Moira McAuliffe responds to Brian Castro’s Dangerous Dancing: Autobiography and Disinheritance

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I was reading Brian Castro’s ruminations on the nature of writing fiction vs. autobiography with some interest (recycled Faulknerian alcoholism aside) (which left me weary — something akin to This is where I came in; I thought we’d got past this; Oh, we’ll never be past this), when I read the section that ends:

…The heritage of Australian film and television occupies a museum-space where Asians are depicted as never having left the Burma Railway or the Killing Fields. As the gratuitous Other, they have no narrative position. They do not feature as part of everyday Australian life or of the sanctified Australian Family. They are either silent, or they make strange noises.

My reaction to this passage was actually just simple pain.

So: let’s do autobiography:

Once upon a time (in 1974) when I was trapped on the desert fringes of South Australia, I decided to close up the wounds of my exsanguination — quit at the end of the year and buy a small black & white telly NOW. I literally hadn’t watched telly for years.

One of the first things I saw was an episode of the first season of Rush. The Commandant of the local soldiery became infatuated with the Chinese girl who brought the vegetables or worked in his kitchen (I’m hazy on the details now). Being young & foolish I was expecting a simple love-story; I was astounded, disappointed, and then impressed when the writer had the Commander dump her because he was white and English and an officer and she was, after all, Chinese.

That was the first time on Australian media I’d seen something that much in accord with what remained unspoken by decent folk. It was the first indication I’d had that Australian media could tell the truth about the texture of Australian life.

The woman who wrote that episode is Oriel Gray: who’d written plays for the New Theatre in Sydney in the 30’s and 40’s, written for the ABC for children’s shows, written for Bellbird, etc. etc., who’d always written about the Other. (And who saved me, some years later, from death by dessication when I worked in the Public Service.)

So when I read that paragraph my reaction was, as I say, simple pain: that for all her passion and art Oriel’s writing effectively no longer exists. It’s been erased from the becoming-official Ozculturewarz record.

And then something else: the more I looked at that paragraph the less certain I was that I could see what it is actually saying. What about Billy Kwan (Year of Living Dangerously)? Turtle Beach? Do these count?

Do they fail to count because they aren’t written by Asians/Australians of Asian descent? Is that what “having no narrative position” means? Does Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence squeeze in because Jack Thompson’s in it? Have all those narratives “never left the Burma Railway or the Killing Fields” because they are about wars & insurrections in Asian places, not about Australian suburbs? Where does the scene in the credits in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert fit? Does it indicate that “this country’s cultural consciousness” might be drifting past Torres Strait in its notions of where effects begin and end? Does whimsy equal satire equal stereotype?

It’s not that I disagree that Australian film and television drama have been (disproportionately) about white (male) Australia. I would expect them to have been. I also have no idea what’s been produced daily for the last 15 years or so, and so no idea whether things have got better or worse in this respect.

But I’m bothered by what I seem to see as implications of the piece as a whole: that writers are typically/by default male, that Australian language is necessarily the language of the colonised landscape, “brutal, laconic, sly” (the only way to make that true would be to ignore a lot of Australian language(s))(whose?), that Australian mass media production was monolithically racist and ignoring of the Other, that this basis for proceeding didn’t need examination, that ethnicity should determine what narrative voice/stance should be allowed to a writer, that “this country’s cultural consciousness” is something completely knowable by one person.

I’m bothered most of all because these implications seem to be becoming claims, made in the name of the disenfranchised, “the lover who has not been allowed to speak”.

It’s as though there is an assumption that all the richness and interest of the material Brian Castro is working and dealing with would somehow be smothered if other things were also true.

The only way to do justice to the complex melange of current Australian writing is to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, to extend something like Bruce Pascoe’s editorial policy into an attitude of daily grace. The other way, serial repression lies.

Moira McAuliffe is a writer who currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

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