The Great Southern Land: Asian-Australian Women Writers Re-View the Australian Landscape

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Representations of Asian women in Australian literature have much in common with popular representations of the landscape: both tend to be depicted as highly sexualized, yet passive; erratic, cruel, and unforgiving. (1) Though this similarity between portrayals of the landscape and of Asian women has gone largely unnoticed by critics, Asian-Australian women writers themselves have emphasised the link: they have made the landscape a dominant presence in their work, and used landscape imagery to challenge representations of Asian women. In this essay, I will consider narratives by Asian-Australian writers that draw directly from landscape iconography. The four distinctively different writers discussed here make important contributions to the rewriting of dominant Australian attitudes to Asian women, and Australian identity itself. The essay focuses on Mena Abdullah's 'Because of the Rusilla' as a celebration of the culturally hybrid nature of the bush; Dewi Anggraeni's depiction of the desert in 'Uncertain Step' as a place of renewal for an Indonesian woman rather than an Australian man; Yasmine Gooneratne's use of suburban and desert images in her critique of Australian attitudes towards 'foreign' settlers throughout the last two hundred years, in her novel A Change of Skies; and Simone Lazaroo's portrayal of the beach as a site for the perpetuation of conservative perceptions of women and girls, rather than as the domain of radical subcultures, in her book The World Waiting to Be Made. (2) In each of these texts, representations of relationships with the landscape, and of the landscape itself, are used as metaphors for social relationships and the self.

Judith Wright, poet and environmentalist, was the first Australian literary critic to suggest that depictions of the landscape function as an 'outer equivalent of an inner reality'. She explains that

   in Australian writing the landscape has, it almost seems, its own
   life.... This is because Australia has from the beginning of its
   short history meant something more to its new inhabitants than mere
   environment and mere land to be occupied, ploughed and brought into
   subjection. It has been the outer equivalent of an inner reality;
   first, and persistently, the reality of exile; second, though
   perhaps we now tend to forget this, the reality of newness and
   freedom. (Preoccupations xi)

G.A. Wilkes later emphasised what Wright called the 'double aspect' of the landscape, pointing out that 'the conception of Australia as a promised land vies with the conception of it as a desolate and melancholy expanse' (Wilkes 13).

If there is a long and complicated tradition of representing the landscape in Australian writing, as a host of commentators have shown, (3) the use of landscape imagery in the work of Asian women writers is often, according to critics and reviewers, cliched and trite. (4) Even the contemporary reception of these writers' works is indicative of this view: reviewing Anggraeni's recent novel Snake, for example, Catherine Ford writes, 'In a biographical note as prescriptive as an introduction to the "Australian and post-colonial literature" courses in which her work is studied, the author's "perspectives and feelings", we are told, have been "blended" together into "Australian literature". Blended OK, but can the result be literature?' Helen Elliott, reviewing Lazaroo's second novel The Second Fiance writes that 'There is no quality in Lazaroo's writing that lifts these people from the commonplace.' This perception--that the writing of Asian-Australian women is often hackneyed--demonstrates that there is a need to review what defines Australian literature, and ultimately, the usefulness of the category of the national in a global literary environment. This is necessary because the representation of the land and its people in the current crop of what is seen as simply 'Australian' writing, like the work of Tim Winton, David Malouf, and others, is said to remain emblematic and meaningful, a marker of what is 'truly' Australian identity and culture. …