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The History of Migrant, Ethnic, and Multicultural

Rowcroft, who, in 1843 published Tales of the Colonies; or, the Adventures of an Emigrant, (predominantly) white, English-speaking (temporary) migrants sought to put their changed lives into words. The focus in many of these accounts was on the comparison between England or Ireland, and Australia: the different landscape, the struggle to survive, the confrontation with Indigenous peoples, the climate. The audience was mainly British, and the writing was aimed at giving the people ‘back home’ a little insight into lives lived on the other side of the world. Elizabeth Webby asserts:

Today nineteenth-century Australian authors are read for their vivid, individual responses to the challenge and fascination of their often new and strange circumstances, and their remarkable achievements in the face of many obstacles. Through their work the foundations of Australian literature were established (2009, p 21).

Understandably, the more people were born in the new country, the more the literature they wrote shifted from a comparison between here and there to issues that were more grounded in here than there. Australia itself became the focus, and with it questions of legitimacy, the nation, modernity and destiny emerged. Literature by and about migrants and their experience became less important than the more pressing topic of ‘Australia’ and where it was going. Of course, writers also responded to

‘normal’ preoccupations like war, relationships, changing gender roles, politics, family and race relations. The next big ‘wave’ of literature by migrants was inspired by the Post-War migration. One of the very first anthologies bringing together, in this case, short stories by writers about migrancy, was Louise Rorabacher’s Two Ways Meet – Stories of Migrants in Australia, in 1963. It is interesting to note that Rorabacher, herself defined in the AustLit database as a ‘visitor’ from the USA, incorporates more stories about migrants by established resident Australians in her book than stories on migration by migrants themselves. Only David Martin

(Hungary), John Morrison (New Zealand), Judah Waten (Ukraine), F.B. Vickers (England), June Factor (Poland) and Neilma Sidney (USA) are migrants in the dictionary-sense of the word. Yet Rorabacher distinguishes a “single theme – here, a social one limited to the problems surrounding the immigrant in Australia”, adding that “Fiction in general has long been recognized as a useful source of social history.

It records the minutiae of everyday living with a thoroughness that no other literary type can rival; it is equally quick to reflect social change, sometimes even attempting

to direct it” (Rorabacher 1963, p 9). In taking this position, Rorabacher sets up the subsequent trend of reading migrant stories mainly as sociological commentary rather than literature in its own right.

Because Two Ways Meet is an early attempt to look at the migrant experience, it might be valuable to determine in more detail what Rorabacher’s reasons were to bring these particular short stories together. Writing at a time when Australia’s policy towards migrants was still firmly rooted in assimilation, Rorabacher characterises her collection as “‘melting pot’ stories” (1963, p 10). Labelling Australia and America as

“two daughters of one mother” (England), Rorabacher views their history of migration as similar, with America, “the elder sister” (Ibid), a little ahead in time.

“Fiction”, to Rorabacher, is “an avenue of understanding. Figures satisfy the mind;

fiction appeals to the heart”. “For here we find not the large facts but what they meant to small individuals; not the relative numbers of people but the kinds of life that those people created and endured” (1963, p 13). Rorabacher also flags the themes that she reads in stories on the “migratory process: the untenable past, the uprooting, the hope, the homesickness, the painful adjustments, the bitter disappointments, the ultimate successes and failures”, and the idea that the consequence of assimilation is “that natives do not absorb newcomers without being somewhat changed by them”, “in manpower, in cultural patterns, in breadth of understanding” (1963, p 14).

Interestingly, Rorabacher identifies an “increasing literary interest in the whole migrant problem – proof of fiction’s sensitivity to social change” (Ibid). The anthology is aimed at being a vehicle both for furthering this interest, and taking a stand against the “antagonism towards immigrants” that Rorabacher thinks “still exists in some portions of the native population”: “let it be noted that whatever devils of prejudice the authors feel compelled to report, they themselves are ranged

conspicuously on the side of the angels” (1963, p 19).

Rorabacher was right in marking an increase in the attention to writing by migrants and about migration. As Bird contends, especially from the early 1970s onwards, there was “a new recognition that Australian society was not homogeneous, but made up of many groups with competing interests and political claims, each seeking a cultural space, [which] influenced the fictional preferences of publishers and readers” (Bird in Webby et al 2000, p 183). Lever adds to this that

Instead of the old ideal of writing as a means of creating community and even nationhood, critical and writing practices have emerged which seek out marginality and difference. In place of unifying political programs in which writers could participate, a series of political interest groups has emerged since the 1960s which at various times has demanded attention for the voices of, for example, women, migrants, Aborigines, gay men or lesbian women (Lever in Bennett et al 1998, p 310-311).

Ken Gelder, both in his contribution to the 1988 Penguin New Literary History of Australia and in his book written with Paul Salzman, The New Diversity: Australian Fiction 1970-1988, stresses that “recent writing in Australia has presented the voices of other marginalised groups within Australia: the migrant voice, for example” (1988, p 504), while also focussing attention on the positioning of these migrants:

by the mid twentieth-century, there was an Anglo-Saxon Australian culture against which the wave of post World War Two migrants were forced to define themselves. In the 1950s a considerable body of literature about

European migration appeared, produced by writers like David Martin or Judah Waten. But since the 1970s, a different social perspective on immigration has had its effect on the literature, which now tends to be by migrants, as well as about them (Gelder and Salzman 1989, p 187).

This different social perspective was in part due to the introduction of the Australian Multiculturalism Policy.

From the end of the 1970s, a raft of anthologies and other publications concerned with migration were published, and the issue of what was subsequently called ‘migrant’, ‘ethnic’, or ‘multicultural’ writing, began to attract greater scholarly attention. By looking at some of the most influential titles and the discussions they sparked, it is possible to chart the developing thinking about literature and migrancy.

It is also interesting to note that the parameters of what constitutes this kind of writing, and the writers who are included in it, change over time. Lolo Houbein, a migrant from Holland, embarks on a long-term project in 1976, when she compiles her first edition of Ethnic Writings in English from Australia, as part of the Adelaide A.L.S. Working Papers of the University of Adelaide. That first volume lists 26 writers, all migrants. The second issue, in 1978, has the names of 65 migrant writers in it, while the third one (1984) records 130 writers, all of whom had actually

migrated to Australia at one stage in their lives. In this last publication, all but two of the writers come from non-English speaking countries. The two exceptions, Alma Aldrette (from the USA, a.k.a. Alma Aldrete) and Rosemary Lee-Wright (from the

UK), have a non-English speaking background. Aldrette is listed as having Mexican-Indian parentage, while Lee-Wright is said to have a “Gypsy father and a Giorgio [sic] mother”. In her introduction, Houbein delineates the writers as “migrants”

(Houbein 1984, p 1), “non-native speakers” (1984, p 2) and “ethnic writers” (ibid), without elaborating on what “ethnic” means. What she does contend is that “the ethnic writer has things to say which can be said better by him or her than by the Australian writer of Anglo-Saxon background” (ibid), again without qualifying this claim.

At about the same time Houbein compiles her bibliographies, Andrew Dezsery takes the next step in regards to migrant literature, by launching The First

Multilingual Anthology in English and Other than English (1979). This is a

remarkable book, especially for the Australian market, in that most of the stories are presented in the foreign language they were originally written in, accompanied by their English translation. In contrast to Rorabacher’s book, all but one of the authors (and she is Aboriginal!) are migrants or long-time visitors to Australia themselves.

After a period of Australians writing about migrancy, apparently the time had come for migrants to tell their own stories. Furthermore, there is only one author for whom English is his native language: Michael Riordan, born in the US. The rest are

Europeans with a different first language: Italians, Dutch, Germans and a lot of Eastern Europeans; Hungarians (like Dezsery himself), Poles, Croatians, Serbs and Estonians. The tone of the book also differs from Rorabacher’s. Instead of presenting migrancy as a problem, Deszery focuses on “impressions, feelings and hopes”

(Deszery 1979, p vii), and takes great care in showing appreciation and gratitude towards the “men and women who let me come to Australia”, who “lent me my first campbed”, and “gave me my first contract as a cleaner” (1979, p viii). He also gives the preface to Al Grassby, at that time Commissioner for Community Relations.

Although Grassby acknowledges that “it is still necessary for us to break out of the closed colonial society which has kept us in isolation for so long” (1979, p 5), and does not mince his words in talking about Australia as a “cultural desert made sterile by a colonial system interested […] to serve the altars of imperial hegemony” (1979, p 3), the general tenor of his introduction is one of optimism and celebration. He uses terms like “cultural revolution”, an “awakening by publishers” to the new

“multicultural society”, and even heralds an “Australian renaissance” (1979, p 1-2).

There is a new inclusiveness, according to Grassby, that goes beyond forced

assimilation, and encourages “Australians by choice” (1979, p 1) to maintain, and even celebrate, “their own cultural and artistic heritage” (1979, p 5). Grassby argues that Australians, “as the newest people on earth”, are in a position to “build the most successful national family yet created”, and “this anthology is an act of faith that we will do it right and that the cultural revolution is necessary to transform the old isolations into a unity in diversity which will continue until Australia reaches its full cultural flowering as an example to the world” (1979, p 6). On the last page of the anthology, Dezsery, not just an author, but also the head of Dezsery Ethnic

Publications, calls on other “ethnic writers living in Australia” (1979, p 189) to send in their work for the next edition. His invitation concentrates on authors writing in a language other than English, the “silent voices of Australia”, whose “messages in prose, verse or drama will be the real mirror where the face of our community will appear” (ibid).

2. 1980-1990

These two focus-points, ‘languages other than English’, and literature that is concerned with “mirroring” the ‘ethnic’ “community”, maybe even striving for “unity in diversity”, will turn out to be the bedrock of what is considered migrant, ethnic, or multicultural writing. Writers who have migrated to Australia, but have an English-language background, soon become a rarity in books by or about the migrant condition. There is no longer a distinction between migrants and non-migrants, but between ‘ethnics’ and either ‘Anglo-Saxons’ or ‘Anglo-Celts’, who are presumed to have no ethnicity, and apparently also no migrant status. To be included into the category of migrant, ethnic, or multicultural writer, there are a few criteria people have to adhere to. Firstly, Sneja Gunew, one of the most important academic voices in this debate (at the time a Professor of Literature and Women’s Studies at Deakin University, and herself a migrant from Germany), points to ‘difference’. In 1983, she writes:

Don’t certain folkloric puppets glide easily into one’s memory in the space reserved for migrants? For most New Australians growing up now and after the Second World War, wasn’t the acknowledgement of their difference palpably recognised in a song and dance act in some school auditorium?

(Gunew 1983, p 18).

Difference, and more to the point, performable difference, is, Gunew states, an important part of “the process whereby the culture constructs” migrants (1983, p 19), which might, in part, explain why white, English-speaking migrants, who are less in a position to ‘prove’ their difference (maybe with the exception of the occasional bout of Morris dancing or singing Irish shanty songs), have fallen out of the category. Two years later, though, it becomes clear that even the ‘ethnics’ themselves have made a conscious choice about who is inside and who is outside the classification migrant, ethnic, or multicultural writer. In 1985, Peter Skrzynecki (a migrant writer from Germany/Poland) introduces his anthology of multicultural writing, Joseph’s Coat, by defiantly declaring that he expects “criticism at demonstrating how the collection

‘discriminates’ against one group of writers; how it isolates the so-called ‘ethnics’ and doesn’t include writers from Anglo-Saxon backgrounds” (Skrzynecki 1985, p 13).

Skrzynecki makes it clear that he doesn’t care, because he is convinced that language is the defining feature here: “Whether they are Aboriginal, whether they are first or second generation immigrants, all the writers here have or had a basic language other than English” (ibid). The act of migration, therefore, no longer seems important as a criterion for inclusion and neither is the story of migrancy. Language, whether ‘born’

abroad or in Australia itself, has become the way to pinpoint difference. “If there has been discrimination”, Skrzynecki emphasises, “it has been against people such as these because they were ‘different’ – because they spoke a foreign language and were unwilling to sever the roots from which they grew” (ibid). As an aside, I would like to mention that, again, the tone has changed in this anthology, compared to Rorabacher’s and Dezsery’s. Skrzynecki’s introduction is both angry (“Often they were tolerated, politely and formally, but this was nothing more than condescension” (Ibid)), and rebellious: “if Joseph’s Coat incurs the displeasure of the bigots, then that’s their misfortune: they are still living in an irretrievable past” (1985, p 14). Clearly, the cap-in-hand era is over, with ‘ethnics’ now not hoping to attract attention, but demanding it.

Gunew herself, a few years earlier, had already noted the importance of language in a group she then still called “migrant story-tellers”. In her collection for a Narrative Course at Deakin University, published as Displacements: Migrant Story-Tellers in 1982, she points to the connection between language and thought: “the way we think is entirely produced by the language in which we think” (Gunew 1985

(1982), p 1), she claims. “It is languages that speak us. Ask any migrant” (ibid). What intrigues me, is that although Gunew reasons that “any experience of migration or resettlement always produces degrees of disorientation”, her focus is only on

“writings by migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds” (ibid), thereby ignoring the “any” and “always” of English-speaking migrants.

Whatever the criteria of inclusion were, in the 1980s there was a (re)new(ed) recognition of writing by migrant, ethnic, and multicultural authors. In 1982, Lolo Houbein writes:

The apparent rise of ethnic literature coincides of course with the ‘ethnic bandwagon’ phenomenon, promoted by governments to take the lid off boiling cauldrons of frustrations, and by other levels of society for reasons ranging from genuine interest in other cultures and ‘fair go’ philosophy to plain self-interest where jobs and grants are concerned (Houbein 1982, p 86).

Houbein bases her views on the rise of not just the anthologies, but also the by then 70 newspapers printed in foreign languages, and radio-stations broadcasting in 37

languages. Furthermore, as Grassby asserts in 1979, the Community Arts Board, part of the Australia Council, took the initiative to develop “a program directed to what are quaintly called ‘migrant groups’ to encourage their integration […] so there is a recognition of ‘ethnic arts”’ (Grassby in Dezsery 1979, p 5). Grassby has to admit, however, that the cash involved was “much less than 0.05% of the total budget of the Australia Council” (ibid), and Houbein too, stresses the leading role of community groups and individuals (Houbein 1982, p 86), not the government. Things were about to change, though. In 1984, the Australia Council Literature Board sponsors the establishment of Outrider Magazine, a publication featuring “ethnic” writing. In addition to this,

With editor Jim Davidson at the helm from 1974 to 1982, Meanjin worked towards a more inclusive understanding of Australian literature, and began to publish writers such as Ania Walwicz and Dimitris Tsaloumas […]. In 1983, when Judith Brett took on the editorship, Meanjin released a special edition dealing with immigration and culture […] to demonstrate its commitment to the promotion of ‘ethnic’ or ‘multicultural’ writing (Raschke 2005, p 98).

Whether this attention is part of a trend, an attempt to include, or, as, Rashke

calls it, “a short-lived outburst of tokenism” (2005, p 91), the categorisations do not become much clearer. In 1988, when Sneja Gunew and Jan Mahyuddin publish Beyond the Echo – Multicultural Women’s Writing, most of their writers are either migrants with a non-English speaking background, second or third generation

‘ethnics’ whose parents had a non-English speaking background, or Aboriginal.

Again, here ‘migrant’ is conflated with ‘non-English speaking background’, thereby glossing over the migrants who arrived in Australia from the UK, North-America, New Zealand and South Africa, for instance. Also, the editors see no real difference between the “cultural baggage” (Gunew and Mahyuddin 1988, p xiii) of a migrant in the dictionary-sense of the word, and of those second- or third generation ‘ethnics’, who are, I would propose, in between cultures in a very distinct way. One might also question what is considered Anglo-Celtic, and why it is presented as a homogenous term. And then there is the matter of the inclusion of Aboriginal writers, who have now, apparently, become part of the category ‘multicultural’ as well. In their introduction, Gunew and Mahyuddin contend that

The term ‘multicultural’ is the most recent in a long line of terms denoting otherness: New Australian, reffo, wog, migrant, ethnic. Its current meaning has little to do with the experience of actual migration, though it is often reduced to that, to being a remedial term suggesting that those who belong to the multicultural world have problems with language, employment, etc. What multicultural usually refers to is non-Anglo-Celtic, that is, Australians from the UK and Ireland are not designated as part of multiculturalism, nor are they perceived as partaking of ethnicity. Instead of indicating a deficiency in English (a minus), non-Anglo-Celticism should be seen as English plus, the plus referring to varying awareness of languages in addition to English.

Inevitably, because positioned differently, those multicultural perspectives on living in Australia as a non-Anglo-Celt differ from traditional views of being Australian (1988, p xviii).

Although Gunew and Mahyuddin appear to be critical of this usage of ‘multicultural’, their collection conforms to what they describe. Theory and practice do not

necessarily seem to match here. One thing is clear: the actual fact of migration is no longer a determinant in deciding what is now called ‘multicultural’ literature. In a way, to paraphrase Gunew and Mahyuddin, to be part of this category, somebody has to be a “migrant plus”: somebody with a non-English speaking, non-Anglo-Celtic background, who is also, preferably, not white or male.

At the end of the 1980s, some writers who are part of the migrant, ethnic, or multicultural categories, start to revolt openly against this classification. Jessica Raschke, in her 2005 thesis Riding the ‘Ethnic Bandwagon’: Multiculturalism, Whiteness and Cultural Difference in Australian Publishing and Literature, quotes from a 1989 interview with George Papaellinas, a second generation Greek-Australian writer, who warns anybody “against calling me a ‘multicultural’ or an ‘ethnic’. Both are euphemisms for ‘the other’. ‘Multicultural’ only serves to describe a policy, and in common with other policies of the government, it exists only in rhetoric” (Papaellinas in Raschke 2005, p 9). As Raschke interprets Papaellinas’ statements further on in the interview, what he is arguing is that “Writers […] are not to be considered according to their age, gender, sexuality or ethnicity. Rather, it is their work that provides the fodder for deliberation, and any ancillary means of assessment is a meandering into irrelevance” (2005, p 10). “Should a writer’s cultural background be employed to describe or promote them, it becomes a dangerous step toward condoning government rhetoric, and, at worst, an act of discrimination” (ibid). Furthermore, Raschke reasons,

“the diversity that is displayed among writers and writing classified as ‘ethnic’ or

‘multicultural’ quickly renders the terms as inaccurate”: the writers “display a variety of thematic concerns in their writing, from tales of the diaspora, the migrant

experience, to love, horror or science-fiction stories. There may be few similarities between them” (2005, p 10-11). “This renders the terms both limited and limiting”

(ibid). There are also, Raschke claims, “negative connotations” attached to the terms, such as “stereotyping, exoticism, favouritism, tokenism, discrimination and positive discrimination” (ibid). This leads her to the conclusion that

It is not surprising that writers deemed ‘ethnic’ or ‘multicultural’ rarely appreciate the nomination. At best, writers usually dismiss being labelled as a minor annoyance, or as patronising or discriminatory. At worst, writers regard it as derogatory, or as an occurrence that only consolidates what feels like their already disenfranchised and marginalised position in relation to Australia’s predominantly ‘white’ or ‘Anglo’ publishing and literary establishment (2005, p 12).

In 1989, Gelder and Salzman also state that they feel that “multiculturalism [has been]

turned into a political football”, with one result being “the reductive approach to the whole question of cultural positioning being debated within multicultural writing itself” (Gelder and Salzman 1989, p 196). I think it is important to state here that in

the context of this thesis, I recognise the prejudicial confinement of migrant writing to sociological comment. I understand the need for these critics to seek to de-link writing from its social and historical context almost as an act of emancipation and coming of age of migrant writing as literature. However, in re-linking the literature by white, English-speaking migrant writers to its context, one of my objectives is to show that ignoring themes of migrancy because of the writer’s presumed background can be equally prejudicial, and risks overlooking aspects of the writing that are important.

Regardless of the mounting critique, by this time migrant, ethnic, or

multicultural writing has become an ‘industry’. As Elizabeth Webby already predicted in 1983, the “trend in Australian writing – and publishing – away from the dominance of people called John, Peter, Alan, Patrick, Hal and Frank and towards a more

equitable representation of people with names like Serge and Angelo and Ania”, had led to “a market for their work; this is to some extent a self-perpetuating

phenomenon” (Webby 1983, p 40). In 1988, the Penguin New Literary History of Australia is the first of its kind to include writers from elsewhere. After mentioning writers from Germany, Dalmatia, Holland, Korea, Greece, Hungary, Russia and Poland, Bruce Bennett declares that

These authors all write from the perceived ‘edges’ of Australian culture. But publication has placed them in a wider community of letters, where their frequent images of dislocation may reach an Australian population of readers which is recognising its changing composition and mobility (Bennett in Hergenhan et al 1988, p 441).

Thematically, Bennett maintains, these writers do not differ all that much from non-migrant writers. Their concerns are with “prison, desert and sanctuary; all are traditional images, but contemporary migrant experience lends them peculiar force”

(1988, p 442-3).

Another sign that migrant, ethnic, or multicultural writing has become visible and even profitable at this time, is that it has become ‘en vogue’ in both governmental and academic thinking. In 1989 Gunew is appointed the first chair of the Australia Council’s Multicultural Advisory Committee, and its Literature Board starts channelling part of its funding towards the writers who are presumed to be in this category. In 1988, Elaine Lindsay of the Australia Council tells the audience at the Sydney Dis/Unities conference that the Council’s role is to provide “arts for a