Published to coincide with Australia Day, Joyful Strains is a collection of 27 short memoirs, edited by Kent MacCarter and Ali Lemer, written by authors from a diverse range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds who have chosen to call Australia home.
Writers include Maria Tumarkin, Michael Sala, Paolo Totaro,Chi Vu, Ouyang Yu, Ali Alizadeh and Hsu-Ming Teo, while countries of origin include Turkey, Cambodia, Russia, Vietnam, Lebanon, China, Iran, Fiji and Croatia.
J.M. Coetzee says of the collection: "These 27 little essays, some of them gems of the memoirist's art, vary in tone from the affectionate to the bitter to the hilariously funny to the probingly intelligent."
Two such gems are Alice Pung's Stealing from Little Saigon and the University of WA's Samina Yasmeen's Tape and Memory.
Pung, whose parents emigrated from Cambodia to Australia before she was born in Footscray, is a writer, lawyer and teacher who grew up in Braybrook and went to school in the western suburbs of Melbourne. She is the author of Her Father's Daughter and Unpolished Gem, as well as the editor of Growing Up Asian in Australia. Yasmeen, who was born in Pakistan, is director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies and lectures in political science and international relations at UWA.
In Stealing from Little Saigon, Pung writes about an incident of shoplifting in Melbourne's Little Saigon Market, where her mother shops twice a week. "While my mother was trying to buy some spinach, there was a loud yell. My mother looked towards the nectarine trestle table and saw that a cleaver-wielding man, eyes popping like a dybbuk, had grabbed hold of the wrist of a petrified young Indian woman with a long braid down her back. "Thief! Thief!" he hollered.
By contrast, Yasmeen writes movingly of listening to a cassette tape her mother and brother recorded and sent to her a month after she arrived in Canberra as a student in 1979. "Hearing Mum's voice, Nadeem's reportage of my other two siblings, Ghalib and Ghazala, and Dad's short sentences made me laugh. I remembered the sense of dislocation I'd felt all those years ago when I heard this tape for the first time, and I realised a little more about the woman I have grown up to be."
"When I write about growing up in my community you get a sense of each person having the same human emotions as everyone else," says Pung on the line from Melbourne.
"If I had started writing about culture or broader themes like race or ethnicity, it would have touched on the surface only."
The shoplifting incident, Pung realised, provided the perfect way to explore similarity and difference. "Anybody would feel angry if they owned a shop and someone shoplifted," Pung says. "But how they react shows the culture and class they come from."
Asked about her experience growing up in Australia, she recalls the diverse yet insular nature of Melbourne's western suburbs.
"It's a very tribal place in as much as each suburb is a culture in itself," she says. "I grew up in an immigrant community - Italians, South-East Asians, Africans. I grew up thinking most people were brown and yellow because that's who I saw. It was only when I reached university I realised there was a middle class of Australia that is predominantly white."
Pung also agrees it's hard to pin down an Australian identity. "I don't know what it would be. We have trouble with defining our national anthem, our flag. Much of what we are has been defined more by what we're not."
Yasmeen however has less of a problem doing so. "When an issue comes up we automatically assume we have rights and we can stand up for those rights," she says as we sit in the University Club's restaurant at UWA. "There's an assumption that we can go and make those demands as a citizen. An assumption of justice. That unites us. That's a language.
"We talk about ethnic diversity. I think it should be ethnic richness. The cultural and ethnic wealth that we have - that's us."
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