Voices From Another Immigrant Nation
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because so much can get lost in translation.
By Sanjena Sathian
It seems like everywhere you look these days, you find a country exploding at its seams with debates about immigration. From a giant wall between the U.S. and Mexico to streams of refugees flowing through Europe, the topic is a familiar one. Another nation of immigrants, Australia, gets a little less coverage from its corner of the globe — but the conversation, and occasional vitriol, is no less intense there. According to government data from 2013, a quarter of Australia’s population was born abroad. And while the nation is still majority-white, increasing numbers of migrants are making their way Down Under from India, Hong Kong, Vietnam and other parts of Asia.
So we got curious: Immigration brings with it new literary voices. And Michael Jacklin, professor of literature at the University of Wollongong, tells us to look beyond native English writers. Many in this new generation aren’t mourning their exile, the way an earlier generation of immigrant writers has been portrayed, Jacklin says; rather, these are authors using their own ethnic experiences to “construct a new way of being, of thinking about themselves.” Below, a reading list Jacklin shared with us.
Wadih Sa’adeh is one of the best-known voices of the Lebanese diaspora, Jacklin says, recommending the Lebanese-Australian’s collection Who Took the Eyesight That I Left at the Door? (Scholars have compared Sa’adeh to Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet.) You can find much of Sa’adeh’s work translated and available online. The former journalist has lived in Australia for nearly three decades. His writing is restrained and careful, as in the 12-line poem “Night Visit,” which begins “They were telling their children about / the guardian angel of plants,” and ends “some soldiers arrived / stopped their stories / leaving red splashes on the walls / as they departed.”
El Contestador Australiano y otros cuentos (The Answering Australian and Other Stories) was published, of all places, in Uruguay. This short-story collection by Montevideo-born Ruben Fernández is the result of a decade of living in Australia. Over the course of 20 years, Fernández, who ran a Spanish-language broadcasting service for migrants in Australia, published the stories in his country of residence before shipping them back home in book form.
Some of the most important work in Vietnamese literature is going on in Australia, Jacklin says. He recommends Le Van Tai’s concrete poetry, and translated one verse for us: “Every afternoon [I] stand at the back door / Looking toward my mother’s homeland, my guts ache in nine ways.” The lines come from a folk song, he explains, written in “the voice of a young bride who is prohibited through custom to weep in the presence of her husband’s family and must go to the back door of her in-laws house to cry out her homesickness.” The fitting title for the poem? “The Other Side of the Ocean.”