I was three years old when Pauline Hanson announced in Parliament that Australia was ‘in danger of being swamped by Asians’. In her 1996 maiden speech, Hanson intoned the most famous words spoken about Asian Australians in our national memory:
I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40 per cent of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate. Of course, I will be called racist, but if I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country.
I grew up in the shadow of this slung mud. I was a part of the Asian swamp. I grew up in a lower- to working-class part of outer north-west Melbourne – a ghetto – where my parents chose to live because another Malaysian Chinese family they knew had moved there before them. I did not assimilate. We lived five minutes from the Tullamarine airport, Melbourne’s main airport, the tense border which immigrants like my family crossed to be here.
Wetland conservationists will tell you that we don’t use that word any more.
In the Western imagination, swamps are associated with disease, pollution and evil. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the final resting place for the damned is a marsh in the Upper Hell. The underworld in Beowulf is portrayed as marshy swamp land, a ‘flood under the earth’. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, Sam and Frodo must wade through The Dead Marshes, an abject wasteland filled with ‘snakeses, wormses… lots of nasty things’. The bogeyman, in many European traditions, is a man who emerges from a bog. Swamp Thing, the original comic-book character who has spawned several film and TV spin-offs, is a huge slimy mass who wanders swampland alone. In Australia, swamps are associated with crocodiles, who issue deadly attacks a handful of times a year. British tabloids are particularly fond of running stories about crocodile attacks. When I travelled to England for the first time, everyone asked me why I lived in Australia. Why live somewhere where everything can kill you?
In Australia, racism is considered an aberration on our society: it is not acknowledged as a crucial inner part of its machinery. Racism has been mistaken for a public scourge, when it is foundational to our political ideologies, national identity, way of life. Pauline Hanson was first elected in 1996, winning the Labour-strong seat of Oxley by an unprecedented margin; she’d been endorsed initially by the Liberal Party, but was disendorsed before the election after generating media controversy for her suggestion that the government abolish assistance for Indigenous Australians, and entered the senate as an independent. Hanson’s popularity waxed and waned in the years following her first election, and she spent the better part of the next two decades unsuccessfully running for senate, until she was re-elected to Parliament in 2016. Her sentiments and policies – as is the case with all racist speech acts in Australia – are still treated as anomalous. It is remembered that Hanson’s words were denounced by many, but it is forgotten that John Howard, Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister, won his re-election in 1996 not only by endorsing her, but also by incorporating many of her ideas into his own policies. Hanson herself claims to represent the views of ‘mainstream Australians’, ideas they feel they aren’t allowed to verbalise: in a 2016 documentary about her life and political career entitled ‘Pauline: Please Explain’, Hanson claims that ‘I get so much support because people say to me, Pauline, you’re only saying what we’re thinking.’
What is a Mainstream Australian? The etymology of the word ‘mainstream’ flows back past 1660; it means the strongest current of a river. In a camping pamphlet distributed by the Australia outdoors store Eureka, I find some advice on strong currents:
The water is much too strong for you and you will tire yourself out.
A River is usually not considered
very dangerous, which is what makes them so
dangerous. Going against the current can kill you.
We do not give them the proper amount of attention.
Why live somewhere where everything can kill you? The ‘Asian flood’ that erupted in the wake of Hanson’s speech was a baptism of blood, not of water. Violent attacks on Asian Australian bodies tripled in frequency in the months following her speech. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hanson’s accusations have revived in public. My dad was walking down the street recently when a man yelled ‘Coronavirus’ at him. When he told me this story, I was interested in the compression of the racial slur. Not ‘You caused coronavirus’, or ‘You have coronavirus’, but, in some sense, you are coronavirus. The Western suburbs of Melbourne, with its historically immigrant populations, were disproportionately patrolled by police monitoring the lockdown. Patients refused to see Asian Australian doctors at hospitals. Videos emerged of white passengers heaping abuse and violence upon Asian Australian bus drivers. News articles reporting on supermarket shortages and panic-buying used images of Asian Australians shopping for groceries. These images of Asian bodies are what Hanson warned Australians about all those years ago. They are not just infected, they are the infection. They are a natural disaster that takes away everything the free world has created.
In his work on decolonising the twentieth-century Western notion of trauma, Stef Craps writes about moving away from thinking of trauma as event-based and, instead, acknowledging the everyday shape that trauma so often takes. He urges historians and theorists to account for the ways in which racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism and other forms of trauma repeat themselves in the quotidian lives of minority groups. As an Asian Australian woman, I have experienced racism verbally, institutionally, structurally and physically. Rarely have I had the gall to confront the person doing this to me, or even to talk about what happened. I haven’t done this, because the few times I have ventured to hollow myself out for the sake of educating a white person about racism, it has ended in both professional and personal retribution. There is no magic power that comes with expressing racial pain. There is only the dull ache that follows the shooting pain of the sore.
This essay is not about racial grievance, but about racial grief. As Anne Cheng writes, racial grievance is manageable: it comes before committees, HR departments and governments. Racial grievance fits into forms and tweets and spreadsheets and the shape of public life. A racial grievance is something you can lodge if your employer does something tangible: calls you a name, like a gook or a slant. In response, your employer is also given a name: a person that needs further training in the area of cultural sensitivity, or a racist. Grievances, like racists themselves, are quantifiable and, by extension, controllable. Here is a list of grievances (plural) to be managed, to be moved from the lodged to the pending to the completed. Here is a racist (singular) to be managed, spoken to, confronted with their actions, relocated to another team.
By contrast, racial grief is unmanageable, difficult to articulate, unquantifiable. There is no plural form for racial grief, and there is no singular, which is another way of saying there is no beginning and no end. There are no lists or forms or processes or ways to fit it into public life; there is only the way it lives in the interior self. It is what the identity politics scholars Linda Martín Alcoff and Satya P. Mohanty call ‘unfathomable inner phenomena’, which, they argue, should really be seen as ‘disguised explanations of social relations’. Racial grief is when an employer does not employ you but does not tell you why and the reasons might be racially motivated or they might not be and if you mention the potential that they could be racially motivated you are accused of ‘playing the race card’. Racial grief is when an employer does hire you and you or those in your workplace wonder if you are the ‘diversity pick’ but the wondering is intangible and can never be spoken in public. Racial grief is when a woman working at the university you teach at who you have never met accuses you of having stolen a chair and demands to see your ID card and photographs it and when you wonder if this is related at all to your race she yells ‘Fuck! Stop playing the race card. I should show you my phone wallpaper of my husband and two kids. He’s Filipino.’ Racial grief is when you are speaking to your friend who has recently moved to the other side of Australia on the phone while buying bacon in the supermarket and a woman approaches you and yells at you for being rude and sneers that no one wants to hear your conversation. You say nothing because your friend is telling you an intricate and funny story about her mother’s partner. The woman approaches you three more times to tell you how angry she is and then your friend hears her and goes silent on her end and says ‘What was that?’ and you can’t explain. Racial grief is when you are waiting to cross at the lights and a woman holding a bottle of lemon juice stares at you with an expression you can’t quite interpret until she says ‘Stop fucking staring at me’, and takes out her keys as a defensive weapon, and says ‘Don’t fucking come an inch.’ Racial grief is when it is raining heavily and you are waiting for the tram with a mostly useless umbrella and a man starts staring at you with thinly suppressed rage. ‘You’re dripping water all over my bag,’ he says, and you feel strange; after all, the world is pouring water all over everything in it at the moment. You apologise, but his rage only increases. ‘That’ll be the last time it happens, then,’ he says. Racial grief is every time you tell a white person about these experiences and they ask if the woman was on drugs or if she wasn’t all there or if you maybe did drip water over the man.
Racial grief is having nothing tangible to tell anyone; you weren’t called any names, so how do you know it was racism, and can’t white people experience bullying, too? Racial grief is the way the past embeds itself in your body. Why live somewhere where everything can kill you?
Hansonism is an Australian adaptation of Yellow Perilism, the idea that an Asian Invasion of the West, and eventually the entire world, is imminent. The scholar Yen Le Espiritu describes the scale of this feared invasion as spanning ‘military invasion and foreign trade from Asia, competition to White labour from Asian labour, the alleged moral degeneracy of Asian people, and potential miscegenation between whites and Asians.’ The term ‘yellow peril’ originated in the late nineteenth century, when the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II dreamed of a Buddha sitting atop a dragon and taking Europe. He had an illustration of the scene made, which he circulated to European and American political leaders, and which was published in the US magazine Harper’s in 1898. The illustration showed an angel persuading Europe to defend itself against the evil forces of Asia, as represented by the crusading Buddha. From this point, the fear of an Asian invasion which proliferated throughout Australia, America and Europe during the nineteenth century gained an image: one which could stick itself to the Asian body.
Swamps are abject because they do not just cross borders, but disrupt the very notion of the border. They are amphibious zones, neither land exactly nor water. This is the status of the Asian in Australia. As Cathy Park Hong puts it in Minor Feelings, her electric book on Asian America, ‘We don’t even have enough presence to be considered real minorities. We’re not racial enough to be token.’ Forever told by white politicians, friends and colleagues that we are next in line for whiteness, and yet our experience tells us the opposite. In a 2019 study of 4,600 Australian school students, 45 per cent of East Asians reported that they have experienced racial insults, the highest rate of any racial group in Australia. Asian Australians are in a double bind. To deny that we have experienced racism forces us to lie to ourselves and others, and yet our admissions open us up to further racism: accusations that there is something wrong with us, that we are oversensitive, that we can’t get along with others. Asian Australians are under constant pressure to perform ‘Good Asianness’ – to ‘assimilate’, as Hanson would have it. I find such performances of ‘assimilation’ in myself and others self-abasing and abject. But who can blame us when our individual bodies, our smallest actions, are rendered symbolic of an entire continent of people’s worth, importance, ethics, character?
Water is not
only in swa
mps but can swamp. Swa
mp is not just noun, but also verb.
Water knows no bounds Water drowns
In drowning, water over
comes the boundary between the in
side and outside of the body
— Rod Giblett, ‘Theology of Wetlands and Marsh Monsters’
(formatting my own)
The first anti-Asian legislation to be passed in Australia was the 1855 Victorian ‘Act to Make Provisions for Certain Immigrants’. In response to the global gold rush and the influx of goldseekers that came with it, a tax of ten pounds per Chinese immigrant and a limit of one Chinese immigrant for every ten tonnes of cargo was imposed in Victoria. This law was passed under the hot sun of anti-Chinese public sentiment. The Chinese were considered a heathen, diseased, untrustworthy and inferior race by the White Australian public and newspapers. Furthermore, amongst mining workers they were considered as competition who were ‘stealing’ jobs from white labourers.
Chinese immigrants to Australia came mostly from Southern China, and were fleeing war and famine. To avoid the Victorian restrictions, ships docked at South Australia. Many people made the 800-kilometre journey, on foot, from the South Australian town of Robe to Victoria, a trek that took at least three weeks and was laden with ambushes and other dangers. According to a descendant of a Chinese miner, these immigrants would leave warnings and directions to mining camps carved in Chinese on trees for future travellers. Once the workers made it to the goldmines they were subject to violence, bullying and abuse.
At times, the steady flow of resentment against Chinese immigrants would become a flash flood. During the 1857 Buckland riots, a mob of ninety White Australians descended on a Chinese encampment without warning, burning down buildings and tents, destroying belongings and beating more than 2,500 immigrants with sticks and stones. The immi- grants fled in a state of shock and confusion; an unknown number were killed. They were beaten to death, died from exposure to the cold, or drowned in the river as they tried to escape. The records cannot say how many bodies sank in that river rushing with gold and water. The Buckland River is still alive. It’s a beautiful place, in the way that much of Australia is a beautiful place. Cellophane leaves in yellow and green and sun softened by overhanging trees. Camping, fishing and swimming. Water the murky rainbow of fish skin.
Pauline Hanson remains something of an outsider, or political misfit. But in Australia’s history, anti-Asian sentiments like those she espoused are actually among the few things many White Australians have agreed on. These ideas cross party lines and geographical boundaries; they are linked inextricably to Australia’s conception and birth as a nation. The promise of a nationwide anti-Asian ban was one of the key motivators for Australian states to federate in 1901, and one of the first bills that Parliament passed that same year was what is now known as the White Australia Policy, a series of policies that restricted Asian (and other non-white) immigration to Australia.
Racism against Asian Australians in Australian culture is traditionally slippery, dishonest, and very difficult to pin down: it is far more preoccupied with avoiding accusations of racism than dealing with racism itself. While we now think of it as the clearest example of anti-Asian racism in the country’s history, the White Australia Policy was, crucially, never called the White Australia policy, nor was it ever an explicit immigration ban. In his book The Burden of White Supremacy, David C. Atkinson explains that when the White Australia Policy was being conceived in Parliament it was the subject of a long and bitter public and political debate, yet the question was not whether a ban against Asian immigration should be passed, but rather how forthcoming Australia should be about the racialised nature of this ban. The terms of the debate were not ‘Should we do this’, or ’Is it right to do this’, but rather, ‘How can we do this without being caught?’
The newly federated Australian Parliament had hoped to pass an outright ban on Asian immigrants, but Britain intervened – not because they considered such a ban unjust, but because William Chamberlain, the Secretary of State of the British colonies, feared that Australia would ‘embarrass’ Britain by offending parts of the Commonwealth and other useful allies, which included Japan. Chamberlain suggested that Australia instead use the Natal Formula, a dictation test which had been passed in South Africa the previous year. The test required prospective non-white immigrants to transcribe an application form in front of an immigration officer, writing their name, address, employment details, date of birth and a lengthy passage in ‘the characters of any language of Europe’. The applicant would not be told which language they were to be tested in beforehand, and the immigration officer would select a European language of which they were sure the applicant had no prior knowledge. The results were carefully designed to imply not that Australian society was hostile to the immigrant themselves, but that the immigrant lacked sufficient education to properly participate in Australian society.
The parliamentary debate over whether the Natal Formula should be used revolved mostly around the idea that it was not a solid enough defence of White Australia’s racial purity against the national disaster of Asian immigration. The parliamentary debate, the cloudburst, went like this:
Here is the coloured flood George Reid (MP for East Sydney):
coming in upon us, and we feel
that we cannot have any holes
in the dyke; we feel
Situated as we are so near
these hundreds of millions of
. . . we must set up at once a clear
barrier against the invasion
of coloured labour.
Charles Kingston (Premier of South Australia)
Australia, and the exclusion . . . of anything
in the shape of
There is something higher James Ronald (MP for Southern Melbourne)
and greater than
the making of money
to be considered, and that is the character, the morals,
and the health of our children.
keep before us the noble ideal
of a White Australia
— a snow-white Australia
if you will…
Let it be
pure and spotless.
James Hume Cook (MP for Bourke) For the safety of the Australian
nation, for the good of her
national life, we require that
shall be white
Thomas Ewing (MP for Richmond)
we are surrounded by hundreds
of thousands of
The Asiatic immigrant is nothing King O’Malley (MP for Tasmania)
more or less than a coffee-coloured, copper-headed
viper in the bosom of the Commonwealth, and
if we do not kill
will kill us.
William Hughes (MP for West Sydney) We object to these people because
of their vices, and of their immorality, and because
of a hundred things which
we can only
The debate around Asian immigration that occurred in Australia’s first Parliament does not feel anachronistic in its racism, as one might expect, but strikingly contemporary. Hanson was not the first senator to think of Asians as a body of water that would overtake Australia. Binaries were set up between the potential good Asian immigration might do for the economy, and the moral imperative to protect future generations of White Australians from the dangers of crime and societal dysfunction that were invariably associated with immigrant bodies. It did not occur to Parliament that half the sitting senators were themselves first-generation immigrants, mostly from the UK. When challenged, senators complained that they were victims of censorship.
The first Parliament was composed entirely of White Australian men of European or Anglo-Celtic descent. The current and forty-fourth Parliament of Australia looks a lot like the same people in different clothing. A 2018 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission confirmed that 95 per cent of senators are White Australian men and women of European or Anglo-Celtic descent. Of federal and state government heads, the figure is 99 per cent.
Australia’s small Indian community sent a petition to Chamberlain when the ban was declared. They noted India’s loyalty to the Empire to the point of agreeing to go to war to defend Britain, their willingness ‘to give their blood whenever the British Government has asked for water’. Referring to their position as Australians, they wrote that they could not ‘understand how it is that our own Government now wish to separate us from herself and to put us as strangers along with the outside nations of the world.’ In response, Chamberlain told the Australian governor general to convey a disingenuous reply, insisting that the bill ‘does not appear to cast any reflection upon any class of His Majesty’s subjects’. Similarly, when the Japanese government pointed out that the strong wording of the parliamentary debate belied any notion that the ban was merely for ensuring Australia’s immigrants were educated, the British foreign secretary, the Marquess of Lansdowne, replied tersely that the act ‘contains no sign of discrimination’.
In the end, Edmund Barton, the first prime minister of Australia, decided that the Natal Formula should be used and Britain’s ‘embarrassment’ spared. He reasoned that Australia should defer to Britain’s wishes because ‘surrounded as Australia is by hundreds of millions of yellow men, she is powerless to play a lone hand. Without the protection of Great Britain she would be absolutely submerged and destroyed.’ In other words, the presence of Asian immigrants in Australia constituted a kind of national gang rape, a miscegenation and ultimately a drowning of Australia’s white, feminised body politic.
Julia Kristeva defines the abject as that which crosses borders. According to this logic, the first Parliament of Australia reasoned that the Asian body is safe enough when contained in another country, but from the moment it crosses Australian borders, it becomes contagion, swamp, disease, pollutant. The coloniser’s fear of contamination, writes Sara Ahmed, is linked to the closeness of the racialised body, the threat of its touch.
Barton and his parliament followed the logic of Yellow Perilism, which thinks of skin as a national border. Skin is the moment before the cut or the embrace: the most vulnerable of all borders to being transgressed. The closeness of yellow skin, its stickiness, was foremost in the minds of the first Parliament, as a symbol of disease and danger. The Asiatic wears its high-vis skin as a fluorescent warning sign of otherness. It might, as King O’Malley, the member for Tasmania, said, be a ‘viper that will kill us’, yet it cannot ever shed its skin.
Sample paragraphs used in 1925 for the dictation test:
From 1–15 September:
The need for mental stillness, for quiet and balance is obvious. People are too excited. Let us think how null and void our revolutionary efforts are when tested by reality. Yet the fruitful results in our private lives and public efforts spring almost always from quiet reflection and mature contemplation.
From 1–15 October:
Water as a liquid concerns us because our lives, like that of other living creatures, whether they be human, animal or vegetable, from the biggest mammoth to the tiniest microbe, are dependent on water. Therefore, as far as we know, where there is no liquid water, there is no life.
The Immigration Restriction Act was passed in 1901 by a newly federated Parliament and was never officially dismantled. The restrictions it imposed on non-white, non-European immigrants to Australia were only eased when Gough Whitlam’s Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 made it no longer possible to discriminate against future migrants based on their race. In 2007, the Australian citizenship test was introduced. Ostensibly, it existed to test applicants’ knowledge of Australia, of Australian values and one’s responsibilities as an Australian citizen. My mum took the citizenship test. She found it easy, having attended a convent school run by British nuns in the last days of colonial Malaysia. But in the same room was a Chinese man for whom English was a second language. He was shaking like a greyhound in an unfamiliar room. And she saw who the test was really for. The need for mental stillness, for quiet and balance is obvious. People are too excited. Let us think how null and void our revolutionary efforts are when tested by reality.
The fear of immigrants coming here, ‘forming ghettos’, as Hanson would have it, is fundamentally dishonest. The idea of a White Australia connotes a wholesome, simple, prelapsarian time when Australia was free of non-white people, a conception that erases Indigenous peoples from its history. It’s a fundamentally insecure form of racism, always asserting its claim to country while knowing it has no real claim to country at all.
The desire to preserve a White Australia – an Australia, as supreme court justice H. B. Higgins in the first Parliament put it, in which ‘we do not want yellow and black faces’ – is not just a case of cognitive dissonance. Australia’s first Parliament did not ignore the Indigenous population in order to soothe themselves; they actually believed and hoped that they would die out. As Attorney General Alfred Deakin said:
There is that single exception of a dying race; and if they be a dying race, let us hope that in their last hours they will be able to recognise not simply the justice, but the generosity of the treatment which the white race, who are dispossessing them and entering into their heritage, are according them.
In 1794, the massacring of Indigenous Australians by British soldiers, police forces and settlers began. There are at least 270 recorded massacres of Indigenous people between 1794 and 1928; they occurred in every state of Australia. The erasure of Indigenous people that began with these massacres has continued well into the twenty-first century with settler theft, dispossession, pollution and ‘development’; all attempts to demolish not just the land itself but Indigenous connection to this land, borne of a firm belief in, desire for, their extinction.
In Wiradjuri writer Jeanine Leane’s poem ‘Bridge over the River Memory’, the Indigenous narrator recalls being told by settler teachers that the Prince Alfred Bridge, over the Murrumbidgee River, was the longest red gum bridge in the world, and that Australia had one of the shortest histories of any country. Across the course of a single lesson, the teachers managed both to disappear Indigenous history and ownership over the land and to showboat settler ‘innovation’. In response to this erasure, Leane’s poem thinks of the river water as a repository for the memory of Indigenous people’s long pre-settlement history with the land.
The water under the bridge ripples over
my memory now. The bend of the
Murrumbidgee – a deep archive –
flows steady and slow.
The poem concludes with a striking image of the river water and the memories it stores almost enveloping its surroundings:
Sometimes the river rose so high it swallowed
the bridge and the town. Short history almost
washed away by higher, older tides
In 1837, after at least 60,000 years of Indigenous ownership, Melbourne was ‘founded’ by white settlers. The colonial invaders who ‘created’ Melbourne considered the expansion of its westward suburbs important to its success as a new city. In order to do this, they decided to drain what they called the West Melbourne Swamp. These plans were first hatched in the 1850s, but only undertaken in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The West Melbourne Swamp is believed to have once covered 407 hectares of saltwater and marshland at the junction of the Maribyrnong and the Birrarung-Yarra River, to the eastern side of the Moonee Ponds Creek. Prior to colonial settlement, the swamp was central to the lives of the Kulin nation. The swamp provided sustenance (food, medicinal plants and other materials) and was the site of gatherings where clans of four different language groups camped together. Indigenous writer Tony Birch has suggested that ‘the vast network of wetlands surrounding the Birrarung… previously acted as both a repository of life and a sponge, absorbing and distributing water across large tracts of land.’ The traditional owners of the land did not, and do not, view waterways as a mere resource to be ‘governed’, as Birch writes: controlled, or taken from. Therefore, as far as we know, where there is no liquid water, there is no life.
Early colonial accounts of the swamp, like that of the celebrated journalist Edmund Finn, describe it in mythical terms: ‘The waters were bright and sparkling; and wooed by the fragrant acacias, shaking their golden blossom curls.’ John Batman, who is popularly believed to be the ‘founder’ of Melbourne, recounted visiting the swamp in 1835, wading through the marshland, observing thousands of quail, ducks, geese and swans.
He shoots some. He names the land after himself. Following the usual Western fetish for taxonomy, colonial settlers over subsequent generations have named and re-named the swamp like a stray dog changing owners: Batman’s lagoon, Batman’s swamp, North Melbourne Swamp, the West Melbourne Swamp.
Today, the West Melbourne Swamp is a disappeared place, so long gone that it’s unclear where it used to be. It is a placeless place, one that resists mapping. Its invisibility mirrors the invisibility both of Asian bodies and of racism against Asian bodies in Australia, throughout history and into the present. Our invisibility is two-pronged: not only are we as mundane and unseeable as air, but the trauma of the racism we face is also invisible. There is not really any clear site of trauma to memorialise; there is no defining moment in Australian history, no battlefield. There are instead merely traces, a no man’s land, a vague sense.
In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler suggests that the bodies of marginalised peoples are ‘derealised’, and therefore placed outside of the framework of the ‘human’. Butler defines the human as that which is made familiar, often by being rooted in quotidian personal details: names, faces, stories. In her discussion of the ‘unreal’ and ‘ungrievable’ Arab bodies killed as part of the ‘War on Terror’, Butler uses the example of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was murdered by terrorists, to describe what makes a ‘grievable life’. She writes:
Mourning Daniel Pearl presents no problem for me or for my family of origin. His is a familiar name, a familiar face, a story about education that I understand and share… in relation to him, I am not disturbed by the proximity of the unfamiliar… his story takes me home and tempts me to stay there.
By contrast, Butler writes, the bodies of Palestinians and Afghan people killed are made unfamiliar and anonymous, characterised by an absence of individuating detail. She asks: ‘Do they have names and faces, personal histories, family, favourite hobbies, slogans by which they live?’ For Butler, the derealisation of such bodies makes the enactment of violence towards them possible and justifiable. A person’s human rights cannot be negated, she reasons, if they were never human in the first place. These discourses of derealisation are, in and of themselves, acts of violence: ‘It is one thing to argue that first, on the level of discourse, certain lives are not considered lives at all… it is another thing to say that discourse itself effects violence through omission.’ It is this violence of omission that I am concerned with. What it means to be an ellipsis instead of a word. A humanlike body, as opposed to a human. If the Asian body doesn’t exist in Australia’s history, then by that logic, there is no injury done to this body.
As if he was Adam amongst animals, John Batman named the West Melbourne Swamp after himself. Hanson called us ‘Asians’. Now, I name myself. I call us Asian bodies. I call us ‘Asian bodies’, not ‘Asian people’ or ‘Asian selves’, because the word ‘bodies’ gestures towards the way othered selves are objectified. But I also use the word to reclaim the Asian as not just a signifier, but a body of flesh and blood which is soft and hard, tender and difficult, sick and well, hurt and hurting, real and living. It is a way of asserting the human-ness of a body in a world which sees it as an object.
When I first went abroad, I experienced a cheap pleasure that I have never tasted in Australia. I was considered ‘Australian’. On a heavily discounted Malaysian Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to London that I took not too long after MAS370 disappeared, the plane began jolting and I found myself surrounded by terrified Brits. The British man next to me told me I’d be fine because of my outback Australian toughness. As an Asian body, I had never previously been considered a strong body, an outback body or a heroic body. These old White Australian tropes of Australia’s self-mythologising – the tough, capable Australian woman; the rugged bushman – tell us that the Australian landscape is as dangerous as it is mundane. White Australia has always had an antagonistic relationship with the country over which it so desperately tries to assert ownership. As Nayuka Gorrie writes, this antagonism is intrinsically linked to the perceived threat posed by Indigenous peoples’ true claim to the land. Indigenous connection to the land, Gorrie argues, is impossible to express in English, and therefore impossible for the Anglo settler to know:
The limitations and lack of sophistication in the English language, and that there is no word for this feeling, means the Anglo settler doesn’t get to experience this and can not possibly know this feeling. This was long traded by their ancestors. They can’t understand what it means to be able to connect the blood coursing through your body to ancestors’ blood soaked in ancient soil and ancient trees. To sit in a tree that saw your people birthed, your people massacred, and now your people’s resistance is a feeling that the English language will never be able to capture… This connection is a threat. It is a feeling that reinforces our rights to this land. This connection must, therefore, by the logic of the settler state, be destroyed.
It takes only twenty years before the colonial settlers decide that the West Melbourne Swamp is an inhibition to their plans for the city’s westward expansion. Unlike a clear piece of land, wetlands cannot be farmed, and unlike rivers or lakes, they cannot be used as canals. In the absence of any clear purpose, the swamp becomes a dumping site for the city’s unwanted rubbish and sewage. Unsurprisingly, it soon takes on a murkier and muddier appearance and becomes associated with disease and pollution. By the 1870s, the swamp has been rechristened the West Melbourne Tip, carrying waste and other detritus from North Melbourne, Footscray, Kensington and Flemington. In 1873, the Low Lands Commission recommends that the area be drained in an effort to ‘reclaim’ it and make the city unlimited. The swamp is drained. It floods again. It is drained again. It floods again. It is drained.
Recently, I spoke to a friend who works at Melbourne Water about the West Melbourne Swamp. She told me two things: first, that you’d be hard pressed to find a place that bears less of a resemblance to what it used to be. And that the bottom of the catchment is still very prone to flooding: you can take the landscape out of the land, but it still remembers.
Around the time of the Great Depression, the West Melbourne Swamp became a shanty town. Frederick Oswald Barnett, a social reformer who visited during a tour of Melbourne’s slums with the Victorian Premier, declared it the ‘most squalid slum in the whole of Melbourne’. A reporter from The Age described the Swamp as ‘alive with rats and vermin from the dumps’. He also wrote: ‘The people here pleaded not to be evicted’.
The ghettos we form. Footscray was where we all used to go on weekends for groceries and noodle soup. It was seen as dirty, drug-infested and dangerous by everyone but us. And yet, like other inner-Western suburbs, Footscray is gradually gentrifying, as cafés, ‘cool’ young white couples, trendy churches and the like, now begin renting and buying the land where important histories have disappeared. In 2016, when the Little Saigon Market, a hub for Melbourne’s Vietnamese and Chinese populations, burnt down, there was no re-building, it was just gone. The carpark still filled with the sticky, savoury-smelling debris of fruit and meat. The boxes still there. Boarded up and covered in ripped posters advertising music festivals that will never happen. The red scaffolding still charred and wounded like a monument to the emptiness of monuments. It’s still there, though; mostly destroyed, it looks you in the eyes every time you walk past.
We are part of the Asian Swamp and, like the West Melbourne Swamp, the place that was drained to make space for me, where I have lived, worked, caught the train and walked without knowing it used to be there, we are an invisible part of the urban landscape. We swamps, we are named, re-named, turned into a rubbish tip for the detritus of Australia’s worst fears. We are ghettos. We are national panic dreams. We are states of emergency that you cannot really see. We are pollutants, taking your sons and daughters and infecting them with our love. We are diseases, oozing out of where we came from like pus. We are alive with rats and vermin. We are abject, neither here nor there, neither white nor black, neither human nor non-human, both seen and unseen. Forever foreigners, who are never at home but are always the unexpected guests, pausing on the threshold, unsure whether we should take off our shoes. We have to be subdued, controlled, watched. In all our abjection, in every tiny act of assimilation and every tiny act of resistance, we are pleading not to be evicted with a landlord who doesn’t own his land.
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