Lucy Van Reviews Merlinda Bobis

1 March 2018

Much of what Bobis has accomplished since her arrival in Australia has been marked by a sense of difference. I have used the passive voice because I’m not sure who has marked it so – difference is a production and collusion of reader and writer, obviously; but I refer also to an indefinable ‘they’, by which I suppose I mean that vague category of literary gatekeepers. In the essay, Bobis reflects on her early difficulties in publishing her poems in the 1990s: ‘I had to sing and dance them’, she recalls. By putting her body on the line the ‘de facto text slipped the official text, the literature, through the gate’. Bobis’s performances of the epic poem Cantata of the Warrior Woman Daragang Magayon set out to instrumentalise the body ‘waging war’ against personal and political displacement; yet while the body’s performance could inspire and enrich creative practice, it could also traduce and betray the writer’s intentions. During the 1990s Bobis became aware while chanting and dancing in full ethnic regalia, that to a white audience she might solely signify an exotic female body ‘on display for consumption: the song-and-dance ethnic’:

‘and why wear wattle on your hair
to a barbeque?
we don’t do that here,’ you said.

(‘deck the landscape’)

The question of what Asian, or Asian-Australian writers must do in order to publish viably in Australia (to gain ‘permanent residence’, or even citizenship status in the nation’s literature) has persisted since Bobis first arrived in Australia. There is now a thickening palimpsest of answers to this question, where self-orientalisation, hybridisation, strategic essentialism, and diasporic and intercultural affiliation coexist alongside numerous tactical publication strategies. Alongside the careful negotiation of identity politics, there are politically expedient hacks. An Asian-Australian writer once told me that if a ‘migrant’ (read non-Anglo) writer wanted their book to be taken up by an Australian publisher, the work should include at least one Anglo-Australian character. (A larrikin journalist, for instance, might ensure an ‘Australian’ connection if the setting was overseas. The character might not be necessary in terms of the interests of the narrative, but rather necessary from the point of view of the Australian publisher.) The creation of publications such as Mascara Literary Review and Peril: Asian Australian Arts and Culture Magazine (this reviewer has previously worked for both) has helped writers of colour in a number of ways. As well as giving voice, and providing a platform in which to publicly think through the politics of writing at the margins, the existence of dedicated fora has alleviated some of the angst around the issue of gaining literary residency. What if Asian-Australian writers let go of the notion of residency, and simply published whatever they wanted to write?

I paused for eight days between writing that last sentence and this one. What an odd and unsettling question. And how powerfully the asking of it silenced me. (Why did this cut so close to home?) Who indeed writes ‘what they really want to’, regardless of whether they wish to be published? Consideration of the master-obstacle that blocks all writers from writing what they want pushed aside, surely obstacles affect different groups by different degrees, the degree positively correlated to a group’s purported deviance from normativity. Surely this dynamic persists in the context of ‘cracking markets’; and anyway, why do I keep pushing this point, as it is so evident and obvious? During the eight day interval an ABC news report came my way. The report related current experiences of Asian artists working in Australia across a range of media and disciplines in terms of ‘struggles’, in the language of limited opportunity; it reflected artists’ feelings of being unheard and underrepresented on one hand, and pigeonholed and pressured to produce particular types of work about particular kinds of ‘issues’ on the other. How much has this situation really changed since Bobis first came to Australia?

I turn to Bobis’s work to seek an answer. Accidents of Composition bears a subtitle I’m yet to mention. It reads, in cursive type beneath the block lettering of the title, ‘ … there could be accidents of kindness here’. The subtitle is playful and provocative – with irony it exploits the language of contingency to signal a specific intention behind the writing of the collection. What if kindness was not the result of kind intentions and acts, but rather the non-essential property of other activities? Bobis invites the reader to reimagine the activities of seeing, witnessing, affirming the lives of others – that is to say, making testimony that what one sees, has seen, exists, has existed – as sufficient to constitute poetic composition.

Then above his head,
another Christmas tree, now an arrow
guiding the eye to a house with two figures:
Bunsô0, youngest, and Mama.
Lest we forget: salvation is completed
in a house. But the eye unwittingly
moves to the next house.
Paaralan: School. 
Inside, three figures also named,
lest we miss them: Áte, Sister
Kúya, Brother. Áte, Sister.

What wisdom in testimony.

No child is safe without
a family a house a school.
Such is your eye for detail — the logic
of your first sight

(‘Cassandra After Haiyan’ [For Cassandra Fate B. Merin, 10 years old])

Typhoon Haiyan, known as Supertyphoon Yolanda in the Philippines, made landfall on 8 November 2013. ‘Cassandra After Haiyan’ opens in 2016 with a clear, establishing shot: ‘Your composition: a Christmas tree / with stick figures holding hands. / Your caption: Gusto ko sama-sama kaming pamilya. / (I wish we were together as a family.)’ The speaker constructs a doubled vision of bearing witness, where the viewing of a child’s drawing is also ‘framed’ for the reader. In registering the child Cassandra’s desiring vision, ‘I wish we were together as a family’, the poem lacerates the reader through recognition of trauma and loss of home. The speaker apprehends Cassandra’s drawing in photographic terms – it is captioned, framed, light on two-dimensional paper. The scene is a co-creation, the poem composed through the act of bearing witness to the testimony of another. Movingly, the poem follows the figure of Cassandra ‘turning her sight’ away from her rationed crayons; the moment has been split apart by the sudden jump cut:

Haiyan: landfall, 8 November 2013.
March 2016: more than a hundred
children still living 
in transitional shelters,
the pledge of permanent housing
composed and re-composed

Motion is the thematic concept that binds Accidents of Composition; tellingly, its subheadings are ‘Not Quite Still’, ‘How to Spin’ and ‘Passage’. But while the collection celebrates journeying and unsettlement as principled ways of being in the world, its poetic vision never loses sight of the fact that the need for a home is valid and real.

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