Joyful Strains: Making Australia HomeBooks
Edited by Kent MacCarter and Ali Lemer
Affirm Press, $24.95
Given the fact that apart from Australia's indigenous peoples we are all descendants of immigrants, it's a perplexing oversight that this is apparently the first anthology to explore the experience of the expatriate, the refugee and the political exile, from authors who have variously made their home here. In tone and style, the 27 stories are as diverse as the many countries from whence the writers hailed. As a discrete unit, each tale offers a window into individual backgrounds; cumulatively, they present a powerful overview of Australia's multi-hued history.
In all these short pieces of memoir, the sense of identity is inextricably intertwined with the sense of place; often it's the collision of cultures and the attempts to negotiate the precarious paths between the old and the new that bedevils the outsider. As Arnold Zable articulates in his introduction, this sensation is often an emotional swing between joy and strain as referenced in the national anthem-inspired title. Nostalgia for the motherland is often tempered by a grudging appreciation of the host nation.
Diane Armstrong shares her family's experiences of the Holocaust. Photo: Anthony Johnson
Motivations for voluntary or enforced dislocation vary widely. There is the imperative to escape from war and persecution, such as the experiences of Diane Armstrong, whose parents lost more than 60 relatives in Poland to the Holocaust; or Juan Garrido-Salgado, who fled from Chile's Pinochet dictatorship; or Chi Vu, a boat refugee from the communist Vietnam.
For them, and their families, Australia was seen as a safe democracy, even if it was built on bloodstained and stolen land.
Other writers emigrated with the dream of greater opportunities: Irishman Chris Flynn, for instance, is chuffed with the potential offered in Australia for reinvention and tries a series of bizarre jobs, apparently only possible to him Down Under; while Dmetri Kakmi vividly expresses his delight at discovering television as a nine-year-old. It was an induction tool that informed him of the local customs and was essential to his social skills, as he came from a primitive Turkish village with no running water.
Among the many outstanding essays, schoolyard bullying and lazy racism from the ''pale skins'' were common refrains. Yet, while repulsed and alarmed by what Indian Roanna Gonsalves terms ''Third World-looking'' outsiders, home-grown Aussies can still be dismissive of those who look like their cousins. Kiwi Meg Mundell, for instance, laments a profound disinterest in New Zealand culture.
Joyful Strains not only offers an invaluable insight into Australian immigration, it's also a great read: at once entertaining and harrowing.