Adam Aitken

Creative writer and teacher

Australian hybrids

1: Australian Hybrids: the “Split” Subject of Double Consciousness


Popular texts by early Australian travellers to Asia reveal the ambivalence that attaches to Asian migrants as figures of “double consciousness”. Australian narratives of migration illustrate Stuart Hall’s point that all identities ‘are strategic and positional; they mobilise cultural resources through practices of accommodation, negotiation, and resistance to economic and social processes’ (Hall, cited in Noble, Poynting and Tabar 1999: 30).  Migration and the experience of diaspora have also led to the formation of heterogenous neighbourhoods and what Hall calls ‘new ethnicities’. The boundaries between these migrant communities are fluid (cited in Noble et al 1999: 30). While this fluidity can herald cultural transformation for those with something to gain from globalisation and increasing cultural diversity, for others with a vested interest in fixing boundaries and identities, it presages a breakdown in the symbolic order of Australian nationhood. Thus a common racist trope in the 1890s is “the rising tide of colour”, or a “flood of Asians”. For David Walker this kind of writing drew heavily on similar metaphors of fluidity and tidal change. Asia was also seen as both oceanic and threatening…The noisy abundant marketplaces of Asia were overflowing with uncontrolled humanity. (Walker 1999:133)

Australian literature has portrayed Asians as attractive, but more often as physically and politically deviant. Their danger to white Australian males is inversely related to their sexual charms, as well as their association with a Chinese underworld of opium dens. The Eurasian femme fatale in the crime/thriller genre was popular in Australia. Sax Rohmer’s (1883 – 1959) “Fu Manchu” series of exotic crime thrillers are soaked in the mystique of the East. Take for example Tales of Chinatown, (1916).  Rohmer’s crime novel The Yellow Claw (1915) features a Eurasian with the witch eye of a sorcerer, who lures men to a drug-induced oblivion. The following passage describes the “Lady of the Poppies”, who appears before the bewildered Soames, the butler of the book’s main character, a novelist called Leroux:

A woman stood before the sandalwood screen!  She had the pallidly dusky skin of a Eurasian, but, by virtue of nature or artifice, her cheeks wore a peachlike bloom.  Her features were flawless in their chiselling, save for the slightly distended nostrils, and her black eyes were magnificent.

She was divinely petite, slender and girlish; but there was that in the lines of her figure, so seductively defined by her clinging Chinese dress, in the poise of her small head, with the blush rose nestling amid the black hair–above all in the smile of her full red lips–which discounted the youth of her body… In her fanciful robe of old gold, with her tiny feet shod in ridiculously small, gilt slippers, she stood by the screen watching the stupefied man–an exquisite, fragrantly youthful casket of ancient, unnameable evils. (The Yellow Claw, Chapter XV)

Both beautiful and evil, the Eurasian possesses the necessary power to threaten male sanity:

Soames, glassy-eyed, stood watching her.  A horror, the horror of insanity, had descended upon him… Everything was out of focus; past, present, and future were merged into a red, rose-haunted nothingness. (The Yellow Claw, Chapter XV)

The Dragon lady mixed erotic fascination with paedophilic desire, and became a powerful ornament of Australian anti-Asianism. Since the time of anti-Chinese riots on the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s, a legacy of colonial ideas of hybridity have dominated discourse on race and culture in Australia as in other postcolonial countries (Walker 1999: 1 – 5). Asian Invasion narratives expressed a racist anxiety that Asians would corrupt the virtues of a white nation surrounded by a “sea” of hostile difference. Racism was also expressed as a begrudging tolerance of the other. In 1921, Dorothy Fry, an Australian typist in Batavia, could write that ‘the more I see of Orientals and coloured people generally, the less I like them’, but also frankly admitted her attraction to the variety and energy that heterogeneity brought (Fry, cited in Walker 1999: 187).

The Dragon Lady in Highways to a War and Turtle Beach

The evil Asian temptress is a persistent trope in recent popular Australian fiction. Contemporary versions of the Dragon Lady appear, with significant changes, in two Australian best-selling novels, in 1981, Blanche D’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach and, in 1995, Christopher Koch’s Highways to a War. These two novels suggest that desire between Asians and Australians is the intrinsic fatal flaw in the West’s civilising mission. The ambivalence of the Westerner toward his/her host culture is imbricated in interracial attraction; sex in these books is sordid, titillating, obsessive, and even self-destructive. Clearly, the Eurasian hybrid has been a titillating presence in Australian fiction since the late nineteenth century, and there will always be a limit to how the Eurasian revitalises the centre by introducing a new marginal element into the national mix.

D’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach is a political thriller set in Malaysia at the time of riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969. Perceived through the eyes of its principle character, the Anglo-Australian journalist Judith Wilkes, the plot relies heavily on the story of a purported massacre of refugees on a beach in Eastern Malaysia that year. Judith has divorced her husband and left her family in Sydney. On arrival in the tropics she immediately experiences culture shock mixed with race panic, ‘She thought, ‘I’m surrounded by aggression. The bright lights of the terminal. The sharp, assertive colours of the tarmac buses, the monosyllabic jabbering of the shopgirls…I’m panicking, she thought’ (53). She begins researching the growing problem of race conflict in Malaysia, and investigates reports of massacres of Vietnamese refugees on Malaysian beaches. Judith meets Minou, the French-Vietnamese wife of the Australian High Commissioner in Malaysia, Sir Adrian Hobday. In the expatriate world of the Asian diplomatic mission, Australian journalists rubbing shoulders with a tiny fraction of usually secretive and shady Asian diplomats and politicos. The novel’s men of power seem incompetent or compromised by their relations with Asians. They exhibit the dangerous complicity and corruption of diplomats in spy thrillers. Hobday must play a dangerous game of intimacy with Minou, who helps him obtain insider information useful to Australia’s security mission. It is highly significant that Minou is a Eurasian native informant with privileged access to both Asian and Western circles, and the book’s plot ultimately revolves around Minou and her fraught relationship to Judith, a journalist with conscience.

Dismayed by the lack of action to save Vietnamese boat people from massacre or internment, Judith hopes to assuage her guilt and enhance her journalistic career by reporting on the refugee crisis, and by doing so expose the blind eye the Australian government has turned towards Malaysian policy. She uses Minou’s contacts to access the refugee camps on the Malaysian coast. Minou has Vietnamese children from an earlier marriage whom she hopes secretly to rescue from both the marauding Malay villagers and from a life in the camps. Her attempt to rescue one of her children at “Pantai Cinta” (“the Beach of Passionate Love”) leads to her drowning. Minou represents a dynamic hybridity: she makes the story happen, but the novel kills her off.

Minou’s agency is certainly crippled as Judith’s misplaced feminism attempts to position Minou as the flawed Asian female who cannot survive without Judith, but this subordinates Minou to that of a subaltern dependent on Western charity. Turtle Beach belittles Asians by being structured as a rescue narrative in which whites save Asians from Asian brands of racism, while at the same time concealing Anglo structures of paternalism.

Clearly, the relationship of Asian femininity with Caucasian whiteness – as Judith represents it – invites a deeper critique of Minou’s effect on Judith. Minou is the model of suppressed Asian femininity and Judith the feminist missionary who is caught between an altruistic urge to help the “natives” and the complicity with Australian and Malaysian government officials. This patriarchy disciplines Minou in the first place: she is portrayed as concubine, then as spy, then as misunderstood mother. Minou never escapes stereotypes: a Reuters man describes Minou as ‘a Saigon bar-girl who’s got the old man [the High Commissioner] by the short and curlies’ (56). In an update of the dragon lady tradition, Minou is a treacherous murderer whom the High Commissioner suspects of having killed her last employer, a Vietcong governor: ‘the crimes needed no elaboration – they were there, stored up behind the irises’ (175).

Minou’s spying and manipulation of her husband Hobday suggests the dragon lady is still weaving her spells over Australian men. By the end of the book, Minou’s maternal instincts have completely occluded her politics. Minou has been secretly organising to have her daughter smuggled out of North Vietnam on a boat, but in the climactic scene on Pantai Cinta villagers prevent the boat landing, and Minou drowns while attempting to save her daughter. Again, this fulfils the genre’s demand that the Eurasian character whose ethnicity and nationality fail to coincide should die tragically. Her martyr’s sacrifice appears a weak attempt at sainthood. The way Minou sacrifices herself in the novel’s climactic scene suggests that due to the absence of sympathetic government and humane social programs in Asia, Asian women will go to suicidal lengths to save their family. In contrast, Judith (who is also a mother of two) has access to the highest levels of bureaucracy and is empowered to utilise more advanced Western ways of dealing with human need. It is the Western woman’s duty, therefore, to bring this intervention to colonised subjects who presumably have little inherent capacity to reform themselves.

Minou’s sacrifice seems to be the direct consequence of institutionalised Asian brutality: manifested by anti-Vietnamese Malaysian villagers and also by Vietnam’s policy of expelling their Chinese minority.  Malaysian police are callous and their first priority is discipline.  All of these discursive absences weigh the balance of compassion in Judith’s favour. While Judith’s experience adds to her growing insight and makes her a more compassionate mother (she returns to Australia and resurrects her relations with her divorced husband and her children).

If Judith is an archetypal liberal humanist, Minou possesses a subtractive, or unhappy hybridity in which disparate and incompatible parts of a person are presented arbitrarily (D’Cruz and Steele 2003: 251). If at times Minou’s wardrobe and taste in champagne signifies her “French” identity, Minou is then a “Malaysian” in her use of “la” at the end of her utterances. Her sexuality is split into a French floozy side and a Vietnamese maternal side. The overall effect is that Minou is never identified as a member of either a recognisable Asian ethnic community, nor is she a member of the Australian diplomatic community. Like the portrayal of Rohmer’s Lady of the Poppies, Minou’s hybridity works to distance her from a positive affiliation with Australian and/or Asian in-groups. Therefore she appears to lack loyalty traits required of a member of the in-group.

While D’Alpuget may appear anti-racist, she replicates racism by creating Minou with the clichéd sexual vitality that hybridity often signifies: ‘I find it exciting that a new human race is forming – Eurasian’, D’Alpuget asserts (cited in D’Cruz and Steele 2003: 256). Her novel, however, stops short of attributing success to this new race, or imagining for it a coherent (rather than a pastiche) cultural identity.

Rather than argue that Turtle Beach denies agency to Minou, her French Indo-Chinese colonial legacy presents a kind of threat to the Judiths of this world. Like many dragon ladies that precede her, Minou stimulates Anglo-Celtic suspicion for a particular Southeast Asian kind of cosmopolitanism. For D’Alpuget’s readers, the sophistication of Asian women who speak three languages, keep high ranking foreign husbands, enjoy sex and indulge in Western luxuries is meant to seem suspicious to the WASPish Australian Judith represents. Minou’s failure to integrate with Australian society is due to her being too much a product of Indo-Chinese French colonialism. As a colonial throwback to French excesses Minou’s body re-sites and re-plays the suffering and the failure of that colonial experiment in hybridity. But her stereotyped Indo-Chinese French colonial traits – her genealogy in the dragon lady genre – fulfil the prejudice about French “decadence” made all the worse by being hybridised: she is only frivolously imitative and lacking authentic French seriousness, not completely European, and neither completely Asian. We are back to Bhabha’s formulation for the hybrid as the colonised who mimics the colonial ‘as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite’ (Bhabha 1994: 86, italics in original).

Minou’s death conforms to the rules of popular genre; David Walker points out that the predominant theme of films dealing with Asians in the early twentieth century is the ‘tragedy of inter-racial love affairs. Here again, there are no happy endings.’ While Hollywood was clearly antithetical to miscegenation, they knew the popular appeal of interracial sex. Turtle Beach in both its novel form and its film version seems to continue this tradition (Walker 1999: 190).

Koch’s book features Mike Langford, a fearless photojournalist on assignment in Saigon who adventures deep behind enemy lines, and is captured by the North Vietnamese Army. Mike Langford is a genre hero, a stereotype Anglo-Celtic Tasmanian with a farming background. His notions of Asia are products of his childhood reading of post WW2 pulp fiction: Langford is fascinated in his adolescent years by the “Dragon lady” in Milton Caniff’s cartoon Terry and the Pirates. It is no accident that the book’s fawning narrator was a childhood friend of Mike, and he attributes Langford’s erotic obsession with ‘a Eurasian who was as alien to us, in our Anglo-Saxon island, as a being from another planet’ (Koch 1995: 32).

Langford meets Claudine Phan, Beaujolais sipping daughter of a French colonial official (126). A cyclo boy with remarkable insight into the white man’s racist projections describes Claudine as ‘a dragon lady. Important business every place’ (123). Koch conveniently uses the cyclo boy to name Claudine as the evil femme fatale. Attributing such stereotyping comments to Asian characters themselves cleverly diverts charges of racism from whites. Like Minou, Claudine Phan’s snappy fan waving and generally mannered hospitality echoes Rohmer’s “Lady of the Poppies”. For Langford, Claudine epitomises the essential irrationality of the non-West: ‘Her sexual presence was strong, and had a quality that was formidable, rather than seductive. He saw this as non-Western; baffling’ (128). Phan offers up her own Vietnamese servant to Langford: ‘You should find a nice Vietnamese girl,’ she says to Langford, suggesting she is a procurer of mistresses for Western men (130). Langford’s seduction reminds us of the seduction of Sax Rohmer’s butler: these are jeremiads that warn Australians to conserve their naïve good will for life at home, a place idealised as Langford’s family farm in Tasmania, where boys grow up healthy and able to handle firearms with safety, now that Australia’s own particular frontier has been pacified. Highways to a War is regarded as a sacred text for Australian male journalists operating in Asia. A recent article in The Age (December 21, 2002) reported that a journalist had died on assignment in Kampuchea while holding a copy of Highways.

From Dragon Lady to Cyborg: Pauline Hanson’s “Poona Li Hung”

Given Australia’s adhesion to a sense of itself as a predominantly Western nation surrounded by Asian difference, it is not surprising that a hyphenated notion of an Asian-Australian cultural practice has attracted passionate support and provoked fierce opposition. The hybrid is by definition opposed to the notion of a singular race identity for Australians, but is also antithetical to ethnic communities with a vested interest in maintaining an essentialist identity. Perhaps this is why the Asian remains the least represented in much Australian literature and film. Jon Stratton observes: ‘even now, in the late 1990s, after a quarter of a century after the ending of the white Australia policy, such portrayal [of Asians] is still limited and problematic’ (1998:167). Sylvie Shaw finds that in Australian cinema, ‘rarely are Asians “real people”, or stars in their own right’ (1987: 36). But it is clear that Asian women, in particular, continue to signify the “unAustralian” in the political/cultural sphere. Graeme Turner suggests that since the erosion of multiculturalism as a set of policy principles in Australia today, we are now entering a phase of “post-hybridity” in cultural debates (2004: 413 – 418). Hanson’s aversion to Asians is on record in the One Nation manifesto (Hanson 1996), but it is notable that she equates national decadence with hybridity of the multicultural cosmopolitan Asian female whose fluid cultural loyalties are suspect. Hanson’s hybrid, “Poona Li Hung”, is a kind of “super-Asian” invader with a part Indian, part Korean/Chinese name created by multinationals and controlled robotically by a mysterious overseas corporation. This “cyborg Asian” denotes the future demotic offspring of multiculturalism, a demonised hybrid who will rule the future in a multicultural Australia “gone too far”. Poona Li Hung is Hanson’s apocalyptic president of Australia in 2050, ‘a lesbian…of multiracial descent, of Indian and Chinese background’ who is also part machine – the first cyborg president. Her neuro-circuits were produced by a ‘joint Korean-Indian-Chinese research team’ (Hanson 1996: 194). The hybrid Asian has replaced the white man as natural ruler of Australia. Poona is also sexually “immoral” and anti-heterosexual – a robot in fact who has little agency beyond the program set for her by Asian-based multi-national corporations. Hanson’s hybrid clearly echoes the fear that racial mixing is unproductive, decadent, and infertile despite being powerful.

The Asian face of global capital is a threatening idea precisely because Asianness is now linked to globalisation. For Hanson, the hybrid represents the final disempowering force in the demise or genocide of white Anglo Australian values by Asian values supported by global corporatism. The hybrid goes against an egalitarian notion of the good Australian whose core values owe much to a tough agrarian/settler experience; hybridity brings into focus the Anglo-Celtic uncertainties of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, and the forced amalgamation of the white nation with the fabled incompatibility of Asian cultures. Hybridity threatens their own sense of identity and role as primary producers of white Australian identity. Without impurity on the borders there is no purity in the centre. According to Stratton, Hanson’s demonisation of the Asian-Australian hybrid articulates the fear that racial mixing leads to chaos (Stratton 1998: 58). Hanson argues for the necessity for difference to be assimilated once again into a society in which whites manage the non-white. Asian-Australian hybridity is thus the sign of a dangerous complicity with “un-Australian” and anti-egalitarian globalisation and open markets. Hybrid bodies are not only threatening symbols of the demonic, the diseased, and the infertile, they are precursors of “incompatible” ways of doing business as well.

There is a paradox in this however, as the spectre of the cyborg Eurasian is tied to the seemingly non-racial spectre of global capital’s “faceless”, hostile, foreign takeover. If we take whiteness as a sign of the blank or non-raced ethnic subject, then the internationalism of globalisation and corporatism represent the pinnacle of whiteness. Hanson is thus anxious to disavow Eurasian economic success at becoming whiter than white through globalisation. This demonstrates that the Asian hybrid is both feared as anti-white AND complicit with the whiteness of global capital. Hanson disavows the very white element of her cyborg Asian. Hybridity therefore is the enemy and very contradiction of white racist discourses that deny the successful and economically/culturally desirable fusing of white and Asian (Werbner 1997a: 3).

Recent works of fiction by Asian-Australian writers have, to a great extent moved away from the Manichean dualism of “Us and Them”, Asian and not Asian. There is now a discourse that promotes the hybrid as the harbinger of transnational cultural exchanges that are less unequal than colonial history suggests. Hybrid bodies are the objects of an ambivalently desiring colonial gaze, but hybrids also return the gaze. In the relation of colonial subject and hybrid object, a certain exchange or cultural insemination occurs. A duality is imagined in which the more integrated, self-assured and singular ethnicity of the Anglo-Celtic national subject meets the hybrid’s multi-ethnic split personality, a trope that dominates Australian literature. Miriam Lo, for example, writing about hybridity in Australian novels, refers to diasporic subjects and hybrids as divided characters who are split into incommensurable parts related to each other by estrangement (M. Lo 1998: 46). For the Eurasian protagonist Gloria, in Lazaroo’s novel The World Waiting to Be Made (1994) for example, the need to strengthen the Anglo-Australian part of herself leads to processes of displacement and erasure of the Eurasian part. This relegation of Eurasian below Anglo-Celtic Eurasian mimics the hierarchy of Eurocentric racism (M. Lo 1998: 46).

In other texts by Asian-Australians, the parts of a character may at times be conflictual, with one side being subservient to another, but the rigid binarism of Asian and white/Western gives way to a blurring and radical uncertainty, or a kind of pro-Asian reverse racism. In Beth Yahp’s Crocodile Fury (1994) identities change, and may mirror non-white racist structures and even Occidentalism, where the protagonist’s Eurasian part is in ascendancy. There are points in the narrative where the separate parts of the protagonist’s identity form a relationship that is reconciliatory, rather than hostile; and she is able to recognise both parts without suppressing one at the cost of another. Miriam Lo concludes that for a novel concerned with intra-ethnic identity (for example Chinese/Malay/Anglo), ‘the appropriation of certain “parts” of identity do not have to involve the denial of other “parts” of identity’ (M. Lo 1998: 80).

Ien Ang argues that compartmentalising of ethnic differences is destabilised by Asian-Australian hybridities who have potential to accelerate cultural change by decentring white space. For Ang, the hybrid is not so much a split person, but the essence of every person’s cultural impurity: ‘We live in the paradoxical situation, then, that hybridity is still seen as a problem or an anomaly despite the fact that it is everywhere, because it is identity that has been privileged as the naturalised principle for social order’. Nevertheless, hybridity is often seen as a contamination, or ‘an infringement of identity’ (Ang 2001: 200).

Hybrid identities may be based on perceived opposites but are also made of strands of other identities that are not necessarily in conflict. Hybridity tends to refer to racial mixture, derived from nineteenth century racialised genealogy. Here race marks one’s place on a hierarchical “tree” of man.  Robert Young shows how hybridity is deeply complicit with nineteenth century models of conceiving of cultural change and such discourses that privilege cultural dominance in terms of one race and its culture overpowering another race. Racial theories of the inferiority of non-white peoples are cited in order to prohibit social mixing and miscegenation, and thus any product of inter-racial desire is seen as an uneasy synthesis. To insist on the separateness of race immediately implies the opposite: cultural mixing and syncretism. Young writes, ‘The need for organic metaphors of identity or society implies a counter-sense of fragmentation or dispersion’ (1995: 4). To stress separate ethnicities and cultures is to pass by ‘the process of acculturation whereby groups are modified through intercultural exchange and socialisation with other groups’ (Young 1995: 5). In the colonial context, racial mixing has usually been seen as a threat to colonial control. Multiculturalism (in Australia and Canada for example) has also tended to insist on racial and ethnic separation at the expense of mixing.

If Asian-Australian hybridity is seen as a kind of schizophrenic split within the subjectivity of the Asian-Australian, who will never enjoy the mythical “wholeness” of being Anglo-Australian (who sees the migrant as “one of us, but not quite”) then the opposite of the schizophrenic Asian-Australian is the “unsplit” – the unproblematically assimilated subject whose Asianness is appropriated and digested by the national culture. The texts analysed here show that Asianness is not digested into an undifferentiated Australianness. The modalities of Asian-Australian difference are specific to the narrative conditions in each text, but common to each is the notion that a great cultural divide is being negotiated. The condition of this divide depends on issues of race, gender and class. These narratives resolve conflicts between European and Asian, men and women, parents and children. This type of hybrid figure transgresses community norms, and attempts to grow out of received identities and may adopt a multiple identity manifested in performative acts such as dressing native or taking a different name. Fitting this definition is a Sinophile like G. E. Morrison, who dressed in Chinese clothes, ate, worked and slept with Chinese, and signed some of his work in Pin Yin Script. Ethnically Anglo-Celtic, his modus operandi opens up questions of how “passing” as Chinese and appropriating ethnicity benefits white and non-white alike. Furthermore, is there an equal exchange of cultural capital when non-whites attempt to pass or assimilate into traditionally white areas of society? This is a question I ask of my mother’s experiences in London, Perth and Sydney.

My own narrative, The Fire Sermon, frames both the positive and negative cultural capital of cultural as well as racial mixture, and critiques the language of breeding by invoking more destabilising modes of hybridity. It is useful to distinguish “happy” from “unhappy” conceptions of hybridity. According to Jacqueline Lo, the “happy” hybrid sees cultural diversity as part of a well functioning pluralist society, while the “unhappy” hybrid sees cultural difference and mixing as a source of insoluble conflict (J. Lo 2000: 153). By deconstructing the binary “happy” versus “unhappy” hybridity, I am attempting to go beyond the conclusion that hybrid migrant subjects are split beings, or that they necessarily suffer as victims of migration. While interracial mixing between Asians and Anglo-Australians is now more accepted than in the past, the complexities and difficulties remain poorly understood (see Luke and Luke 1999: 223 – 251). The symbolic fusion of difference into a domesticated and harmless amalgamation obscures diverse modalities of hybridity such as forced conformity, mimicry and internalised self-rejection, as illustrated by Lazaroo’s protagonist Gloria (Lazaroo 1994). Ang cites the Tasmanian Aboriginal activist Ian Anderson’s vehement rejection of the term, on the grounds that it fulfils the colonial process of erasing indigeneity from the political struggle for land rights (2001: 197). I am not arguing that hybridity is antithetical to the strategic essentialism that Anderson supports, but acknowledge that the term carries the baggage of nineteenth century eugenics. Anderson’s desire for a strategic racial or “nativist” identity is needed to combat the racism that opposes Aboriginal land rights claims, though my approach attempts to make visible the hybrid or impure nature of all “race” based definitions of culture, be they black or white. However, nativism can exist in order to highlight the hybridity of whiteness itself. I agree with Julie Matthews, who writes:

What is important about hybridity and ‘third space’ is not the ‘culture’ that emerges from two original moments, but the nameless space that is inadequately understood through received wisdom. This space displaces constituent histories, allows other positions to emerge, and establishes new structures of authority and political initiatives… Hybrid representations are thus an encounter with newness that does not conform to one thing or another—a space where aspirations to fully acknowledge national culture can never be realised. (Matthews 2002: paragraph 24)

Hybridity therefore stands for a pragmatic position that negotiates between extremes of acceptance and rejection, between those who must argue for ‘traditional’ essentialisms; and those who continue to circulate stereotyped views of Asians and Eurasians as foreign, strange, and undesirable.  Furthermore, my hybridity rejects liberal hybridity’s tendency to underrate the genealogical connection to racism implied in the term “mixed-race”. The mythical nature of both whiteness and blackness needs to be shown, and ‘caged between inverted commas’ (Bonnett 1997: 188). Rather than strategic essentialism, Bonnett’s term strategic deconstruction may be more useful in showing how race – especially whiteness – can be revealed as a political construction, and can be torn apart. Categories like Eurasian also need to be shown as figures for the way Asianness has overlapped whiteness, which is itself multiple and fragmented  (Bonnett 1997: 188 – 189).

Given its ambiguous meaning, the figure of the hybrid offers rich potential for narrative tension. Pnina Werbner believes that ‘Hybridity is powerfully interruptive yet theorised as commonplace and pervasive’. Its energy comes from its ‘anti-essentialist and anti-integrationist zeal.’ At the same time hybrids are ‘endowed with unique powers, good and evil, and that hybrid moments, spaces or objects are hedged in with elaborate rituals, and carefully guarded and separated from mundane reality’ (Werbner 1997a: 1 – 2).  The paradox of hybridity’s power lies in the fact that it is all pervasive and normal. If all cultures are essentially hybrid, what distinguishes the foreignness of the hybrid from its familiarity? What makes hybridity threatening to essentialist ideologies of cultural purity, while it is potentially liberating to other subjects?

Hybridity and double consciousness

Politicising hybridity requires a ‘double consciousness’ that for Paul Gilroy means theorising the politics of having a subject that is both black and European, and means weighing the claims of a European enlightenment model of national identity with contrasting varieties of subjectivity and identification (Gilroy 1993: 30). Double consciousness, for Asian-Australians likewise, flows from experience of being both strategically placed to interrogate the binaries of anglo-centrism and its others.  If to be both European and black requires some specific forms of double consciousness, then to be both black/Asian and European is to occupy a contested space between mutually exclusive identities. The need to demonstrate continuity between these two categories has been viewed as ‘a provocative and even oppositional act of political insubordination’ (Gilroy 1993: 1). I welcome literatures that attempt to imbricate Anglo-Celtic-European identities with Asian identities in Australia as they will generate more understanding of how the Asian other has been recycled and commodified, assertively, yet anxiously, for as Homi Bhabha argues the commodification of Asian identity and its stereotyping is an insecure mode of representing the other. Such images are ambivalent, prone to misreading (1994: 70) and thus become ‘at once the object of desire and derision’ (1994: 67). The texts I have selected for analysis mobilise a version of the Orient that vacillates between the West’s contempt for what is familiar and its fear of novelty (Edward Said, cited in Bhabha 1994: 73).

My representations of the narrator’s father (in The Fire Sermon) as a youth in Bangkok in the 1950s highlight the very ambivalent responses to the Asian that were commonplace at the time. Now, even as I play with a notion of the double consciousness of the Thai-Australian writer, I am conscious of the how the Thai part is part of the Australian part. Clearly I am playing with cultural markers that slide from one meaning to another and depend on specific contexts. The hyphen problematically separates two different frames and suggests a duality and a cultural separateness. I am wary of choosing a writing position that posits two different worlds, the Asian and the Australian, without revealing the imbalances between the two parts. Such a position constructs a double consciousness that enables a cognitive space for critical irony. Noble and Tabar suggest that

double consciousness…is a mythical reconstruction of more complex, contingent forms of positioning and identification which youth of migrant background fashion in response to their socio-cultural locations…There are acts of reduction and accretion and division here in the formation of identity – a series of complex processes of what could be called hybridisation. (2002: 131)

Even as one invokes Asia as the subject of literary and film production, or as an identity and main source of cultural heritage, or as one invokes double consciousness, one is defining oneself contingently and in contrast to the Anglo centre of Australian cultural life. One is labelled a multicultural writer, which may or may not help readers to appreciate one’s work, and which may become subject to specific tests of authenticity. As Sneja Gunew shows in her discussion of the case of Helen Demidenko’s The Hand that Signed the Paper, books about ethnicity and ethnic experience will be judged more severely than books by unmarked Anglo authors, on the basis of an unproblematic coherence in the ‘subjectivity projected upon them’ (Gunew 1996: 164). It is harder to produce performances of Asian ethnicity that challenge multiculturalism’s paradigms, performances which Gunew argues are spectacles that have been rehearsed so many times (1996: 166).

Perhaps due to the mainstream literary market’s desire for the ‘authentic authorial voice of multiculturalism’ (Luke Slattery, cited in Gunew 1996: 164), the hybridity of my work and its relevance to theories of strategic essentialism, métissage and of performed ethnicities and “self-Orientalisation” has only been discussed in detail in one published interview (Probyn 2001). My own authenticity is difficult to frame in terms of mixed Anglo-Thai Australian ethnicity. To deconstruct the performativity of such a position, I play off myself as the writer of Thai background with that of my “double”: the Anglo-European writer. Both these positions are commensurable and constitute a critically reflexive métissage. Not surprisingly this reflexivity has led to criticism for being too concerned with ‘exoticisms’ (Barry Hill 2000), a comment that reveals the critic’s discomfort with my poetry’s assimilable “foreignness”, as he expresses impatience with my work’s ironic play of double consciousness.  I feel that I speak authentically for the aporias of my own inauthentic (un)native informant role, which is already a hybridised and minority position. Sneja Gunew writes that:

The positioning of minority cultures is symptomatic of the paradox at the heart of national cultures. Do they ‘belong’ in terms of assimilation and appropriation or do they constitute the exclusionary framework of ‘foreign bodies’ that both encloses and defines a national culture? (1996: 159)

The figure of hybridity, for me, lies in the space between a minority culture of the foreign and its status as the assimilated and appropriated part of a multicultural imaginary. At the same time, I attempt to invoke Asian-Australian subjectivities to critique the Anglo bias of Australia’s majority culture. Werbner argues that

we need to consider precisely what it is that cultural hybridity and essentialism from the margins do [and] we have to recognise the differential interests social groups have in sustaining those boundaries. It is in the boundary that makes the experience of hybridity disturbing and shocking for some, while for others it is revelatory. (1997a: 22)

As a way of reading the texts assembled in this thesis, there is still a lot to be gained by conceiving the Asian-Australian as a “bridging person” between East and West, Orient and Occident, one that is both the benefactor of a cultural surplus, and the embodiment of a new synthesis.  Papastergiadis warns that:

Hybridity, as a metaphor for identity formation, can only function critically when the dual forces of movement and bridging, displacement and connection are seen as operating together. It is only when there is a consciousness of this oscillation between different positions and perspectives, that hybridity can offer a new understanding of identity. (2000: 10)

We also need to consider that ‘everyone enters into the condition of hybridity differently’ as Dean Chan puts it (2000: 56). Not everyone who may identify as Asian-Australian feels within themselves a binary splitting of positions in terms of ethnicity. Indeed, if so-called pure race catagories like whiteness are themselves hybrid, why is it that Asian impurities are the visible tropes for “incoherent” subjectivities, while whiteness is seen as unproblematic? We therefore need to consider the work texts do in constructing the very categories of Asian-Australian and whiteness, which are already simplifications of many varied positions and configurations of gender, class, age, and ideology.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s “polyglot novel” and Logiques Métisses

This thesis considers hybridity in terms of a larger relativistic concept of métissage. This interprets the novel as a dialogic text that juxtaposes and weaves dissimilar modes of language and cultural codes. I have chosen a dialogic methodology for writing that maximises bi-cultural fluidity of voices and perspectives and resists the signifier of the migrant as “amiable difference”. My semi-autobiographical narrator, Krishna, is the ambivalent voice with which this imprint of colonial disgust upon desire can be interrogated, appropriated, and neutralised. Krishna turns a historical fear of miscegenation into a positive cultural capital, the creatively fertile offspring of cross-cultural transgression. Rejecting no single part or ethnic component of his identity, Krishna avoids replicating racism by not denying any part of his own mixture, but mobilising the appropriate performance for particular contexts. Krishna weaves the disconnected strands of his parents decaying histories, and going against their desire for such history to be hidden or secret, he braids them together again. Krishna functions as the cultural translator, the man of double consciousness who defines himself through two cultures and two linguistic systems that comprise his heritage. Krishna is conceived as a Bakhtinian figure of the intentional artist hybrid who self-consciously deconstructs the contestatory dimension of bi-culturalism. The writer or artist of hybridity consciously creates an ironic double-consciousness of ‘the co-existence of both cultural change and resistance to change in ethnic groups or nation states’ (J. Lo 2000: 153).

The Fire Sermon can be described in terms of Bakhtin’s definition of the hybrid “polyglot novel”, as ‘a mixture of two social languages within the limits of a single utterance, an encounter, within the arena of an utterance, between two different linguistic consciousnesses, separated from one another by an epoch, by social differentiation or by some other factor’ (Bakhtin, in Holquist and Emerson 1994: 119 – 20). In the novel this mixing of languages is deliberate, an act of intentional hybridity realised through a number of artistic devices. ‘An intentional hybrid is precisely the perception of one language by another language, its illumination by another linguistic consciousness…The novelistic hybrid is not only double-voiced and double-accented (as in rhetoric) but also double languaged’ (Bakhtin, cited in Holquist and Emerson 1994: 119 – 20). My novel attempts to realise through Krishna and his parents the solution to the split personality of the hybrid, and to overcome the divide marked by signifiers of race and otherness. In Bakhtin’s words, the novel realises

the process of coming to know one’s own language as it is perceived in someone else’s language, coming to know one’s own belief system in someone else’s belief system. There takes place within the novel an ideological translation of another’s language, and an overcoming of its otherness – an otherness that is only contingent, external, illusory. (in Holquist and Emerson 1994: 119 – 20)

Krishna invokes the postcolonial subject of métissagedefined as ‘the weaving together of cultures without their complete syncretisation’ (Edwin Hill 2002: 631).  Métissage emphasises the linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural cross-braiding components of identity, and avoids the connotation of half-caste, half-breed, mixed blood, and so on. According to Srilata Ravi, métissage is a useful concept for studying pluri-racial identities and interracial relations, as the word métis

derives from the Latin mixtus, originally referring to cloth made of two fibres where the woof is in flax and the warp in cotton. This association erases all sexual connotations and biological allusion that the historical references to métissage could represent. It also does away with connotations regarding pedigree that the association cross-breed would suggest. (Ravi 2004: 313, my emphasis)

Françoise Lionnet’s definition of métissage in terms of intertextuality clarifies some of the confusion that the term hybridity generates, especially when hybridity is used to denote biological race mixing. Lionnet focuses on the concept of textual métissage, and like Bakhtin, emphasises linguistic and aesthetic principles at work in texts written by transcultural subjects. Lionnet focuses on ‘the processes that produce the personal and make it historically and politically unique’.  In other words, Lionnet is interested ‘in the different forms of métissage that exist in different geographical contexts.’  Lionnet writes:

Understood as a dynamic model of relationality, I argue, métissage is “universal” even if, in each specific context, power relations produce widely differing configurations, hierarchies, dissymmetries, and contradictions. My purpose is to look at the interconnectedness of different traditions. (1995: 5)

Lionnet discusses two concepts central to my project: transculturation, and appropriation. Transculturation suggests the nomadic ‘act of traversing, of going through existing cultural territories’ (1995: 13). Appropriation implies active intervention rather than passive victimisation. Lionnet’s logiques métisse critiques the definition of the migrant as a pure product of difference, or as a figure of no culture that must be assimilated into a more dominant cultural system (Frenchness or Australianness for example). Migrants and colonised peoples do not possess original ethnic identity or cultural purity. ‘Difference, then becomes – on both sides of the binary system – the reason for exoticising and “othering” groups that do not share in this mythic cultural purity’ (1995: 15).  In this sense métissage refers to what Miriam Lo defines as migrant hybridity’s retrospective construction: the migrant narrators in Adib Khan’s novels, for example, construct their hybrid Asian-Australian identities out of experiences of remembered difference, of having once been Pakistanis. This perception of their external differences enables them to define themselves in ways that undermine reductionist definitions of migrant ethnicity (M. Lo 1998: 21 – 2).

Anne Donadey identifies “reappropriation” as an anti-colonial strategy for Franco-Algerian writers, such as Leïla Sebbar, who know that the colonial roots of Frenchness and the myth of a pure French culture can be exposed as ideological constructs and distortions of colonial and migrant histories (Donadey 1998: 258). For my métis narrator, for example, reappropriation involves gathering the traces of forgotten historical memories found in books, family photographs, letters, paintings and stories from both Anglo-Australian and Thai sources.

My own reappropriation creates a mosaic history of Thailand that parodies, paraphrases and cites a variety of texts: the travel journal of an envoy sent to the Siamese court in the seventeenth century, Simon de la Loubère’s The Kingdom of Siam (1693); Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1956); Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1984); Thailand Journey by W. T. Blake (1955); and James Kirkup’s Tropic temper: A Memoir of Malaya (1963). Other works used are Anna Leonowens‘s account of her time as governess at the court of King Mongkut (1870); and Jean Baudrillard’s Cool Memories (1990). My sense of my father’s past, before he left Australia in 1956, is a bricolage of his letters, newspaper reports from The Straits Times and Bangkok Post, and my own reading of Australian literature and social history. These texts are presented through both direct and indirect discourse to accumulate multiple points of view that reinforce the sense of cultural identities created dialogically.

My intention is to destabilise these exotic representations of the other, but also to show that both Thai history AND Australian history have always involved cross-fertilisation with foreign influences. The past, for Thais and Australians alike, is no purer than the present. Appadurai writes that ‘The past is no longer a land to return to in a simple politics of memory. It has become a synchronic warehouse of cultural scenarios’ (cited in Lionnet 1995: 16). The figure of Krishna’s Western oriented Thai mother Malee is a metonym for how Thailand is a space of intercultural scenarios, a site of intense Thai self-identifications and assertions of unique ethnic identity and resistance to the Western civilising mission, but also a place of Western borrowings – clothes, fashion, technology, and even cultural models like monogamy. Malee’s life is told as a voyage of discovering how others see her, how she outgrows the images projected on to her by Western men. She discovers who she is by becoming those images through dress and fashion, and reluctantly “performs” the image of a modern Thai woman for photographs. She becomes aware of the conventions that surround the myth of the “Thai hostess”, the fantasy of Western heterosexual male’s perfect lover, wife and mother of his children. She becomes a site for surveillance, or the topos for the Orientalising male gaze, a gaze split between her lovers (Patrick, Barry, and Robert), and her son’s. Lionnet argues that migrant women are not simply victims of these Orientalist representations, but can appropriate and re-inscribe such images in the context of immigrant culture. In other words, to resist Orientalisation, oriental images need to be contrasted to the other images of migrants living in stifling conditions in the West (Lionnet 1995: 180 – 2).

Malee resists her objectification by refusing to look at photographs taken of her; holding back on telling her son Krishna the full story of her life; and by maintaining a critical distance from the fantasies others projected onto her. In all the photographs of her (asleep, as a bride in London, as the housewife standing with her husband in London), Krishna sees another woman: one who did not want to be photographed and “posed”.  In other words, for Malee, the performance of the role of Oriental woman involves the mimicry and reappropriation that is subversive because it refuses to reveal all. She is not simply absorbed into the mystique of the Oriental woman, and to paraphrase Luce Irigaray, the success of a woman who reappropriates Oriental discourse through parody and mimicry depends on her remaining elsewhere (cited in Donadey 1998: 263).  Malee’s ultimate act of resistance is her response to her husband’s unfaithfulness. Her anger is expressed through her burning of Patrick’s library in a Sydney suburban backyard, an act the narrator compares to his own childhood game of burning plastic military models. But it is also a destruction of a model of the Western nuclear family, an act that opens up new possibilities for Malee to see herself as an empowered woman.

Krishna’s mother fits Lionnet’s definition of the métisse feminine subject as ‘multiply organised’ across a range of positions and across ‘mutually contradictory discourses and practices’ (1995: 5). Malee is a multilingual woman who moves across cultural boundaries, and is simultaneously global and local. This is a subject ‘adept at braiding all the traditions at its disposal, using the fragments that constitute it in order to participate fully in the dynamic process of transformation’ (Lionnet 1995: 5).  As Lionnet points out immigration is thus more than a fait accompli of history: a process in which the migrant passively gives up her cultural influences and thereby loses through assimilation. Transculturation is a process of mutual or reciprocal influence that is realised symbolically as well as materially. For Lionnet, transculturation is ‘a circulation of practices which creates a constant interweaving of symbolic forms and empirical activities among the different interacting cultures’ (1995: 11).

Malee’s cosmopolitanism is, therefore, a counter-text to Orientalist essentialising of Asian femininity that would cast Krishna’s mother as the Oriental femme fatale, or the intense objectification of a white adventurer let loose in Asia. As Ravi notes, for the Western male in Indochina, the métisse is deeply imagined rather than real (2004: 303). Orientalist tropes like Madame Butterfly, geishas and “dragon ladies” are continually recycled. The fear of white men going native, being led astray by an Oriental femme fatale and disappearing into the Asian quagmire, is also the key theme of Blanche D’Alpuget, Christopher Koch, and Brian Castro (discussed in Chapter Six). These narratives concern the fascination and antagonism present in the white male’s representations of Asian women, and these relations come to stand as metonyms for the masculine westerner’s struggle to dominate the Asian woman.

Textual métissage better describes a critical way of reading and writing hybridity as a discourse that can, as Nicholas Thomas puts it ‘validate certain cultural practices and devalue others’ (1998: 107). Representing the specific historical context of transcultural transactions requires an understanding of relations of hierarchy and asymmetry, constructions of ethnicity, and alliances between groups. Thomas rejects the mapping of binaries of essentialist versus hybrid as stable values. They are not fixed in a political debate of ‘progressive versus ‘reactionary’. Hybridity’s power is not intrinsic but lies in the way it argues with the Australian history of racism, and with the notion of an untroubled and singular national self. Furthermore, heterogeneity of transcultural transactions cannot be contained by a global theory of their dynamics and effects.  Thomas argues that, ‘This variety means that hybridity cannot claim to necessarily be a progressive cultural condition relative to “traditionalist” or “essentialist” affirmations of identity’ (1998: 109). He goes on to argue that hybridity is useful as a critique of nationalism and ‘ethnic exclusionism’, but racism cannot be banished simply by mixing identities. Rather, identities are not possessions of individuals, but relational or transactional terms (1998: 109).

With this in mind, my novel attempts to show that all individuals are part of collectivities that bear identities that may be separate or fused, and stepping outside the paradigms of national identity, requires we do more than mix them. Ethnicity and identity are relational terms, and they are more than possessions. Furthermore, nations are constituted from national narratives, and by constructions of history. These narratives need critical counter-histories and specific interruption (Thomas 1998: 110). For Thomas, hybridity is a function of a work’s transcultural identity, the way its meanings are referenced through the situation of its recontextualisation – the way Kurosawa ‘demonstrates that the Western is a Japanese genre’ (1998: 114). My narrator’s own quest for identity illustrates Thomas’ view that identity is ‘not the self-possession we construe as “identity”, but a set of relations’ that can be ‘refused or renegotiated’ (1998: 116).

Hybrid characters present problems of definition and reliability as they move about cultural spaces in promiscuous ways. But such fuzziness generates creative uncertainty that stimulates deeply interrogative writing. My narrator Krishna, for example, dramatises the oscillations that mark his recognition and mis-recognition of himself and others, as he is pulled in different directions by the cultural politics played out by those others who have more stable cultural and racial identities. The Fire Sermon asks the question of where its characters belong; where they want to live and where they want to go next; and also what they see as home. The text places the primary responsibility for knowledge with the first person narrator, but I am not claiming the authority of a monologic, omniscient narrative voice. My narrator is unreliable and moves across widely disparate cultural spaces, speculating on cultural meaning, rather than fixing it.  If he is not really Thai, what can he say about Thai culture? Who are the hybrids, if not everyone in a globalising world? Who is strange and who is not? Werbner asks ‘how is postmodernist theory to make sense, at once, of both sides, both routine hybridity and transgressive power? Even more, what do we mean by cultural hybridity when identity is built in the face of postmodern uncertainties that render even the notion of strangerhood meaningless?’ (Werbner 1997a: 1 – 2).

Papastergiadis argues that: ‘the foreignness of the stranger now oscillates between a fixed sense of difference and an ambiguous form of similitude’ (1998: 40). He shows that an effect of hybridity is to soften the ‘edges of xenophobia’ by superimposing on those edges with ‘linguistic and racial heterogeneity’ (1998: 40 – 41). It is no longer possible from a modern global perspective to easily define and distinguish insiders and outsiders. I intend that Krishna oscillates and weaves together the imaginary poles of stranger and citizen, and as a character, he is heterogeneous enough to upset the splitting of Australian literary output into a multicultural literature versus the rest. As a métis, he is a useful identity ‘built around the construction of physical and cultural differences between groups’ (Erikson, cited in Noble et al 1999: 29 –30). Krishna reveals the increasing transnational nature of communities in which differences and sameness are juxtaposed in complex processes of integration and disintegration. According to Featherstone, ‘the proliferation of ethnic, regional, national and transnational “communities”, and their articulation with class and gender relations, means that the boundaries of these “communities” become permeable and difficult to maintain’ (cited in Noble et al 1999: 29).

Krishna also resembles the métis characters in French Literature and cinema who function to ‘literalise the act of postcolonial reconciliation’ (Ravi 2004: 312). He resembles Camille, the adopted Vietnamese daughter of a French woman in Indochine, ‘the European born and raised in Indochina [who] represents the perfectly acceptable cultural métisse’ (Ravi 2004: 312).  My narrator Krishna resolves some of the differences of his mother and father, but in what ways can Krishna reconcile the wide cultural gap between his father’s Western dominance and his mother’s Eastern subservience?

The following chapters explore the question of how Australian literature has placed boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable cultural difference in the Asian métis/métisse figure. What makes them either trustworthy or sinister? Why do some hybrids invoke a narrative of uneasy ‘surveillance’? Most importantly, why are hybrids invoked with pessimism rather than with optimism? The following chapters, nevertheless, elucidate optimistic alternatives to our nineteenth century inheritance of racist anti-Asian narrative.

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