Matthew da Silva reviews Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia by Samia Khatun
Australianama: the South Asian Odyssey in Australia
by Samia Khatun
Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA
Samia Khatun takes a tack pioneered by Peter Drew, an Australian who made posters labelled with the word “Aussie” and featuring a migrant cameleer. He wrote about the development of his art practice in ‘Poster Boy: A Memoir of Art and Politics,’ (2019). It’s a slightly confused account of a life spent looking for battles to fight. Khatun fights her own battle but uses different language and aims stronger barbs at a long-absent colonial power.
As though every question in life might be answered satisfactorily by apportioning blame. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a Jewish author whom Indians cherish as one of their own, uses instead of incisive academic prose the language of sentiment filtered through a screen of humour.
Perhaps their twin aims are not running in parallel, but instead intersect – such as here, now. Khatun provides a much-needed lens through which to view South Asians in Australia in the colonial period. I was enchanted by the propriety of giving voice to such subaltern figures as a Pakistani merchant or an Indian peddler. The “lascars” – South Asian seamen used in the period following the abolition of slavery to crew steamships – also figure prominently in Khatun’s narrative, offering different ways to see White Australia and the developing form of nationalism Khatun acknowledges multiculturalism to be.
Given all these qualifications, how accessible is her book? Who might buy and read it? Is it a book for the general trade market or is it, rather, a work that must lie within the ambit of academic circles? I think that, as in the case of its focus, it is an intersectional work that can fit into multiple settings, much like a designer handbag or a 4-wheel-drive automobile. It will feel just as “right” if you carry such an accessory with jeans or with a Chanel suit. Similarly, with a modern 4-wheel-drive SUV, it looks fine in a CBD carpark or out on the open road climbing up a steep incline among trees with peeling bark that are filled with the sounds of cicadas.
Khatun’s register is elevated and her concern is, as is common with academic writing, to speak truth to power. She won’t concede anything her principles refuse to allow, so, for example, she refers to the Flinder’s Ranges in South Australia as having a name that is “current”. Not conceding allows her to embark upon a radical course of change, and she writes sympathetically of the dispossession of Aboriginal people in the process of writing about South Asians in Australia.
While the language is taut and the plan lofty – bringing the reader into contact with discourse systems that dominate elite circles – Khatun also tells a solid tale, and engages in a bit of novel coinage, as when she uses the word “tracks” to talk about storylines used by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. As such Khatun is writing a new “track” for her own people, locating them within the grip of a trading web stretching from Perth to Medina, and from Mombasa to Dhaka. She early on signals her intention to offer readers an alternative psychogeographical realm within which to tell her stories, and delivers on her promise, dredging up a range of colourful characters, each of whom, like Mohammed Bux, is able to tell stories that help to create new ways of living.
In Bux’s case the telling of stories not only made him a rich man, but saved his life. When on a hajj in the Arabian Peninsula, and robbed of everything including his clothes, it was his ability to describe what had happened to him that led to the provision of not only new clothes, but a place to sleep, and food. Telling stories continues to be an important way for Indigenous people in Australia to achieve their cultural and political goals, and this process is of course contested in the public sphere. Khatun is scathing in regard to former prime minister Tony Abbott and his 2014 “terra nullius” claim, part of a public performance during which, in typically blunt style, the politician tried to settle old scores – the “black armband” culture wars of a decade earlier.
Unsuccessfully, as it turns out. Khatun’s work forms a stepping stone for people who enjoy Drew’s art but my initial reservation – what appears at the outset of this article – should actually be taken as an index of my esteem as I thought that to dwell on such minor matters was unequal to the gorgeousness of what else is conveyed in this marvellous, and profoundly entertaining, work of nonfiction.
I was a tad disappointed that 19th century debates about knowledge that have been abandoned by all but the rumbling amateur and the most reactionary scholar animate Khatun’s narrative, which is otherwise – and, once you get over this opening hurdle – engrossing and rich in design and in execution. I’m really not sure that it’s all that useful to start quoting James Mill and Thomas Macaulay as though they were reliable witnesses to the fact of colonialism. Perhaps they are – in India?
They certainly cannot be in the West. It seems, in any case, unnecessary to drag out these particular skeletons, as though by displaying the bones you can resolve questions about why they’re not suitable to be used in a life drawing class. Nobody nowadays reads Mill or Macaulay anyway. Khatun has to ensure that people read her work. I prefer her investigations into the literatures of the subcontinent, for it is here that the incipient beauty of her text for the first time becomes apparent.
But Australianama not only charts waters rarely ventured into, and communicates effectively with what should be – if there’s any justice in the world (and of this many despair) – a wide audience, it also explores new avenues of enquiry that others might be tempted to pursue. Some of the tracks that Khatun follows reveal surprising truths about, for example, Aboriginal culture and the history of dispossession they’ve faced over much of the past 230-odd years.
Finding herself in the South Australian desert, Khatun takes a lesson in reading tracks left by passing animals, including a lizard that is taken by a snake. She writes:
This episode of high drama that Reg [Dodd] decrypted in the sand lies outside the bounds of what are recognised as significant events in most English-language history books today. In conventional histories of this Arabunna sandhill, the lizard and the eagle would not feature as central actors. And yet, it was this asymmetrical encounter between two creatures that gave me an invaluable insight into some of the principles of Arabunna storytelling. Beginning with the predatory gaze of the eagle, the central motif of these sand dune dramas was one of pursuit and escape, actions that left a trail in the sand. Like so many other narratives imprinted on the sandhill, the tracks of the lizard ended with dismemberment, consumption and disappearance from the face of Arabunna geography. Eating! Here, being eaten, the apprehension of being eaten, and the pursuit of other creatures in order to eat were ever-present prospects shaping how creatures moved across the land. (p.138 – 139)
Dodd had heard a story of South Asian cameleers from his grandmother, Barralda. In the story, two Aboriginal women were waiting for a train but it was late, and would not come. While they were waiting two cameleers arrived, with their beasts, and spoke to them, asking to see their breasts. The women showed the men their breasts. The men then asked to see their thighs. They showed the men their thighs. But in the telling the story evolved in a surprising way as the two women consider eventually – according to each teller of the tale – that the men want to eat them and thus want to see their flesh.
This is the central fact in the retelling as the story was passed down from mother to son, from aunt to niece. A cautionary tale told for the benefit of children, this particular track – Khatun discerned – was anchored in the same dynamic as that which resulted in the leaving of animal tracks upon the landscape. An ephemeral moment in world history, but a telling one.
MATTHEW da SILVA was born in Brighton, Victoria, and grew up in Sydney. He has Bachelor of Arts and Master of Media Practice degrees from the University of Sydney and lived for just under a decade in Tokyo. He has two adult children and lives in Sydney.