Roots: Home is Who We Are
Voices from the SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition
Review by EFFIE CARR

Hardie Grant, $34.99 pb. 240 pp.

Full-timetransmission of SBS television in Australia began on 24 October 1980. The first broadcast was a documentary by Peter Luck entitled Who Are We? Forty years later, Roots: Home is Who We Are echoes an answer to that question and suggests that we are ‘home’ now, with all the loaded, subjective meanings of that word.

The memoirs in this anthology spring from the inaugural SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition. SBS has evolved from being a multicultural and multilingual broadcaster to an organisation dedicated to diversity in Australia. This diversity is reflected in the 30 stories about living and growing up in Australia. The unenviable task of selecting which stories from over 2000 entries would be published fell to judges Melissa Lucashenko and Benjamin Law.

The stories differ greatly in style, theme and tone, and explore ‘place, era, sexuality, religion, neurodiversity and disability, ethnicity and culture, and the myriad ways you can call Australia home.’

Many authors are first and second generation children of refugees and migrants to Australia. Some are First Nations People struggling with power imbalances and institutionalised racism. What is apparent is how much early assimilationist policies, and the White Australia policy in particular, continue to inform notions of ‘home’, self, identity and belonging.

The title Roots refers to new roots in a new homeland, as well as old roots from the homeland left behind. These roots are sometimes also ‘stolen roots’, as in Kaye Cooper’s powerful memoir, My Story: The Aftermath of Happenstance. Roots might also refer to the neural, imaginary, ‘roots’ we form with one another to create this identity, this ‘constructed home’ we call Australia.

Many stories navigate the fraught space between two cultures. The Anglo-Australian ‘home’ and the ‘other home’, and how one is forced to plot a course ‘between the two worlds quietly’, as Kaye Cooper observes. Others, like Monikka Eliah’s When Aliens Attack, are a powerful exploration of racism, of looking and feeling different and ‘alien’ as a child in Australia. Sam Price’s potent coming of age lesbian story, Pink Ribbons, examines the terrible price of negotiating the space between two ‘homes’, where survival comes in the form of an act of self-annihilation.

The search for identity remains troublesome for children of migrants and Indigenous people. It is sometimes split between two or more identities and informs the tension between them. Nakul Lega’s bitter-sweet story The Wise Men on The Wireless describes his nine-year-old self desperate to fit into Australian life by ‘turning’ himself ‘into a middle-aged white man, thanks to…an obsession with talkback radio.’ ‘Stan [Zemanek] was obsessed by testing the national allegiance of his ethnic callers’ by saying ‘the Australian always came before the hyphen.’ It was both alarming and funny to read this depiction of assimilationist absurdism.

This dissociation or splitting into two halves to fit in manifests powerfully in Rosie Ofori Ward’s story Coexist which traces the existential fight between the two halves of her identity taking shape in the splitting of herself into two girls; Mary, ‘who learnt to say, I’m sorry I only speak English’ and ‘I belong here’, and her other half Akosua, ‘who controlled the tone of Mary’s skin and wide flat nose’ and whose voice in her head whispers, ‘This is not your country. This is not your home. You are not from here.’ In a profound resolution she states, ‘Between them, I am whole. Between them, I belong.’

While Tania Ogier’s sister in Exotic Birds coats herself in baby powder to cover her dark skin, Courtney Theseira’s Sense of Belonging explains in devasting detail how it feels to not belong to either the ‘white’ world or the Indigenous world. ‘People talk about the White Australia policy like it doesn’t work and in some ways it didn’t. But when I look at myself, I’m scared that it did.’ As Nadia Johansen observes in Schism, they are all in the process of ‘becoming an anthropologised other.’

Reflecting on growing up Korean in Sydney’s west, Naeun Kim’s Breaking Bread exposes the painful reality of a migrant’s life and states how you have ‘to think of Anglo-friendly translations.’ While Lal Perara’s dynamic Independence Day cynically observes how ‘you have to lie to Aussies about how Lankan you are, and you have to lie to Lankans about how Aussie you are…’

Intergenerational racism ‘hardens’ younger generations and makes them ‘expert at hiding’, and camouflaging all the disparate parts of an individual’s identity. ‘Home’ is not always a sanctuary, or a welcoming place. What is also apparent is that each new wave of immigrants and first and second generation children of migrants, do not have a free or easy ride. Each new generation has to battle racism anew. There is no easing into it.

Some of the bleakest stories are from Indigenous people. In The Crying Song, Karla Hart recounts the importance of Noongar crying in observing grieving rituals. There is a moving existential sadness in her description of grieving alone in her home. ‘I have wailed alone…I am a wailer – I feel it deep within my soul, it erupts from me.’ In The Darkness, Caitlyn Davies-Plummer depicts the dread of racism and bullying confronting her five-year-old Indigenous self, left to ‘to push the depression away.’ In Outsiders, Dianne Ussher’s gut-wrenching mediation about returning ‘appropriated work’ turns into a memory of stolen generations and her ancestor, Peggy Reid, known simply as ‘Number 34’.

It becomes obvious that for Indigenous Australians sometimes very little has changed, let alone for the better. Lip service is paid to buzz words and political correctness in the political sphere and in the media, but the lived experience of people from the LGBTQIA+ community, people of colour, linguistically diverse Australians and Indigenous Australians is complex and sometimes unreconciled.

Amid all of this it can be a relief to come across happy stories. In Maha Sidaoui’s Checkpoint Charlie, hope and acceptance come together in the sublime moment when the doorman of a nightclub ‘raised the red rope for us to walk through and my heart lifted with it.’ In the hilarious Just Dance, Michael Sun convinces his non-Catholic parents to take him to mass and a queer coming of age ensues that involves joining an anti-technology cult formed by his love interest, whose mantra is ‘Technology rots your brains.’ Trent Wallace’s Weirdo’s Win tackles homophobia and racism head-on. ‘Diversity is not a celebrated attribute in school…it means being fucking weird and a target…’ and ultimately an acceptance of this: ‘normal didn’t pay off and I stopped wishing for that life.’

In Miranda Jakich’s wonderful Fish People acceptance remains the only way to see a future, or to make a ‘home’. Here is recognition of the children of migrants working in their parent’s fish-and-chips shops: “The smell of fish stuck to us like a dependable old friend,’ she states wryly. Yet through her mother’s longing to return to her country, we feel her own pull towards unknown ‘roots’, histories, memories, people. An imagined idealised past, out of reach for the child of immigrants. A ‘home’ she can never fully know.

This anthology is important because, like a census, it represents a snapshot of Australian life. In answer to the question posed in that first SBS broadcast, Who Are We?, many of the stories refer to marginalisation and describe the traumatic, alienating experience of discrimination and racism. But they are also a celebration of resilience and the richness of diversity. It is important to keep asking the question and to keep re-evaluating and trying to understand who we are. Forty years on, this publication gives a voice to those who live in this country and call it home.

Effie Carr is a Sydney lawyer and author. Her first novel, Stamatia X (Primer Fiction) was published to acclaim in 2018.