Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

The Chinese Poetess in an Australian Setting: Cultural Translation in Brian Castro's the Garden Book

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

The Chinese Poetess in an Australian Setting: Cultural Translation in Brian Castro's the Garden Book

Article excerpt

The Garden Book, a novel set in the Dandenongs between the 1920s and 1940s, tells of a triangle love affair between Darcy Damon, Swan Hay and Jasper Zenlin, but in a deeper sense, it is a novel that delves into a period of Australian history, 'perhaps the most mined seam in Australian historical fiction' (Pierce para 2). The novel begins with Norman Shih, a rare book librarian, who tries to piece together the life of the female protagonist, Swan Hay, through memory and recollection, but it is a difficult task, 'a bit ghoulish-wun gwai, as they say ambiguously in Chinese, "hunting phantom" which also means "looking for nothing"' (Castro, Garden 1). Wun gwai serves here as a powerful trope or anti-logic for the narrative as Norman Shih, or 'No-man. Shhhh' (253), living in no-man's land (310), tries to hunt the phantoms of the past by piecing together fragments from past diaries, letters and ledgers: 'the dead are gypsies. Still active, they flutter here and there, moths before the flames. ... Signs which make us what we are' (7). From the very beginning, wun gwai not only links Brian Castro as an agent of cultural transplantation (and translation as contamination) but gives an instance in which the pursuit-of-a-nothing structures the narrative about a ghost of Chineseness. It is an effort to break the prison-house of any fixed labelling of the diasporic writer and call to attention not just their being, but rather their becoming.

This article is an attempt to discuss translation in a cultural sense rather than a purely linguistic one, to examine the border-crossing of ethnic writers and the identities involved in this border-crossing. Salman Rushdie, in his collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands, equates the migration of diasporans with translation: 'Having been borne across the world, we are translated men' (17). In this postmodern age where people move and are transported more frequently than ever before, translation has become an inescapable reality, not just translation of languages, but increasingly of transposed cultures. As a strategy of survival, in Homi Bhabha's words, culture

is both transnational and translational. It is transnational because contemporary postcolonial discourses are rooted in specific histories of cultural displacement, whether they are the middle passage of slavery and indenture, the voyage out of the civilising mission, the fraught accommodation of Third World migration to the West after the Second World War, or the traffic of economic and political refugees within and outside the Third World. Culture is translational because such spatial histories of displacement ... make the question of how culture signifies, or what is signified by culture, a rather complex issue. (172)

Homi Bhabha gives translation a highly metaphorical value as 'it transfers the meaning of home and belonging, across the middle passage ... and cultural differences that span the imagined community of the nation-people' (291). This in-betweenness that characterises both translators and diasporans epitomises the dilemma of diasporic Chinese writers as they oscillate between host culture and home culture.

Diasporic Chinese are 'birds of passage', to borrow the title phrase from Brian Castro's first novel. Like migratory birds, they think of return when the season comes, but at the same time they seem imprisoned by an invisible cage and have no idea of when or whether it is possible to return. Deprived of any sense of belonging, they are cut offfrom their homeland and yet feel ill at ease with regard to cultural belonging in a new country. They live in an intersection of history and memory. Situated in this in-betweenness, they develop a new understanding of their identity which involves a dialogue or negotiation between two cultures, a border-crossing or border-redefining. This new consciousness, the space of the borderland, a place of cross-cultural negotiation, is the reality of diasporic Chinese writers. …

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