This thesis addresses the representation of transcultural exchange between Anglo-Europeans and Asian-Australians. It presents my fictionalised autobiography/novel The Fire Sermon, and discusses its key influences: novels concerned with the representations of Anglo/Asian relationships and the “mixed blood” Eurasian subject. My exigesis explores my “factional” (or ficto-critical) methodology for writing about cultural hybridity, and considers the practice of textual métissage, an approach to writing about cross-cultural identities in an Australian-Asian Imaginary, which I define as a field of commodified, ambivalent, and anxious representations of Asian and Eurasian subjects.
This exegesis addresses the influence of touristic Anglo-European narratives of Australians in Asia; these include subjects who may “go native” in an Orientalist way. Demonised Eurasians also appear as ”tragic” figures of split identity. These narratives make/unmake boundaries that signify cultural and racial difference; these address desire for and/or aversion to racialised bodies and minds, and I argue that these texts promote a nascent multiculturalism and mobilise hybridity as an intentional artistic strategy in order to deconstruct racism, but in the process may perpetuate stereotypes of the Eurasian, and may recycle dominant views of Eurasian hybridity’s cultural and psychological inferiority to whiteness.
I also explore novels that focus on Asian-Australian second-generation children and their migrant parents, in particular, how Asian subjects repudiate their own ethnicity in an effort to fit into Anglo culture. Contrary to naïve understandings of hybridity as undifferentiated heteroglossia, this thesis argues against perpetuating uncritical celebrations of hybridity as cultural mix-and-match within an idealised vision of globalised world culture where all subjects have equal access to the cultural resources available to fashion identity. The appropriation of Asian and Eurasian subjectivities may in fact perpetuate an uncritical Orientalist discourse that perpetuates the dominant ontology of whiteness. My story explores whiteness primarily through the voice of the Asian migrant whose desire to celebrate Western forms of identity waxes and wanes.
The last chapter appraises Brian Castro’s approach to hybrid identity, the debate over fact versus fiction, and the issue of authenticity in migrant writing. By adopting parody, self-Orientalisation, and métissage, writers can decouple the Australian Imaginary from hegemonic nationalisms and open the literature of migrancy to new, more fluid subject positions.
The creative component of this thesis, my autobiographical novel The Fire Sermon, concerns the cultural significance of the cross-cultural intermarriage of my Thai mother and white father, a story that immediately invokes the fascination of cross-racial desire, Orientalist fantasies, and the white Australian fear of miscegenation and Asian invasion. However, my novel is not a nostalgic diasporic narrative of return, which idealises the migrant’s ethnic origins. This thesis hopes to show how my work dialogues with a growing corpus of literature concerned with Eurasian-experiences of migration, and in particular, my work’s relevance to theoretical discussion about the representation of race, ethnicity, and hybridised identities, especially those of Asian descent positioned within the hegemonic space of the West.
I define my own hybridity as a cultural form created by my migration to Australia from a multiplicity of “elsewheres”: Thailand, Malaysia and England. Through my father, the model for “Patrick” in the novel, I am also an inheritor of a long history of Anglo-Australian engagement with Asian cultures. Through my mother, the model for “Malee”, I maintain a diasporic connection with my Thai heritage. This creates the conditions for a problematic but useful creative tension. For Ien Ang (2001: 4), Asian and Asians represent categories of difference from the West. Being Asian means being non-Western, especially if one is positioned as an Asian in the West, as I have been, by critics and readers of my writing. Given the dominance of the white settler narrative over the notion of Australian identity, antagonistic as it has been to the idea of an Asianising Australia, the non-white (or Eurasian) Australian requires a particular form of double consciousness to reconcile the seemingly unnatural conjunction of being Asian and Western at the same time. The hyphenation of Asian-Australian, or Asian-American, for example points to the ‘tension that exists between the two categories’ (Ang 2001: 4).
I have inhabited the role of cultural translator, or informant, who is defined, for good or ill, as an Australian multicultural or migrant writer (see Gooneratne 1996; Indyk 1996). This is a role about which I am highly ambivalent. While many ethnic/migrant practices and cultural forms are now considered familiar and welcome in Australia, other forms are not. If the dominant Anglo-Celtic character of Australian culture has been transformed by multicultural policies that encourage cultural diversity, and, is making way for more Asianised forms of Australian culture, what is the nature of this new postcolonial, post-assimilationist Asian imaginary? The greater numbers of texts published by Australians with a deep investment in Asian cultures may seem an inevitable and positive cultural change, and it may seem a good anti-racist, anti-essentialist move to call myself a hybrid Asian-Australian artist.
However, hybridity in the discourse of cross-racial sexuality is sustained by concepts that are themselves essentialising and even racist. Historically, definitions of hybridity are based on organic metaphors of cross-species mixing, of which offspring are both similar and different to the parents. The historical links between language and sex, according to Young (1995: 5) are fundamental. Young writes that hybrid forms (Creole pidgin and miscegenated children for example) embodied
threatening forms of perversion and degeneration and became the basis for endless metaphoric extension in the racial discourse of social commentary…Both these models of cultural interaction, language and sex, merge in their product which is characterised with the same term: hybridity…the use of hybridity today prompts questions about the ways in which contemporary thinking has broken absolutely with the racialised formulations of the past. (Young 1995: 5 – 6)
In Latin hybrid meant the offpring of a tame sow and a wild boar; Webster’s Dictionary defined hybrid in 1828 as ‘a mongrel or mule; an animal or plant produced from the mixture of two species’ (Young 1995: 6). The OED of 1890 made the link between linguistic mixture and race by associating hybridity in the Aryan languages with racial intermixture (Young 1995: 6). Nineteenth century debates argued whether it was in fact possible that hybrid offspring would result from the miscegenation of different races; could humans be defined in terms of different races, and/or different species in the first place?
Young points out that hybridity debates ‘focussed explicitly on the issue of sexuality, and the issue of sexual unions between whites and blacks. Theories of races were thus also covert theories of desire’ (1995: 9). My novel parodies but does not replicate the racist intentions of such debates; what I wish to explore is the ways in which my family’s written and photographic archive reveals how the desire of my parents for each other was motivated by a fascination with their racial and cultural differences. I want also to explore the way they grew out of this desire. My book is therefore an account of how desire is motivated by race. What I am concerned to do is not to perpetuate what Young calls the ‘vocabulary of the Victorian extreme right’ (1995: 10), when invoking hybridity as a metaphor for discussion of the rights and wrongs of cultural mixing in a multicultural world. But it is important to acknowledge that hybridity and “Asian-Australian”, are the middle terms between two binaries, and only make sense in terms of fixed concepts of racial identity; therefore my novel invokes traditional notions of “Englishness”, “Thainess”, and “Australianness”, in order to deconstruct the genealogy and to explore the creative AND destructive uses of these concepts.
My novel is after all an exploration of the discourse of my father’s Anglo-Celtic Australian “race-speak”, which he had inherited from four generations of his Anglo-Scots ancestors who settled in Victoria. This discourse provided my father with terms he often used to describe (Eur)asian women in letters he wrote when he was living in Bangkok in the late 50s: Eurasian, half-caste, and Oriental. Significantly, he used nineteenth century race terminology to describe the very bodies he admitted to desiring in a strongly overt sexual way. Similarly, my novel explores the meaning and uses of my mother’s description of whiteness through the Thai term for Westerner, “Farang”. The novel is thus an attempt to mix dialogically both the father’s European discourse of body description with the mother’s Thai one.
The aim of the novel, however, is to imagine and deconstruct race as a marker of cultural authenticity and nationality. In particular, I wish to explore my family history in terms of two sides of the hybridity debate, a debate that has opposed and dramatised the “positive” meanings of hybridity as creative synthesis and multicultural enrichment (as postive adulteration of monoculturalism), to the “negative” view of the racially miscegenated family. My own “broken” family can thus be read as a metaphor of cultural degeneracy, and as an emblem of failed multicultural ideals, or it could be seen as a counter-discourse to the bourgeois romance of happy families. Certainly I am not affirming a faith in transnationalism, for the image of the happy cross-cultural marriage that closes my text is hyperreal, staged and theatrical, nostalgic and belated.
Pnina Werbner distinguishes between the essentialism used by particular ethnic communities and the essentialism used by racist groups to justify violent attacks on migrants and refugees (1997b: 226 – 254). My own contribution to an Asian-Australian discourse is mobilised to resist racism. My approach is similar to Lisa Lowe’s, when she argues that the concept “Asian-American” is a socially constructed unity that can be used positively ‘in a scrupulously visible political interest’ (1996: 82). Miriam Lo argues that strategic essentialism is an important strategy we can use to recognise the agency and complexity of ethnic subjects. One part of one’s ethnicity can be used to efface another part, or it can be used to resist racism (1998: 14 – 15). It is therefore necessary to distinguish hybrid constructions according to the different sorts of essentialisms and the motives behind their construction. Lo states that ‘the sort of hybridity that most effectively repudiates racism is one in which the recognition of one ethnic and/or national “part” does not take place at the cost of another’ (1998: 15).
I use my hyphenated identity to contest and disrupt racist discourses and negative essentialising, and to reveal the internal contradictions and ambiguities of my own ethnic and migrant position. Much more critical work needs to be done to gauge the extent to which hybrid configurations in Australian literature succumb to, or resist racist structures. Which formulations are strategically essentialist? The hybrid as product of cross-cultural intermarriage has always been a signifier that carries the ambivalence of colonial race/gender histories, in which cultural difference was marked in racialised terms. Intermarriage can be idealised as a force for social cohesion in multicultural nations like Australia and Canada, for example. But there are endless stories, films and plays that return to the theme of mixed race children as ‘crazy mixed up kids’ (Yasmin Alibai Brown, cited in Perkins 2004: 191). Adrian Carton points out that in the British colonial context terms like Eurasian and hybridity stood for an invented binary with a pleasing hyphenated duality. He writes: ‘The act of interpellating individuals as hybrid subjects was an integral part of the subject constituting program of the colonial state and its naming practices’ (2004: 79). According to Werbner, it is necessary to recognise that ‘constructions of the self as hybrid do not in themselves guarantee and escape from prescriptive or even “pernicious” essentialisms that replicate structures of racism’ (Werbner 1997b: 229). In novels, for example, a so-called hybrid character may be motivated by racism in some way. According to Lo, hybrids may attempt to efface one part of their ethnic identity they perceive to be inferior, or they may invest in essentialised differences (ethnic identity for instance). Short of repudiating racism, the hybrid may in fact vacillate between one part of his/her identity and another. A hybrid may experience the negative figurations of split identity. In other words, for hybrid characters there are costs and benefits of cultural dualism (1998: 7).
My interest in telling my father’s story is motivated by the knowledge that Eurasian migrants may be heavily invested in a pursuit of whiteness as a measure of their being a “Good Australian”, whiteness defined in terms of Ghassan Hage’s analysis of the cultural capital migrants can accrue in a country like Australia where cultural difference is managed by and measured against a dominant set of Anglo-Celtic core values. For the non-white migrant, ‘Whiteness…is an aspiration that one accumulates various capitals [sic.] to try and be’ (Hage 1998: 60). Glenn D’Cruz observes this phenomenon in the recent literature of Anglo-Indians in Australia. They are signifiers of amiable difference who embrace family values. Within the discourse of Australian multiculturalism they have been praised for their adaptability (2000: 150 – 52):
In other words, the Anglo-Indians’ physical signifiers of race difference marks them as Other, but their ability to speak English as a first language enables them to be easily integrated into Australian society, in contrast to migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds. (D’Cruz, 2000: 150)
D’Cruz concludes that the case of Anglo-Indians cultural integration into the mainstream illustrates how ‘multiculturalism is an ambivalent discourse; one that simultaneously works to reinstate white normativity even while it celebrates cultural diversity’ (2000: 157).
Rather than focus on hybridity in the literature of any single diasporic group, this thesis attempts to define my own investment in hybridity (as realised in The Fire Sermon) through a reading of a number of Australian novels concerned with colonialism, racism and hybridity. I am interested in the way this literature constructs the Asian Imaginary, and how it has influenced my own writing. The Asian Imaginary is a term that derives from Annette Hamilton’s interpretation of Durkheim’s theory of the commodification of popular images that circulate as collective manifestations of a community’s self image as well as its image of outsiders or others. Hamilton’s essay ‘Fear And Desire: Aborigines, Asians and the National Imaginary’ (1990) defines the archetypal features of this Asian Imaginary which is distinguishable from other imaginaries in terms of the greater fear and desire Anglo-Celtic Australians have held about Indigenous Australians and Asians as threats from within and beyond our borders, or as a lure for our desires. In particular, Hamilton argues that the fear of the Aboriginal/Asian Other is structured by a deep-seated fear of cultural contagion through miscegenation or inter-breeding. This nexus of fear and desire is recirculated and commodified as imagery and text. The genealogy of such imagery goes back in Australia’s case to Anglo sources of racism in the nineteenth century and continues to circulate as a national imaginary at an unintended unconscious or subliminal level. The Asian Imaginary is also a collection of racialised tropes that have often been mobilised to appeal to popular Australian notions of Asian migrants as foreign agents, even if they live within Australian borders (1990: 14 – 35).
Producing Orientalism: the Australian book market and demand for Asian exotica
Stories by and about Asian-Australians are now integral components of the Asian Imaginary in Australia, but what is new is that the stories about Asian migrants, mostly by Asian migrants, now attract more interest from mainstream publishers. This may be due to the persistent demand in Western countries for Orientalist tales of magic, madness, and magic realism involving exoticised Asian characters and locales. Furthermore there has been increasing discourse about migrants as Manichean exemplars of either “good” Australian, or “unAustralian” behaviour. Asian migrants are the focal points of debates about the Asianisation of Australian culture. How then do migrants from China, Singapore, Thailand or Indonesia for example, use literature to overcome the stigma of their racial and cultural otherness? To what extent do representations of these Asian-Australians in novels dramatise this struggle to overcome otherness? What does this overcoming entail? Are these novels still repositories of lingering Orientalist tropes, racist stereotypes, and ambivalent white fantasies of the dangerous Asian femme fatale and the lax hybrid? If so, how do these works write back to Orientalism?
Any reading of my own work will not escape the processes which market and brand books with Asian themes, which tend to play on these old connotations by emphasising the exotic nature of the story; for example, the pastel and silk Indian gold embroidery on the cover of Chandani Lokuge’s If the Moon Smiled (2000) suggests a book with Oriental content. In fact, most of the story is set in Adelaide. The cover (Figure 1 below) references the book’s Sinhalese Buddhist symbolism: the Nelum flower, or white lotus, signalling innocence, virginity and erotic potential all in one.
Figure 1. Cover of If the Moon Smiled
Furthermore, the author shot of Lokuge self-Orientalises in a way that suggests a strategic essentialist move, for the inside cover shows the self-confident author smiling in a sari. The sari illustrates the retranslation and displacement of the Asian-Australian author as a non-Western ethnic subject. I read these elements as retranslations of migrant cultural signs constituted relationally to a mainstream Australian core, in other words these novels do not represent the prior reality of migrant cultures, but only their translation. If there is an original or authentic Asian subject, placed in a new context, or displaced to a new place, it is transformed and adapted through its (marketable) reproduction to Australian tastes.
The favourable reception of Hsu-ming Teo’s Love and Vertigo (2000) and Eva Sallis’s City of Sea Lions (2002) is partly attributable to the way these books exploit the seduction of the exotic “elsewheres” as they attempt to integrate the exotic into the “here” of multicultural Australia. This managed exoticism exploits Orientalist imagery, use of magical realist elements like dream, flashback, mythological creatures, and illogical cause-effect devices. Blurbs utilise expressions such as ‘stranger in a strange land’ (The City of Sea Lions), and ‘in a foreign land…idyllic past…passionate enchantment’ (If the Moon Smiled).
Critics continue to value the exoticism of non-Western elements in the texts. For critic Jane Sullivan, Asian-Australian writers are the ‘in thing’ and Asian content is the name of the game:
Look around the bookshops at the moment and you might be forgiven for thinking that Asian-Australian writing is the flavour of the month. There are Simone Lazaroo’s The Australian Fiancé, Lau Siew Mei’s Playing Madame Mao, Vogel winner Hsu-Ming Teo’s Love and Vertigo, all connected in one way or another to Chinese family life in Singapore. This is the kind of display that leads some disgruntled writers to the conclusion – mistaken, I believe – that being a “multicultural” writer gives you an unfair advantage. (2000: 10)
Sullivan refutes this alleged ‘disgruntlement’ (by an assumed Anglo mainstream perhaps) by arguing that the hybridity of Asian-Australian writing and its concern for cultural mix-and-match, displacement and memory is in fact the very thing that makes a successful writer, whatever their ethnicity. Sullivan writes:
[A]lthough these writers get understandably sick of being defined as “Chinese-Australian” or “Asian-Australian”, and then being treated as if they are nothing more than the sum total of those definitions, there is something about the mix of cultural experience, memory and dislocation that creates a writer in the first place. (2000: 10)
Sydney writer and critic Louis Nowra praises Love and Vertigo for its ‘darkly comic vision of life’, in particular a passage he describes as ‘a brilliantly inventive piece of comic writing worthy of Marquez’. But he also criticises the novel’s second half, and what he calls the ‘boring’ setting of Teo’s suburban Sydney. For Nowra, Teo’s narrator writes more energised passages about colourful Asian relatives in Singapore in the first half of her novel, while a depression marks later passages concerned with Asian-Australian migrants in the suburbs. Nowra writes:
What is so lovely about the scenes in Singapore is how Teo has captured the flavours, the smells and obsessions of those living in post-war Malaya…The first half of the novel is such a delight that it comes as a disappointment when the family migrates to Australia…. The trouble is that Grace [Teo’s Singapore-Chinese narrator] is boring compared with her colourful relatives and it is only near the end, when her mother begins to speak in tongues, that the novel regains its energy. (2000)
Nowra prefers the exotic to the familiar. He finds Love and Vertigo’s descriptions of suburban Sydney less interesting than its descriptions of ‘full spectrum colour’ in Singapore. For Nowra, suburban Australian reality seems to cripple Love and Vertigo‘s potential to be consistently stimulating. I would also argue that Grace’s transnational experience of Sydney and Singapore – the two contrasting sides of her life – leaves the novel with a rather unsatisfactory division between the colour of the East, and the drabness of suburban Sydney.
Both Sullivan and Nowra stop short of acknowledging the deeper strengths of the works they review. These works are now attracting a readership because they offer multiple readings of how Asians are rewriting Australian history, and forcing a re-reading of Australian Orientalist discourses. Zeynep Celik argues that by approaching Orientalism from the other side – the side of the Orientals, Orientalism
reveals a hitherto unknown dynamism, one that is about dialogue between cultures and about contesting the dominant norms. When the Oriental artists and intellectuals speak and begin shaping the terms of the debate, the Orient as represented by the West sheds its homogeneity, timelessness, and passivity, and becomes nuanced and complicated. (Cited in Edwards 2002: 331)
In Australia, migrant writers like Brian Castro, Lokuge, Sallis, Teo, and myself, walk a fine line between feeding this hunger for the Asian exotic, and writing nuanced and complex stories about the Orient. The cultural effect of migration is not a one-way traffic of “new culture” appropriated to suit consumers of the Australian suburbs. This thesis argues that the Australian cultural appropriation of Asian cultural themes must now critically consider how the meanings of the exotic (the strange but attractively foreign) and Orientalist themes and motifs (the Madame Butterfly story for example) are being modified and critiqued by Australian writers in ways that modify the Anglo-Celtic centre of the very category “Australian culture”. Eva Sallis’s The City of Sea Lions (2002) for example, is narrated by a Vietnamese-Australian named Lian, a young woman whose Australian identity is never simply the result of assimilation into whiteness. Her maturity grows in her time living in the Middle East and learning Arabic. The book’s exploration of migrant Australian identity involves a protagonist who is very much like Sallis in real life, an expert in Islamic/Arabic language and culture, and someone with intimate and real connections to Middle Eastern communities here and in the Middle East.. To understand Sallis’s use of an Asian-Australian Arabic scholar in the shape of Lian requires a complex knowledge of Vietnamese refugee experience (which Sallis has learned through her activist work with refugees) and Arabic forms of knowledge.
Furthermore, the notion of the Asian-Australian as a cultural interlocutor in fictional and critical texts can function as a counter-narrative to the dominant Anglo interpretations of the Asian migrant as a universally displaced figure of diasporic alienation, on the one extreme, and the assimilated figure of “amiable difference” on the other. The hyphenated term Asian-Australian should not become a simple definition for the disparate experiences of a diverse range of Asian nationalities and ethnicities. The hyphen can separate rather than unite the two terms Asian and Australian, while the lack of definition on the left side of the hyphen continually destabilises the right side. Asian-Australian refers to the particularities of identities formed and changed as Asian migrants or offspring of migrants cross into an Australian cultural space that for all intents is now too cosmopolitan and cannot adequately be described in terms of a simple binary of settler versus migrant discourses. Some of the narratives I have chosen to analyse address the places Asian-Australian subjects occupy alongside or within an Anglo-Australian context. My narrator typifies the Asian-Australian who has grown up in Australia but who identifies to some extent with a diasporic Thai identity. The white Anglo-Celtic influence, however, is dominant.
Thus the positive and negative influence of whiteness in the life of the bi-cultural Asian-Australian is my focus. The fictionalised figure of my Anglo father in The Fire Sermon, and the Anglos in stories investigated in this thesis, show that Anglo-Australians are not simply ideological imprints of the white Australia policy: they are divided by their ambivalence for Asian spaces; they are sojourners, witnesses, and transients motivated by strong desires to learn about the other, even as they fear the consequences of crossing to the other side. Hamilton’s essay provides a crucial benchmark with which to assess how far Asian-Australian writing has moved within this economy of ambivalence, fear and desire of Asian otherness. Against the fear of the other is the equally strong lure of Asia that involves ‘a deep question of identity’ (Hamilton 1990: 26). The problem of cross-cultural relationships is a significant theme precisely because these relationships mark sites for both the construction and the transgression of racial/identity boundaries and the splitting of the Asian-Australian identity into two imaginary halves. Anglos, also, become hybridised in contact with the Asian other, but again we need to assess the ways texts figure hybridity and cross-cultural desire as positive and/or negative cultural processes.
Performing hybridity: Adam Aitken as the “hybrid” author
My status as a writer whose mother is Thai and father is Anglo-Celtic is imbricated in these discourses of hybridisation. My bi-cultural parentage signifies a privileged cultural space, what Ien Ang calls the ‘positive indeterminacy’ of a diasporic subjectivity (cited in J. Lo 2000: 156). But to evoke my hybridity is not an appeal for cultural privilege. I intend The Fire Sermon to be an account of family history that problematises the view that the endpoint of postcolonial narrative is cultural hybridisation. My narrative simultaneously looks back to my diverse historical origins of cultural influence, but also looks forward to an Asian-Australian subjectivity of new mixtures and fusings, yet my hybridity invokes radical or fluid uncertainty of how these identities and cultural affiliations have been constructed. I argue that this uncertainty is a useful strategic position for decoupling the dominant equation of race with nationalism. I argue that Australia should not be defined in terms of its dominant Anglo-Celtic culture, yet I do not want to efface my Anglo-Celtic cultural inheritance and replace it with other ethnic essentialisms or prescribe an ideal type of Asian-Australian ethnicity.
Sri-Lankan-Australian academic and novelist Yasmine Gooneratne defines two types of writer in Australia, the Euro-Australian, whose heritage is essentially European, and the Asian-Australian. Gooneratne describes my poetry as presenting an Australian postmodern version of Asia that responds to being Australian and Asian at the same time (1996: 49 – 56). However, despite my mixed background, defining my work as that of an Asian-Australian author with strong diasporic links to a Thai homeland is problematic because my connection to my Thai heritage seems tenuous. I do not speak Thai fluently and cannot read more than a few words of the script, yet one of my principle themes deals with my Thai mother’s diasporic connection (and disconnection) with her family who still live in Thailand. I am aware that being designated a person of mixed descent raises the expectation that I possess a rich knowledge of two languages and cultures: I feel predominantly Western and not in fact an example of Lothrop Stoddard’s model of the “unhappy Eurasian”, whose every cell is ‘a battleground of warring heredities’ (cited in J. Lo 2002: 299). But I do not suffer from a lack of history, civilisation and culture. I am in fact a beneficiary of whiteness, and the way I have acquired whiteness is essential to my hybridity.
Rather than writing within the binary of home/exile, I seek to construct migrant identities that are processual, itinerant, contextualised and localised rather than “nationalised”. Following Paul Carter, Adrian Carton defines the imaginary space of his sense of home as the “transit lounge” where one is free of the consequences of thinking of identity oppositionally, in terms of fixed entities or the here and there (2004: 84). I agree with Ien Ang that diasporas should make the most of their complex and flexible positioning and not seek to privilege either host country or homeland. The space of the “in-between” is a productive space, not an empty one (Ang 1993: 7). It is also possible to read my work as Ivor Indyk does, as opening a space of hybrid cultural possibilities (1996: 56).
For Indyk and perhaps Gooneratne, my own Eurasian alterity is a sign of a liberating postcolonial practice; the expectation that my work promises to speak from a position free from colonialism’s essentialist formations. However, there is a danger that I might reflect a common and overly simplistic view that intermarriage is by definition a force for social cohesion and a solution to racial and ethnic conflict in the world. In the process of my own transculturation as a child of mixed parentage, I would like to claim that the effects of such an upbringing have been mutually beneficial to both my Thai mother and my Australian Anglo-Scots father. But the reality I have written about in The Fire Sermon is far less about mutual benefit and much more to do with the unequal processes of power involved in my mother’s marriage and migration to the West. My mother’s aspirations for whiteness involved forces that led to her partial assimilation into a life of Western domesticity. But the assimilation involved coercive forces, a contraction in my mother’s horizons of cultural possibility. My novel attempts to question the way that this migration might uncritically rehearse ‘the myth of colonialism as the progress and liberation of humanity from a state of deprivation to enlightened reason’ (McClintock, cited in J. Lo 2002: 297). What I want to deconstruct is the romanticism of my mother’s decision to marry my father, whom she may have seen as the agent of her Western enlightenment, and about whom she was deeply ambivalent.
The Fire Sermon also investigates the way the stigma of biological notions of mixed race and miscegenation impacted my family. My bi-culturalism was a handicap before it became an advantage. My undeveloped Thai identity was a handicap when I returned to Thailand, a space where hybridity is not usually celebrated outside of the world of fashion and advertising, a world which appropriates the youthful or sexy Eurasian look, but ignores its deeper significance. As Jacqueline Lo points out, some versions of hybridity evacuate any sense of ‘tension, conflict or contradiction involved in the understanding of inter-and/or cross-cultural encounters’ (2002: 297). In this formulation of “happy hybridity”, cultural difference celebrates but masks and perpetuates structural inequities. Eurasian models are in great demand in multi-national fashion advertising (see Matthews 2002), yet almost absent elsewhere, as in Australian cinema for instance, unless they are portraying gangsters or Triad drug dealers (Shaw 1987: 36). More recently Eurasian women have been celebrated as figures of Australia’s successful multicultural-consumer society. A recent story in The Sydney Morning Herald has the headline: ‘She’s got the look, and science can prove it,’ which captions a picture of an Australian-Eurasian female model. The article cites an advertising executive who warns that advertisers risk appearing old fashioned ‘if their models are not exotic looking’ (Smith, Sydney Morning Herald, June 25 – 26, 2005). It also reports on scientific research into the biological basis for the attractiveness of Eurasian women but makes no mention of Eurasian men.
This happy hybrid discourse, however, disguises a darker side. According to Jacqueline Lo, ‘the body of the racial hybrid is both the physical manifestation of cross-racial desire and the source of repulsion and fear’ (2002: 297). If it is true that the dominant Anglo-Celtic imaginary in Australia has both feared and desired the Asian, in what ways has the other been commodified and appropriated? Lo describes this process as ‘strategic adulturation’, which invokes both sexual transgression between races (miscegenation) and adultery, from the Latin root ad + alter:
thus alterity, the mixture of self and other. It can thus be argued that symbolic miscegenation through cultural imaginings offers the means of both displacing and satisfying Orientalist desire without the disastrous human consequences. Within the sexual economy of colonialism, the fantasy of the Eurasian Other paradoxically results in the satiation and neutralisation of cross-racial desire. The Eurasian as the embodiment of transgressive desire therefore functions symbolically as a primary constituent of bourgeois family life. (J. Lo: 2002: 300)
In other words, according to Stallybrass and White, in the racist discourse of bourgeois family life, the sexual desire of whites for other races is always ambivalent, bearing the imprint of repulsion and desire. The repression of desire for the racial other returns as an object of nostalgia, longing and fascination: ‘disgust always bears the imprint of desire’ in cross-cultural relations (cited in Young 1995: 112). How then has my own family narrative reflected, and intervened in, the ambivalence of racial desire? What interventions and resistant readings does my work initiate?
The result of cross-racial desire and intermarriage is ultimately the ambivalent signifier of both cultural cohesion AND cultural conflict. It is the Eurasian who attracts the attentions of racists and liberal-minded cultural hybridists alike. The Eurasian focuses the struggle for power in colonial race/gender discourses, and the Eurasian is a privileged trope for the split or fragmented subject whose ethnicity may or may not acquire the whiteness needed to belong to an Anglo-centric nation like Australia. While many narratives have affirmed the trope of the ”doomed” Eurasian of no fixed address or ethnic (or national) identity, paradoxically the Eurasian can also signify the promising endpoint for cultural racism and definitions of pure-race nationality and culture.
The narratives discussed here characterise Anglo interaction with Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Sri Lankan, Thai, Malaysian and Indian Asians, as well as Eurasians and Asian-Australians. The plenitude of these cross-cultural narratives, and the range of models of hybridity – from happy to unhappy and all those in-between – suggests that many Australian writers are looking ‘continually for voices and not for a definitive stance’ (Gunew 1994: 49). This thesis therefore attempts to situate my own understanding of cross-racial desire and cultural hybridity in terms of this corpus.
From White Australia to Asia-in-Australia
This thesis begins with a review of literature that debates how the politics of hybridity in Australian literature has been theorised and appropriated, and how fictional Asian and Eurasian women have been used as a trope for representing Asian-Australian identities as agents of threatening social and cultural change. Hybrids have circulated between Australian literature and the realm of popular culture. In Chapter One I argue that the Asian “Dragon Lady” has been in circulation in Australian popular fiction for the last hundred or so years, from the Tales of Chinatown detective novels of Sax Rohmer (1883 –1959) to Blanche D’Apuget’s Turtle Beach (1981) and Christopher Koch’s Indochina war novel Highways to A War (1995). Pauline Hanson also exemplifies racist Australia’s anti-hybrid (anti-Asian immigration) position. Hanson’s evil Asian is a fictive Asian Cyborg called “Poona Li Hung” (Hanson 1996). Chapter One presents a feminist reading of the nexus of race and gender in the postcolonial context. Blanche D’Alpuget’s novel Turtle Beach (1981), set in Malaysia in the 70s, features a female journalist sympathetic with refugee issues, Judith, and her informant Minou, a French-Vietnamese wife of an Australian diplomat, who is destined to die tragically. This continues a predominant theme of films dealing with Asians in the early twentieth century. David Walker finds that in screen versions of interracial affairs, there are no happy endings. But while Hollywood was clearly antithetical to miscegenation, they knew the popular appeal of interracial sex. Turtle Beach and its film adaptation seem to continue this tradition (Walker 1990: 190). In Highways To a War, Koch explores the white man’s romantic adventure and romance with an Asian seductress (a Khmer Rouge operative), and his subsequent destruction in the quagmire of the Indo-China conflict. This novel identifies a Kampuchean Khmer Rouge female operative pursued by the white hero Mike Langford, a paradigm of settler innocence and virtue, a farm boy from Tasmania whose first taste of Asian exotica are the cartoons of Milton Caniff. In a tradition of Australian stories of Australians destroyed by Asian decadence, Langford’s romantic involvement with the mysterious Asian woman leads to a complete destruction and loss of original white male subjectivity and control. Stories that combine the allure and the tragic failure of relationships between white men and Asian women have persisted in the popular male imagination.
Given the problem that hybridity is over-determined by the language of eugenics, I present an interpretation of The Fire Sermon as a work that can be read in terms of Bakhtin’s definitions of the intentionally “polyglot” novel, a work in which two different cultural and linguistic systems are consciously integrated. As I discuss in more detail below, my novel is also a work of textual métissage as defined by theorists such as Françoise Lionnet (1995). Here, I define how my work resists ethnic essentialism and assimilation while it appropriates discourses of Orientalism – in particular the genealogy of the Asian femme fatale – in order to critique them.
Chapter Two defines my novel’s narrative point of view in terms of the métis (the male of mixed descent), who adopts the persona of the travelling cultural cross-dresser. Here I detour from my focus on the Eurasian and propose a model of the white Anglo-Australian in Asia who chooses to hybridise himself fearlessly by entering the space of the other and “going native”. This is clearly a strategy for gaining knowledge and power over the other, but may also express the narrator’s deep respect for other cultures. I compare my own father’s process of going native with autobiographical descriptions of G. E. Morrison (1862 – 1920), China correspondent for The London Times, and popularly known as “Morrison of China”. He was considered an expert on Asia due to his extensive travels through the region, and an important contributor to the general debate over race, white Australia and Asian immigration. Morrison’s habit of dressing as a Mandarin during his travels in China adds to this aura of authority and signals the white man’s privilege. To what extent was his performance of a culturally hybridised colonial replicating colonial structures of racism and paternalistic governance? I argue that this travel writing safely accommodated white anxiety associated with Asia by depicting the ethnic populations of China and Burma in exotic terms, and re-enforced the racial hierarchies favoured by imperial British administrators. Morrison’s text functions as a form of imperial métissage, a synthesis of cultural artefacts and observances that displays knowledge of colonised others for the purpose of re-affirming white colonial control. The question is whether the white traveller’s cultural cross-dressing and self-Orientalisation destabilise the discourse of incompatible racial difference? What are the dynamics and limits of “going native”; in other words, how was Morrison’s (and my father’s) admiration for Asian culture reconciled to the argument that Asians were inferior to the whites?
Writing about the situation of métis/métisse subjects in French-Indochina and the Dutch East Indies, Stoler finds that there was a general concern among colonialists that ‘European men living with native women…would become degenerate and décivilisé’, and were in danger of losing their Dutch or French identity (1997: 213). Descendants of these Europeans were also deemed to be a threat to European standards of respectability and patriotism, as they lacked paternal discipline in a world where (non-white) mothers took charge (Stoler 1997: 212). A similar concern existed in Australia. According to Walker, the fear of an Asian cultural future for Australia promised exciting narrative possibilities (1999: 7).
Chapter Three develops the discussion of postcolonial readings of the essentialised racial representation of the Chinese-Australian in Christopher Koch’s novel The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). Billy Kwan is a photojournalist on assignment in Indonesia to cover politics and culture for an Australian news agency. Despite his almost supernatural visual perception and intuition, his dwarf body functions in conjunction with racial difference as a trope for the essential deformity and confusion of postcolonial Eurasian bodies, a deformity of both mind and body. Kwan’s flirtation with Sukarnoism is his most fatal transgression. Kwan represents the fearful return of the repressed, the fatal consequences of being mixed race Australian. The contrast of Kwan with the book’s white and perfectly formed Anglo-Celt hero, Hamilton, suggests a racialised hierarchy. Hamilton survives Asian ‘contagion’ on the political and social level, while Kwan is killed by it. Kwan is the sacrifice Australians must make if they are to survive the “quagmire” of Asian politics.
Chapter Four discusses Simone Lazaroo’s The Australian Fiancé (2000), a novel that focuses on the traumatic experiences of an Anglo-Australian and his Eurasian fiancée. This is a story about the unpleasant social consequences of the white man’s desire for the Eurasian métisse, and Lazaroo addresses the space of the silence that exists when Eurasian female migrants are expected to assimilate and cope with the unequal power relations in a paternalistic white Australia in the 1950s, a period in which mixed marriage is virtually banned by institutionalised racism and lack of cultural knowledge and sympathy for the Asian migrant. Lazaroo writes from the hybrid position of the Eurasian who finds herself lost in both the racial hierarchy of post-war Singapore, and in her fiancé’s Australian rural “no-where”. This chapter argues that the novel offers potential for positive relocation of the Eurasian in a space that is de-orientalised to some extent, and dis-articulated from the burden of ethnic or racist descriptors of identity. As a story about cross-racial desire, Lazaroo’s novel is very much a text I have engaged with in The Fire Sermon (my re-writing of the lover’s first encounter appears on pages 81 – 2). I argue that Lazaroo’s narrative is trapped to some extent by the very racist structures it tries to escape.
Chapter Five explores métissage in the depiction of diasporic trauma in stories of family migration and exile in two Vogel-award winners, Hsu-Ming Teo’s Love And Vertigo (2000), and to a lesser extent in Eva Sallis’s The City of Sea Lions (2002). Lisa Lowe argues in relation to Asian-American novels, that ‘the question of the loss or transmission of the “original” culture is frequently represented in family narrative, figured as a generational conflict’ (1996: 62). Asian-Australian family narratives also depict the conflict between those parents born overseas, and those children born in the new country. These stories depict what Mishra terms the ‘unhappy state of diasporas’ (1999: 47), and help us to understand the role of melancholy and memory in the lives of migrants coming to Australia. ‘Traumatic moments signify the loss of something special, often the motherland or the homeland’ and trauma also implies the lack of openness and tolerance in the host country to migrants’ cultural differences (Mishra 1999: 47). Common to Teo, Sallis, and myself is an interest in highly traumatised or “mad” migrant mothers within a traumatised or dysfunctional migrant family, and within these families generational conflicts involve the children of migrants finding more fluid identities and life-roles that might be reconciled with the very different aspirations of their parents. These children, who may also be thought of in terms of métissage, may come to replicate or mimic racist structures of thinking and behaving as they attempt to assimilate into whiteness by disavowing ethnic parts of themselves. They may also come to reject racism.
These generational breakdowns in communication are a crisis that requires explanatory narratives in which generations are reconciled with their loss of tradition. But as Lisa Lowe points out, the cultural politics of racialised ethnic groups tends to be reduced to first-second generation differences within the privatised space of familial opposition (1996: 63). Such reduction makes other immigrant histories invisible. My reading of generational difference does not essentialise migrant parents as the binary opposite of their children’s hybridity. Parents, also, are depicted as experiencing migrancy as a hybridising process that may be positive, albeit traumatic.
My portrayal of my own mother similarly unsettles multicultural stereotypes of the ideal happy migrant or the docile “new Australian”. Diasporic identities are formed in terms of exclusions that extend from the loss of the mother country, exclusion from the new nation states as a group (migrant or ethnic identities) and exclusion on the basis of gender and sexuality. In these examples, and for my own text, the central question for diasporic subjects is: when does the subject become ‘cured’ in diasporas (Mishra 1999: 48)?
This thesis concludes with a reading of Brian Castro’s essays and his novel Stepper. I explore the influence of Castro’s notions of the transnational/postmodern hybrid writer and the hybrid text on my own practice. Castro’s hybridised cross-genre blend of the novel and the autobiography extends Bakhtin’s definition of intentional artistic hybridity (in Holquist and Emerson 1994: 119 – 120). Bakhtin distinguishes between “organic” and intentional hybridity, with the former being internal to cultures, unconscious, and unthreatening, the latter referring to deliberate performances of difference, abnormality, fused identities, carnivalesque monsters and other hybrid forms which can shock or entertain. Werbner argues that what distinguishes routine cultural borrowings and appropriations (food and dress for instance) from more potent movements of social change are the levels of ‘threat’ social groups attribute to these changes. According to Werbner, hybridity can be both threatening and benign, ‘the deliberate, provocative aesthetic challenge to an implicit social order and identity, which may also be experienced, from a different social position, as revitalising and fun’ (1997a: 5).
Castro’s novel Stepper (1997) reveals the motivation and limits of orientalising Japan and the limits of the intellectual pursuit of postmodern indeterminacy. Stepper, the Western spy, the shape-shifting individualist with multiple aliases, will always be inauthentic. He fails to gain membership from a Japanese community which is itself difficult to descibe as a monocultural entity. In other words hybridity appears as only a textual effect or fictive rhetoric with little power to describe the reality of identity itself. Is hybridity an empty signifier? How useful is the concept of artistic hybridity to readers and writers who wish to speak and write for their migrant communities, who may hold to fixed or strategically essential notions of identity? This chapter debates Jonathan Friedman’s view that hybridity has little to offer the world’s politically disempowered (1997: 70 – 9). Castro’s textual border-crossing strategies have been criticised as postmodern “gaming” which elides the complexities of power. Tseen Khoo argues:
Far from being liberating, the act of free floating between ‘established’ locations could engender feelings of displacement and alienation from the centre, difficulties with social and civic participation, and internalisation of negative representations. (1999: 150 – 2)
Castro’s transnational orientation sits uneasily with an Asian-Australian cultural politics that attempts to generate a discursive space for Asian-Australians that is far more localised (and perhaps more authentic) than his apparent “internationalism”. Being myself unaffiliated with any precisely defined Asian-Australian ethnic community, and not finding my writing defined in reviews and articles as particularly Asian-Australian, I identify more closely with Castro’s refusal to write as a delegate of an ethnic community, though the limitations and advantages of this position will be analysed.