TV comic John Clarke once mocked an Australian Prime Minister’s claim that Australia’s future was in Asia. “I told him Malaysia’s future was in Canada,” said Clarke, playing the then Malaysian PM Mahathir bin Mohamad. I’m not sure Australia’s become any more Asian (or Malaysia any more Canadian) in the intervening decade.
The relationship really consists of a two way flow—Asia sends Australia migrants who enrich our social fabric, Australia sends Asia backpackers who get drunk in Phuket or Bali and return with Australian flags tattooed on their biceps.
Perhaps this explains my curiosity about the $110,000 Australia-Asia Literary Award, initiated by the Western Australian Government and won this year by David Malouf. There just doesn’t seem to be any reason for it. You can celebrate excellence in Asian writing or Australian writing. There are many prizes that will recognise good writing wherever it’s from. Why this seemingly arbitrary prize?
I can only imagine that it’s to encourage a sense of connectedness between the two continents. Yet the prize seems to be based on literary merit alone, irrespective of whether the Asian books have any Australian themes or the Australian books any interest in Asia.
In addition, the eligibility criteria seem highly flexible. The defining feature is that the nominated novels must be written by Australian or Asian residents or set in Australia or Asia. Ceridwen Dovey’s Blood Kin made the shortlist, despite the author being a South African residing in New York City.
Blood Kin is a remarkable book and I gave it a particularly positive review early this year. But it’s not an Australian book. If it’s set anywhere, I’d plump for a South American country—the languorous, tropical feel and the militaristic environment certainly don’t feel Australian. Dovey attended high school in Australia and has family here, but I doubt that she considers herself an Aussie.
It’s hardly surprising that an Australian prize jury would claim Dovey as one of our own. 2008 Man Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga holds dual Indian-Australian citizenship and the Aussie press wasted no time in adopting him. His high school education in Sydney is hardly the defining characteristic of a life that has spanned four continents.
We’ve also latched onto Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born Australian now on his way to take up a writing fellowship in the UK. Le, the winner of the 2008 Dylan Thomas prize for his story collection The Boat is an exciting young talent and did at least spend a sizeable portion of his life down under. In fact, he’s probably the best-suited person in the world to take home a prize looking at the complex relationship between Asia and Australia. And he wasn’t even longlisted.