May 6, 2015

Doubly on the outside

By Maria Tumarkin
Doubly on the outside
Ouyang Yu. Source
Why does Australia neglect its émigré intellectuals?

Vrasidas Karalis is a professor of modern Greek at Sydney University. He publishes sprawling intellectual books, translates Patrick White (Voss, The Vivisector, A Cheery Soul) into Greek, and teaches – 90 per cent, he says, useless knowledge. (“Useful knowledge,” he tells his students, “will help you find a job but it will never make you grow up.”) In other words he is doing all right for himself. Except when I call him it’s the start of the academic year and he says: “Once they make you a full professor, your career is over. They’ve neutralised you. You’ve become irrelevant. You’ve become a structure, a set of obligations.” And here was I, about to nominate Vrasidas for migrant success story of the year, based on a conversation I’d had a few weeks earlier with the writer and academic Ouyang Yu who, like Vrasidas, like me, has been in Australia since the early 1990s. Ouyang has long since given up on the idea of an academic career here. “If I was someone else, if I were born in this country,” Ouyang says, “I wouldn’t have a problem. Professor, easily.”

Vrasidas spent seven years of the ’90s visiting Mr Manoly Lascaris, Patrick White’s long-time partner. They met several years after White’s death. Vrasidas had recently arrived in Australia, was translating Voss, and wanted to find out all he could about White. Mr Manoly Lascaris – this is how he insisted on being called; everything else was an insult – was in his mid-eighties. His pre-White life was spent between Cairo, Alexandria and Athens but he had lived in Australia since 1949 and was known to the world exclusively as White’s other, private half. To Vrasidas, it soon became obvious that Lascaris was an intellectual of the first order. In Greek – they spoke only Greek – Lascaris was formidable: his range was dazzling, as was his knowledge of history, literature (Chekhov was a favourite) and mythology, plus he had a phenomenal memory, electrifying insights into White’s writing, and he could be wicked and admonishing. His exquisite puns in Greek drove Vrasidas wild. When Lascaris died Vrasidas wrote a book about their conversations, Recollections of Mr Manoly Lascaris, hoping to save Lascaris from being remembered as a shadow of White.

Well, here is a question: how is it that Mr Manoly Lascaris could not find any space to express his gifts? Another question. Did he feel compelled to hide the immensity of his intellect? “The dilemma of a diasporic intellectual,” Vrasidas tells me, “is that you are already on the outside but you need to be doubly on the outside to retain your integrity.” Lascaris’ problem, in other words, was not that he got lost between Greek and Australian cultures but that in standing apart from both he was rendered invisible. (And then he was rendered invisible one more time by his relationship with White.) Every bit of this is unsettling. Far more comforting to imagine that the big-thinking women and men coming to Australia from other nations, who could have made a massive contribution to this country but did not, were essentially victims of bifurcation, all torn up and culture-shocked, struggling to adjust and never the same after their immigration ordeal. Boo hoo. It’s much harder to contemplate that many of these women and men, whatever their misgivings, were dying to offer the insides of their heads to this country. And no one was interested.

Ouyang Yu says to me, “Look into the history of Archibald Prizes. Look at the Miles Franklin Award. Who are the winners? The first winner ever was Patrick White. The name is significant. White. Not Patrick Yellow. Not Patrick Black. It’s a determining name.” It’s not only Nobel Prize winners that Ouyang likes to have fun with. In an essay in Peril, an Asian–Australian arts and culture magazine, he has a go at the seldom-questioned emphasis on revising  – all writing is rewriting! – in creative writing courses, calling it a “petty bourgeois obsession with perfection” and asking, “if you keep refining shit, would it become non-shit?”

I first came across Ouyang at an awards ceremony in 2011. His book was nominated for fiction and mine in non-fiction at the New South Wales Premier’s Awards, and both our books were shortlisted in a separate category – “Community Relations” – which Ouyang, with his novel The English Class, won. The fiction prize went to Alex Miller, a close friend and supporter of Ouyang’s, whose work Ouyang has translated into Chinese. I can’t recall what Ouyang said when accepting his prize. I do remember wondering how was it possible that I knew nothing about this guy. People around me did not seem to know anything about him either.

Listen to this. His body of work is, so far, stupendous: he has published 70-something books in English and Chinese. Fiction, non-fiction, literary translation (Greer, Malouf, Miller, Stead and Hughes) and literary criticism. He also edits Australia’s only Chinese literary journal, Otherland. The guy is some kind of giant. Probably we should put him on bank notes, and, well, failing that, he should have a big job at one of the country’s leading universities (he could, for starters, single-handedly take care of a department’s publications targets).

You see where I’m going here, right? Twenty years ago Ouyang finished his PhD. In 2004, on turning 50, he came to the conclusion that, as he puts it, “In this country it was not going to happen for me.” Back to China he went. There he was swiftly made a professor by one of the universities. He now lives between China and Australia. Every year he goes to China twice: for spring and autumn terms. Australia is a sort of holiday.

One night in 2011 he found himself at a dinner party in China with a number of Chinese writers. They wanted to know about the prize he had just won in New South Wales. He did his best to translate “Community Relations”. It wasn’t easy. But he got there. “It doesn’t sound,” they said, “like it is a prize for a work of literature.”

Ouyang doesn’t care about prizes that much nor consider them anything like a true measure of a work’s artistic quality or worth. A prize “is a sign of encouragement”. It is a message being sent out, never explicit. If the message is that non-white artists may be dutifully shortlisted for the big prizes but won’t win then the message, essentially, is don’t bother. Ouyang says there is a hidden contempt among this country’s intellectuals for first-generation migrants commenting on Australia and Australians. What, goes the thinking, would they know? On precisely what basis are they speaking? Any critique will likely be seen as an attack. Ouyang has been called angry a lot (in China, too). “Well-intentioned criticism,” he says, “is surely a sign of goodwill. Without this kind of criticism nothing happens.”

An example: the matter of a nineteenth-century head tax on Chinese immigrants used by the governments of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States to deter Chinese people from entering. Canada and New Zealand apologised some years ago. Australia has not. Ouyang drafted a piece demanding an apology from the Australian government, sent it to the Sydney Morning Herald and other places. The idea was to publish it on a mainstream media platform, get the country debating this apology alongside other momentous recent apologies. No one wanted to touch it.

“An Asian scholar or intellectual in this country,” Ouyang says, “is only able to talk about certain kinds of things.” Ethnic things: racism, human rights (maybe), refugee policy. “Why,” – is what Ouyang Yu wants to know – “can’t we talk about literature, language, love, society, history?”

This is an extract from Maria Tumarkin’s essay ‘No dogs, no fruit, no firearms, no professors’, which will be published in full next week by Right Now magazine.

Maria Tumarkin

Maria Tumarkin is a writer and historian who teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne. Her books include Otherland, Courage and Traumascapes.

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