Who Are We Talking about? Asian-Australian Women Writers: An Overview

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Who Are We Talking About? Asian-Australian Women Writers: An Overview

...the compulsion to explain, the inevitable positioning of yourself as deviant vis-à-vis the normal, remains -- especially for those migrants marked by visible difference.

Ien Ang, `On Not Speaking Chinese.'(1)

Although the clash of cultures is inevitable, at the moment it's ruptures that are the most interesting, rather than easy sliding into a falsely imposed communion.

Pat Hoffie(2)

The growing awareness of Asia and Asians in Australian society has been complemented by the work of scholars researching Asian-Australian feminism and `Australian' literature. Asian-Australian women, previously a little-heard (but by no means silent) group, are slowly gaining a critical and public profile. In many Western countries, women of Asian descent reject their exclusion from, and misrepresentation in society. They face a misinformed or stereotypical valuation of their work and themselves, and sometimes resistance from their own communities to their representations or sentiments. This sort of repression is gradually breaking down. Meanwhile, contemporary Asian women are supposed to consider themselves lucky, having a `freedom' in their lives their predecessors did not have. A Chinese-American poet, Ping Wang, addresses this issue of `freedom' in one of her poems and echoes the ironic question: `So what are you still angry about?'(3) -- a question that presupposes that Asian women's rights have already been `won.'

This article presents an overview of contemporary Asian-Australian women's writing -- inevitably incomplete given the state of research and commentary in the area -- and discusses the mediating discourses involved in this area of study. It concludes with a list of annotated references for further reading in the area of Asian-Australian women's literature. In drawing from various works and spaces of production, the article fulfills several goals. It opens up a focussed examination of the term `Asian,' and begins to deconstruct the term's often monolithic connotations, as well as questioning the construct `Australian.' My delineation of a body of literature called `Asian-Australian women's writing' invites critique and will, hopefully, generate further discussion. The sites from which these women write and the ways in which they place themselves suggest intriguing links and fissures in the formation of their identities.

The varied social and cultural influences on these texts, along with the extra-textual factors that are described, mediate and modulate the various readings that can be made of Asian-Australian women's work. The flow of talk of `ethnic,' `migrant' and `multicultural' writers is muddied always by exactly which title is bestowed upon whom. What are the criteria for each of these categories? Different critics or academics have different definitions. Attempts to pin these terms to some sort of comprehensive `meaning' ask for contradiction. Andrew Riemer, for example, resents the label and its part in distancing and seemingly separating his work from where he wants it to be -- in the dominant arena.(4) Riemer's position is shared, in part, by George Papaellinas who writes: `I have never understood the political worth of contesting the undeniable, historical chauvinism of Anglocentric Australian society with counter-chauvinism, by separatism.'(5) Papaellinas asserts that attempts to modify Australia's currently narrow publishing and reading practices are relatively unproductive. He alludes to the dilemma apparent in reconstructions of a `national' literature: are the hierarchies that made the previous canon exclusionary still in place? If so, how can any ensuing listing be `better' in terms of equity of representation? Other commentators claim multiculturalism and ethnicity as empowering and valuable classifications and identifications, albeit with some reservations about being able to control representations of themselves; as Ang states: `if I am inescapably Chinese by descent, I am only sometimes Chinese by consent. …