English actor Daniel Day-Lewis once said: ‘A voice is such a deep, personal reflection of character.’¹ The only male actor in history to have won three Academy Awards for Best Actor, Day-Lewis is famous for his devotion to and research of his roles. While playing Christy Brown, the Irish painter who was born with cerebral palsy and was able to control only his left foot, the actor practically lived in a wheelchair on the set for weeks and crew members were required to spoon-feed him. He stayed so long in his wheelchair that he damaged two ribs.²
Still, if the 1989 film ‘My Left Foot’ were to be re-made today, would there be anxious demand that an authentic user of wheelchair be hired to play the lead role?
Fast-forward to 2014, when English actor Eddie Redmayne won the Academy Award (and others) for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in ‘The Theory of Everything’. In an interview, Redmayne said: ‘Actors are actors, and there should be a complete fluidity for anyone to play anything.’³
Yet, some of us are more likely to favour these words from Redmayne on another occasion: ‘If you are playing someone living, it is a different type of judgement. However much work you do, it is not a documentary. There will be things you can’t get right, and ultimately, you have to take a leap because – you weren’t there.’⁴ Isn’t this the reason why we support Own Voices as a response to the commonly criticised notion of ‘cultural appropriation’?
As an Asian-Australian writer, with English being my second language, I am acutely aware that however hard I try, my writing can never be as accurate, fluent and elegant as those produced by some of the best native English writers out there. Nor can I ever imagine that my personal experience as an Asian Australian can be seen as being representative of any other Asian, Australian or Asian Australian life – because it isn’t and shouldn’t be.
So, when I read complaints on social media such as ‘my culture is not your goddamn prom dress’,⁵ or Yi-Fen Chou’s sister saying ‘Chinese names are typically unique ... the combination of characters generally means something to the family [and the name] Yi-Fen is unique to our family and given to my sister by our paternal grandfather’ while using her English name ‘Ellen’ plus her title ‘Communications Director with the US Department of Defence’s Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defence for Acquisition’ in her public condemnation of Michael Derrick Hudson⁶ – what was the first thing that came to my mind?
That same thing came to my mind when I read Leah Jing’s recollection of the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States, as well as the discrimination suffered by her great-grandfather and grandfather, which led to her conclusion that ‘when there are untold decades of racism, literally built into legislation, it’s hard to dismiss a white teenager’s casual appropriation of Chinese culture as nothing more than ‘just a dress’.’⁷
It was this question: What is ‘my culture’ to Asian Americans and, in this case, Asian Australians? More importantly: What is ‘I’, what is ‘we’, and what is ‘mine’ or ‘ours’? Can anyone truly occupy the imagined position as the spokesperson of what they perceive to be ‘their culture’, while considering the action of another individual or group as being representative of an equally complex, multifaceted and ever-evolving culture?
To these questions I have no answers. However, I do remember reading about CE Morgan, who was selected as a ‘5 Under 35’ by America’s National Book Foundation in 2010 and, like our own Helen Garner (2016), Noelle Janaczewska (2014) and Ali Cobby Eckermann (2017), is a recipient of Yale University’s prestigious Windham-Campbell Literature Prize (2016).⁸ When asked ‘Why write about race and what for? Why enter and inhabit race from both black and white perspectives?’, Morgan’s response is worthy of being quoted to some length:
I was taught as a young person that the far political right and the far political left aren’t located on a spectrum but on a circle, where they inevitably meet in their extremity. This question always reminds me of that graphic because its central irony is that it tacitly asserts a fundamental difference, an ineradicable, ontological estrangement, between the races. It establishes race as such a special category of difference that the writer needs to approach it apologetically, even deferentially, without the real agency, power, and passion that define mature artistry. That approach is servile, cowardly, anti-artistic. It’s also anti-novelistic, because the project of the novel is founded on the inhabitation and depiction of the Other. And the Other is everywhere and every thing, including the so-called self.
As one Asian Australian who is still exploring the nature and significance of cultural identity, I keep Morgan’s words in mind as I continue to write, read and review. I believe that all of us see our world only through our personal experiences of it, which is and continues to be everything that we have learned from our family, community, school and the mass media (including but not limited to books and the Internet). And that is all. We cannot see beyond this, hence our understanding of our world is always limited and, unavoidably, full of stereotypes.
As American science fiction author Nancy Kress warns: ‘A stereotype may be negative or positive, but even positive stereotypes present two problems: They are cliches, and they present a human being as far more simple and uniform than any human being actually is.’¹⁰ Worse, if we continue to rely on cliches that reduce individuals and communities as ‘simple and uniform’, then it is highly likely that our stereotypes will turn into prejudices.
It also remains my belief that Asian Australians are unique precisely because we are Australians. As perhaps the most multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual nation in the world, we can do better than labelling those around us with colours. Unlike many of my fellow Asian-Australian writers who were native English speakers, I am constantly seeing different types of Asian, Australian and Asian-Australian identities being formed, standardised and widely circulated in both English and Chinese worlds, by those who insist their voices deserve to be heard because they are speaking on behalf of those whom they consider to be without a voice. All sorts of walls are being constructed everyday, but we can choose to build bridges.
Here is for you, something else I was recently privileged to learn: ‘Perceiving your own voice means perceiving your true self or true nature. Then you and the sound are never separate, which means that you and the whole universe are never separate. Thus, to perceive our true nature is to perceive universal substance.’¹¹
I hope these words from Korean Seon master Seung Sahn could be of some value to you, whether you are Asian, Australian or Asian Australian.
- Glenn Whipp, 'Watch Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis talk 'Lincoln'', 'Los Angeles Times', October 11, 2012 (http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/11/entertainment/la-et-mn-lincoln-steven-spielberg-daniel-day-lewis-20121011)
- 'Daniel Day-Lewis aims for perfection', 'The Telegraph', February 22, 2008 (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1579473/Daniel-Day-Lewis-aims-for-perfection.html)
- Horatia Harrod, 'Eddie Redmayne on 'The Theory of Everything': 'there were so many levels of anxiety'', 'The Telegraph', January 12, 2015 (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/11338947/Eddie-Redmayne-on-The-Theory-of-Everything-there-were-so-many-levels-of-anxiety.html)
- Kate Kellaway, 'Eddie Redmayne: 'To play Hawking I had to train my body like a dancer'', 'The Guardian', December 7, 2014 (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/dec/07/eddie-redmayne-to-play-hawking-i-had-to-train-my-body-like-a-dancer)
- 'Teenager's 'offensive' prom dress triggers massive backlash on social media', 'Women in the World', May 1, 2018 (https://womenintheworld.com/2018/05/01/teenagers-offensive-prom-dress-triggers-massive-backlash-on-social-media/)
- Christine Yunn-Yu Sun, 'Sites of Belonging', 'Overland', September 23, 2015 (https://overland.org.au/2015/09/sites-of-belonging/)
- Leah Jing, ''It's just a dress': when westerners love our culture, but hate us', SBS, May 4, 2018 (https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/culture/article/2018/05/04/its-just-dress-when-westerners-love-our-culture-hate-us)
- Anthony Domestico, ''I Want Soul': An Interview with CE Morgan', 'Commonweal Magazine', May 19, 2016 (https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/i-want-soul)
- Nancy Kress, 'Who's a Stereotype?' 'Writer's Digest', March 11, 2008 (http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-all-articles/qp7-migration-fiction/whos_a_stereotype)
- 'Perceive Universal Sound', Kwan Um School of Zen, an interview with Zen Master Seung Sahn, first printed in 'The American Theosophist', May 1985 and reprinted with permission in 'Primary Paint', volume 5, number 3 (November 1988), October 31, 1988 (https://kwanumzen.org/teaching-library/1988/11/01/perceive-universal-sound)