of his adopted city Melbourne is jaundiced, but humorous – and perceptively sharp about the eclectic nature of a multicultural city:

A city cut out of paper
country of dysfunctional seagulls
eyes, all eyes, from the housing,
bruised, soft husks
or dire hopeless bells, September 
of plane trees 
camouflaged & season-drunken, 
well and truly 
beside Mephisto, M in his
tram-attendant’s oversized green coat
against a tableau of a Chinese Garden

(from ‘For St Kilda Road’)

Michael Brennan writes that Nguyễn’s poetry ‘subverts and destabilises English-language imperialism in a way that many of his monolingual contemporaries are simply unable to do’ ( Bilingual thought is fluid. The poet negotiates difference cleverly exploits the aporias of translation, and beginning with this Vietnamese-English binary, changes into a third space of the in-between:

Homecoming with
I took him with me in my first trip back to Saigon.
It could have been Casablanca had my fantasy upheld its primal murk.

They confiscated all books but let him pass
That’s his charm, an amulet worn by default.

The photo could not hold back the boyish grin, the Tassie streak.
October heat: an all-consuming hell of push/shoves and begs, 
trapped in rot-salinity and rusts:
                             vortex-seas flashed flushing-downwards, asthmatic gulps 
Buckets of human sweats, no dogs, no pets, sense of panic.
Ruffled, sole-trodden, loose like a page.
He held me firm, said, this is no war – look! 

(from ‘Homecoming with’

The poem ends with an ironic reminder that exile guarantees survival, despite disruption and loss:

‘Survived hey?’ some were holding hands, shaking, gently, ‘Where have you been, love?’

Asian Australian poets come to represent either ideal friends or enemies, ideal citizens and monstrous misfits, and stereotyping is often the target of the poet’s ire. For example, Ouyang Yu has come to exemplify the ‘angry Chinese poet’, in part because the speakers in his poems can be extremely angry about Australia’s racist othering of Asian migrants. Such a voice protests in ‘Fuck You Australia’, now a frequently anthologised Australian poem:

yours was supposed to be a country
flowing with gold and fuck-holes
you thought I was every bit unlike you
funny, inscrutable, wily, cunning, miserly, full of dark designs
. . .
fuck you Australia
I said to myself as if I was Australia
I’d go back to china, tell everybody
how vastly cheap you are, and mean

(from ‘Fuck you Australia’)

But Yu’s poetry is also often concerned with how identity is a complex and ambivalent commodity, a minefield of self-annunciation and contradiction:

i say i'm returning to my home country
when i go to australia
i say i'm returning to my home country
wherever i go
it is with a heart tinged in two colours

(from ‘The Double Man’)

In a move that may counter this image Yu has recently published a book of love poems Bilingual Love: Poems from 1975–2008, a book that gives perspective on the performative nature of Yu’s angry poet persona.

To conclude, this survey is hardly exhaustive, and perhaps the category of Asian Australian poet needs to be widened. Where does one place the poet Nora Krouk, born in Harbin, China 90 years ago – and of Russian descent – who writes in both Russian and English? Krouk represents the inexhaustible freedom of the poet who crosses borders in both time and space, and who brings together stories of political upheaval – the Russian and the Maoist revolutions in particular – and the Jewish diaspora. This heritage is both Western and Eastern, impacted by ideology and nationalism, but not dominated by defeat. Perhaps the instrument of poetic language is portable and flexible, an enduring means of recording our moral dilemmas and to register our testimony. As Brook Emery writes in a review of Krouk’s last book Warming the Core of Things, ‘Nora’s poetry reminds us that we are all part of events that seem to have happened ‘over there’ or ‘back then’ or to ‘someone else.’ Reading these poems we are reminded that no man, no woman, no nationality is an island.’2

  1. Michael Brennan,
  2. Brook Emery, Mascara Issue 10
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