Writing Asia

by Brian Castro

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Fear and loathing. It’s a pretty sensitive topic. It is a subject that few so-called ‘Asians’ fail to bring up when I mention I’m from Australia. I am always asked about my reaction to fear and loathing in Australia and I always use two words in reply: Mad Max. What do I mean? Well, there was once a movie by that name — three, in fact. I said that those movies encapsulated what Australia would become if it could no longer trade with Asia: a tribalism resolutely mired in myth which iconizes a past which cannot be wholly remembered, where Australia is reduced to a Pacific island of aggression and ineffectual communication, driven more by fear than knowledge; a gladiatorial arena where wealthy but unseen operators would manipulate the only thing Australia had to offer: sporting muscle on sale to mocking audiences.

After all, ‘Asia’ has been seen in pretty much the same sceptical way, give or take a little variation, by Australia during the last century and a half. But what does ‘Asia’ mean? It is a composite of more than a dozen different countries all with different languages, dialects, customs and politics At worst, it can be interpreted as a racial term, with abuse just around the corner, and at best it covers too much area to mean very much. If anything, it is a vague geographical term. This alas, is where Australia’s usage of it falls into disrepute. Australia has had a long history of confusing the racial with the geographic and the linguistic. Given that nations emerge out of an ambivalence about themselves, as Benedict Anderson said, ‘they express an immemorial past and a limitless future, working alongside and against large cultural systems that preceded them’, 1 Australia has had to define itself against others. But the tendency has been that instead of defining itself, and realising itself as a continually changing society, it has nostalgically yearned for stasis, drawing on a large number of myths which, while uniting segments of its population, retards its overall ability to absorb newness and deal adequately with others

Australia, it seems to me, now stands at the brink of uncertainty about ‘Asia’, which is not the East but the North. But how will it bridge the gap with a set of irrelevant myths? Well, I’m a writer, not an academic nor an Asianist nor an Australianist. And a writer must teeter on the edge of such chasms. Let me fill in something about my own background

I was born literally between states, on a steam ferry between Macau and Hong Kong. My father had come from a long line of Portuguese, Spanish and English merchants who settled in Shanghai at the turn of the century intent upon exporting anything and everything to Europe. I still like to think that he was following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, whose only claim to fame as far as I was concerned, was to introduce the noodle to Italy. Interestingly, recent scholarship has put forward the thesis that Marco Polo never got as far as China, that he made up stories about his trip. He may have also been metaphorically the forerunner of those Australian writers and artists who took a fleeting glimpse of the Far East and returned home to reel out fabulous, Orientalist mysteries and unreflective mythologies.

On my mother’s side there were even stranger juxtapositions. My grandmother was from Liverpool. She took a sailing ship and landed in Kwangtung in the early part of this century in order to convert the Chinese to Christianity. She was a boat-person who dreamt of a Christian Utopia, but her mission was a failure. Instead, she married a Chinese farmer from a little village, and it was a union from which my mother was born. My Liverpudlian grandmother spoke fluent Cantonese, and I was brought up in a household which used a mixture of English, Cantonese and Portuguese.

Language. Without it none of us would have survived. My father’s virtual fluency in Japanese, learned under pressure in a prison camp during the war, saved him and others from execution and starvation. In 1983, after the publication of my first novel, I suggested on national radio that we should become multi-lingual. I was vigorously lampooned. I suggested that while writers like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett escaped the parochialism of Ireland to live in Europe, they became fluent speakers and writers of Italian and French. Two hundred years of white settlement in proximity with Asia has produced few Australian writers capable of writing with any inside knowledge of an Asian country, let alone writing in an Asian language

Language marks the spot where the self loses its prison bars–where the border crossing takes place, traversing the spaces of others. When one speaks or translates Chinese, one metaphorically becomes Chinese; when one speaks Japanese one ‘turns’ Japanese. Each language speaks the world in its own ways. The polyglot is a freer person, a person capable of living in words and worlds other than the narrow and the confined one of unimagined reality. When we translate from one language to another we not only reinvent ourselves but we free up the sclerotic restrictions of our own language. We feel free to transgress, to metamorphose, to experience the uncanny, where we are receiving what Wilson Harris has called the ‘quantum immediacy’ of another culture. 2 Other cultures and languages reinforce and enrich us by powerfully affecting and destabilising our familial tongue. We gain by losing ourselves.

The situation currently is that Australia needs Asia more than Asia needs it While the West seems to have run out of ideas in the creative and cultural fields, relying on images of sex and violence, reviving old canons and dwindling to parody and satire in what can already be seen as one of the dead ends of postmodernism, the Asian region is alive with opportunities for a new hybridisation, a collective intermix and juxtaposition of styles and rituals which could change the focus and dynamics of Australian art, music and language.

Well, Australia has written off Asia for almost 200 years; written off the countries of Asia, with cultural traditions of thousands of years. Perhaps it is time to write Asia; to writewithin it and of it, rather than just about it. The word Asia is found, after all, in the word Australia. If Australia wants to refigure itself in its relationship to the countries of Asia, to become part of Asia, as it were, then Asia must also be part of Australia.

Brian Casto is a multi award-winning Australian novelist. In 1995 he was Writing Fellow at the Australian National University, the University of Canberra and the Australia Defence Forces Academy. This piece is extracted with permission from Writing Asia and Auto/biography published by the Australian Defence Forces Academy.

Notes and References

1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), p 19.

2. Wilson Harris, in Gayatri Spivak, ‘The Politics Of Translation’, M. Barrett and A. Phillips, eds. Destabilising Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), p 194.

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