Literature and Responsibility: Letting Voices of Asylum/Non-asylum Seekers Heard in Contemporary Australian Literature
As the Australian Government’s policies on asylum seekers and refugees have changed, so too have the descriptions of such people in Australian writings. From symbols of tolerance to ones of fear and threat, representations of asylum seekers and refugees have been used to further particular agendas. While representations are used as political propaganda (an ‘inconvenient burden’), they have also become a ‘test’ for Australia’s reputation for tolerance and inclusiveness.
In my research on representations of Japanese people in Australian literature, I showed how many early writings depicted Japanese people as invader-figures, an effort designed to scare readers into keeping a ‘pure’ European-Australian society. Despite this, stories from places like Darwin and Broome revealed that Japanese indentured workers and migrants were accepted and integrated into their local communities.
What role can literature play in discussing and understanding the refugee issue? By presenting both sides of the narratives of encounter and recognition – asylum/non-asylum seekers – literary works can portray what it really means to flee from one’s own background to a totally unknown and new country, and what it means to accept such people into one’s own community.
Writing about and reading the ‘voices’ of both asylum/non-asylum seekers can be an act of enlightenment, a way of presenting a different perspective on the refugee issue, and will be part of what Raimond Gaita calls our ‘obligation to need’ (2013) . It is a responsibility for readers to respond to such voices. It is equally important for others to learn from these voices; especially for countries like Japan, where growing refugee issues are still regarded not as their own problem.
Megumi Kato is a professor at Meisei University in Tokyo where she teaches English and cultural studies. Her publications include Narrating the Other: Australian Literary Perceptions of Japan (Monash University Press, 2008) and its Japanese version published in Tokyo in 2013. Her current research interests focus on representations of minority groups in Australian literature and their ethical and educational significance.