from the editor's desk

Imagining Australia

From Our Archive: Imagining Australia

Goenawan Mohamad

Editor’s note: This essay has been published from our archives. It first appeared in Westerly 41.1 (Autumn 1996)

When I visited Adelaide for the first time almost fifteen years ago, I was surprised to hear the story that there are camels living in Australia, and that some Australians organise camel races just like the rustic Arabs on the outskirts of Muscat during a festivity. “When I came for the second time last year for an international gathering of writers, I was not prepared to hear a bomb exploding in one of the government’s buildings, killing one policeman. I recall muttering to myself, “Now comes the twentieth century”.

I do not remember saying it with a sigh of relief. Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary, once said that anyone wanting to live peacefully should not live in the twentieth century, and he was right. This century, which is coming to its end very soon, is by all accounts an exciting but ugly time. It has its liberating moments and yet on the whole it tells us stories of great disappointment. From the first decade to the last, bloodshed and atrocities abound. With the current killings of innocent people in Algeria, with the Rwandan massacre and Serbian “ethnic cleansing” uprooting hopes that came out of the end of the Cold War, the fin-de-siecle mood has failed to be buoyant.

To be sure, you can also list a number of worthy human efforts to make the world a better place to live, all moved by great causes and by Utopian ambitions. But all in all, the image, or better, the traces, of the last ninety years are marked by a growing awareness of human limitation and tragic sense of history. You may begin by asking what has happened to the quality of our mercy, but at the end of the day you start having doubts about its purpose.

I know that I have my own bias. I come from a country quite different from Australia, I come from a country where the politics of memory is born out of traumas, where people tend to use the past to caution the present, and to talk about the future in a moralistic, prescriptive way, as if to gloss over their acute sense of uncertainty. Life has never been easy for ordinary Indonesians. People of my generation learned the shock of violence even before they could utter a world of fear. I remember vaguely when I was barely four my mother took me into her arms in a darkened space in which everybody was silent, probably scared. Later I guessed that it might be our way of hiding ourselves, somewhere under a tunnel built by my father in the backyard, when a platoon of Japanese soldiers came to search the area.

The Japanese left, and the Royal Dutch Army returned to recapture their former colony. In my home town, they came after a low flying plane blasted the clear sky with a salvo of gunfire. A contingent of Dutch troops took my sister’s house and used it as its temporary quarters. At night a solo guerrilla, against all odds, threw a grenade at the occupying force, killing three. But the Dutch caught sight of him in the dark, a lone figure crawling along the river bank; it was not difficult to spot the white part of the Indonesian flag the man put around his head. They gunned him down instantly. Five days later they surrounded my father’s house and arrested him. We waited for three days in fear and then came the news that they had executed him without trial. My brother-in-law brought the body back in a horsecart. There were three holes in his balding head; the blood was all over the seat.

My mother took us to another town, still under Indonesian control, but one year later nine Dutch planes appeared in the morning sky. I saw one of them suddenly descending at high speed, and I heard for the first time (I was close to seven then) the frightening noise of a falling bomb, to be followed by a violent explosion as if the world crashed into a mighty rock in a dark universe. The bombing stopped in the afternoon, after my family left the half-destroyed town and moved to the hills, to join other refugees and the Republican guerrillas. It look me a year to overcome my fear each time I heard the sound of an airplane in the sky.

This fragment of my life story is just one example of a huge body of records you can pick almost randomly from the world’s twentieth-century saga. Decades after my father’s death, you can listen to even grimmer tales of cruelty bringing death to fathers, mothers, sons and daughters of other people. This explains my bias when I talk about our time. I tend to see things like one philosopher’s angel of history, who flies backward and sees the so-called progress as a pile of debris growing skyward.

Especially because the twentieth century has failed to change the three hundred years of brutality. Colonialism is just one of the hideous stories. In an officially sanctioned chronicle like the Bahad Tanah Jawi you can find records of royal caprice and barbarity. In the seventeenth century, for example, King Amangkurat I orders his troops to slaughter three thousand ulemmas gathered in the royal plaza of Kertasura, and they did it in about thirty minutes. Later, when his son became king, the murderous instinct took a different bent. To end a chaotic period of insurrection, the young ruler invited a rebellious price to a ceremony of peace. While shaking the rebel’s hand, he treacherously ordered the royal entourage to surround the man and strike at him. They killed him instantly. In no time, they were ordered to tear his heart out of his body and slice it into small pieces. The king then told his men to eat them.

I believe this kind of tyranny put its stamp on the way the Javanese respond to things like power, violence, tragedy and the precariousness of life.

I am not sure whether I can speak with the same certainty about the Australian experience. My reading of Australian history is almost zero. I do not want to repeat the “lucky country” cliche here, but I think it is safe to assume that except for the Aborigines, the Australian psyche for many years has remained unscarred by the same adversity people in other parts of the world have gone through. The twentieth century was comparatively kind to Australia. The bomb killing one policeman in an Adelaide government building was perhaps one of the most atrocious crimes in the city.

Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, in his flippant mood, speculates that war and culture cannot be separated from one another. Obviously he has European history in mind. “The fact that no war has broken out in Europe for fifty years no new Picasso has appeared either”, he writes in his latest novel, Immortality. If you follow the Kunderan logic, you may end up believing that Australia is a country with a culture-less present. This would be a gross misconstruction. It is true that war is the father of many things, but Picasso was not bom out of the rains of the bombed Basque town of Guernica, about which he created his famous work. His perpetual celebration of the voluptuous and the unchaste, his undying fascination with the brutal sexuality of the Minotaur, all seem to have nothing to do with pain, death and destruction. Or if they do, one can always point out that Brett Whiteley’s paintings of the nude in the bath, as well as his fascination with necrophilic murder, indicate a sensual and morbid bent comparable to Picasso’s.

Yet it is true that Australia, the old continent of the Aboriginals, has a “young”, or better still, unspoiled quality in its great silence. A.D. Hope’s depiction of the land as “the last of lands, the emptiest”, gives the image of Australia that is not the kind of place to breed a Javanese sensitivity. My theory about the famous subtlety and exasperating indirectness of the Javanese is that these traits are the result of years of living in shared poverty. The so-called “agrarian involution” has made it impossible for them to be indifferent to others, and forced them to find ways to be extra careful in taking risk. The economy of space typical of a densely populated area has created a culture of scarcity, in which people constantly negotiate with kin and neighbours. In the process, almost every public act, including speaking, is like walking on a tight rope. Once a Javanese opens his mouth to say a word, he immediately puts himself in a vertical relation with the other person; there are several words for “I” and several ways to address “you” in the language, depending on the degree of your respect of and intimacy with the person you talk to — a complicated protocol indeed. And look at the well-known Indonesian habit of not queuing, as well as their frenzied way of driving and honking. I believe these are parts of a scarcity syndrome: no one is quite sure that everyone will get his or her portion of space and security.

Australia, by contrast, is exempted from this hazard. When I first came to this country, I got an invitation to spend a couple of nights in the countryside, hosted by somebody who lived as a farmer. I got my culture shock from two distinct things. One was the way my host spoke to his closest neighbour; he did it through a radio phone. The other was the enormous size of Australian steak. I began to understand the relation between the luxury of distance and the independence of the Australian spirit, between the alimentary affluence and the Australian sense of assurance.

This may explain the clumsiness of Australians who visit the “Third World”, meaning a country like Indonesia and a city like Jakarta. The young reporter who is the hero of Christopher Koch’s novel The Year of Living Dangerously comes face to face with human squalor for the first time, and not knowing how to deal with this kind of experience, returns to the refuge of professional detachment; the only interpreter he has on the unravelling Indonesian drama is Billy Kwan, a character of indefinite origin and a rather fuzzy philosophy. “Most of us, I suppose, become children again when we enter the slums of Asia”, the hidden narrator of novels says.

I once knew a man who drew a list of what he believed to be the favourite topics when expatriates made small talk in Jakarta. Most of the “expats” he met were Australians who were in Indonesia for a short stay, and this is the list: (1) small talk is normally not about the weather, since the weather hardly changes, but about Jakarta’s appalling traffic jams; (2) it is not about politics, since political life is always the same, but about petty officials and bribes; (3) it is not about gossip and anecdotes of famous people, since famous Indonesians are all colourless, but about funny things Indonesians do in their wretched lives.

I know that we should not take the list seriously, but it is perfectly understandable if somebody coming from, let us say, Canberra, has a disparaging view of a city densely populated by nine-million people and ran haphazardly by bureaucrats steeped in the art of corruption.

The sneer has nothing to do with smugness. If anything, Australians are too self conscious about their lack of mental resources to be smug. Their immediately response in meeting with the ‘Other’—people from different backgrounds that is—is to grapple with their own confusing problem of identity. Identity, as James Baldwin once put it is questioned when the stranger enters the gate, and today almost every minute, as it were, Australians meet with the stranger at the gate. Each time they bring themselves to confront a difficult self-inquiry: “What is an Australian?”

Before Mabo, they would instinctively, but uneasily, put themselves into a category which English or Europeans, in the distant North, take for granted as their own. After Mabo, the category has become more problematical. Paul Keating, introducing the Native Title Bill on November 16, 1993, mentioned that the Aboriginal is “a defining element” in the character of the Australian nation.

This is a generous gesture to people who have become almost foreigners in their own land. But I think there is something unresolvable in Keating’s politically correct statement. I find it hard to understand what his statement implies. I am not sure whether one can say that one kind of people, or one kind of culture, is “a defining element”. In Indonesia, even the Javanese majority is never conceptualised in this way. What makes a particular element so special that you can use it to define a nation’s character, or identity? and how? Does the defining come naturally, or does it not? In other words, when you talk of Australian identity, are you talking about an origin, or a project?

I am persuaded that if there is something that makes our time peculiar it is that, on the issue of identity, the idea of origin has become more powerful and yet more equivocal, I happened to read B. Wongar’s Taki. It strikes me that the novel’s narrator perceives himself as being related to almost anything: Serbs living in the village of Milinkovo, Aboriginal folks, and even dingoes. In short, it is impossible for today’s Australians to talk of “identity” and think that it is something to do with a common heritage and a shared memory. Years ago I wrote of my impressions watching an Anzac Day Parade in Melbourne. With Serbs, Croats, and Vietnamese war veterans taking part in the parade, the commemoration was obviously not about fallen heroes of one single war, and the moving feeling of camaraderie among the marchers was not due to a remembrance of a common struggle.

In this sense the past, as a coherent complex of things remembered, will always escape you. Yet, at the same time, it will haunt you. “History comes and grabs people”, says Rudi Kabbel, the lunatic father in Thomas Keneally’s novel A Family Madness who stays obsessed with his tumultuous Belorussian experience after moving to Sydney.

Indeed, it often occurs to me that like Rudi Kabbel, many Australians tend to let themselves be tempted eternally to have a history. The temptation can sometimes be so strong that it makes one fail to appreciate things that are incidental, unrepeatable, and persistently different. I think the weakness of a novel like Raki is that it paints the past in big brush strokes of a lyrical kind, reducing the sharpness of individual rememberings into a definable collective order. The novel’s reference to Serbs, Croats, Turks (or “Ottoman raiders”), as well as Aboriginals, has a note of detachment from the concrete world of multifarious faces, random conflicts and designless destinies. Probably that is the way Australians want to root themselves into some sense of origin. Hence the common use of words like “culture” and “community” in this country. But the problem when you think of “multicultural” as just another word for (or an euphemism of “multiracial” is that you put people into close-ended categories. You tend to forget that initially these categories are there to serve a role similar to a white chalk circle drawn around a group of people every time you want to make differences simple. Of course, the chalk circle is based upon people’s self-perception, but often it is not treated as a starting-point which will be left behind at the end of the day.

Then the question is whether the way we see ourselves is the way we are, or is merely something constructed in or imposed upon our minds. In other words, should we look at the question of identity from an “essentialist” view or is our identity just a label we put on ourselves?

Livio Dobrez, in his excellent introduction to Identifying Australia in Postmodern Times (a book published last year as the result of a 1992 seminar at the Australian National University), suggests a different approach. According to him, it is better to theorise identity as an event. Using a Gadamerian approach to the question, Dobrez argues that once identity, or better still “identification”, is put this way, “it becomes something one lives out or endures, not simply as an ‘experience’… but as a passion“. His argument makes Paul Keating’s rhetoric of “a defining element” a pale copy of  the language of Australian essentialism, since for Dobrez, “being Australian represents a process of identification: neither merely active (something one does), nor merely passive (something done to one), it is something in which one participates, a game … in which one is caught up, transformed”. 1

To me Dobrez’ argument is a most plausible one. It reminds me of the way Indonesians respond to a similar question. Decades before Indonesia became a nation-state, social thinkers debated the notion of “Indonesianness” in a manner comparable to what Dobrez refers to as “essentialist” and “nominalist” positions. The debates, documented in a seminal book called Polemik Kebuduyaan (‘Polemics on Culture’), took place between, to put it roughly, people who believed that “Indonesian culture” could be defined from a particular root in the past, and those who believed that it was something to be constructed as a part of the agenda of modernity. Today, the differences between both camps are by no means completely resolved, and Indonesians keep talking about the need to guard their identity, without really reaching a point of consensus. Viewed this way, the insistence on national identity has become a ritual of “imagining” a community, to borrow the words from Benedict Anderson’s theory of nationalism. In the process, some people will always try to reify a particular concept of identity and others will attempt to revive the passion for being continually “caught up, transformed”.

Yet, unlike Dobrez, I do not see that “being Australian”, like “being Indonesian”, is comparable with being Jewish or Palestinian, For both people, the issue of identity is related not only to a history of common suffering and common moments of glory, but also to the need to defy the prospect of annihilation. For the majority of Australians, and to certain extent for Indonesians, nothing quite as dramatic is in evidence.

Let’s take the so-called “Helen Demidenko affair” as an example. It strikes me as an Australian’s attempt to construct a past that is tragic, tortuous, colourful and, therefore, phoney. You all remember that here is an Anglo-Saxon Australian woman (an “un-ethnic” person, as one writer puts it) parading herself as having a Ukrainian background. She wrote a novel dealing with an atrocious decade peopled by Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, Poles, Kazaks, and what have you. The novel, besides winning prestigious literary awards, triggered a rather noisy controversy over her plagiarism and her false c.v. The spokesman for the Australian Jewish community attacked the novel as “anti-Semitic”, while Australians of Ukrainian descent were not amused to discover that the real Helen Demidenko is Helen Darville. The whole affair is a polemic about remembrance and origin, making a mediocre, albeit enthralling first novel a curious sparkle that has moved beyond the life of the fiction.

It must be cathartic, or simply exciting, to replay the harrowing passages of twentieth century Europe on the flat surface of Australian collective memory. Rudi Kabbel, the strange character in the Keneally novel I quoted earlier, carries his violent Belorassian past into the life of Tim Delanay, an honest and simple Sydney security officer whose martial vocabulary only refers to rugby league matches. I suspect that the novel says a lot about Australian Oedipal attraction to and repulsion from Europe. But it is possible that Australians can have a politics of memory that eventually has to have a meaning outside Europe’s insistence on its own historical privilege. Europe, with its “giddy whirl of centuries, of revolution, of fame”, as one writer puts it, tends towards a cultural closure. That’s why Europe has always been uneasy with new countries, which are mostly non-European in terms of geography, history and race. D.H. Lawrence’s grumbling letter — written from Australia, which he liked “less and less”, in the second decade of the twentieth century — is an echo of the Old World’s prejudice. He hated “new countries”. “They are older than the old,” he said, “more sophisticated, much more conceited, only young in a certain puerile vanity more like senility than anything.’ 2

Australia’s “puerile vanity”, if we can believe in what Lawrence said, will only be like senility when it fails to see how the rest of the world suffers the same syndrome — in other words, the tormented pride in negotiating with the fact that Europe has created a civilisation that the rest of the world has to deal with, or depends on, even while rejecting is. This is also true in the case of Indonesia,

Indonesians—including the Javanese—have only a few things that grant them a legitimate claim to a distant past. The Buddhist temple in Central Java, Borobudur, was built in the eighth century, a hundred years younger than the glittering dome of the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem. The Majapahit empire, if it really was an empire, reached the height of its power in the thirteenth century, almost one hundred years younger than Cambridge university. Yet the need to give the badge of antiquity to our heritage is consistently strong, since it has become a common folly to equate old heritage with civilisation. European conquerors came with the arrogance of a people claiming a root that goes back to the Ancient Creeks and the Old Testament. They have made us to believe that one is simply a zero if one is unable to resort to a rich deposit of past glory.

But this is precisely the reason why Europe can easily become a cultural closure. Its identity tends to be exclusivist. A Khymer refugee living in a city like Paris will find it difficult not to feel marginalised in the perpetuity of the past sprawling over the old urban architecture, historical sites, religious rituals, and imperial memorials. In the mid-60s I lived in Bruges as the only non-white student in this Belgian town built in the ninth century. Six hundred years ago Bruges was already a commercial centre that housed works of great Flemish artists and astounding religious relics, When I lived there, staying in a boarding house which used to be a hotel during the Napoleonic wars, I was often distracted by the chimes coming from the tall bellfry next to the town square; the carillons were playing a Mozart tune to signal the time. Often the melody gave me a peculiar feeling, especially when I heard it while listening to the latest news on some EEC negotiations. At such a moment, I was completely exposed to a sense of “not-belonging”, an awareness of being outside a mighty stream of history, from the time of Mozart to the mid twentieth century, rolling on outside and inside my room. Every Easter the people of Bruges organise the procession of the Holy Blood, in which they dress as medieval burghers like their ancestors, honouring the bloodstain that was thought to be that of Jesus, a sacred memento brought from Jerusalem during the Crusades. I knew then as I know now, that even if I decided to become a citizen of Bruges, I would never be an authentic part of the festivity. In the words used by Dobrez to describe the process of “identifying”, I would never be “caught up, transformed”.

Australia does not, and cannot, offer History (with a capital ‘H’). Yet this country offers something that makes one aware that there are worthy things besides thirteenth century towns, old belfries and carillons, Octavio Paz, the Mexican writer, writing of the Europeans, mentions that “he who says the word history says awareness of death”. Coming from Indonesia, a country made up of cities with no recorded past, I sense that death is nothing but a close, and yet mysterious, part of our very existence—something that one particular Australian work confirms, I saw Picnic at Hanging Rock in a Melbourne cinema when it was first released. Curiously, when I saw it—to me it was a lyrical story of innocence, youthful joy, death and the enigma of the outback—it was like rediscovering my own notion about awareness of death that has nothing to do with the word history.

Flinders 1995 Asia Lecture, October 25, 1995.

I would like to thank Dr Zhang Weihong from Beijing Foreign Study University whose thesis on the works of Thomas Kennealy has helped me to get a glimpse of an Asian perspective of an Australian mind.


1. Identifying Australia in Postmodern Times, edited with an introduction by Livio Dobrez, Bibliotech, ANU, Canberra, 1994.

2. Letters dated May 28 and 30, 1922. Published in The letters of D.H. Lawrence, Vol. 4, edited by James T. Boulton, E. Mansfield and W. Roberts, 1987.

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