A review of Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home, edited by Kent MacCarter and Ali Lemer

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Joyful Strains: Expat Writers on Making Australia Home
by Kent MacCarter & Ali Lemer (Eds.)
ISBN:9780987308535, $24.95, Paperback, January 26, 2013

I arrived in Australia on Australia Day 1990, with no idea that the fireworks and banners we saw when we got off the airplane weren’t a personal welcome. Australia was my second migration. I’d already moved on my own as a young student from the US to the UK, and coming to Australia with my husband was a simpler, gentler change, not least of which because of the easy immersion. But migration isn’t a simple one-off experience. Though I’ve been in Australia now for twenty three years, my perceptions of my adopted country, its relationship to the country I grew up in, and my own sense of self are continually changing along with the circumstances of my life. The migrants experience is explored in a great deal of depth, from many different perspectives in Joyful Strains: Expat Writers on Making Austraila Home. Editors Kent MacCarter and Ali Lemer have done a terrific job of gathering a diverse group of twenty-seven writers, all migrants to Australia.

The stories are engaging without exception, but they traverse a very wide terrain, from the very funny “Deport me” memoir of Danny Katz and his deliberate Canadianisms, to the moving story of Juan Garrido-Salgado’s imprisonment in muteness as he and his family struggle to come to terms with a new language and new culture. Like Garrido-Salgado, Catherine Rey explores the notion of language and the impact of the fracturing of self between the mother tongue – the language of the “body’s memory” and the adopted tongue – the language of the everyday.

A few common threads include the struggles of young migrants at school – the bullying and sense of ‘oddness’. Ali Alizadeh writes about his first crush and the brutal treatment he received at the hands of other students as his secret feelings were publically paraded. Dmetri Kakmi also wrote about his school years – the names he was called, and his retreat into a violent television personae codified by the Western name a teacher gave him. Many of the writers talk about re-invention. Chris Flynn flees the terrifying violence of Northern Ireland: “launching the new, sleek, bald version of Flynn 2.0 into the void.” Michelle Aung Thin writes, with beautiful lucidity, about the way in which the past – not only the past we’ve lived, but the past our parents and grandparents have lived, shapes who we are:

You learn that the past – other people’s pasts – may not belong to history but instead belongs to you. All those stories are yours to plunder. You can take them out, one at a time, and try them on as you might try on the clothes your parents have resigned to the dress-up box. There you are in the mirror (or someone very like you), the vegetal scents of long-ago swirling about your ankles.

Adib Kahn talks about the internal conflicts of cultural diversity and the fracturing of the self:

Age has also taught me to arbitrate and attempt to seek reconciliation between the fractured halves that constitute a migrant’s dilemma. I have to live with the knowledge that I will never be entirely successful in my attempts. There are separate lives to be led: one in memory and the other in the physical reality of the present.

Most of the writers included have become, as Val Colic-Peisker puts it, reasonably domesticated. The displacement and bullying is mainly in the past, but the sense of self and how the settled adult relates to the life left behind, is something that continues to transform. Above all, the stories that make up Joyful strains look at the nature of what makes up the ‘self’, and how, regardless of where we come from, we grow into new people, informed by and changed through integration into ‘place’.

The structures of the stories different dramatically. Some of the essays, like Garrido-Salgado and Ouyang Yu’s, are full of poetry. Some of the essays are reasonably academic and intellectual explorations of the whole notion of what it means to be from ‘somewhere else’, while others are personal tales – anecdotes about pain, joy, discovery and survival – sad, happy, funny, silly – there is joy and pain, longing and loss. Though these stories are as different from each other as each individual migrant is, and indeed as each individual writers voice is, the common theme is about, what Chi Vu calls the “multi-faceted I” and how pain and longing is almost always the flipside of discovery.

Joyful Strains is a delightful collection, sensitively edited and full of insight and interest. Those of us who are migrants ourselves will read these stories with a strong sense of familiarity and self-discovery, remembering we too, weren’t born in the country we’re living in. We’re all migrants in one form or another though, leaving behind skins as we grow, gathering in memories as we move about, and developing a sense of self that encompasses the many experiences that we gather into ourselves including those of our ancestors. Joyful Strains is rich with universal themes and stories that will resonate with all readers.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.