Multicultural Poetry

It is often said that all non-indigenous Australian poetry is “migrant” poetry. That the process of leaving your place of origin, your “home”, and travelling to an adoptive home, defines you as a migrant, regardless of when the migration took place. This line of argument possibly arises out of a desire by the dominant culture – the anglo-celtic in the case of Australia – to create a new language of assimilation, despite a multi-cultural, or maybe post multi-cultural environment. Of course, in the case of Australia many of its earliest non-indigenes were transported rather than migrating by choice and the sense of foreignness was extended to their own cultural space. But later migrations, too, whether voluntary or induced by desperate circumstances at home – such as the migrations from Europe after the second world war or the movement of refugees from Indochina after the Vietnam War and the rise of Pol Pot in Cambodia – carried a sense of foreignness within the national identity of origin.

What was fought against, in terms of preserving identity and developing a sense of connection with the new home, was the perceived monolithic nature of anglo-celtic culture. I am skeptical of this label, as migrant differences existed strongly within this so-called dominant culture, especially between the Irish and the English, but it serves as a basic centre against which to “define” migrant presence. Federation in Australia in 1901 brought with it what has become known as the White Australia policy, the desire to keep Australia white and homogeneous: British in politics and culture, with a distinct sense of empire and even more, standard English language usage, allowing for the identity of the Australian strine. This racist policy sat side-by-side with the desire to increase population, especially after the second world war, and underpinned the policy of assimilation: that all new Australians would speak one language and be one people. Whether Greek, Italian, or Polish, or any other nationality, all would strive to be English-speaking Aussies in spirit.

Of course, Aborigines had no part in this picture and their claims to the land had been dismissed with the notion of terra nullius. In the eyes of the Commonwealth of Australia, of the States, and the majority of the population, they simply didn’t count. And this remained the case until the 1960s, and many would argue still remains the reality. It was only with the Mabo decision in the early 1990s that the Commonwealth of Australia legally recognised the presence of Aborigines in Australia before the arrival of Europeans, and only then if they could prove “continuous occupation” of the land. The brilliant Murri Aboriginal poet, Lionel Fogarty, considering the land as opposed to the invaders, has written:


A LIEWay out in the valleys and

mountain ranges of light

You came quiet in roaring tide

in the sunset lagoon

How softly whispers the river

and streams in endless waters


can’t tell a lie.


Not surprisingly, some migrant writers have idenitified with the suppression of Aborigines and other indigenes, though this is a problematic because all migrants, regardless of where they come from, live on land that was originally occupied by indigenous people. To the indigene, the question of dominant and minority cultures may not be as relevant as the denial of ancestral lands.

When I talked of the post-war assimilation of new Australians I specifically mentioned Europe. The White Australia policy, which arose out of the 1901 Restrictive Immigration Act, was particularly aimed at Asian immigration. Chinese had been in Australia since 1848 but fear of what was called “the yellow peril”, the racist cliches of the small white population of Australia being over-run by the imagined vast hordes pouring down from Asia, prevented notable levels of Asian migration until recent decades. The war with the Japanese reinforced the fear, even given that many Chinese suffered at the hands of the Japanese army. The Domino Theory of communist domination of south-east Asia bolstered support for the Vietnam War and also contributed to this fear. Racial stereotyping was rife, and support for racist politicians such as Pauline Hanson from Queensland indicate these prejudices still preoccupy some living in Australia. Fortunately, the migration of Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodians, Indonesians, and other peoples from Asia during the 1970s and 1980s has significantly enriched Australia’s culture. Poets such as Ee Tiang Hong – a political exile of Chinese heritage born in Malaysia and later Ouyang Yu, editor of the Australian Chinese language literary journal Otherland – have been active in fragmenting the eurocentrism of Australian culture.

The process of assimilation came to an end in the early 1970s, being replaced with what is known as multiculturalism: implicitly a recognition of the diversity of what it is to be an Australian, carrying with it a respect for cultural difference and self-identity. On the positive front multiculturalism has allowed ethnic communities to gain a political voice within the bureaucracies of Australian social and cultural organisations but, as has been pointed out by many commentators, has also led to “difference” being accommodated under the umbrella of what remains the distinctive white Australia anglo-celtic identity. Pi O, born in Greece in 1951, having migrated to Australia at the age of three, paints a deeply ironic portrait of the residue of this nationalistic “Aussie” majority, at least insofar as the national myth makers – politicians, the media, breweries and sporting organisations – would have it:


from OCKERSby Pi O


(in the 70’s) had the

“Libido” of a gang-bang


brains of a “Bunyip”


“the finesse of a rugby-team



lived on

tomato sauce

the “Sporting Globe”,

terrace houses,




a cyclone.


was still the month for getting


& the


still applied.


sheep became neurotic


the stockman

rode around

on a motorbike,

dark sun-glasses, a T-shirt,


a pack full of

stubbies. . . .


For a migrant, of whatever origin, the primary issue on arrival in a new country is battling the sense of “foreignness”. One becomes “the other”, an alien in a strange place that in a variety of ways, whether overtly or subliminally, seems to reject the very things that constitute your identity. The language might be different, and if not, an unsual accent will mark you as an outsider. There might also be conflict between the sense of being an exile and the desire to settle, the need to connect one’s past with the reality of an often very different present. And, of course, there is the difference in landscape. When the earliest settlers arrived in Australia they often rebuilt their home in places that bore little resemblance to their place of origin. Any similarity they could find allowed them to build a connection with the old life. Place names are a key to this – New England, New South Wales, and so on. In the post-war migrations from Europe specific places became associated with particular ethnic groups. Melbourne is one of the most culturally diverse communities in Australia. Jewish migrants from all over Europe have been attracted to to it, as well as Greeks, Italians, and numerous other peoples.

When considering Australian multicultural poetry it shouldn’t be assumed that every poem is about the specific experience of migration. There are second and third generation Australian poets who might work within a multicultural environment. However, cultural and linguistic dislocation will often inform text. The poetry of Antigone Kefala – born in Romania of Greek parents, having lived in both New Zealand and Australia – utilizes non-realist scenarios interweaving dream and mythology with notions of place, culture, and self, in many ways breaks away from such stereotyping. Interestingly, Kefala has four languages, though writes in English:


THE WANDERERby Antigone Kefala

The river

moved further away

in the heat of the road

shimmers of water

towards the horizon.

The salt

which they gave him at home

he would place on his tongue

to taste his own roots

and draw comfort.

The world

made of a matter that never

forgets, a symmetry so exact,

fatality at the heart

of each thing.


Other multicultural poets who have attracted much attention in Australia include Dimitri Tsaloumas, Peter Skrzynecki, Alex Skovron, Thalia, Ania Walwicz, Anna Couani, and Jeri Kroll. Kroll, an American, is not usually identified as a “migrant” poet but I note her to make a point. I find it difficult, especially as someone from the so-called dominant culture, to represent multicultural poetries. Questions of authenticity and authority come into play. I say this as an Australia who now lives in Britain. For me, home is where my family is – and they’re here in Cambridge, but home is also a specific place in Western Australia. It is the landscape that fills my poetry, it is the stuff of my childhood memories. It is interesting that much multicultural poetry, as Sneja Gunew and others have pointed out, centres on the parent-child relationship, specifically an inversion of roles: the relationship to the country of the new “parent” culture.

What of poets who see the label “migrant poet” as ghettoising or find “multicultural poet” limiting? In the end, it’s the poem that speaks for itself.

The last poem I have selected examines Dutch colonisation of Indonesia, emigration to Australia, and the problems inherent in exploring identity and notions of home.



mama and papa

were nursed

by babus:

young Indonesian women

who spent their youth

coddling the colonialists

sickly children.

as a child

i often asked

what my parents did

when they were


my mother said,

that when the European Ladies

came for afternoon tea,

the children

were summoned

to greet them.

Mrs Q. asked the eldest

to say something “nice” . . .

“Poop!” said my mother

& ran out the door!

my father remembers

playing with my mother

on the lawns

of the colonial estates

(“they were

wild games!”

my mother adds.)

he also remembers

sitting around

with koki

around the fire

outside in the kampung

watching him cook,

after koki’d served

& washed up


(my father

still likes

cooking sajurs

& improvised


my father’s mother

died when my father

was still young

she seems to have had

more contact with her children

than the other colonial mums.

she talked soft

with my dad,

& taught him

how to massage

her aching head

(it’s been hinted at,

that my paternal grandmother

was of Indonesian


i think

both my parents

have been homesick

for Indonesia

for a very long time!

they were shipped

“back to the mother country”

in their early teens.

my mother says,

they didn’t like

what they saw.

she blames it

on the cold.

i blame it on

the early years spent

in Indonesia:

they just couldn’t cope

with Dutch Burghers

& the money-pinching

attitudes . . .

i think

my mother & father

came to Australia

with a dream

of finding something

they’d left behind

in Indonesia.

how their faces

lit up! when

the migrant-ship

crossed the


(my father

greeted the

Southern Cross

like a long-lost