Academic journal article Hecate

Migrant Women's Writing in New Zealand: Amelia Batistich's Three-Dimensional World

Academic journal article Hecate

Migrant Women's Writing in New Zealand: Amelia Batistich's Three-Dimensional World

Article excerpt

Our Main Street, where you were part of a three-dimensional world. Walk down there any day and hear the singing Maori speech, the sharper English, the rolled Dalmatian 'r's. A street where three peoples met and never really merged. Maori, British, Dalmatian - and sandwiched in between, strays like George the Greek, Jimmy the Chinaman and Mr Kostoff the sad Bulgarian.(1)

Writing difference in the late 1940s when homogeneity was the only acceptable expression of identity, migrant woman writer(2) Amelia Batistich was one of the first 'ethnic' voices to challenge the fledgling canon. Contributing her own particular myth to the construction of a complex literary landscape, Batistich participated in the mythmaking of New Zealand. As one of the first writers to publish from the margins of society, the New Zealand author born of Dalmatian immigrant parents created a space in the tightly woven literary fabric for voices from outside the mainstream of Anglo-Celtic heritage. By breaking out of her own silence, and that of her community, not only did Batistich allow the Dalmatians to participate in the construction of their own image; she also paved the way for other migrant groups and Maori to begin to participate in their own mythmaking within the dominant discourse.

Marginal migrant groups in New Zealand such as the Dalmatians comprise a small but culturally significant presence. 1991 census statistics show the ten major groups in decreasing order of numbers: Samoan, Chinese, Indian (both from Fiji and India), Tongan, Dutch, South African, Yugoslav (including different ethnic groups covered by former Yugoslavia - 90% are Dalmatian), Vietnamese, Cambodian and Japanese.(3) While these ethnic minorities comprise less than 16% of the country's population, their influence in economic and social terms is tangible even if subjugated to the bicultural sensitivity pervading New Zealand. Partly in an attempt to inscribe myself as a Dalmatian New Zealand citizen, poet and academic, I am currently working towards a theorisation of a model of multicultural writing in New Zealand reflecting this cultural diversity.(4) Ethnic minority academics working at the University of Auckland and, in particular, in the area of feminist inquiry have expressed support for this project: an Indian doctoral student in science told me how she felt invisible in the empirical word she inhabited. Sharing my anxiety of being silenced within the non-specific 'Pakeha' label - including the pain of realising our mother tongues had been denied us by early educators insisting English was the only language with currency in the New Zealand of the 1960s - this woman echoed my own discomfit in the shadow of the bicultural model.

In their introduction to Feminism and the Politics of Difference, Sneja Gunew and Anna Yeatman refer to expressions of cultural difference in New Zealand as being served by the term biculturalism, suggesting that feminism in this country is influenced by "this bicultural mapping of the national imaginary."(5) The media to date have concentrated on the Maori/Pakeha dynamic, New Zealand On Air sponsored television programmes such as the 1993 "Thoroughly Confused Person's Guide to Biculturalism" being one popular example of prime-time television addressing racial dis/harmony. This documentary, like most attempts at discussing inter-ethnic relationships in New Zealand today, elides differences and homogenises the Pakeha: the husband in a Maori/Pakeha couple interviewed is half Scots and half Dalmatian. Far from being a useful model for the investigation of difference, biculturalism as an organising strategy is marginalising to the many ethnic minorities that comprise New Zealand.(6) Just in the can is a new series of documentaries reflecting the multicultural make-up of New Zealand: "Immigrant Nation" purports to tell the story of, if not all, the major ethnic groups that comprise the citizens of Aotearoa. Central to the Dalmatian programme, in which I participated by providing the narrative voice and an alternating academic/poetic perspective, is a profile of Batistich, now in her seventy-ninth year. …

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