On The Rise of Asian Australian Women’s Writing
To think through the emergence of Asian Australian women’s writing is to be faced with the violent racism and exclusion that Asian Australians have experienced since federation.
Tracing a shift in literary landscape is a fascinating way to note wider cultural movements, literature always a kind of mirror, however fractured or fragmented. When I think about the lineages and legacies of Asian Australian women in literature, it is impossible not to dwell on the violent and racist legislation which has formed and complicated what it means to be an Asian Australian writer. The White Australia Policy was one of the first pieces of legislation passed after Australia’s federation, perpetuating a white ideal by law. Repealed in 1973, the policy still casts a long shadow on Australia’s arts and cultural industries, in particular the literary landscape; for example, many of Australia’s major literary institutions were founded before such laws were repealed, such as the Miles Franklin Literary Award, which was founded in 1957.
In such a social and cultural climate, what has been the place of Asian Australian women in the ‘imagined community’ of Australia? It is easy to gauge this if one looks at the winners of Australian literary prizes, the endpoint to the production of literary works – from education, through to publication. Aside from a few brilliant exceptions (such as Brian Castro’s Vogel win in 1982, or Hsu-Ming Teo’s in 1999) it has taken over a century for Asian Australian writers to receive wider support or recognition in the literary arts.
In 2008, novelist and essayist Alice Pung edited what is now a well-known anthology of essays and fiction titled Growing Up Asian in Australia (Black Inc.). The anthology was not published with her original introduction, which was published later, in Peril magazine, beginning with an admission that Pung had been persuaded by a “trusted adviser” that her “heavy introduction might not make people want to pick up the book at Borders… Academics and students might be interested in the history of Asian-Australians, but we as a popular culture are perhaps not ready.” But, returning to it in 2022, Pung’s writing feels far from inflammatory, instead fairly explanatory:
“Throughout Australian literary history, Asians have often been written about by outsiders, as outsiders. Our outside identity oscillates between being a grave threat to white nationhood and being the obedient racial group least likely to offend, depending on the political climate.”
Times have changed, and in the fourteen years which have passed, such hesitation to share such histories has been challenged. As the global movements of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have brought issues of racial and gender inequality to the world stage. These movements grew in a digital age; even within the grip of the algorithm, the rise of social media platforms has enabled a wider range of voices to be heard, and for communities to be formed. Representation in media, film, literature and the arts has also begun to slowly change. What do these social and cultural shifts mean for Asian Australia literature, and especially writing by a new generation of women writers? Once more we can turn to literary prizes: in 2013, Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel (2013) won the Miles Franklin; in 2017, Melanie Cheng won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction for Australia Day; and in the same year, Julie Koh was named Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist for Portable Curiosities. More recently, Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow (2021) won The Novel Prize, and Eunice Andrada’s Take Care (2021) is, at the time of writing, shortlisted for the Stella Prize. These books are thrillingly different, spanning genres and themes, refusing to be defined through the ever-shifting label of ‘identity politics’, so often wielded against minority writers, at best implying a lack of rigour, and at worst a lack of art. These writers are talented, rigorous and artful, and are not alone; they join so many others who are working today.
Though I have been asked to write on the rise of Asian Australian women writers, it is important to note that it is not so much a new trend but rather the result of tireless anti-racist work for many years by many people, across many disciplines. I am thinking here of the Asian Australian Research Studies Network, 4A Gallery, CAAP, Peril magazine, Hyphenated Projects, my own Liminal magazine, amongst many others, which have championed and made space for Asian Australian art and writing. It is wonderful to see these writers acknowledged; that such a mood of possibility has been both fought for, maintained, and nurtured. It is bracing to think of the brilliant talent we don’t know and will never know: the writers who were refused, erased, elided, on the basis of their race. One can only hope that such literary talent will continue to be supported and championed, and in such a way that mirrors a greater cultural shift.
Leah Jing McIntosh is a critic and researcher, and the founding editor of Liminal magazine.
Asia Society Australia has curated a series of excepts from Asian Australian female writers to illustrate Leah’s essay
She sat on the kerb and cried. A few people perched next to her and rested their hands on her shoulders. Others tried to revive the yellow man, to no avail. Most, however, continued to stare.
Look at how I’ve swamped your country, she shouted at them. I’ve been selling all your secrets to the yellow people. Your secrets of unreliable public transport and circus-like government. I will kowtow at your restaurant table, lead your men into sin and poison your babies with my cheap synthetic milk and my peasant ways.
Listen hard to what I’m saying, she said, because this is the amazing thing I do with my tongue.
For years afterwards, many locals remarked to each other – in the privacy of their own homes and on talkback radio – that the aggressor in the incident had been the yellow man, and that they were deeply concerned by the oversensitive and inflammatory nature of the woman’s remarks, by the weak and hysterical character of her emotional display, and by her ingratitude to a nation that had so generously accommodated her, even though she was a member of such a cruel, meek, blank-faced race.
© Julie Koh, The Three Dimensional Yellow Man, taken from Portable Curiosities, published by University of Queensland Press, 2021.
As she watched her items being scanned and bagged, Mrs Chan turned her attention to the magazine rack. A sea of women with pouty lips and cascading hair returned her stare. They reminded Mrs Chan of the Barbies her granddaughter had played with as a child. Once, long ago, Mrs Chan had been the local bombshell. But that was in the 1960s, and hers had been a real, unspoilt kind of beauty. Her fair skin and high cheekbones had caused a stir among the neighbours, some of the more jealous ones starting a rumour she had Caucasian blood in her.
There was only one face Mrs Chan recognised amid all the others on the covers of the glossy magazines—a woman with cumquat-coloured hair. When Mrs Chan had first come to Australia, the red-headed woman had been outspoken about Chinese migrants, but thankfully nobody, including the redhead, talked about the Chinese anymore. Now it was all about Muslims— like the pretty girl in the yellow headscarf scanning Mrs Chan’s Chinese mushrooms.
© Melanie Cheng, A Good and Pleasant Thing, taken from Australia Day, published by The Text Publishing Company, 2017.
I went alone to the cinematheque every Wednesday. Walking back, I made myself stride. For a long time after arriving in Australia, my instinct had been to creep and pass unnoticed. Servants walk like that in their masters’ houses. It was never discussed in my family, but all three of us were in hiding from something. My father acquired the tic of passing his palm over his face. As for my mother, she developed a problem with her eyes and went around in dark glasses, even indoors. It was pure ostrich magic – not seeing and hoping not to be seen. What exactly had the three of us feared? Nothing/everything – it was the fuzzy, underlying immigrant dread of punishment for being in the wrong place.
© Michelle De Kretser, Scary Monsters, published by Allen & Unwin, 2021.
It’s felt like the same day repeating itself for some time now. I come home around five, Vic gets home around seven. The excitement of our workdays ending merges with Doms’ restlessness, finding us in the same position by nine.
Our internal chemical environments mirror our external natural environment. Lethargy reflected in the dry leaves sitting atop my fold-out bed in the corner of the living room, the laptop still attached to the television with a taut cable, the once-novelty, boxed almond milk on the bench.
The rhythm of our schedule of emotions is dictated by the free and almost stylistic disorganization of this condo.
Our bodies may appear to be yeet hay, a term my mother uses to describe the disruption in one’s equilibrium caused by hotness, the acidic boiling of blood or hot air present in the body from subtle stressors that cause subconscious anxiety. Depending on the body, these stressors can be spawned from different elements: processed sugar in sauces, the energy of excessive peanuts, the constancy of television, not the smoking of cannabis itself but perhaps the lingering of its cold resin.
This rhythm of living felt exciting and uncontrived at first, like how it feels to be raw. It was our attempt to draw closer to our own skin. But it’s been a year now since Doms won the lottery on the cusp of finishing her degree in chemistry and we keep falling into this rhythm. We make up our days as we go, letting our habitat speak for our moods and anxieties. We suppose this must be happiness.
Sometimes Doms and I will walk around the poolside, circling a few times before jumping in. Feet are more sensitive to temperature variations because they’re at the ends of us: thresholds for our bodies’ heating and cooling. We let our soles start to burn, then jump in, the adrenaline bloating us, the impact collapsing us. It’s exciting every time.
© Jamie Marina Lau, Gunk Baby, published by Astra House New York, 2022.