I am an Indian Muslim. I make it an exercise to see how the news decides to represent me with each political season that passes. Generally, I am either a terrorist or a woman repressed – in Hollywood I am the exotic Bollywood dancer, and in the world of Australian literature I simply do not exist. Must I rely on others to write me into existence?
In an increasingly racially diverse Australia, it is imperative that Australian literature broadens its narrow portrayal of national identity in order to represent the experiences of all Australians, particularly those who appear to exist beyond the established borders and myths of the historical Australian imagination.
I haven’t always possessed such a firm conviction. My parents migrated to Australia in 1998 in the hopes of providing me with the opportunity of a well-rounded education. As a child, I did not realise that my existence would mandate an ongoing battle between three contesting aspects of my identity; my ethnicity, the expectations of my Australian citizenship and my real place in Australian society.
I grew up reading Mem Fox’s "Possum Magic", Jackie French’s "Diary of a Wombat" and Norman Lindsay's "The Magic Pudding", which introduced me to the idealised world of the Australian outback. But it wasn’t until I read the poems of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson that I realised that Australian literature has always epitomised and romanticised the “Australian”: a man of British descent, a masculine larrikin of the bush, an embodiment of egalitarianism, resoluteness and mateship.
I could no longer ignore these images of implicit, British superiority over the Indigenous landscape. I could no longer ignore the fact that I was trying to adopt a culture that I could not identify with. One that was built upon the foundation of Indigenous dispossession, and which continued to operate through the gaze of imperialism in new, seemingly innocuous ways. It was in the process of gaining these new understandings about the Australia I once rejoiced that I realised that I had lost my native Urdu tongue.
The deeper I delved into my new understandings of Australian literature, the more my vision was sharpened to notice the cultural repression and blatant disregard for the identities of Indigenous Australian’s and immigrants—peripheral “Australians”.
The Challenging Racism Project in 2016 found that 31% of survey participants expressed “negative feelings” towards Muslim Australians, 23% towards Middle-Eastern Australians and 8% towards Indigenous Australians. The underrepresentation of people of colour in Australian literature has certainly served to reinforce the exclusion of the cultural ‘other’ in every aspect of Australian life. So, how can we give a platform to Australian voices once silenced, once ignored, once misunderstood?
By reading the works of others, I’ve realised that the answer lies at the heart of literature; the process of writing. It is through writing that we can challenge and transgress the boundaries of Australian literature; we can create our own diverse, rich and complex characters that wholly represent what it means to be Australian, dealing with the guilt, the racism, the unearned privilege in our contemporary world.
When I look at Australian poet and Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha woman, Ali Cobby Eckermann, I see a powerful woman who, despite her pain, is able to share her experiences of intergenerational trauma in the legacy of dispossession and erasure through writing. With each poem she writes, she resists the pressure to make her experiences of oppression as an Indigenous woman more palatable to a non-Indigenous audience. In her poem Ngingali (2015), Eckermann describes her mother as a metaphorical, “granite boulder” that she can, “no longer climb nor walk around”, exemplifying her feelings of dislocation and incompleteness associated with the colonial attempts to sever her relationship with her mother, her culture, her language and the land. Eckermann’s poetry is authentic. She compels me to write, to preserve myself in a world in which, otherwise, my stories will never be told. I am invited to write to share my cultural experiences with you, to challenge racial and religious biases and to restore order to the competing elements of my identity.
Because what we say matters.
I would like to acknowledge that one’s decision to transcribe their cultural experiences is an entirely personal one. Some writers choose to abandon their status as ethnic writers for fear of cultural fetishism. However, we cannot disregard the fact that being a writer necessarily involves possessing an agency of your own; the ability to define or re-define yourself away from the exploits of ethnic exoticism and harmful stereotyping. Writing brings with it the opportunity to discuss the beauty, without ignoring the pain of the human experience, such that intergenerational narratives of pain are no longer homogenised.
On a final note, the writing of Australians, of diverse ethnicities, implores us to write—even if, particularly if, our message goes against the tide of public opinion. I urge those who have felt that sinking despair and alienation from an Australian identity, those who have been told that their way of life is “un-Australian”, and those who are tired of being labelled, to: write your own story into existence.