There he is, in his fat golden tie, accepting the honor of his lifetime (so far). In his steady, high-pitched voice, David Malouf delivers his Neustadt Lecture at the University of Oklahoma, under the aegis of World Literature Today. He speaks of “the power of language as a means of structuring, interpreting, remaking experience; the need to remap the world so that wherever you happen to be is the center.” Later, he describes himself as “a writer whose immediate world and material happen to be Australian.”
Happen to be. In the precise, lapidarian chiselings of Malouf’s prose, this repetition takes on special significance. Happen, as in deed, but also as in happenstance. Something occurs and something is. This is the accepted order.
What occurs—in this instance—is Australianness. And here, at this point of deep concurrence, Malouf and I most meaningfully part ways.
Concurrence first. For his Complete Stories, a collection that gathers up at least three decades of work in the short form, Malouf picks his epigraph from Pascal’s Pensées:
When I consider the brevity of my life, swallowed up as it is in the eternity that precedes and will follow it, the tiny space I occupy and what is visible to me, cast as I am into a vast infinity of spaces that I know nothing of and which know nothing of me, I take fright, I am stunned to find myself here rather than elsewhere, for there is no reason why it should be here rather than there, and now rather than then.
There is, in Malouf’s work, an innate awareness of the arbitrariness of things. An awareness that each of us—and what art we might make—is a product of chance and random concatenation. That against the questions of why here and not there, now and not then—there is no reason. This is the first, and prerequisite, principle of moral awareness. For first-worlders, especially, it slows us from thinking we deserve what we’ve merely happened into: our bodies and brains, with what faculties they possess; our genealogical, cultural, and linguistic inheritances; our situation in place and time, with its appurtenant advantages in health, education, and technology; our array of advantages themselves.
So when he talks of himself as a writer who “happens to be” Australian, Malouf is foregrounding the rule of accident. As his doppelgänger remarks in Johnno: “If my father’s father hadn’t packed up one day to escape military service under the Turks; if my mother’s people, for God knows what reason, hadn’t decided to leave their comfortable middle class house at New Cross for the goldfields of Mount Morgan, I wouldn’t be an Australian at all.” (This account is authenticated in Malouf’s nonfiction and interviews.)
The point is: no volition is aroused in the fact of a writer’s nationality, only in our spin on it. The fact itself is only as important as the writer—and we—decide.
What, then, of cases where volition is involved? A perfect case study comes to hand: J. M. Coetzee, who immigrated to Australia from South Africa in 2002 and naturalized in 2006. All evidence confirms he is both Australian and a writer. Not only that, he has written a substantial number of books here—including books set in Australia, featuring Australian protagonists, litigating Australian issues. At his citizenship ceremony, after making a pledge of commitment to Australia, he averred (albeit in generalized language) that any new citizen must “accept the historical past of [his] new country as [his] own.” He even offered obiter courtesies about “the free and generous spirit of the people … the beauty of the land … the grace of the city”—which was Adelaide—“that I now have the honor to call my home.”
So is Coetzee an “Australian” writer?
That it’s even an open question—and the most cursory consideration admits it is—speaks to a bankruptcy of basic agreement on what the question’s asking. This, to me, speaks in turn to the underlying illogic of nationality. Coetzee is not an Australian writer because he doesn’t pass some test of “Australianness.” Okay then: what is this quiddity, how is it manifest, who gets to judge? Obviously passport-backed positivism isn’t enough. Nor is civic or cultural engagement—Coetzee, it’s fair to say, knows and does more in this regard than most Australians (who never need prove they belong where they are). And it can’t be because he wasn’t born here, or hasn’t spent enough time here, or is affiliated with another country: this applies to plenty of Australians and Australian writers.
There’s a drift at work here, and it mirrors the drift of our current moment toward what might be catastrophically referred to as the black hole of nationality. The closer anything comes to its event horizon—not excepting any universal principle or logic—the more deformed it becomes. Even among the cognoscenti (i.e., those who should know better), “national interest” now liberally overrules other political or ethical imperatives (with “national security” the trump); “national unity” is unanimously invoked as pure good. To be called a “true [insert nationality]” is both highest approbation and empty of normative meaning, as every nation is exceptional: every nation boasts the friendliest people (with “free and generous spirit”), the deepest drinkers, the richest history, the most stunning natural beauty, the most beautiful beaches (if they have a coast) in the world, and all these claims are not just unchallenged, they are correct—because they are protocol.
Literature is not protocol. But it’s not immune to it. If writers are constantly considered through the lens of nation, nationalism and its protocols will eventually refract logic, sense, and proportion. Think of the mountain of scholarship on Malouf that treats solely or significantly with his Australianness. Hyperspecialization has balkanized university departments and journals to the point where it’s a specialization in itself to consider literature “comparatively”—that is, as readers and writers do: as part of an enterprise that is ongoing, accretive, atomistically autonomous, reflexive, conglomerate. The result is a kind of rigged exegesis, whose main mode is to bend books into thesis. “Only an [insert label of choice] author could have written that” is its catchiest jingle. And where that label is national, how effortless the transition into themes of contested identity, historical trauma, border politics, home, and belonging becomes. The articles write themselves!
Let’s call this, offhandedly, the Kafka Fallacy. Per this approach, all insights and assertions about literature are ex post facto and therefore infallible. What do I mean? Kafka’s writing, let’s say, explored existential themes through fantastic motifs of nightmarish bureaucracy. It becomes self-evident, surely, that only a German-speaking Jew straddling the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; Bohemian-born writer; ex-lawyer with career experience in insurance; writer several times engaged but never married; writer with schizoid traits; tuberculotic writer—choose your own causality!—could have written it. Each of these propositions is irrefutably true (each having set its own truth conditions) and each is also fundamentally arbitrary. There are tons of tomes out there stuffed with this post-hoc preening and confirmation bias. What they ignore is the thing that most matters: the deep idiopathy of originality. Kafka’s work could not have been imagined to exist—in all its genius and particularity—until Kafka came along and wrote it. His life led him to it, yes, but his life was convolved and exponentially complex in its causes and effects; it was—and is—unknowable. All serious art, in this way, is anomalous, is outlier art.
Johnno again: “I had once found it odd, gratuitous even, that I should be an Australian. I found it even odder, more accidental, that I should be anything else.” To understand that arbitrariness is no impediment to the sanctity of what is is one definition of grace. One suspects that wherever else Malouf might have been born or raised, he would have, given the chance, arrived at the same restless and replete accommodation with that place. “Temperament,” he calls it. Nature unshaped by nurture. It’s easy, employing the Kafka Fallacy, to imagine a Canadian or Rhodesian or Burmese Malouf writing An Imaginary Life or Ransom, word for word. But let’s extend the thought experiment: What if these two books had been the only ones an Australian Malouf wrote? Neither was deemed, by the country’s preeminent literary gong, to “present Australian life in any of its phases.” Should the “Australianness” of such a Malouf be correspondingly curtailed? What would it take for this hypothetical Malouf—or the actual Coetzee—to convincingly demonstrate his “Australianness”?
Invariably, the quest to answer this question sees us shepherded into mythic terrain—a land bestridden by nebulous incarnations of “national character” and “national values.” As Les Murray memorably described it: “The Melbourne Cup and the Fair Go and a myriad gum trees live there, along with equality and Anzac Day and the Right Thing.” Fair enough. Sounds like a nice enough place. But folk myth tends to pull double duty as nationalist myth. And when nationalism finds it hard to find room for a celebrated, committed, white, fellow postcolonial citizen like John Coetzee, what hope for immigrants, or non-Anglos, or the growing number of Australians who subscribe less and less to such “vernacular” self-conception?
A brief aside on the semiotics of hyphens.
Coetzee is never referred to as “South African–Australian.” If, like me, he was born in one place and migrated to another, why should I be the one stuck with the hyphen?
What does the hyphen actually signify?
“Australian” is geopolitical fact (even if its appellation may be contestable).
“Vietnamese-Australian” is historical inference, compressing within it war, aftermath, the converse migration where left to right across the hyphen brings you East to West. Other hyphenations mean mixed parentage; not this one (in America, the offspring of local Vietnamese and American visitors are called “Amerasians”; in Vietnam, these children are referred to as bụi đời—“dust of life”). “Vietnamese-Australian” also changes complexion depending on who’s saying it. Say it about yourself and you’re asserting hybridity or acknowledging heritage; having it said about you is being subjected to a racial charge. (“Vietnamese,” which I get a lot in Europe, brings the charge right to the skin.) No matter how it’s said, there’s a subservience built into “Vietnamese-Australian,” a hum of model-minority conditionality.
(Note that Malouf is almost never referred to as Lebanese-Australian.)
“Asian-Australian”—bandwagoning “Asian-American,” which didn’t even exist until the sixties—seems little more than fuzzy, clumpy identitarianism. “Australian-Vietnamese” doesn’t exist. This is interesting, and surely bears thinking about. The politics of orientation, of ordinalism: people don’t migrate from West to East; their stay is understood to be (indefinitely) temporary. As for West to West: by far the greatest numbers of migrants to Australia are from England and New Zealand and yet you rarely come across “English-Australians” or “New Zealander–Australians.” Coetzee is not “South African–Australian”—he’s just somewhat less than a dinky-di, true-blue Australian. There’s a clubbiness at play here, coupled with a mutual accord that if you’re from the Anglosphere, your origins are never superseded, let alone renounced—they remain your enduring birthright.
To me, Coetzee, like Malouf—like me—is a multivalent writer who happens to be Australian. As writers, both of them hold and are beholden to multiple “lines” of affinity and identity—“Australianness” is only one of them. And it is relevant only inasmuch as their work renders it so. I’m not being facetious when I say that writing this has made me (feel) more “Australian,” just as writing a recent poem about Collingwood made me (feel) more “Melburnian.” Intentionality—volition—has to be in the mix. Without it, any campaign of cultural nationalism can only be conscriptive. And I’d be useless, anyway, in any such campaign. “When I look at the body of my writing,” Malouf once said, “I want to say to myself: ‘This is one person’s attempt to give an account of what being an Australian is—this particular Australian.’ ” Despite the mildness of the language, what I feel when I read this is forcible constriction, coercion. I hardly want to give an account of being me, let alone me as any single, separable strand of identity.
Shirley Hazzard said of Patrick White that “from the literary standpoint,” his Australianness was “both essential and irrelevant.” Only essential, I’d argue, because White himself made it matter: it was a lifelong irritant he kept agitating into fictive nacre. He was scathing about what he called the “Great Australian Emptiness,” scathing of complacent, falsely confident efforts to colonize it with the chimaera of “national identity,” scathing of his own monstrous and conflicted role in the campaign. When handing White his Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy declared that his art had “introduced a new continent into literature.” They could not have chosen a pithier way to prod the beast.
About this point I’ve got to check myself. Obviously, in opposing nationalism—and straining against the naked singularity of nationality—I’m indulging a prerogative granted to me by that same nationality. I’m an Australian citizen, and to be an Australian today is to have it pretty good: strong, stable democracy; peaceful, prosperous country. By every objective index, the average Australian is packed with privilege. On the hierarchy of needs, we base-camp at summit.
Another acknowledgement: national consciousness can be a positive force—especially during times of war and disaster. Part of me wonders if I am, in decrying it, debasing the sacrifice of my parents, who fought in a civil war waged over competing visions of nation. For them, nationalism wasn’t an option but a necessity, a survival stance. They lost, here I am. (Here I am, among the chin-stroking cosmopolitan classes who can afford to treat nationalism abstractly, as something for third-worlders.) Here we all are, in this small nation in this huge country, this island continent (we say “overseas” while our British and American cousins say “abroad”) that—in comparison to almost every other nation on earth—has never known existential border war, civil war, or revolution (it should be obvious by now we’re talking about “modern” Australia). How lucky are we?
I love this country. I feel lucky to be here. And I hate feeling at all compelled to say it—I hate the inferred ingratiation. I’ve been here long enough to know that as soon as you try to prove you belong, you don’t. (“A mug’s game, a mugger’s game.”) “I actually like Australia very much,” Malouf says in an interview, a small ridge of surprise in that “actually”—it’s not easy abandoning old defenses. I want to belong, and I’m wary of this want in me. So (like Malouf, perhaps) I take my belonging in a spirit of play. The sporting analogy is apt: the high-grade tribalism, the manufactured all-or-nothing stakes and emotion in a match are real—and not to be belittled—but it’s a bit pathetic, isn’t it, even pathological, when people take it too seriously?
The better analogy, though, is closer to home. As a writer, like it or not, you’re born into a nation. At least at the start, you can’t choose it. It’s a lottery. Your earliest reality is all Rawlsian veil of ignorance without any agency or election. Nation just … is. In this way, it’s not unlike family. Family environs you, brands you, enfleshes you. It conditions your beliefs and biases, your thoughts and your ways of thinking.
And it’s utterly arbitrary.
It’s also unfair. You’re plonked in a tribe without consent. Once there, coercion frames your existence. You’re cornered in a space pulsating with other people and odd laws, dependency and taboo, love and dread, consummation and quarantine. Asymmetry is the operative norm. There’s no meaningful concept of justice that could possibly account for who goes into which family, or what goes on inside any family.
And it’s irrational. You’re meant to be too close to family to be fair-minded about it. You’re meant to care too much. You’re meant to be hypercritical, then hyperdefensive when anyone else dares criticize. Most of all, for your own sake, your own sanity, you’re meant to accept it as it is. Bless it for being.
As a writer, my take on nation is basically the same as my take on family. Acknowledge that it’s always there, in the bones. Acknowledge its arbitrariness. Own the bad as well as the good, not as process of blame, but of truth. Don’t get wholly sucked in: keep your self—or some part of it—sovereign. And even in the midst of mooning and moaning over who you are, remember that you are. That’s where the real wonder is. It’s people and places that are sacred, remember, not borders.
We don’t police people’s kinship with their own families. Nor should we police anyone’s—least of all any writer’s—“Australianness.” (“Un-Australian,” as epithet, is pure dominance behavior. It’s telling that what it attacks—violence, gangsterism, non-neighborliness, unkindliness, cowardice, wankiness, wowserism—is usually also demonstrably uber-Australian.) Nations, like people, contain multitudes. And late colonial nations hold the habits of self-hate deep inside their nationalism. We don’t ask people to define themselves constantly against their families; let’s not ask writers to do so constantly against their nations. Let’s not make it the first thing we mark about them. For some people, family is a huge obsession; for others, background. Some families are consciously mythopoeic, reinforcing themselves through legend and lore and incanted ancestry; others, not so much. It’s all good! Let’s give writers the same freedom—without threat of exclusion or attenuation—to consider questions of national identity, national culture, national politics—or not. As they see fit. Or not.
Nam Le is the author of The Boat.
This is an excerpt from Writers on Writers: Nam Le on David Malouf, published by Black Inc. in partnership with State Library Victoria and the University of Melbourne, out May 6.