A Burns Philp general store was my childhood gateway to the world. My parents were based in Kavieng, the main town on the island of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea. The general store commandeered the main street, providing expatriates with some basic comforts from overseas. It was also the only place on the island that stocked books. Amongst the jumble of shelves displaying canned food, processed cheese and tins of powdered milk, was a solitary, somewhat lopsided, arrangement of idiosyncratic titles. Restocking of this shelf was haphazard. But whenever it was replenished, I pleaded with Mum to spend a portion of her housekeeping money on a new book for me.
I blindly emulated the characters I read about: Caddie Woodlawn, Pollyanna and Dorothy (from The Wizard of Oz) to name a few. Looking back, I recognise Christopher Myers’ description—the ‘apartheid of children’s literature‘—influencing me in my corner of Kavieng. In short, it created a delusion that I was white. Unable to realistically recognise myself in any of the stories, I opted to mimic the white protagonists and identify as the majority; this parody had more value despite its inaccuracy.
The illusion vaporised when I left the tropical backwater and continued with my father (an intrepid physician) on his winding journey across the globe. Eventually, we arrived in Australia and settled in Ballarat; this is where I first observed that what was significant was not how I viewed myself but how the Western world surveyed me—namely, as a person who was not White. Undoubtedly this explains why stories and characters where identity, the search for and understanding of it, move me.
The most persuasive aspect of reading memoirs by people of colour is to hear a voice that resonates. In The Magical Language of Others, EJ Koh extends the boundaries of traditional memoir to include her mother’s and grandmothers’ past, as well as her own. During adolescence, Koh’s parents returned to Korea for work, leaving Koh and her older brother to fend for themselves in America. Although the book is structured around letters between Koh and her mother, Koh also draws on her grandmothers’ stories to build her identity. Her paternal grandmother’s family had moved to Japan from Korea during Japan’s annexation of Korea. Kumiko was born in Shinjuku. Consequently, she grew up believing that she was Japanese. Jun, her maternal grandmother is a comparatively ostentatious and unstable character, who had an acrimonious relationship with Koh’s mother. By interweaving her grandmothers’ histories into the memoir, Koh creates an additional dimension to her story.
In contrast, Nadia Owusu writes in Aftershocks that ‘I write toward truth, but my memory is prone to bouts of imagination. Others remember events differently. I can only tell my version’. She goes on to say that she struggles with where to place herself in her family history. Owusu writes about her experience growing up across continents and cultures and in a dysfunctional home environment. Unlike EJ Koh, she focuses solely on her narrative, and this in itself is poignant. Although very different memoirs, both reinforce the notion that people are their stories.
Jhumpa Lahiri, in her memoir In Other Words (originally written in Italian), says that she writes to ‘tolerate myself. To get closer to everything that is outside of me’. Lahiri uses language to explore identity. ‘Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere’, she says. Yet she also observes, hopefully, that ‘the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable’.
I discovered that my childhood saviour, Burns Philp, was built, in part, on the back of the shameful practice of ‘blackbirding’—the labour trading of Pacific Islanders, frequently by force, deception or kidnapping, between the 1860s and the early 1900s. Like me until recently, there is limited awareness in the mainstream Australian public that blackbirding even occurred in Australia. It is ironic that a company with a history such as that of Burns Philp, aided and abetted my naive childhood delusions of identity. I tend to overuse the word irony. The problem with my tendency, particularly in this context, is that the reality was—indeed is—shocking.
Elisa Gabbert in her essay collection The Unreality of Memory and Other Essays writes about ‘The Mandela Effect’—the ‘theory that a collective false memory is evidence of a crossing or merging of parallel universes’. Whilst this idea is intriguing, what is more interesting to me is her discussion of collective memory when ‘the referent is real and verifiable, a part of our own lived past’. To me, this is much like the history of Burns Philp. Gabbert concludes that irrespective of how established the facts may be, ‘simply questioning history seems to alter collective perception of history’. So, if our understanding of the past is questionable then what so of our present?
In Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep, Seo-Young Chu postulates that ‘cognitively estranging referents are growing more and more prevalent…the referents that constitute our everyday reality are growing progressively estranging’. She provides the example of ‘Global climate change [being] more cognitively estranging than yesterday’s local weather’. Even though her ideas centre around science fiction, I can’t help but think about how this notion of estrangement applies to people of colour in our everyday lives.
Matthew Salesses’ novel Disappear Doppelganger Disappear illustrates this sense of disaffection with the world, particularly for people of colour. Matt Kim, the main protagonist, is a Korean adoptee, divorced and ambivalent about life, living in Boston. He discovers that he has a doppelganger named Matt Chung. The latter has led a more prosperous life in a parallel reality. Matt Kim finds a yellow thread that enables him to travel to the parallel world where his counterpart is missing. Matt Kim strives to be better by travelling back and forth between the worlds, even at the cost of losing his identity (as Matt Kim). He says, ‘I was disappearing not through failing to appear but by dismantling the appearance of my life’. Salesses’ allegory of doppelgangers and multiple realities confronts some of the racial identity issues faced by people of colour. It raises the question—is there any reality which could rectify inequalities?
Disappearance is also a theme in Yōko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police. A pandemic of disappearance and forgetting overcomes the inhabitants of an unnamed island. An autocratic regime—the memory police—promulgates the condition. Physical items vanish overnight followed by the loss of the memory of those items. And finally, the inhabitants even forget the memory of remembering the lost things. The citizens resign themselves to the disappearances. ‘People—and I am no exception—seem capable of forgetting almost anything.’ Those few people who fail to forget attempt to conceal their mutation, and go into hiding. They are considered fugitives by the memory police who relentlessly hunt them down to eradicate them. The unnamed narrator, a novelist, writes about disappearance in her novels, including her current work about a typist whose voice is disappearing. The narrator is subconsciously processing reality on the island via her fiction. Her editor—referred to as R—is someone who does not forget. The novelist shelters him in a secret room, much like Giep Mies did with Anne Frank and her family. She continues working on her manuscript—with encouragement from R—as the pandemic gradually overcomes her. There are many captivating layers to Ogawa’s story. An interesting notion is that the inhabitants have undergone the ultimate forgetting—the sense that there is no end. So, even when faced with the truth of her reality, the narrator cannot imagine it.
Back to me and my early years. By the time I was 15, I had lived in four different countries.
Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem coined a term for people like me: ‘third culture kids’ (‘TCKs’). David Pollock popularised the phrase: ‘an individual who, having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than a parents’ culture, develops a sense of relationship to all of those cultures while not having ownership in any’. According to Pollock, TCKs are rootless.
In Home, Salman Rushdie comments that:
to explain why we become attached to our birthplaces we pretend that we are trees and speak of roots. Look under your feet. You will not find gnarled growths sprouting through your feet. Roots, I sometimes think, are a conservative myth, designed to keep us in our places.
Another sociologist, John Clausen, wrote that when individuals relayed their life story, they create a narrative consistent with the now; the past is reinterpreted in light of their present. Some academics examining belonging and identity in TCKs believe that they too edit their past to create a story consistent with their present. As a TCK, I can’t help but think that this is too simplistic and perhaps a Western-centric interpretation.
Rushdie says he’s ‘dealing with a past that refuses to be suppressed, that is daily doing battle with the present’. He continues that he has ‘some urge to reclaim, to look back even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt’.
Gradually, I have become more comfortable with the notion that I do not need to have a home to belong and do not need to belong to have an identity.
Sayaka Murata’s recent novel, Earthlings, examines a character’s identity and sense of belonging from a whole new perspective. Natsuki’s extended family come together every summer at her grandparents’ home for Obon (the Japanese festival of honouring ancestors). The story opens with Natsuki’s family driving to the ancestral home. The beginning is very atmospheric, in no way an indication of the darkness that follows. The first part, told from 11-year-old Natsuki’s POV, captures prepubescent Natsuki’s misery growing up. She is misunderstood by her family and friends as well as being the victim of a sexually abusive teacher. Natsuki identifies only with her cousin Yuu, who too is struggling emotionally in a single-parent home. Both youngsters feel a kinship in their alienation, and it is this sense of estrangement that forms the basis for their adulthood dysfunction, which reaches a peak in the second part of the novel. Natsuki, now an adult, is in a marriage of convenience with Tomoya. Both consider society as a collective ‘baby factory’ and themselves as outsiders. Reunited with Yuu, they develop a collective delusion that they are aliens by virtue of what they are not—namely, breeding humans. Initially, their revolt against society is relatively mild. However, the trio ultimately removes all social guardrails resulting in a narrative akin to a grisly cross between Lord of the Flies and the 1990’s arthouse film The Last Supper.
I can’t help but think of alternative scenarios for my life. As a child, what if I had lived in a less remote place? Not moved so often? Or grown up in a different time? It is still unlikely that I would have encountered children’s literature that resonated with my experience. As with adult works, the reality is disturbing when it comes to the percentage of children’s stories about people of colour, written by people of colour.
The world still prioritises and normalises certain stories: ‘White’ stories. This normativity remains unchallenged.
In The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli puts forward a physicist’s understanding of time—namely, that it is multifactorial and that there really is no true time. He describes how time is relative—it passes at different speeds depending on location and movement. Most fascinating is that time is not linear, and at a microscopic level, the past and future are no different. According to Rovelli, ‘the difference between the past and the future refers only to our own blurred vision of the world’. He asks the question ‘can the world really be so profoundly different from our perception of it as this?’ Rovelli also proposes that the world is made up of a collection of events as opposed to things; he describes stones—the most ‘thing-like’ of things—as ‘nothing more than long events’. So, can we adjust time, for ourselves, by altering our perception of these ‘collective events’?
As readers, we tend to forget the role we play in stories—namely, that the reader has power. We often believe that the mere act of reading (just as watching a movie) is impartial. Yet readers are responsible for perpetuating stories. If the past and future are the same at an atomic level, then I choose to change time a little, one title at a time, and I encourage you to do the same.