“These are the photographs we take” was my second published short story and appears in Growing up Asian in Australia in 2008. An earlier version of the story was published in Culture Is… by Wakefield Press 2008.
At the time Growing up … was published Poh had yet to win Masterchef, Benjamin Law was an up-and-coming young writer from Brisbane, people still had Myspace accounts and the iPhone 1.0 was cutting edge technology. Pauline Hanson was in her benign stage and known as “Mama P” AKA that ‘lady on Dancing with the Stars’ and anonymous blogs were still a thing — in fact, anonymous blogging was the norm. In 2008, as Hoa Pham points out, there was a dearth in Asian-Australian writing.
Although my story has featured in anthologies alongside more autobiographical works, it is a work of fiction drawn from my intellectual interests and lived experiences as a young adult growing up in the shadow of Pauline Hanson 1.0. Susan Sontag once said that she writes about things she’s interested in, and had she survived a plane crash, she would have been very interested in aviation and that theme would somehow find their way into her fiction but in a very transposed form. I suppose that is how my story came about.
I wrote the story in 2005 when I was living overseas and heard on the news that an Australian drug trafficker was on death row. It was the first time I heard someone who was visibly ‘Asian’ with an ‘Asian’ name referred to as an ‘Australian’. I followed the case because he was around my age and I thought how sad it was that only in death that he was reclaimed as ‘one of us’. I was reading Orwell and Ken Saro Wiwa at the time and the line “His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live…” (from ‘The Hanging’ ) inspired me to write the story as I pondered what the executed experience in their final moments of life. Would their lives flash before them as it often does in movies?
At the Perth launch of the book, I remember sitting next to a local journalist who, not knowing that I had a story in the book, grimaced and asked me in a rather defensive tone, ‘Is this about how racist we are?’ I didn’t quite know how to answer that question because of course racism plays a role in the history of Asian Australia – there was the White Australian Policy which was only officially abolished in the 1970s When I was a child in the 1980s and 90s, it was common to see ‘Asians Out!’ posters on lamp posts in the city and hear about Chinese restaurants being bombed by white supremacists who saw people like me as the yellow peril. There are of course people my age, who may have grown up in more progressive pockets of the state who did not experience what I experienced. However, as an adult that I am able to identify not only the explicit but also the subtle and institutionalised forms of racism, some of it by well-meaning friends.
I want to add here that I have found the way this anthology and other works by ‘ethnic Australians’ is taught in schools has been problematic. While there has been a cultural shift, works by CALD/multicultural/ethnic/Indigenous Australians tend to read solely as sociological texts in many English classrooms. To adopt this approach as the dominant reinforces ethnic author function, and undermines the individual author’s creativity, intellect, and writing skills. In my state, this anthology was first adopted by EALD/ESL teachers and it’s only in recent years that mainstream English classes have taught this text.
I recently had a conversation –or was it a debate– about the ongoing debate –or is it a conversation– about cultural mis/appropriation. I find these conversations/debates exhausting and can only have them with friends. When it comes to fiction, I think everyone can write whatever they want to write about, and from any perspective. It’s for the readers interpret, judge, and critique the text, and that judgement will depend upon the situated context.
I have not re-read “These are the photographs we take” in a while, and, as I mentioned to my friends, it’s possible that I would write the story in a very different way in 2021. I am uncomfortable with second person narrator’s voice but I’m glad it’s in the second person, and when I can read it as one where the narrator has relied on orientalist tropes and completely objectified the doomed man.
Texts take on a life of their own and for me, there is always that tension between the creative prose writer and the academic critic. As a writer, I am trying to limit “misreadings” yet paradoxically, as I have no control over the work once it becomes a text.
Yet, does the death of the author work for those of us who write under our ethnicised names? Does it depend upon situated contexts? My first published story was about how it really doesn’t matter which identity you self-ascribe, identity is two fold and sometimes the external forces override all agency.
Perhaps adopting Bourdieu’s field theory and a move towards monism may be a more productive way to navigate these tensions, or at least begin productive conversations.