Border Mail Column Wednesday September 14 2011
‘We are all boat people,’ Arnold Zable said at the Write around the Murray festival in Albury at the weekend.
On a panel with authors, Anita Heiss and John Charalambous he was discussing the influence of where we come from on what we do and who we are, and in the case of writers whether cultural identity is limiting or liberating.
Zable , the award winning author of books including ‘Cafe Scheherazade’ and the book of the festival, ‘Violin Lessons’ is of Polish Jewish heritage, while Heiss is a ‘proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales’ and Austrian heritage, and Charalambous grew up with a Greek father and Australian mother in the outer suburbs of Melbourne.
Some of their stories were touching and others amusing and enlightening: Heiss spoke about the lack of representation of urban indigenous people in literature which she aims to redress through her novels, while Charalambous said living in the suburbs of Melbourne in the 1970’s impacted more on him culturally than having a Greek father with exploration of his Greek heritage coming much later in his life.
This theme of cultural experience and influence continued into the evening with Anh Do, guest speaker at the festival dinner recounting his experience of coming to Australia in 1980 on a nine metre fishing boat with 40 other Vietnamese Refugees fleeing across the Indian Ocean.
Listening to Do it was hard to believe anyone could question the motivation of those who flee another country to come to Australia.
Back at the afternoon session an audience member asked where can those of us who do not have so rich a vein of heritage to mine as these authors find our stories, and what stories do we have to tell?
As a writer I’ve often pondered on this, and yet I have described myself as a walking United Nations because of my mixed heritage which I believe contributes to my broad world view.
My heritage going back three and four generations is a mix of Fijian, African American and Mauritian as well as British; all of them arrived by boat given passage for various reasons including theft in England.
The story told and verified about my African American great-great grandfather was that he sailed from the US in the 1860’s to find his fortune in the goldfields of Hill End in New South Wales and when he died he was buried beyond the town limits because he was black.
My Fijian great-grandfather was eight when he was rescued from the measles epidemic in his country and brought to Sydney by a doctor who had travelled there to offer assistance.
Obviously both lived long enough to have their families, and they to have theirs and so on, and with the present generation’s arrival just three weeks ago European is in his blood line.
Yet I am Australian and perhaps I spend too much time thinking about what this means. It is something that I do not take for granted, nor only think of on Australia Day, which I have to say on January 26 I wonder what it is we really are celebrating and does this make me ‘unAustralian’?
My father returned to the land of his grandfather and said he felt perfectly at home there.
It was always a wish of mine to travel there with him but we never did, and with recent unrest I have delayed any planning to visit Fiji, but I wonder whether I will have that same feeling of homecoming dad had.
There could be a story in that.