Autobiography as social science always enters a difficult space. Self-reflection has a noble history, and is a tried if not fully tested methodology. Verstehen enables us to place ourselves inside the life-world of the “other”, but what if the “other” is ourself? Maureen Perkins from Western Australia’s Curtin University has brought together a dozen Australians to write about their sense of being both Australian and “other”, being something else than the blond and blue-eyed anodyne Christian (now typified by Kevin Rudd, the new Prime Minister). These people are “mixed”, a melange in parts of all the peoples who have an Australian homeland.
The authors are an impressive group, all women except for Glenn D’Cruz an “Anglo-Indian” from Madras. One (Jan Kapetas) indeed is seen by others as not-White (accused as a child because of her facial features and slim legs as “lubra lips”, an epithet for an Aboriginal girl), while all her family evidence is that is directly descended from a Welsh immigrant of the1850s; later she adopts immigrant “roots” stories to defend herself from inquisitions as to her origins. Ien Ang, a leading international scholar of “race” who has a complex layered history – Indonesian, Chinese, Dutch, Australian – has written of not speaking Chinese, the disjuncture of not being able to perform the identity that others assign to her.
Perkins has two goals with this collection, which sits within a Peter Lang series about “mixed race” in the Asia Pacific. The first is to demonstrate the diversity of Australian identities, and the sandpapery edges that racial contact and passing have produced in the social structure of the society, and in the lives of individuals labelled as “other”. The second goal is to open up the telling of narratives of the self, around a theme of “mix”. She is worried about the use of the term “race”, so she plots its contemporary politics, urging her authors to work at the contradictions they feel, the pressures they experience, the choices they make, while recognising the term’s lack of scientific rigour.
A recurrent theme is that of “passing”, the adoption of a stratagem, some would say subterfuge, that allows one to slip away from the socially-despised membership of the category of “oppressed other”. We must remember here that this is very self-conscious collectivity, mostly tertiary-educated in the humanities and social sciences, often employed as academics. They are rather more aware than most (in the tradition of Franz Fanon) that the psyche often does things that the conscious mind barely recognises, until caught by the neck and made to address it. Farida Tilbury (Brunei-born daughter of Indian and Euro-American parents with the surname of her Anglo-Australian husband) is brought to Australia when her Ba’hai father is sacked by the country’s Muslim government just as Australia loosens up on racially-based immigration restrictions in the 1960s. Tilbury likes the idea that melange is an advantageous resource, allowing a more “polyphonic voice” (after Trin Minh-Ha). I am reminded of that most British of hymns “All things bright and beautiful”.
The cruellest stories are of course those of Indigenous children torn from their communities and families and forced to pass as White. In this passing there is privilege but also great sorrow and grieving, a bottomless hurt that corrodes the heart. Jean Boladeras tells of her passionate desire to be free of the shame of being thought Aboriginal, so much so that she ignores her mother’s greeting as their paths cross, dropping her head so as to avoid eye contact. Now in the later years of her life Boladeras has sought out her Nyungar roots, reconstituting herself through a step-by-step recovery of names, relationships, stories and memories. The suppression of memories, of faces, of touches, of voices, requires the most extensive excavations of the mind and the body.
We learn from Perkins’ authors about the crucial role of institutions – especially religious ones – in assigning blame or reward to appropriately-performed racially-approved roles. We glimpse the turmoil around generational struggles for identity as families move from country to country, traversing epochs and cultures, the younger generations inheriting the consequences of the past, yet having to construct their own particular ways of being. For instance in Australian political life there are many Indigenous leaders with Chinese family names and ancestors, many with Indian ancestors, many with Indonesian family members.
Immigration is rapidly changing the face of Australia, so that these stories of the past decades are being swamped with a much more diverse and non-European intake, many themselves of mixed origins – or whose children will marry “out” and have mixed offspring. For example, Prime Minister Rudd’s daughter has married a Chinese Australian; his brother has a “mixed” son (the radical artist Tranh Rudd) with his Vietnamese wife. In many parts of Australia inter-marriage is increasingly frequent and the children are as representative of Australia’s history as those from singular cultural groups.
Visibly Different is an important collection that does much to achieve its goals – and has wider lessons about the complexity and nuances of individual lives, and their interconnections with each other and with larger social forces.