Academic journal article Hecate

Asian Culture and Australian Identity

Academic journal article Hecate

Asian Culture and Australian Identity

Article excerpt

The heroine of my first novel, A Change of Skies, happens to be of Asian origin, a lover of the arts with interests in music and literature. As is the case with most well-brought-up young women of her nationality and background, music has been part of Navaranjini's formal education: the instrument she plays is a sitar. I mention this because, quite early in her life in Australia, Navaranjini and her sitar have an impact on her next door neighbours, an Australian couple whose only contact with Asia, until they meet Navaranjini and her husband, had been made through books and films. I was interested in exploring if I could, within the limitations of fiction, the average Australian's experience of, and response to Oriental culture and music.(1) This is how my aesthetically-minded heroine is seen by her neighbour, Bruce Trevally:

Well, the next day Maureen said she was going over to say hello. To tell you the truth, Mo wanted to have a bit of a stickybeak, curious to see how they were settling in. The book I got out of the library yesterday says Sri Lanker's a carpet culture, like India, Bruce, she said. Not a chair culture like us. Maybe they have their tea reclining on divans and leaning against tasselled cushions, like Marlene Dietrich and the Sultan in The Garden of Allah.

Well, when Maureen came back she said Mrs What's-her-name had been setting up her musical instruments. Exotic things, Mo said, a zither and little drums, and stuff like that.

'Mo,' I said, 'Where's she putting them?"

In one of the spare bedrooms,' Mo said.

Well, I know that house like the back of my hand. Should do after all these years of living next door. So I went over right away and had a look at what she'd been up to.

'My, you've been a busy girl, haven't you?' I said. 'But you'll be needing to shove those fiddles in the rumpus room.'

'Rumpus room?' she said. 'These are musical instruments, Mr Trevally.'

So I told her what a rumpus room is, and showed her the sunniest spots in their one. Told her I remember reading somewhere that in cold weather musical instruments need keeping in a warm atmosphere or they lose their tone.

Well, the next day I was weeding our front lawn when I heard music next door, well you couldn't call it music, really, more like two cats having a set-to - Cats on rooftops, Cats on tiles, Cats with syphilis, Cats with piles, as my old Grandpa used to say of Nellie Melba, couldn't bear her screeching, the old man couldn't.

And then I noticed Dr What's-his-name's lawn needed weeding pretty bad, so I hopped over the front fence and told Mrs not to be scared if she saw a strange man weeding her front lawn, it would only be me.

'Oh, Mr Trevally,' she said -

'Bruce,' I said.

'Well, Bruce,' she said, 'You were quite right about the sunny spots in the rumpus room. My zither (only she pronounced it sitar) sounds so much better now. Just listen.'

And she sat herself down on the rumpus room carpet, and played a few bars for me to hear. And you know, Jim, I didn't think much of the music, give me a good old Scottish march any day, but holding that fiddle and looking dreamily out of the window as she played it, she looked the spitting image of a painting in Mo's library book, 'A Princess Waiting For Her Absent Lover,' it's called.(2)

The musical, artistic, literary and cultural tastes of the majority of Australians have been shaped, like Bruce Trevally's, by their European inheritance and the pride they justifiably take in it. I have no wish to generalise but, despite Australia's proximity to Asia and the development in this country since 1974 of relationships with Asian nations and cultures which are quite different from the colonial attitudes that inevitably marked (and marred) Britain's relationships with her Asian colonies, it is clear to me from my reading of Australian literature that, to the great majority of Australia's writers, Asia is still, and will probably remain for some time to come, the unknown, mysterious 'other' against which European culture has traditionally defined itself. …

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