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Towards an Australian "voice"

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Butterfly Song, Terri Janke, Penguin  2004, ISBN 0-14-300262-7, rrp $22.95

Behind the Moon, Hsu-Ming Teo, Allen and Unwin 2005, ISBN 1-74114-243-1, rrp $22.95


By emphasising cultural distinctiveness, recent novels by two young female authors advance the development of an Australian ‘voice’. Literary voice expresses social mores, represents characters and creates a space and language for dialogue between subcultures. The central characters in Terri Janke’s Butterfly Song and Hsu-Ming Teo’s Behind the Moon are young people exploring their identities within a diverse and dynamic Australian society. The novels demonstrate that while there are some common Australian traits, there is no one way to look, sound and behave as an Australian. Australian writing is similarly difficult to define but is distinguished by freshness, a dry sense of humour and an understated anti-authoritarianism.


The narrator of Butterfly Song, a young Murri named Tarena, attends a ‘tombstone unveiling’ on Thursday Island. Although Tarena has just completed her final law exams, Tarena’s mother urges her to investigate the ownership of a butterfly carved from pearl shell and turned into a brooch. Tarena’s mother and uncle believe that their father Kit made the carving for their mother Francesca, and as it was neither sold nor given away, it is rightfully theirs. Tarena’s search is engrossing enough, but several sub-plots and analogical themes enrich this thought provoking novel. Gazing towards the ocean Tarena says: ‘I see other islands in the blue distance…. like stepping stones to another world’. Tarena’s hunt for the provenance of the brooch leads to discoveries about her family and herself. Becoming more secure in her family relationships, she forms a constructive attitude to her future within a legal system that in 1992, before the ‘Mabo’ decision, seemed hostile to Indigenous people.


This novel is a stepping stone to entertainment but also to knowledge, empathy and understanding. Janke writes engagingly and her story tells itself. She does not preach, but rather recounts good humouredly, with this gentle humour even extending to Tarena’s experience of racism. While some non-Indigenous people deny the truth of dispossession, no fair minded reader will be threatened by Janke’s understated style. At school, asked about Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo, Tarena lazily objects that being by a non-Aboriginal writer, ‘that’s got nothing to do with me’. As with the output of so many other Indigenous writers, such as Colin Johnson, Kevin Gilbert, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Philip McLaren and Sam Watson, pigeon-holing belittles Janke’s work. While Janke’s novel is informed by her heritage and sub-cultural experiences, her work is unique, just as Tarena is a complex individual who cannot be reduced to racial caricature.


Janke’s use of short sentences makes the narrative style consistent with the dialogue. The sequence is thematic rather than strictly linear, so Tarena’s 1992 adventures are interspersed with tales of her childhood, her parents and grandparents. Janke leads the reader so gently that even the most unlikely scenes are acceptable. When Kit dies and appears to his beloved Francesca, the scene could become melodramatic, but Janke makes it seem feasible. Janke’s unpretentious language is surprisingly rich. Of her childhood home Tarena says

Cairns never looks as good in postcards as it really is. If Cairns were a painting, it would be an abstract swirl of red, blue and purple, with a childhood yellow claiming one corner.


If a person, Cairns would be ‘an old wise woman with big breasts that sag from years of nurturing children’.


Tarena feels alienated from the blank faces in Sydney where she studies. Finding that ‘friendliness and smiling are not part of the code of conduct’, Tarena remarks: ‘Terra Nullius. I have got terra nullius of the brain. They have got terra nullius of the heart’. The intangibles that came with the Mabo decision are as important as the material fact of the land. Sam, a guitarist and singer, learns a song about a butterfly that Kit wrote for Francesca. Tarena remembers that her mother could hum the tune, but did not know the words. ‘And now Sam has given them back to us. Life moves in mysterious ways. I hug Sam. “Thank you”, I whisper’.


The butterfly was stolen not by its present owner but at a distance. The same applies to Aboriginal and Islander land, culture, identity and autonomy, as those who seek to undermine reconciliation conveniently forget. Tarena’s journey of reclamation succeeds because the brooch’s owner sees the injustice of the current situation. The language of Butterfly Song is deceptively simple. Tarena laments, ‘I can’t remember where I am and now I have forgotten the language of rain’. Indigenous peoples have been deprived of so many cultural underpinnings of their identities, but others of us have lost the ability to think critically, to feel compassion and to make ethical decisions. As with many works by Indigenous writers and artists, Butterfly Song speaks subtly of complex themes. Readers should not think that lack of cathedrals with intricate architecture means absence of spirituality. Rather, we should seize the opportunity to assess what is important in our own lives, beliefs and culture. This could heal our ‘terra nullius of the heart’.


While both works are complex and multi-faceted, Hsu-Ming Teo’s work, like Janke’s explores the pressures on young people squeezed between the demands of a dominant culture and the hopes of their families. Justin Cheong, Tien Ho and Nigel Gibson are schoolmates who explore the boundaries of friendship as they grow to adulthood. They bring to their relationships the shared experiences of their generation, the diversity of their family backgrounds and the individuality of their personal identities.


Each chapter is prefaced with an extract from the Vietnamese poem, Nguyen Du’s ‘The Tale of Kieu’, and reading these ‘scented pages’ is itself pleasurable. Du warns of the painful choice between ‘love and filial duty’. Justin (Jay), whose parents are Singaporean Chinese and whose mother, Annabelle is obsessive about cleanliness (especially in toilets,) creates tension at the ‘Dead Diana Party’, by declaring his sexual orientation as a ‘Rice Queen’.


Nigel (Gibbo), whose father served in Vietnam and knew Linh, Tien’s mother, declares his love for Linh, stalks her and becomes the subject of a restraining order. Tien declares her independence and her Australian credentials by marrying an artist and moving to California. Tien, who was raised in her extended family, is angry towards her mother for abandoning her, but when she treats Linh badly, she learns something else. ‘Tien never realised how much she wanted her family’s approval until they withdrew it’. In the USA she tries to locate the man who fathered her while he was in Vietnam, and breaks with the husband who treats her as one of his ‘cosmopolitan accessories.'


All three friends, and not just the two with the ‘immigrant’ appearance, feel isolated from their parents, but after traumatic experiences discover a new closeness. The three families are reunited after Justin is bashed by gay haters. This partly explains why some friendships survive and others are ‘as weak as water, sparkling and slipping away through cupped fingers, leaving only the impression of wetness and a thirst unquenched’.


In Hsu-Ming Teo’s novel, Singlish is used to great effect, Vietnamese culture is exposed positively and the problems for an Anglo family with a welcoming attitude are presented in some complexity. In the sweet melodies of Cantonese influence, Annabelle tells Justin that he will take speech lessons from Gibbo’s mother: ‘Wah, Jay. See how Mrs Gibson speaks so good English! Got standards, leh …. Must want. Cannot don’t want’.


People are supported by their cultures but can also be overwhelmed by them. No single experience represents the positions of all Indigenous people or the perspectives of all immigrants. The young people in these novels must negotiate both with the broader society and with the older generations of their sub-cultural origins. As feminists have observed of the experience of being a woman, identity is as much thrust upon us from outside as created within. Indigenous people and immigrants including refugees can be excluded, marginalised or kept in prescribed sub-cultural places.


In her recent novel, The Apricot Colonel, Marion Halligan has her narrator explain that she loves novels because ‘They write us down and in doing so cause us to exist’. Some artists anticipate the whims of cultural consumers and meet the demands of a genre, but the most vibrant writers lead readers’ understanding rather than follow fashions and market demands. Perhaps because both Butterfly Song and Behind the Moon stretch boundaries and challenge stereotypes, neither has experienced the critical acclaim or the popular success it deserves. Perhaps the books have been pigeon holed, wrongly, as ethnic literature of interest only to minorities. But neither work should be regarded as a mere snapshot of a piece of an Australian mosaic. Rather, while very different in setting, characters and style, Butterfly Song and Behind the Moon are Australian in their very essence, and readers will understand this country better for having engaged with them.



Tony SmithTony Smith  holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney. His writing has appeared in newspapers and journals including Australian Book Review, Australian Quarterly, Australian Review of Public Affairs, Online Catholics and Online Opinion.



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Existing comments

Brilliant introduction for these novels. More than hints, the reviewer gives keys to the reader.

Christophe Declerck | 19 May 2006  

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