Reflections on the Deborah Cass writing prize

books

 

When I first came to Australia to study I was confronted with a new term: Asian. Having grown up in Hong Kong, where Chinese culture was considered distinct from Japanese or Thai or Filipino culture, I found this attempt at homogenising a heterogeneous group somewhat troubling.

Nowadays Asians are lumped in with an even larger and more diverse group— that of migrants. Politicians, journalists and some members of the general public throw this word around with reckless abandon (not to mention little respect for the enormously heterogeneous group it refers to). Depending on who you talk to, the word migrant can be used to encompass refugees, economic migrants, skilled migrants, first generation migrants, second generation migrants, English speaking migrants, CALD migrants—all of whom have roots and origins in different corners of the globe. This “lumping” creates an artificial line in the sand. It perpetuates an “us” and “them” mentality, which is convenient for many political agendas.

But it’s not all bad. Because it is also true that there is commonality between migrants, regardless of their countries of origin. They are united in their experience of having to adapt to a new home. And they understand the “otherness” and “isolation” that this adjustment necessarily brings.

Earlier this month I attended the announcement of the First winner of Deborah Cass Prize for Writing. On this night we celebrated tales inspired by the migrant experience—the dislocation, the hope, the nostalgia, the longing. As of June 2014, 28.1% of Australia’s population was born overseas. One need only spend ten minutes people-watching at a tram stop in Melbourne’s CBD to appreciate this country’s diversity. And yet, such diversity is still not reflected in our literature or on our screens. At the Deborah Cass prize ceremony Alice Pung reflected on how, not long ago, a memoir like hers might have been buried on a shelf with other “ethnic literature” when really her story, an Australian story, should have been displayed with all the other Australian books.

But why, you ask, is this so important? I need only refer you to the beautiful, heartfelt piece written by Joon-Yee Kwok and published at Peril Magazine. In it, Kwok describes her delight at watching SBS’s The Family Law and seeing a family so similar to her own, reflected on prime time Australian TV. I felt it too. Because, more than just the novelty and thrill of seeing a Chinese story, the series, and its success, is yet one more layer of social inclusion and acceptance.

It is through shows like The Family Law, awards like the Deborah Cass prize and initiatives like #WeNeedDiverseBooks that migrants will find their voices and tell their stories. And we will all be richer for it. If you need proof, just read Buona fortuna by Moreno Giovannoni, the winner of the Deborah Cass Prize for Writing.

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