This week Affirm Press publishes Joyful Strains, a book celebrating the experiences of 27 new Australians on their expatriation to these shores. I am a new Australian and also publisher at Affirm Press. And did the editors put these two things together and ask me to contribute to the book? Did they shite.
Worldly readers may pick up from that peculiar phrase that I’ve come to Australia via Ireland. Fairly late in the production of this book, it was decided that we needed an Irish contributor to differentiate the typical experiences of Irish and British expats. Names were bandied about, and I kaiboshed them all, trusting that the penny would eventually drop and the editors would invite me to contribute my perspective. Blank. ‘There must be somebody!’ I moaned in my thickest brogue. Heads shook. ‘Someone who could introduce some levity, thurty tree a turd and all that,’ I beamed. ‘Ah,’ said editor Kent MacCarter, ‘You…mean someone like Chris Flynn!’
So that’s how Northern Irishman Chris Flynn came to feature in Joyful Strains, and I’m tinkering around trying to make myself relevant. And sure, Chris Flynn wrote a very funny story for the book but then he didn’t even hang around long enough to see it published! He has relocated to Berlin, no doubt by now contributing to a book on New Germans called Past the Deutschie!
But I’m still here, ever dependable, trying to draw attention to Joyful Strains, which has come together better than any of us could have hoped. It’s a delicious sup from the melting pot that is modern Australia. And unlike most celebrations of multiculturalism, it focuses not just on exotic differences but instead on how those differences have had to shaped and moulded – with varying degrees of difficulty – into the Australian way of life. As newish Australian JM Coetzee says, the contributions range from ‘the affectionate to the bitter to the hilariously funny to the probingly intelligent.’
It’s especially satisfying for me to publish a book like this because any profits we make will be donated to PEN Melbourne, which advocates on behalf of persecuted writers the world over. I just love this juxtaposition; writers who were (mostly) free to emigrate wherever they pleased drawing attention to the plight of others who have precious few freedoms at all. And PEN Melbourne’s spirited support of those seeking sanctuary on these shores brings me right back to why I became an Australian in the first place.
I got residency to come and live here about 16 years ago. It wasn’t arduous; I filled out a form and went about my business. Two years later, while living in a bedsit above a Pizza Hut in London and sharing a bathroom with a couple of Neanderthals in the flat below, I received a brown envelope containing an invitation to come live in Australia. I didn’t think twice before booking a flight and winging my way to a new life.
Several years later, after putting down shallow roots in Melbourne, an image in a newspaper stopped me in my tracks. It was a photograph of hands clasped through a chain-linked fence, probably at Woomera Detention Centre circa 2002. Those hands expressed so much and came to symbolise for me not so much the desperate struggle of refugees to find security, but the desperate struggle for compassionate Australians to reach those in need, to circumnavigate the politics and offer a helping hand. It made me realise just how ridiculously easy it had been for me to immigrate here. The symbolism struck me so strongly that I applied for citizenship. In the back of my mind was the fear that this cruel Australian Government might some time change the law and revoke my residency. But the overriding compulsion was that I wanted to become an Australian citizen, have my rights enshrined, and then take that passport out into the desert and pass it through the wire to someone more deserving.
I knew it would make no difference at all to that individual but the rabble rousing publicist in me thought it could send a powerful message – the idea of someone prepared to give their (Australian) life for another. Of course, by the time the wheels of bureaucracy turned, the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in the desert had closed down because it was attracting too much heat.
I was eventually invited to attend a citizenship ceremony at Collingwood Town Hall in Melbourne. All I really wanted by that stage – me being so big on symbolism – was the gift of the wattle, which, from the moment I first arrived in Australia as a backpacker, was associated with becoming an Australian. And I liked that. But the ceremony was frankly embarrassing, so lacking was it in warmth or atmosphere or positivity or gravitas. Getting my learner’s driving permit was more memorable, and Frances O’Brien from the Librarians could have organised a better do. And instead of my coveted wattle I got a tacky miniature koala with the welcoming message, ‘Made in China!’
I could hardly believe the disconnection! On the one hand, Australian officialdom was feverishly manning the barricades to keep people out or in detention centres (‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’) and then so blasé about welcoming new citizens (‘whatevs’).
It really devalued citizenship for me, to the point where I never really identified as Australian. Until I first read this book, to be honest. To be immersed in the experiences of 27 others who’ve converged on this place really opened my eyes to how special being Australian can be. And it’s the first time I’ve felt truly proud to be even a loose thread in the multicultural quilt that is Australia today – it almost compensates for being overlooked in the book. I am, they are, we are Australien.
Melbourne readers: Joyful Strains will be launched tomorrow, January 24, 6-8pm at the Bella Union Bar, Trades Hall Carlton.
Martin Hughes is a publisher at Affirm Press.