‘I’M NOT ASIAN and never will be,’ wrote Canadian author Karen Connelly in her Thai memoir, Touch the Dragon (Turnstone Press, 1992). ‘But,’ she went on, ‘I am not what I was before I came here, either. Something in me has changed, or grown.’
Many Australians, too, have changed or grown as a consequence of deep engagement with Asia – through long periods of expatriation for business, study, teaching, love or cultural exchange, and through working relationships and friendships with people who trace their heritage to one of the thirty-nine countries that make up the region we call Asia. The largest proportion of Australia’s immigrants now comes from Asia, which is home also to our largest trading partners, most exciting opportunities and biggest challenges.
To make contemporary sense of this most rapidly growing, increasingly affluent region, we need access to the ways Asians see themselves. Popular culture embodies this in film, visual art, music, performance, digital media and literature. It invites us to understand our world from different perspectives. Most of us now see more of how the world is, embrace its possibilities, and move through it with open-minded curiosity.
Think of the famous illustration My Wife and My Mother-in-Law, and the tease: which one do you see? Sometimes, once you’ve seen the old woman in the sketch and then, perhaps with help, make out the young one, you can’t find the old woman any more. At other times, you can see both, blinking between two different interpretations of the same lines. This awareness that things are not necessarily what they seemed at first glance, or not only what they seemed, isn’t a bad way for Australians to move into the future, into what we’ve come to call the Asian Century.
WE USE THE term ‘Asia’ as shorthand, aware that many people living on the continent and archipelagos that make up our idea of Asia have little or no sense of a shared ‘Asian’ identity. There is no such thing as Asia, we hear Indian friends berate us. Chinese colleagues laugh at what they consider a false equivalence that puts them on the same rung as anyone else. Every nation, clan, tribe, and every subculture has its own identity – different languages, cuisines, religions and customs. So, if Asia doesn’t exist, what do we mean by ‘New Asia’?
New Asia is our future. For New Asia Now we sought the views and imaginations of the new generation – writer-thinkers born since 1970 – whose insights are shaping how we will view our region. As a generation, despite national and regional differences, they have grown up during a period of extraordinary change: countries decolonised, civil wars fought and won, political systems turned inside out, authoritarian states fallen to democracies. In the process, relentless economic growth has lifted the standard of living at an unprecedented pace, and has created the largest middle class the world has ever known.
The writers we have selected for this edition and the accompanying e-book, published in parallel with an edition of Asia Literary Review, are citizens of a very different world to the one their parents knew.
The enormity of this transformation cannot be overestimated, and these writers chip away at what it means in country after country, in family and community, for the diasporas and those who stayed in traditional homelands. They are feisty, elegant, thoughtful and curious about pasts that have largely been swept aside, in case narratives of what went before got in the way of modernisation. Some now explore what was lost along the way. Our aim is to introduce these voices and perspectives not only to Australians, but also to each other.
FOR MORE THAN a decade, Jane Camens has been running a project to foster exchange between writers in Asia. Informed by her experience as founding director of the Hong Kong Literary Festival in 2001, she realised the extra value that could come from serendipitous interaction. When she gets together with a diverse group of writers in Asia, they are often unaware of writers and issues in neighbouring countries. When language borders have been crossed, awareness has tended to come mediated through English. While English might not be the most obvious language to cross borders in this region long-term, at this dawning of the Asian Century it is the vehicle we can use now to share views from our culturally and linguistically diverse neighbours. We thank the translators who worked with some of the writers included in this collection.
We looked for writers whose work matters, whose views inform us and, we believe, will help shape generations to come. By narrating their experiences and enabling us to see the countries they love through their eyes, they bring us into a greater awareness of our place in this larger regional picture. What we found reading the authors in this panoply of stories, poems and essays is that some tell us more about our own country than we knew at the start.
We sought a range of perspectives from this young generation of writers. Their work, collectively, we hope reveals tectonic mind shifts that are bringing the continents of Australia and Asia closer. The Anglo–Australians and Asian–Australians who submitted to this collection are as New Asia-centric in outlook as the authors who were born and raised in countries around the region.
BY INCLUDING AUSTRALIA in the notion of New Asia, we have made a small leap. If Asia has no sense of shared identity, then Australia may fit into this pluralistic artifice of place. Australian identity is a work in progress. We are growing into an interesting hybrid nation, absorbing influences from the old and new worlds.
This observation is informed by our experiences over many years of living and travelling in the region. Jane evolved a sense of who we might become as a people when she lived in Macau in 1999, the year that long-colonised territory was handed back to China. The Macanese, who called themselves the Filhos Da Terra or ‘sons and daughters of the land’, are the mixed-blood descendants of the Portuguese who intermarried with Chinese, Malays, Indians, Japanese, East Timorese and Africans. When looking at Australians today – what we eat and our distinctive tonal way with language – Jane is reminded of Macanese fusion culture, its cuisine and patois that incorporated flavours, words, and a unique play with grammar derived from a variety of ancestors. The disappearing Macanese made the mistake of identifying too fiercely with the Old World, Portugal, instead of embracing their geopolitical destiny.
The Wallace Line delineates the geological break between Australia and Asia. It also proves that once we were linked. If you’re familiar with the landscape of Australia’s Northern Territory and then go to East Timor, you might be struck by their geographical similarity. Further back, much further back into paleogeography, Australia was part of the supercontinent Gondwana that was joined at the hip to India and beyond. We were then very much part of a larger region.
Through the writing in this issue, we sought to show that we are returning now to meet each other in new ways. The seas between us have never been so negotiable, despite efforts to hold back time. Australia’s tectonic plate is moving northwards. Perhaps this is pushing the point. The actual drift is incremental, only about three centimetres each year. Nevertheless, we are moving closer.
THIS IS ARGUABLY the most ambitious edition of Griffith Review ever undertaken. It was only possible because Jane Camens was able to tap her extraordinary network of writers, agents, translators, publishers and academics throughout the region.
We received more than a hundred poems – those included were selected and edited by Asia Literary Review’s Martin Alexander – and nearly two hundred stories, memoirs and essays. We could have published twice the number of selections, such is the talent and skill of the writers making sense of this new world.
This project was made possible by support from the Australia Council for the Arts, which recognised that such regional connection and exchange is essential to its aim to entrench Australia as a ‘culturally ambitious nation’.
We are also grateful for support from the Australia-China Council and the Australia-Indonesia Institute, and are pleased to demonstrate in a practical way Griffith University’s commitment, which it has had since its inception forty years ago, to engagement with Asia.