Challenging the Australian national identity

PhD candidate Pamela Graham

PhD candidate and tutor Pamela Graham has just received one of Flinders University’s Best Student Research Paper Awards for her cultural analysis of the well-known 2008 anthology Growing Up Asian in Australia.

Compiled by award-winning author and memoirist Alice Pung, the anthology features personal accounts, essays, short stories and poetry on coming-of-age in modern-day Australia by more than 50 different Asian Australian contributors.

Ms Graham, who is in her fourth year of a PhD in life narrative studies within the Department of English, Creative Writing and Australian Studies, shares her thoughts on Growing Up Asian in Australia:

“I heard Alice Pung speak at the Adelaide Writers’ Week in 2012 and because I have an interest in Australian cultural identity I was interested in learning more about the book. A Flinders life writing symposium later that year provided a good opportunity to analyse the anthology from a cultural perspective.

“I wanted to look at how each individual author presented their childhoods in an autobiographical way, and explore how their stories fit into Pung’s broader ideological agenda of challenging Australia’s national identity in literature.

“Australia is situated in the Asian region, and many Australians have Asian heritage, but Australian national identity narratives don’t reflect this, and so the anthology tries to address that.

“In the introduction to the book, Pung is explicit about her ideological agenda to insert Asian Australian stories into the national narrative.

“While the anthology has a greater political aim, I think Pung’s text skilfully balances politics and populism, critiquing fundamental issues of national identity and self-representation while simultaneously appealing to a broad readership.

“When it comes to Asian Australian life writing, readers tend to have particular expectations.

“Blockbuster books such as Wild Swans and Falling Leaves have shaped readers’ ideas about Asian-Australian literature. These literary predecessors focus on rags-to-riches stories about overcoming adversity but I found the writers in the anthology didn’t write to that paradigm.

“Many of them confounded expectations by using humour to tell their tales which is quite interesting because Australians often identify as having “a good sense of humour”.

“Because the stories are amusing and accessible, the text circulates more broadly and has been really popular.”

Ms Graham’s paper, titled Alice Pung’s Growing up Asian in Australia: The Cultural Work of Anthologized Asian-Australian Narratives of Childhood, was published in the journal Prose Studies: History, Theory, Criticism in April 2013.

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