Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home – Mid-Week Review

By Sonia Nair
A line of people in different colours

By Sonia Nair.

Joyful StrainsA corpus of 27 highly eclectic accounts that expound upon the themes of migration, dispossession, racial oppression, hybrid identities and the fluid concept of home, Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home chronicles the incredibly important migrant experiences that have come to underline the fabric of Australia’s multicultural society. As editors Kent MacCarter and Ali Lemer so eloquently voice in their rousing prologue, national literature has to encompass all Australian stories to truly reflect Australia’s multiculturalism.

Although each migration experience is unique, common encounters pervade throughout the anthology – the isolation immigrant children feel with their unconventional lunches and “odd-sounding” names, feelings of nostalgia for a culture left behind, and an astute affinity towards Aboriginal people and their history of injustice.

“Who was Jim? I did not know what to make of this half-Greek, half-Australian boy, and had to invent him from the ground up. This led to the creation of a malleable persona that could be made to fit the mood and circumstance.”

Dmetri Kakmi is the first writer to touch on the dislocation, discombobulation and existential dilemma that inadvertently result in a fragmented identity when one has to move from one country to another. Kakmi, who grew up as a young Greco-Turk, encountered confusion when his parents overly asserted their Greek identity upon arriving in Australia, yet his Australian teacher rebranded him “Jim” because he could not pronounce his name.

“Who was Jim? I did not know what to make of this half-Greek, half-Australian boy, and had to invent him from the ground up. This led to the creation of a malleable persona that could be made to fit the mood and circumstance.”

Subject to the same discrimination that Kakmi received, Paola Totaro was called “Potato Tomato” by her school’s deputy principle on a daily basis to guffaws from fellow schoolmates. Totaro elegantly details her journey to reclaim her surname as she expertly manoeuvred between the dissonance a newcomer feels and the outside world’s perception of her as a young Italian-Australian.

A more acute sense of displacement to what Kakmi and Totaro felt is expressed in Michael Sala’s Swarte Piet. As a child who moved back and forth between Holland and Australia, Sala failed to seamlessly adapt to the way of life in either country – a problem compounded by the fact that he belonged to a dysfunctional family.

“Because I grew up moving between countries, the architecture is tangled and doesn’t bear the image of one place, but of many, all at once…From place to place, I felt myself to be a passing impression, a shadow on the wall.”

The smorgasbord of sounds, sights and smells that renowned Australian writer Alice Pung depicts in her essay Stealing from Little Saigon makes for a visceral portrayal of the different meanings an Asian marketplace in Footscray holds for its immigrant sellers and the wider Australian society. The inextricable connection between the difficulty of recreating or finding one’s traditional cuisine in a new country and the memories foraged from one’s past form the backdrop of Indonesian Lily Yulianti Farid’s The Range Hood and the Grease as well as Fijian author Shalini Akhil’s Home and (Take)Away.

A keen sense of injustice towards the wrongs Aboriginal people endured also pepper many a portrayal…

In a depiction that is often bereft of discourse about multiculturalism, Meg Mundell discusses the glaring difference between the receptions she and her fellow Kiwis receive from the much vilified “boat people”, and the derision directed towards Kiwis who are perceived to not have a culture of their own.

“Unlike the (mostly non-white) migrants who risk their lives in crappy boats to seek asylum here, I wasn’t fleeing war and persecution: I was doing it for kicks, a free adventure in exchange for crewing duties.”

A keen sense of injustice towards the wrongs Aboriginal people endured also pepper many a portrayal, most noticeably in former Chilean political prisoner Juan Garrido-Salgado’s narrative. As former refugees, Garrido-Salgado and his family learn of the dispossession upon which Australia was founded and begin to connect with indigenous people and asylum seekers.

The highlights of the anthology are fittingly diverse accounts of familiar emotions. Amy Espeseth’s heartbreaking story of why she left her hometown of Wisconsin for Australia is narrated alongside her feelings of regret, loss and love for her best friend Nichole who died when she was overseas. Conversely, Iranian migrant Ali Alizadeh charts his love for his fellow schoolmate Sally as the harsh realities of being an outsider come to shape who he is as an adult.

Yet the anthology is not just replete with tales of heartbreak, nostalgia and displacement. A sense of hope and happiness filters through many a picture where migrants fluidly construct new hybrid identities, find peace in their surroundings and gradually come to call Australia home.

In a nuanced approach that typifies many of the narratives, Kakmi concedes that living in Australia made it easier for his parents to come to terms with his homosexuality. And despite feeling like the “other” in her newfound Sydney neighbourhood, Totaro revelled in its “sunshine and joyous liberty” and adopts an expansive prism through which she sees the world – one that she attributes to Australia. In Ninety Eighty-Eight, Englishman Mark Dapin recounts reinventing himself in Australia, while Papua New Guinean teacher and writer Deborah Carlyon draws a sharp contrast between the liberty she enjoys in Australia as a woman and the reality that would await her in her country of birth.

(Chi) Vu’s family are perplexed by the NO STANDING sign at the bus stop outside their Melbourne hostel; her father is dismayed at the thought they had risked their lives for a more repressive regime than they had fled.

“Government-imposed curfews, barbed wire fences and outlaws with guns all contribute to a culture of fear – women in PNG fear men and the constant possibility of being raped.”

The anthology is not without humour either when comical incidents come about, inspired by “seemingly trivial misunderstandings”. Chi Vu’s The Uncanny contains one of the most memorably funny anecdotes in the book. Soon after their arrival in Australia, Vu’s family are perplexed by the NO STANDING sign at the bus stop outside their Melbourne hostel; her father is dismayed at the thought they had risked their lives for a more repressive regime than they had fled.

Indian-Australian writer Roanna Gonsalves’s The Patron Saint of Excess Baggage is a wry examination of a public exchange that Gonsalves uses as a microcosm of the ongoing process of what it means to be Australian, while Danny Katz’ The Crappiest Refugee is a sardonic plea for Australians to keep out the “Canadastanis”.

Short and pithy with beautifully sketched descriptions of the incredibly varied migrant experience, each story in Joyful Strains highlights the innumerable ways migrants have traipsed across seas and skies to reach Australia, the diverse ways in which they each manoeuvred with the vagaries of their newfound home against nostalgia for a home left behind, and the inexplicable ways these experiences shape them as citizens with hybrid identities. Like the title Joyful Strains, many of the accounts in the anthology are bittersweet portrayals of the migrant experience – perhaps best encapsulated in this excerpt by novelist and cultural historian Hsu-Ming Teo.

“I suppose the trouble for all migrants who come here and go back there is that when you get there, as Gertrude Stein famously said, there isn’t any there there.”

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