Escaping from suburbia is the story I’ve heard many people tell over the years, but it’s never been a story that I relate to. For me, the suburbs represent refuge, even precious culture, as they do for many others. After all, the mass migrations of the twentieth century brought with them the multicultural transformations of countless Australian suburbs. So where I feel most at home is Sydney’s south-western suburbs; at home as I could ever feel in Australia, anyway.
Growing up I struggled to maintain much interest in ‘Australian culture’—whatever that was—let alone aspiring to be involved with it. Through an accident of birth this was home and being part of a family displaced by war was challenging, to say the least. Books provided an important escape, and I was particularly drawn to those featuring misfits in search of better worlds. My childhood reading was never about Australia, so the three books I’ve chosen are ones discovered in later adulthood. In recent years I’ve been particularly preoccupied with suburbia as I plan a move back west with a husband and child in tow.
Chi Vu, Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale (2012)
Only once during my early years of reading did I come across a book with a Vietnamese protagonist trying to deal with life in Australia. The book was called Onion Tears, a lauded young adult novel by Diana Kidd. I’m not sure what I’d make of it now but I liked it back then. Australian writing has since changed with an increasing number of books by writers from the Vietnamese diaspora, and the most important one to me is Anguli Ma, a profound and deeply resonant account of a common past. Anguli Ma is a novella about a group of Vietnamese refugees in suburban Melbourne in the 1980s, living in a house much like any other. However, it’s a subdivided home with all sorts under the same roof. On the face of it, the house looks like a subversion of the so-called Australian dream; but perhaps such arrangements were not unlike the boarding houses of old. These residents may never have crossed paths back in the old country but here they’re adrift, gravitating towards each other out of loneliness and financial insecurity.
Rendered as a gothic tale, the story unfolds in a seemingly insular and frightening world populated with named and unnamed demons. There’s a strong sense of the spiritual realm—specifically Buddhist—and the material aspects of Australia are wholly unable to bring comfort. ‘Seeing these objects made Đao realise more keenly how she had been reduced. All the things in her house, collected and cluttered together with all of her concentration and effort, had no story or meaning to her. The furniture, the modern appliances, the boxes of clean good scrap fabric, the plastic containers—all evoked nothing inside her’. To understand the precariousness of refugee resettlement in the early years, Anguli Ma is essential. Many readers will find it bewildering and even alienating, but it captures fundamental truths I’ve not seen elsewhere.
At the very start of the story, Đao asks the question of the stranger at her doorstep: ‘Where is your quê?’ My father knew I would inevitably be asked this one day, so he coached me years ago as to how to answer it. Quê is your native place, where you’re really from. Before Sydney, there was Sài Gòn; before Sài Gòn, there was Sa Đéc, though Sa Đéc is a rural town my father visited only a handful of times himself. I thought of this Vietnamese question whenever an Aboriginal colleague from Gamilaroi country asked the same of locals as we travelled through central New South Wales; but for so many of us defining our quê is problematic. Our rootless suburban lives are a poor substitute for connection to country, but it’s all we have now. So being from a refugee background and a visible minority, it’s easy to become defined by displacement. However, that’s just one part of the story.
Geraldine Brooks, Foreign Correspondence (1997)
In another retelling of my life I grew up in a suburban idyll, my childhood not entirely atypical because the wider culture found ways to seep in and life was full of curiosities. Of the many memoirs I’ve read about growing up in Australia, it’s Foreign Correspondence by Geraldine Brooks I relate to most. Perhaps I connect to her in a way that’s similar to how Christos Tsiolkas describes his connection to Patrick White: ‘… despite these differences of time, history and cultural roots, there is something in White’s attraction to, and resentment of, his colonial status that links him to me.’ She and I are, however, not as distant as all that. Brooks was one of the first writers I ever interviewed as a student editor at the sandstone university that she had attended almost three decades earlier.
So many vestiges of the slow-moving world of the 1960s and 1970s that Brooks recounts in her memoir—which I read long after our interview—lingered in my own childhood before the internet upturned it all. We grew up Catholic in different versions of postwar Australia. She also grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney, a place she describes as having ‘neither the postcard beauty of the dramatic coast nor the lonely drama of the outback’. We developed similar interests in Star Trek, the Jewish diaspora, learning French—although I was well aware of it being a coloniser’s language—and wrote letters to penpals on the other side of Sydney and across the globe. Later, we would even live in some of the countries our correspondence had come from. Whereas Brooks eventually left for good, I kept returning after each stint abroad, feeling that it was imperative for me to have roots somewhere. But much like her, I also absorbed Australia’s ever-present cultural cringe. In Foreign Correspondence I recognise her intense longing for the world beyond, even though our desires for elsewhere ostensibly stemmed from different causes.
Brooks’ discursive exploration of suburban life involves reckoning with her own discomfort about its more banal aspects. But as she notes, ‘while I was so busy writing away in search of foreigners, the world was arriving on my street’. These newcomers sparked her interest as they came from dangerous and exciting places, even though she also looked down on them for moving to such a cultural backwater. By the time I was growing up in another part of Sydney’s western suburbs, I was part of a more cosmopolitan scenario. For the first decade or so of my life I didn’t have a strong sense of a very white Australia—to be honest, Anglos didn’t interest me that much, though I was interested in England. I was more intrigued by the encounters I had with people from exotic locales such as Italy, Japan, Croatia, Lebanon, India—places I would eventually get to, but when I was stranded in the suburbs those places felt impossibly distant. It’s only when Brooks becomes a foreign correspondent that she comes to understand how the sunlit and peaceful suburban life she left is what so many parts of the world aspire to.
Donald Horne, The Lucky Country (1964)
Donald Horne seemed to realise what the suburbs represented long before Brooks arrived at a similar conclusion. In The Lucky Country he describes Australia as ‘the world’s first suburban nation’ and mounts a spirited defence, stating that ‘almost all Australian writers—whatever their politics—are reactionaries whose attitude to the massive diversities of suburban life is to ignore it or condemn it rather than discover what it is’. There’s little I can add to the many wonderful and critical accounts of The Lucky Country that already exist. I can only offer a personal rejoinder to say it’s a book that’s been a real comfort given I haven’t always felt included and, even when I have been included, am not so sure I even want to be.
As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t always interested in Anglo Australia—and, by extension, white Australia—then found myself up against the dominant culture when I started working at the ABC at the age of 30. So The Lucky Country has been an important read, filling in the gaps in my own understanding of Australia and particularly the histories of the ruling class(es). It’s both an enlightening and damning account, and I laughed all the way through the book—even recognising my own Australianness in the process.
Around the time I read The Lucky Country, I also read Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From by Tim Soutphommasane, a singular book outlining Australia’s unique blend of multiculturalism. But I had to choose The Lucky Country because more than 50 years after publication, it’s still full of keen insight. Only someone with insider access could have written it—the same way only someone like Vu could have written Anguli Ma. As an independent thinker, Horne was trying to describe a different future for a country ‘between Britain and America’ (it still is) and ‘run mainly by second-rate people’ (it still is). He described the racist foundations and understood the value of diversity—and Asia—‘to help break up the English influence’. But Horne goes even further by saying that ‘the future holds dramatic possibilities for Australia which may necessarily include racial change, that this is Australia’s “destiny”’. His prediction came to pass with the way migrants arrived en masse from Asia and elsewhere, complicating suburbia, where ‘the entire range of human comedy and tragedy has its play’. •
Sheila Ngoc Pham is a writer, producer and broadcaster. She is a PhD candidate at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation and lectures in public health ethics at Macquarie University.