In my previous two blog posts, I’ve talked about my love affair with English literature, encouraged and nurtured by schoolteachers in India who did the best with what was available. Reading Milton, Byron, Wordsworth, Hardy, Lamb, Austen, Bronte, Woolf and a legion of writers from the 18th – 20th centuries started me on the career I would choose for myself in later life. But I did not see myself in the words of those I adored.
Where were ‘women like me?’ In fact, where were people like me? British, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Macedonian, Persian, Afghan and Arab influences in India are still visible today in the arts, food, architecture, language and essential Indianness of the Indian people. But the literature and history we encountered as free children in a democratic country, appeared not to include what we saw as real. People like ourselves. We recited poetry about romantic chasms and deep blue shores and hemlock and jabberwockies. We read about lords and kings and madmen roaming the moors in Yorkshire, about slack girl children who would pay with their lives for romantic mistakes, about ladies having garden parties. It is important to remember that Burke, Dickens, Christie, Lawrence and all the writers I’ve mentioned previously were writing during the worst excesses of British colonial rule in several countries including India. If we showed up at all in literature, we were simple, savage and to be made fun of. Rudyard Kipling, M.M. Kaye, Paul Scott and E.M.Forster are sometimes held up as examples of English writers who attempted to capture the complexity of the people they wrote about. Take it from me as an Indian, ‘our’ portrayals by these authors are reductionist at best, farcical at worst. I’d much rather read the execrable Eat, Pray, Love for laughs than have Kipling’s version of India or Forster’s homoerotic empathy.
Fast forward several years and I find myself, in my skin, an Australian. That is to say, I think of myself as Australian, even if most Australians don’t. Laughably, when I visit India, I’m asked where I’m from. It’s nothing to do with the accent, because I still have my Indian one, but apparently, something about an essential Australianness that marks me as being from somewhere else.
So how do I write myself into this landscape? How do I reconcile my physical and spiritual landscapes? I meet resistance, and a colonial patriarchy that assumes I need education, civilisation and guidance. White Australians don’t respect my personal space, direct conversations at my husband and, when told I’m a writer, look away awkwardly as if I’ve just confessed to being a brothel madam. This is my reality as a visibly different woman living in a country that still suffers from an identity crisis, that still proclaims whiteness as integral to nationhood, that still denies its original population a treaty. My relationships with my languages and my countries are complex and I function within and between these complexities. Being critical does not mean I am bitter; I am actually in love. I am in love with my adopted country, its expansive casualness and its welcoming character. Beautiful relationships are not without heartbreak.
Rashida Murphy is the author of The Historian’s Daughter. Her short stories and poetry have been widely published. Her latest story is forthcoming in a new anthology published by Margaret River Press and Ethos Books.