New Lives in a New Country?
Professor Klaus Neumann
The Library holds hundreds of published recollections of migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds. What do they tell us about the migrant experience and about Australia as a country of immigration? Do migrants’ life histories form part of Australian history? And what’s food got to do with ‘ethnic writing’? Klaus Neumann answers these and other questions in discussing six authors, including a Canberran born in Hungary.
Klaus Neumann is Professor of History at Swinburne University. His most recent book, Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees, has been shortlisted for a NSW Premier’s Literary Award.
Professor Neumann’s National Library Fellowship is supported by Deidre McCann and Kevin McCann AM and the Macquarie Group Foundation.
Transcript of ‘New lives in a new country?’
Speakers: Robyn Holmes (R), Professor Klaus Neumann (K)
Location: National Library of Australia
Transcript of ‘New Lives in a New Country?’
Speakers: Robyn Holmes (R), Professor Klaus Neumann (K)
Location: National Library of Australia
R: Ladies and gentlemen. How wonderful to welcome such a large and diverse audience as this on a cold and wet Canberra turning day, a day turning from oh summer-autumn into winter-autumn which is a bit sad in Canberra. But it’s a delight to welcome you all this evening to this Fellowship presentation by Professor Klaus Neumann, Professor of History at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. I’m Robyn Holmes, and I’m the Senior Curator who’s very lucky to be responsible for the fellowships program and I will perhaps explain why I feel so lucky as the night goes on but ... and as we begin of course I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and we thank their elders past and present for caring for this land as we now are privileged to call home. And I think that has very special meaning tonight because so many of you have no doubt come at some point in your life from somewhere else to Australia as home and perhaps to Canberra as home and understand something of the nuances that Klaus will be speaking about this evening. And perhaps we must especially welcome the embassy friends and the Ambassador of Hungary tonight because we have a Hungarian story especially for you and it’s a great pleasure, Excellency Attila Gruber and your friends, that you have joined us for this evening as a kind of representation of what it’s like for many people still coming to Australia.
For his fellowship, Klaus has commenced a new research project. That’s a bit unusual for fellows, usually they’re in the midst of a project and come her to kind of continue it when they know what they’re looking for, but Klaus came with an idea and he really started investigating from scratch the published recollections of Australian immigrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Klaus has titled his presentation ‘New Lives in a New Country’ with an exclama ... no, a question mark at the end, not an exclamation mark. And I suspect that this because his Fellowship research is raising as many questions and challenges as it has provided answers. Issues that relate to home, to displacement and resettlement, to global migration and the refugee experience, a very contemporary and hot issue. And of course to people adapting to a new land, language and culture over a long period.
Klaus is also interested in why, when and how people choose to write down and publish their often intimate life stories and memories. His Fellowship research has been opening up new ways of thinking about a whole body of published literature that the Library’s been collecting for a very long time but that few have thought to examine from the perspectives and paradigms of mainstream Australian history. For the Library as the national institution responsible for collecting or indeed for finding, collecting and preserving these published stories this has been a particularly rewarding fellowship experience and we thank you, Klaus, for the many insights and ideas that you’ve been discussing and sharing with staff about how indeed to collect this very difficult material.
As a historian Klaus has long written about matters pertaining to people’s displacement, ethnicity and cultural experience. He’s written books, articles and radio plays about memoirs and memories of Nazi Germany, Papua New Guinean history, World War II internment, refugee and asylum seeker policy, settler indigenous relations, the White Australia Policy, volcanoes and other topics. Not quite sure where the volcanoes fit into that but perhaps they displaced people. While first and foremost a scholar Klaus is also a noted public commentator, he contributes regularly to Inside Story and on occasions for the Fairfax press around the nation as you may have noted in his opinion piece this morning in The Canberra Times and the Sydney Morning Herald. You can indeed hear him again tomorrow evening if you so choose at six o’clock at the Street Theatre on a panel for ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program, Examining Creative and Cultural Responses to Migration and the Refugee Crisis in Australia.
His latest book, Across The Seas:—I should know it by memory by now—A History of Australia’s Response to Refugees, has recently been shortlisted for the nonfiction prize in the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. Hear, hear, bravo. The NLA bookshop has tonight made you a very special offer for this event. If you pick up the flyer, which is out on the table and if you haven’t seen one they’re floating around, and hand it to a staff member night then you can get 10% off the price of your copy at the National Library bookshop.
Klaus’ Fellowship has been made possible by the generosity of donors, Deirdre and Kevin McCann and the Macquarie Group Foundation. With the renewal of the National Library fellowships through philanthropy we’ve been really fortunate to have had a really vibrant group for four fellows here together at the Library at the same time for the last three months. So we have two more fellowship presentations, one in a fortnight time when Michelle Arrow will be reinvestigating Australia in the 1970s with her talk on ‘Private Lives and Public Politics’ and then archivist, Michael Piggott, on Ferguson’s 400–plus manuscripts the following fortnight. But tonight it’s Klaus’ turn so please welcome Klaus Neumann. Thank you.
K: Well thank you very much, Robyn, for those very kind words of introduction and thank you to all of you. Can you all hear me? For coming along tonight. That’s ... it’s a great pleasure to see so many familiar faces and some faces who became unfamiliar because I haven’t seen them for such a long time. Now before I start with my lecture I want to thank a few people. First of all Robyn Holmes who is responsible for the fellowship program at the National Library and who has looked after me and the other fellows who’ve been here at the same time. And there were so many other people in the Library who have been welcoming, who have always been willing to talk to us about our interests and I won’t be able to name them all but I just want to mention a few names. Beth Mansfield who is sitting ...
R: She’s still outside.
K: She’s still outside. She’s drinking all the wine. Catriona Anderson, Margy Burn, Andrew Sergeant, Meredith Batten and I would like to especially thank you, the Director-General of the National Library of Australia, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, who’s hiding in the back row there. I think it is very special that you’ve turned up for this lecture. I think if I ever got my Dean to come to one of my lectures or talks at the University I would be worried. So thank you to the National Library for providing such a fantastic experience, I really had such a good time so if there’s a job going just let me know. And then a special thank you to my three fellow fellows, Agnieszka Sobocinska who unfortunately already returned to Melbourne, Michelle Arrow and Michael Piggott and you will hear more from them later on. What does that mean? What does he mean? And then thank you to my sponsors ... I don’t think I’ve ever said that before ... Deirdre and Kevin McCann and the Macquarie Group Foundation so it sounds good, thank you to my sponsors. So any sponsors, just come and see me afterwards.
Alright. To see whether I can put that somewhere without all the pieces of paper falling down. Five issues have caught my attention when reading the published recollections of migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds over the past 10 weeks. What can these texts tell us about the experience of migration? What do they reveal about Australia? What do they have in common? How do these texts relate to Australian history? History in the sense of the narratives told about Australia’s past. Does a memoir written by a Holocaust survivor who arrived in Australia in 1947, which deals exclusively with the period 1940 to 1945, actually qualify as an Australian history? I believe it does and I’m going to say more about that later.
And finally following on from this interest in the relationship of migrants’ recollections to Australian history I’m curious about how these and related texts are collected, how they’re preserved, curated and made publicly available. And whether there are any viable alternatives to current collecting and curatorial practices. I won’t talk about that in my lecture but I’d be happy to address that issue in the discussion afterwards.
My archive of primary texts is large: it includes more than a thousand books in the collection of the National Library alone ... no, I have not read all of them ... and at least a couple of hundred more in other libraries in Australia or overseas. I’m very vague about the exact number. That’s for two reasons, first it has been very difficult to readily identify migrants’ published recollections in library catalogues. It has also been tricky to decide which books to include in my archive. I opted for broad criteria and read all the memoirs with fiction elements, ghost-written autobiographies and biographies that draw on the recorded collections of the biographical subjects. I ended up with a rather messy and diffuse body of texts, biographies, autobiographies and memoirs, self-published texts that were edited only by their authors and texts published by commercial publishers which had gone through an extensive editing process, zines and booklets of less than 50 pages and weighty tomes of more than 500 pages, books that are little more than stapled mimeographs and lavishly illustrated coffee table books, memoirs that double as works of philosophy and memoirs directed at children, texts written in English, texts written in the writer’s native language and translations, recollections of famous, infamous and ordinary Australians, texts produced only for the writer’s immediate family and texts written for a large audience, texts that have obvious literary merits and texts that are very poorly written and books written for a diasporic audience, for an Australian audience or for readers in the writer’s native country.
Most of these texts, these 1,000–plus texts, are either self-published or put out by companies that specialise in publishing for niche markets. Of 74 books published last year and held in at least one Australian library no more than eight would have made it onto the shelves of non-specialist bookshops. Most of the books that form our archive are obscure. They are held only by a handful of libraries, have been read mainly by family and friends and never made it onto the reading list of book clubs or became prescribed readings in schools. Only one became a genuine bestseller, that is Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee, which was first published in 2010 and is still widely available so this is one out of more than a thousand.
Most biographical subjects are usually at least in their 50s when their recollections are published, most have been in Australia for at least two decades. Migrant women are as likely as men to write their memoirs but the members of some ethnic communities are clearly overrepresented. A comparatively large proportion of texts are authored by migrants who identify as Jewish and many of these memoirs are testimonies. Refugees are also overrepresented. Now so much about the overall body of text but in the following I’m actually going to focus on six books.
I don’t pretend that they are representative, the overall corpus of texts is too diverse to be adequately represented by only six titles. The six books are also unrepresentative because I didn’t include books I found tedious to read. And believe me there are many migrants’ memoirs that fall into that category because I knew I had to read them you know once or twice again. And then I didn’t include authors whose persona I disliked. In fact I more than just liked some of the authors, I chose at least two of them I adored. But I’m nevertheless trying to give you an idea of the diversity of my archive and have therefore selected what I believe to be a cross-section. So here are my six books in the order in which they were published.
Walter Adamson’s Ausgerechnet Australien was released by a small West German press in 1974. Ten years later an English version which is not a full translation was published in Australia under the title Australia of All Places and brought to the attention of a wider audience when it was broadcast in 10 instalments on ABC radio. Adamson had self-published the first half of Ausgerechnet Australien in Germany in 1973 as Das australische Einmaleins. Both this earlier book and Ausgerechnet Australien include an appendix with a poem, ‘The Immigrant’, in English and with a German translation. The poem had appeared in Australian Women’s Weekly of all places in 1963. Born in 1911 in Königsberg, today’s Kaliningrad, in Ostpreussen, or East Prussia, Adamson—then Adamsohn—migrated to Australia in 1939 from Italy. The Nazis had deemed him to be a Jew but he did not identify as Jewish. He published four other books, one in German which is available in an English translation and three in English. In 1949, Adamson left Australia for Bolivia where he taught English. He returned to Australia in 1953, married an Australian and lived in Melbourne until his death in 2010.
Magda Bozic’s Gather Your Dreams was published in 1984. Born in 1915 in Budapest, Bozic migrated to Australia from Hungary in 1948 and thereafter lived mostly in Canberra which initially struck her as a dreadful place, a collection of paddocks and flies and loneliness and magpies picking your brains in spring. She worked in the public service as a secretary at the ANU and for the Human Rights Commission. That last job earned her an Order of Australia medal which the Queen personally bestowed on her in 1986 when she visited. Bozic died I believe in 2001. Gather Your Dreams was her only book. She wrote it not least for her close friend, Jean Martin, a sociologist and author of the remarkable 1965 study, ‘Refugee Settlers’. Gather Your Dreams was published by a small migrant publisher, Hodja Educational Resources, incidentally the same press that published Adamson’s English version of Ausgerechnet Australien—Australia of all Places—also in 1984.
Abbas El-Zein was born in 1963 into a Shia Muslim family in Beirut. He first left Lebanon in 1986 to study and work in the UK and did not return until 1994 when he later ... he moved to Australia and he came to Australia as a skilled migrant on a skilled migrant visa. Between 2002 and 2004 he once again lived in Beirut. His memoir, Leave to Remain was published in 2009 and the following year it won a New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award. El-Zein is the author of several other books in English. He currently lives in Sydney and teaches engineering at the University of Sydney. Leave to Remain was published by University of Queensland Press.
Mariam Issa self-published A Resilient Life: One Woman’s Refugee Journey in 2012. It’s the only one of the six books I'm discussing tonight that is not in the National Library’s collection. Issa was born in 1968 in Somalia but grew up in Kenya. She fled Somalia after the Somali civil war broke out in 1991 and in 1998 she arrived in Australia on a humanitarian visa. She lives in Melbourne.
The book The Vastesi Lass is a biography, a biography of Maria Cicchillitti, authored by Alan Hardy and self-published last year. Cicchillitti was born in Italy in 1927, migrated to Australia in 1952 and for the past 62 years has lived in Bunbury in WA. There she established and ran a boarding house, a restaurant and a shop. Hers is a rags to riches story. Following her arrival in Australia she and her children lived for 18 months in a tent and then three decades later she had an investment portfolio with 11 houses.
And my last text is Vera: My Story, an autobiography of Vera Wasowski, the gorgeous woman whose picture is on the flyer advertising this lecture and this book is authored by her and award-winning and prolific biographer, Robert Hillman. Hillman wrote other memoirs of people who came to Australia as refugees including The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif with Hazara refugee Najaf Mazari, first released in 2008, and Shining about the life of Somali refugee, Abdi Aden which came out in 2015. Vera: My Story, was also published last year. Wasowski is Jewish and was born in 1934 in Lvov then a city in Poland. It’s now in the Ukraine. She survived the holocaust and unlike most survivors initially remained in Poland after the war. She migrated to Australia in 1958, lived for many years in Melbourne, worked initially as a seamstress and then as a producer on the ABC’s This Day Tonight and currently she lives in Byron Bay.
So we have two books from the 1970s and 1980s and four from the last 10 years, one Italian, one Hungarian, one Polish Jew, one German who would have been labelled non-Aryan Christian by the Australian immigration authorities when he arrived, one Lebanese and one Somali. Four of them came to Australia as refugees although only two, Adamson and Issa, were classified as such at the time. Neither Cicchillitti, who had only had two years of formal schooling, nor Adamson spoke any English when they arrived. At the other end of the spectrum El-Zein who had of course studied in the UK was already fluent in English when he arrived in Sydney in 1995. Four of the books are memoirs or autobiographies, one is an as told to autobiography, that is Vera, and one a biography. The mode of publication often determines a book’s readership. While none of the books has been widely read, Maria Cicchillitti’s self-published biography can be found in only one public library, namely the National Library, so this is the only publicly available copy in Australia.
Mariam Issa’s book is held by only five Australian libraries and Adamson’s Ausgerechnet Australien by only four. The English translation of Adamson’s book and Bozic’s Gather Your Dreams are held by fewer than 30 libraries each. Between 70 and 80 Australian libraries hold copies of Vera: My Story or Abbas El-Zein’s Leave to Remain.
When selecting the six books I tried to give you an idea of the diversity of authors and contexts and texts. It occurred to me only afterwards that my sample is unrepresentative not only because I found all six authors to be likeable. The women among them are all exceptionally strong, full of initiative, determined and tireless in their pursuits. Make of that what you will.
Six texts. Six migrants or rather seven. Having lived in Australia for more than half of my life and writing in a language other than the one I grew up with I’m admittedly drawn to some of these memoirs because they strike a chord. Thus sometimes when you’re referring to migrants, tonight I might use the first person plural. But don’t be alarmed, this is not a talk about me. Nor is it in the last instance a talk about migrants, about migrant identities or migrant selves. Here my work differs from most of what has been written about migrants and their creative output. I’m not so much interested in their texts or in them as migrants but rather in all of us as members of a society that includes a large proportion of people born overseas. I’m not even primarily interested in the specific subject matter of these books such as leaving, arriving, settling in. The thrust of my argument as will hopefully become apparent is concerned with Australia rather than with the migration experiences of Walter Adamson, Magda Bozic, Mariam Issa, Maria Cicchillitti, Abbas El-Zein and Vera Wasowski but before I develop my central argument I’ll share some more about the six books. All six are highly selective representations of their protagonists’ lives.
[Audio: Vera Wasowski]: When I read this book that is taking longer to write than War and Peace I know what I will think, I’ll think yes, I did that but so much more and the so much more isn’t here.
K: That’s Vera Wasowski talking.
[Audio: Vera Wasowski]: Such a ridiculous thing to contemplate, the book of Vera. Eighty thousand words and 18 photographs and this is supposed to represent a life of 80 years, to convey the essence of Vera to total strangers.
K: At least Wasowski’s upfront about the fact that much has been left out. Maria Cicchillitti’s life is well under 10,000. Surely that’s not all there is to 88 years of her life. Walter Adamson’s and Magda Bozic’s memoirs are also rather slim. Like several other memoirs written by migrants in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s they contain only sparse references to their pre-migration lives. Gather Your Dreams does not reveal anything about Bozic’s childhood and youth. We never learn when and where she was born. Many readers would have done what the author of the entry about Bozic in the AustLit database of Australian literature did, that is, make assumptions on the basis of her surname which she acquired when she married a Croatian migrant two years after her arrival in the Australia. If you can’t read that it says Magda Bozic, born 1926, ex-Yugoslavia.
Of the six books Walter Adamson’s Ausgerechnet Australien appears closest to fiction. The part of ... the first part of the book ... that is the part that was published previously as Das australische Einmaleins is about somebody called Anders. This name translates as other or different in English. Like Adamson, Anders who tells the story in the first person, arrived in Melbourne shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, worked as a butler and eventually joined the Australian army where he rose to the rank of sergeant and served as an interpreter in the 23rd Garrison Battalion that was tasked with guarding Italian POWs. The second part of Ausgerechnet Australien is set more than 20 years later. The narrator befriends Anders on ... while travelling by plane from Australia to Germany and the narrative is about both men’s journey and about the intervening years of Anders’ life which he then recounts to the narrator but by the end of the book the narrator suggests that actually he and Anders are the same person so it is somewhat confusing.
But does it really matter whether an autobiographical text contains fictional elements? In order to appreciate how somebody experienced migration, how she responded to Australia and how she maintained, lost or developed emotional attachments to all the new homes, we don’t need to know a wealth of factually correct details about her life.
Having said that, I believe that the gaps in somebody’s life narrative are actually very significant and here I don’t mean the fact that Bozic did not write about her first marriage and that Adamson chose not to mention his first wife who had accompanied him to Australia. But why is it that neither Bozic in Gather Your Dreams nor Adamson in Ausgerechnet Australien tell the reader much about their lives before their migration? As migrants who wrote in the 1970s and early 1980s, at least three decades after their arrival in Australia, they had successfully assimilated by blotting out this biographical circumstances that brought them to Australia in the first place and that had forced them to leave Europe. Elsewhere Adamson wrote extensively, albeit never in English, about the city where he was born but in his writings about his native Königsberg, the places he describes are frozen in time as if the progression of time had been arrested in 1938 when Adamson fled Germany.
Adamson and Bozic both identified foremost as migrants. The process of coming to terms with their adopted country was the obvious subject matter for their memoirs. At the time migrants who wrote about their pre-migration lives, sometimes exclusively so, did so in order to testify about the holocaust or about Stalinist repression. By the early 1990s that had changed. Very few of the autobiographical recollections published in the last 25 years are not also about their authors’ lives in their native countries, thus the books featuring the lives of Maria Cicchillitti, Abbas El-Zein, Wasowski and Mariam Issa are not only, and in the cases of El-Zein and Issa are not even predominantly, about Australia. El-Zein and Issa are not any less at home in Australia than Adamson and Bozic were but they are perhaps more comfortable with not having tried to become something else, somebody born in this country.
When Issa first arrived in Melbourne she was obsessed with integration. Now she says I'm rightfully my own being, my own self and I can live anywhere in the world now. When we think of migration we tend to think of gains, gains for the destination country and gains for the migrant. For the latter however migration is often also associated with losses. There is the loss of the ability to express one’s feeling and to name one’s surroundings without having to think twice about what to say. Let’s listen to Magda Bozic. If I can get this to work.
[Audio: Magda Bozic]: I am leaving behind the only language which was my strength and joy in life which made me communicate, which build bridges, which broke sometimes and blew up bridges as well. But it was all there all the time. It’s gone now, I left it behind. I am there naked so to speak in the world.
K: And let’s also listen to Abbas El-Zein.
[Audio: Abbas El-Zein]: Migrants survive by growing body parts, new ears and new eyes are perhaps the most valuable acquisitions. New tongues are much harder to come by.
K: And there is the loss of familiar faces, familiar physical environments and familiar cultural traits. That is a loss experienced by most migrants including those who had to flee their native countries. It is a loss that is often more acutely felt in the first few years in the new country when faces are unfamiliar and unreadable, the environment is experienced as hostile and the new countries’ cultural practices appear utterly bizarre. In Australia migrants are not expected to dwell on these losses. It is as if we are told surely Australia has enough to offer you newcomers to make you forget what you left behind? How do you like Australia? New arrivals are routinely asked and the answer to that question is presumed to be self-evident.
Migrants often find it difficult to convey to people in the new country but also to those back home that they have a conflicted relationship with the places they left behind. Sometimes they were hellholes to escape from but at the same time so much more interesting than anything Australia had to offer. Surely few places would have been more hellish than Beirut during the Lebanese civil war but then again:
[Audio: Abbas El-Zein]: Beirut was our city and no one could take this away from us. We lived in the precarious space that anarchy created between the ever-present possibility of violent death and a heightened sense of living. There was a social, even artistic intensity to our experience of the city generated no doubt by the chaotic energy of our 20s and the semipermanent state of war hanging over us.
[Audio: Vera Wasowski]: When I come to Australia people say, from Poland? Poor Vera, so backwards, so tedious, the Communists full of shit but you escaped. It is difficult to make such people understand and do I even have the patience for it? That the bars and nightclubs of Warsaw, those that I knew, where the scornful, the disdainful, the happy-go-lucky, the satirical went for consolation. They were places of excitement and spectacle.
K: I was born in the wrong country, a country where history runs amok at regular intervals, Magda Bozic wrote but she also remembered times in that same country when life was as sweet as acacia honey. And here is Magda Bozic again, this time talking to Caroline Jones first about the loss she experienced when emerging out of an air raid shelter after the bombing of Budapest and then when leaving Hungary to migrate to Australia:
[Audio: Magda Bozic]: And you really just weep and weep for a life that has gone forever, not your own personal property and not your life in the sense that well you won’t be rich or won’t be poor but the life of Budapest as it was in that few precious wonderful year that you have known before the war. When you think about the crisis points in life, well very often you really can’t put it in a tiny order and to say this is a crisis and put a red ribbon around it but really days like when you leave your country forever, when everybody says aren’t you lucky you were able to leave? And you want to say why am I lucky that I am able to leave the country I loved and never wanted to leave? Why? Why I have to be lucky for that?
K: Lucky, Abbas El-Zein is told by his dentist.
[Audio: Abbas El-Zein]: My dentist went on to inform me that I was one of the fortunate few among the multitudes who sought an Australian visa every year. Suddenly unwittingly my country of origin turned into a dark place that one could only escape from. The possibility that migration could be unlucky did not seem to have occurred to my dentist.
K: ‘Gather your dreams,’ Magda Bozic’s brother who had migrated to Australia in 1939, tells his family back in Budapest in 1945, encouraging them to follow him. These dreams are not about Australia. For very few migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds Australia was the place of their dreams. Often migrating to Australia was merely a better option than staying. That was the case for Maria and Nicola Cicchillitti, who saw no future for themselves in post-war Italy and made use of the fact that Maria’s brother had already settled in Western Australia and was thus able to sponsor them.
There is nothing in Adamson’s writings that reveals why he ended up in Australia of all places. It seems that he had no choice. He lets Anders say in his book, I was only an insignificant mound of dust in that gigantic cloud which once whirled up to the sky spread over the whole world to subside slowly and with faint tremors on distant continents. The speck came to rest more by accident than by design on Australian soil. It could just as easily have been some place else. That was also true for Mariam Issa and her family. Vera Wasowski came to Australia because her husband’s mother went there two years earlier.
[Audio: Vera Wasowski]: Why not Australia? Who has even heard of it? Kangaroos, that’s all we know. If not Israel, better we go to Australia. Am I happy? Maybe. Escaping from the Poles when they go crazy about Jews is good, of course it is but Australia is like another planet. Dear God, do I know what I am doing? Australia? What? Kangaroos? A man dressed in steel?
K: I suspect that Australia has never been an easy place to get used to. Non-British migrants who arrived before the 1990s were particularly appalled by the food on offer. They yearned for dishes and ingredients they associate with their old homes and like Marcel Proust, by remembering tastes and smells they recalled a past elsewhere.
[Audio: Abbas El-Zein]: Pomegranates carried more mystery than figs because of the rush of translucent grains when we snapped one open. It was more like a small treasure box than a fruit. We gobbled some of the grains and savoured others. We chewed at the soft pinkish envelope and were rewarded with the hard crispy seed.
K: Europe lived on in imperceptible ways in our attitudes and reactions to our own past and present and in our perception of Australia, Magda Bozic remembered, in more tangible ways. It lived on when we stretched the paper-thin dough for apple strudel and poured Turkish coffee in tiny cups.
[Audio: Vera Wasowski]: Everything was unusual in Australia in the 1950s. Presswurst was unusual. If you asked in a shop for presswurst they thought you were a Communist.
K: Now you already got the idea that this is a somewhat unusual lecture so we are going to have a brief intermission but please stay on your seats.
It’s like in the olden days in the cinema when you know the guys came ‘round to sell the ice-cream.
Thank you very much for your help with this. Now most of you would know that the little rolls that were just offered to you are called dolmades. When I first arrived in Canberra 31 years ago it may have been possible to buy them at the delicatessen at the Fyshwick Markets, but they would have been considered exotic. Now they are available in most supermarkets. Most dolmades you can buy here are labelled product of Greece and come out of a tin as do these. But dolmades have also become Australian, as Australian as spring rolls, kebabs, pizza, sushi, pasta, curries, nachos and bagels. And at least as Australian as white bread with Vegemite or meat with boiled pumpkin. Food travels easily. What most of us would associate with Greece and what is often imported from Greece, namely dolmades, was originally not a Greek dish but something brought to Greece from Asia Minor. In fact the word dolmades is Turkish.
‘Australia, may I introduce my happy family?’ Vera Wasowski writes.
[Audio: Vera Wasowski]: I bring you gifts, my clever brain, Jan’s ...
K: That’s her husband’s.
[Audio: Vera Wasowski]: Writing, Marek’s ...
K: That’s her son.
[Audio: Vera Wasowski]: ... sunny disposition.
K: The gift of Vera’s clever brain is not readily accepted and the fact that her husband, Yian, was one of Poland’s most talented journalists is lost on Australia. In Melbourne Yian made a living by working at the Holden car factory. We migrants are prone to complain that Australia does not make the most of our talents, of what we have to offer. Now if you don’t believe me just catch a cab and ask the driver. There is one important exception and that is food. The book about the life of Maria Cicchillitti consists of four parts, the first is about Vasto—that’s her home town in Italy—,the second and longest is her biography—that is her life story told chronologically from 1927 to 2015. The third is a short text about her vegie garden and the final section, and that’s 35 pages out of 108, is a collection of her recipes. That does not make The Vastesi Lass, her book, unusual. Many of the published recollections that I’ve read in the past 10 weeks include recipes of dishes associated with the author’s native home. There are also books that are primarily cookbooks but which then include autobiographical narrative so a good example is Cecile Yazbek’s Mezze to Milk Tart.
The dishes and ingredients that migrants bring to Australia are eventually appropriated. The bland cuisine that offended Bozic, Cicchillitti and Wasowski has long been replaced. Stories travel as easily as recipes and ingredients. Histories and memories are particular kinds of stories, maybe they are less mobile than other stories yet they too travel even across borders as jealously guarded as Australia’s. And migrants’ memories and histories are increasingly appreciated but not as Australian memories and histories.
I’m not the first to draw the connection between the internationalisation of Australian cuisine and Australian history. In a wonderful article published in Australian Historical Studies in 2002, cultural historian Hsu-Ming Teo noticed that fusion literature, the equivalent of Australia’s celebrated fusion cuisine was emerging in Australia. She asked could it be that one trajectory for Australian history might also see a future in fusion with other world histories?
Now let me take this idea a little bit further but first ... oops ... first we ought to ask why such a future might be desirable. Vera Wasowski, Abbas El-Zein and Mariam Issa may have become Australian citizens a long time ago but they always remain immigrants. We immigrants never quite belong. ‘To this my land I’ve come too late’, Adamson writes in his 1963 poem, ‘The Immigrant’, in the Australian Women’s Weekly. ‘I came too late to be one of your own.’ Part of us always sits outside Australia, that’s not least because the concept of Australia is that of a territorial bounded nation state. You may say of course it is, what basis could there be for our nation other than a geographically defined country? But is it so self-evident that Australia and its history are defined by what happened either within the borders of a territorially bounded nation or outside of those borders as long as the agents of history could be firmly tied to the territorial bounded nation because of their prior strong association with that nation?
When my son went to primary school in Melbourne he had to study two chapters of Australian history ad nauseum. The gold rush—an example of something that happened within the borders of a territorially bounded nation—and the landing at Gallipoli—an example of something Australian that happened outside those borders. He was also asked to draw a family tree and a map that showed where he and his family had come from but at no point was there any suggestion that what he was drawing could be part of Australian history in the same way in which the memory of a great-grandfather’s traumatic tales of Gallipoli is. I’m suggesting tonight that we entertain the idea of Australian history also being the cumulative history of all those who are living on this continent today, the cumulative history of all those living on this continent today.
Such a cumulative history is not the equivalent of fusion cuisine. The fusion cuisine that informs the menus in many Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney restaurants is not unique to Australia. Maybe in another 20 or 30 years the world’s cuisines fuse to the extent that there is just one global cuisine. Maria Cicchillitti, when including recipes in her book, had no interest in contributing to a fusion cuisine. The dishes she is offering to her readers as a gift are from a very specific place, Vasto in the Abruzzi and they have been tried out many times, not in Vasto but in Bunbury, Western Australia by a woman from Vasto who migrated to Western Australia in 1952. Global history’s important and so is the internationalisation of Australian history but what I have in mind is very specific because it pays attention to the very specific makeup of the society that inhabits this country.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Australia did not readily accept histories and memories of pasts that could not be conceived as part of its national history and Adamson and Bozic weren’t game to try inflicting memories of their pre-migration lives on an Australian audience. That’s also because many of their memories would not have been pretty. Adamson sensed that his readers might embrace a humorous account of a migrant’s attempt to find his feet in unfamiliar surroundings, not unlike that told by the fake migrant, Nino Culotta in They’re a Weird Mob, the 1957 book which served as a blueprint for many memoirs written by actual migrants. But Adamson would have also been aware that his audience would not have wanted to be told in much detail about the fate of his relatives in Nazi Germany.
And here the analogy between food and recipes comes unstuck. Histories and memories don’t have to pass muster at Masterchef or My Kitchen Rules. Here is Vera once more:
[Audio: Vera Wasowski]: Australia, may I introduce my happy family? I bring you gifts, my clever brain, Jan’s writing, Marek’s sunny disposition. Also some less welcome cargo stored in a dark cellar of my memory, Germans in black uniforms and polished boots that come up almost to their knees, a line of small children stands before the Germans. I am not in the line of children, I am hidden away but I am watching. It is the watching that I bring with me.
K: And let’s hear Mariam Issa as well. Sorry, I hope I get this to go.
[Audio: Mariam Issa]: I guess and I went with the children to a park that is very close to our home and there was fireworks there so I think that moment I was really literally taken back ...
[Audio: Waleed Aly] : Oh wow.
[Audio: Mariam Issa]... home and it was so amazing to me how the same you know experience could have two different effects for different people.
[Audio: Waleed Aly]: And such opposite effects.
[Audio: Mariam Issa] Such opposite effects, yeah, the kids were enjoying it, other people were enjoying it but for me it was kind of a chaos and I was taken back to the you know back in Somalia and it really started to you know open wounds that I thought I’d forgotten.
[Audio: Waleed Aly]: Yeah ...
K: Now the guy why says yeah, that’s not me, that’s the guy who won the Logie.
If I wanted to become an Australian citizen I would have to pass the citizenship test. I would be able to so, I’m told, if only I read the book, Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond, carefully. That book was published by the Immigration Department in 2014. This booklet tells me about Australian history and here history is understood to be the accepted narrative of a territorially bounded nation state. Now I don’t have an issue with learning about that, and to some extent identifying with that history as long ... because I'm a long-term Australian resident so I accept that some of that history, the history told in this book put out by the Immigration Department, warts and all, has also become my history.
Many Australians from migrant backgrounds were among those who walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in May 2000 to demand that the Government apologise to the stolen generations. When Kevin Rudd did apologise in 2008 I took my then eight-year-old son who was born in New Zealand to non-Australian parents to Melbourne’s Federation Square to witness the apology. I thought it was important to do so and so did he.
Take your mind back to the dolmades. You tried them, you ingested them, you might even have savoured them although believe me homemade dolmades, which you can buy in Melbourne but not in Canberra, are much better. You didn’t need to commit to anything when eating them and even if you don’t like dolmades you have to agree that Australia has been a better place since olive oil is sold in shops other than pharmacies and coffee is made from coffee beans.
In her book Mariam Issa relates a story about the first time her son brought an Australian friend home. She fed the two boys but was very worried that her food was not appropriate for her son’s friend to the extent that she then apologised the next day to the friend’s mother. She need not have worried. After that my kitchen turned into a popular African joint, she writes, and I fed a new child every week. This was the beginning of a connection with the Brighton community. Mariam Isser lives in Brighton, is probably the only black person to do so. She later started a business, which is called Cook With Mariam.
Issa’s book could be called Remember With Mariam. I suggest we may want to try reading some for the memoirs written by migrants as if the stories they are telling are something to ingest rather than something to marvel at. Histories and memories as food rather than as exotic costumes that migrants are expected to wear to prove how multicultural Australia is.
Now I’ve come to the end of my lecture. Thank you very much for your patience and attention. Now let the real Vera have almost the last word. I just ... I thought it’s important that you know what she sounds like.
[Audio: Geraldine Doogue]: Pleasure to welcome Vera to the program on the phone from her home in Byron Bay. Welcome, Vera.
[Audio: Vera Wasowski]: Welcome, thank you very much.
K: Now this is the end of my lecture. You are allowed to clap...
Almost, because I’m not quite finished yet, so bear with me for another couple of minutes. First I would like you to join me in thanking Michelle Arrow, aka Abbas El-Zein, and Michael Piggott, aka Vera Wasowski.
Now for the commercials. Make sure to come back on 24 May, same place, same time, for Michelle Arrow’s lecture, “Private lives, public politics: the 1970s in Australia”. The National Library has a good bookshop, and not only does it sell Across the Seas, it also has copies of Vera Wasowski and Robert Hillman’s fabulous book in stock. It opens tomorrow at 10. And if an hour’s lecture is not enough for you, come to the Street Theatre tomorrow evening, where I’ll talk to a bunch of artists and Radio National’s Paul Barclay about the global refugee crisis.
Finally: I suggest that there are two key drivers in post-1788 Australian history, which have influenced the direction taken by this country more so than any other: the first is indigenous dispossession, and the second is immigration. Immigration, and not the ANZACs’ landing at Gallipoli, transformed Australia, and keeps transforming it. It is therefore surprising that Australia does not have a national institution devoted to understanding and documenting and commemorating immigration. In a city full of all sorts of monuments, there is no memorial dedicated to Australia’s immigration history other than the SIEV X memorial in Weston Park. The National Library of Australia could well be the national cultural institution to fill that gap. Over the past ten weeks, I have had conversations with Library staff about collecting material related to immigration, and about how to make that material accessible. But some of our conversations were necessarily purely academic, because the Library is hardly in a position to launch new programs. Thanks to relentless applications of the infamous efficiency dividend, the library has been starved of funds, particularly funds to employ staff. That is nothing short of scandalous. This is a nation that can apparently afford to shell out 50 billion dollar for new submarines, but it can’t ensure that the National Library’s staff levels are at least maintained at a time when its collection continues to grow, and the digital age poses new challenges. If you share my sense of outrage, then please make some noise in the appropriate places.
[End of recording]
*Speaker's correction: Anh Do's book is The Happiest Refugee.