Dissonances

Article excerpt

SNEJA GUNEW AND KATERYNA O. LONGLEY, EDS., STRIKING CHORDS: MULTICULTURAL LITERARY INTERPRETATIONS (SYDNEY: ALLEN AND UNWIN, 1992).

Recent criticism of the terms Migrant writing and multicultural writing, exemplified by articles published last year in the Australian Book Review and Island, has focused on the promotion of writings by Migrant and non-Anglo-Celtic Australians. Either implicitly or explicitly, the articles have defined the intellectual and theoretical challenges to conservative, exclusive notions of Australian Literature, especially those made by Sneja Gunew, as a continuation of colonialism in this country.

The ABR article, for example, valorises a confusing idea of quality in Australian writing defining it as `native Australian English' in opposition to the supposed poor (foreign?) quality of most Migrant writings.(1) An obvious function of this argument is to align ideas of bad writing with ideas of authentic Migrant writing. Not so obvious, perhaps, is its anxieties about the very notions of authenticity and authority which inform its idea of quality; anxieties which in my reading of the argument implicitly express a desire for the Aboriginal (native) other as a metaphor of and for an authentic `Australian' identity, for which should be read middle-class Anglo-Australian history and culture.

The Island article, albeit in more theoretically informed terms than the latter, is critical of Gunew's use of the term Migrant writing in an early Said-inspired essay.(2) In arguing that Gunew's use of the term Migrant writing functions as a sort of unconscious colonialism, the article conveniently trivialises the historical importance of her desire to use the term in deconstructive rather than descriptive ways in order to displace notions of Australian Literature; that is, to question the latter's territorialising descriptions. Of most interest to me are the ways the above oppositions to Gunew's arguments are also informed by the implied threat represented by the idea of the Migrant theoretician. Elsewhere, I have examined in greater detail the ways the discourses informing such representations operate.(3) Suffice it to say here that the idea of the Migrant critic/theoretician evokes for the writers of the abovementioned articles anxieties about power reversal intimately linked to anxieties about the in/authenticity of the Migrant critic who herself refuses to comply with the stereotype of the Migrant victim even while addressing the unequal relations of power which victimise Migrants.

Similarly, the ABR article explicitly positions readers to perceive her as some sort of race traitor, that is, as the articulate victimiser of `her own people'. Why? Because she is not a victim like other Migrants perhaps? The implications of this argument are particularly insidious because they reposition all Migrants as victims in a relation of dependency to dominant groups, while obscuring the social relations of power which inform Migrant writers' unequal access to the conditions of writing. To a lesser, but still significant extent, the Island article skirts similar anxieties in constructing a hierarchy of oppression whereby Aborigines are implicitly positioned as the only authentic victims of racism in this country. My concern is that such hierarchies of victims may foster divide and conquer tactics, particularly since the status of victim according to these terms is engendered as an enviable position worth competing for. Moreover, such ranking leaves unexamined and intact the unequal relations of power which both produce victims and also pit victims against each other.

This is not to argue against the fact that some groups have suffered and continue to suffer from social injustice, rather, it is to argue against some of the obfuscations made possible through ranking oppression in this country. Should we argue, for example, that for as long as Aborigines are not heard to speak for themselves, then `ethnics' should not theorise at all? …