Australian Migration and Literature - An Odyssey

Recently I had the good fortune to put together an independent study with a student - Michael - enrolled at the center. He needed to take a course in Australian literature so I helped him out. His need, however, was not so straight forward, he wanted to read "Australian migration literature."

After consulting several colleagues, a couple of websites and journals I came up with some book suggestions that would bring the him into contact with Australian migration literature.  Of course, an awful lot of Australian literature comes from migrants, starting with the journals of Watkin Tench and going forward.  So, I suggested some parameters.  The literature had to be post World War II.  The process of migration itself, or the experience of being a migrant had to be an obvious feature, or the author's experience was deeply informed by their own migrant experience.  With that in mind Michael and I negotiated over what to read.

We decided to read George Papaellinas's The Trip.  It recounts the story of Odysseus, or Oddy as he prefers, and his experiences in Australia.  Drawing on the obvious parallel with the Odyssey, Papaellinas tours Australian history through the eyes of a grumpy Greek migrant.  Following The Trip we read Cafe Scheherazade, the story of Jewish holocaust survivors and their tale of escaping Europe to come to Australia.  They recreate a small corner of their Europe in a small Melbourne cafe.  It is a powerful and moving story convincingly told by Arnold Zable.  Michael and I agreed that we could not leave outRemembering Babylon by David Malouf.  It's the story of Gemmy, a 19 year old British boy, raised in the bush by aboriginies after falling from a British ship.  Gemmy meets newly arrived colonists but he bears little resemblance at first blush to his former British self, but reveals his himself by crying "Do not shoot. I am a B-b-British object."  Malouf's story is a powerful commentary on identity, community and boundaries -- the very things encountered by migrants. 

A fourth book we read was Oh, Lucky Country, by Rosa R Cappiello, which recounts the experiences of a group of Italian women newly moved to Sydney.  Originally written in Italian for the Italian market it provides a fascinating view of Australia through the eyes of a young migrant writer.  Unlike the works of Papaellinas, Zable or Malouf, Cappiello's tale is almost anthropological in detail and experience. 

Finally, Michael and I read Name Le's The Boat.  Unlike the preceding works most of the short stories that make up The Boat take place outside of Australia.  Name Le draws on his experience as a migrant to Australia to inform his tales.  His powerful language evokes strong emotion.  As with all the other authors we read Name Le calls on irony as only an Australian could. 

Taken together the five books proved to be a great primer on Australian migrant writing.  Of course, other books and authors could have been added, but Michael and I both have marked out the ground for later reading.  Happy trails.