Belonging in Contemporary Asian Australian Poetry
  • Rosalind McFarlane

Contemporary Asian Australian poets have recently begun to attract more attention, particularly with the publication of the anthology, edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey and Michelle Cahill, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets. This essay engages with three of these poets: Debbie Lim, Shen and James Stuart, and reads their poems through a diasporic lens. Contrary to scholarship that investigates belonging using the more orthodox ideas of home and land, this reading engages with fluidity and mobility through the depictions of water to better represent the diasporic experience. Further, these poems employ desire and the desiring subject to engage with the way diasporic belonging is figured as contested and contingent. Each of these elements will be explored in the poems in order to investigate the link between diasporic belonging and depictions of water.

Keywords: Asian Australian poetry – diaspora – depictions of water – belonging – fluidity – desire

This short essay will explore water as a concept and motif as it is appears in poems by three Asian Australian poets. The intention of this exploration is to investigate the ways in which diasporic experience is expressed through ideas of mobility and fluidity, literally and symbolically represented through diverse images of water, as they appear in poetry. Rather than representing belonging through more stereotypical ideas of land and home, I argue that diasporic writers often discuss belonging in more fluid terms, as will be seen in the poems explored in this essay. These poems also use desire, and the desiring subject, to explore the contested and contingent way diasporic belonging is figured. Each of these elements will be explored in three poems—‘Love or meteorology’ by Shen (2003: 30), ‘My Lover's Ear’ by Debbie Lim (2008: 110) and ‘Linger’ by James Stuart (2001: 37)—in order to examine this link between water and a diasporic belonging. I read these poems specifically in the context of the particular poets identifying as Asian Australian writers. 

Diasporic fluidity and water

Maureen Devine and Christa Grewe-Volpp identify the way in which ‘water as a continually changing entity—sweet or salty, still or raging, frozen or crystallized or even evaporated, in the form of rain (drops), snow (flakes), sleet, hail, glaciers, icebergs, rivers, lakes, puddles, oceans, warm or cold and all the variations in between—challenges cultural perceptions of it’ (2008: 3). Devine and Grewe-Volpp identify the fact that water presents a challenge to stability, predictability and singularity. Further, their description of the various ways in which water may present itself allows the substance to exist in a multiplicity of guises without losing its molecular constitution. Rather than becoming an unreliable or questionable depiction due to the affective diversity, representations of water can allow poets to explore difficult topics and engage in their ambiguities without jeopardising the coherence of the poem.

In order to fully examine the potential this conception of water may contain it is pertinent to engage with what this idea of fluidity might entail. In this sense Luce Irigaray’s idea of the placental economy can help to elucidate the potential of this concept of fluidity. Irigaray locates the placental economy in the female body, arguing that ‘[o]ne of the distinctive features of the female body is its tolerance of the other’s growth within itself without incurring illness or death for either one of the living organisms’ (1993: 45). While this may be a problematic idea, Irigaray specifies that ‘[i]nstead of a solid enclosure, it becomes fluid: which is far from nothing. This does not mean that we are merged’ (1992: 59-60), rather it is what she calls an ‘almost palpable density’(1992: 105). Rachel Jones, a prominent Irigaray critic, sees this state as ‘a fluidity that is not devoid of form, but a “thickness” shaped by rhythmic movements that articulate self and other together’ (2011: 162). Significantly, Jones notes that in this formulation ‘Irigaray has to play a double game: she needs to find ways of taking up with fluidity, which has traditionally been represented in terms of a lack of form, and show how it can become the basis for a different way of generating form’(2011: 162-3). While these considerations are given a specific resonance to the female body, they could also be extended. In this essay, I argue that the concept of a fluid relation between two parts, where they don’t subsume one another, but rather constitute an ‘almost palpable density’, may be discerned in the writings of diasporic subjects in which belonging is located in a fluid space rather than a singular, solid territory.                                                                                                                                           

Merlinda Bobis engages directly with ideas of fluidity in regards to diaspora when she examines how her writing fits within the Australian literary sphere. She invites the reader to consider snow globes:

A still globe, a fixed scene. But when we turn it upside down, glitter begins to fall. The globe shifts, becomes fluid, magical. Now imagine the body of Australian literature wanting to have maximum currency in the global market … Multicultural and multi-voiced, Australia is a mini-globe. But we need to turn its hierarchies upside down, collapse them, and see more than glitter or token embellishments shifting the body of Australian literature, not just in a cultural holiday, but through a re-imagining from within. (2010: 15)

Here Bobis specifically uses the image of the snow globe as a way to reconfigure Australian literature along a more transnational and diasporic axis. It is the movement of the water that she uses to describe a change that is more than just a shifting, more than a simple inversion of hierarchies; it is in fact a force of re-imagining that comes from within the self.

Bill Ashcroft also sees the link between diasporic subjectivity and fluidity. He talks specifically of smooth and striated space, after Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and applies it to nation states, suggesting that diaspora is an example par excellence of a ‘smooth’ space. For Ashcroft, the smooth space of the transnational ‘challenges, because it mostly ignores, exceeds, surrounds and interpenetrates the striated space of the state. It is not in itself liberatory but is the medium of liberation, because it is the medium of the glocal’ (2010: 24). Here Ashcroft uses the fluidity of space that transcends structure as a way to think of liberation. He does not claim it is necessarily liberatory, however it is the fluid medium of smooth space that he sees as providing new possibilities of belonging beyond rigid national boundaries. Later in the article he directly engages the idea of diaspora in regards to this when he talks of the way in which ‘the transnation is a product not only of the nation, existing as a kind of “smooth space” running through it, but also a product of movement, displacement, relocation. The transnation is both global and local. It not only interpenetrates the state, but interpenetrates the multiplicity of states in their international and global relationality’ (2010: 25). This idea of interpenetration, and the fluidity this entails, here directly engages with ideas of diasporas that both exist within, between and through nation states.

Both Bobis’s and Ashcroft’s arguments view fluidity as allowing the unsettling of the fixed notions of belonging, rather than denying the existence of a sense of belonging all together. Having a fluid view of the world does not prevent attachments or loyalties; it only makes these connections more critically aware, as can be seen in the poems analysed below.

Shen ‘Love or meteorology’

Shen is an Adelaide-based Asian Australian poet and ‘Love or meteorology’ was published in an edition of Friendly street poets, a South Australian anthology of poetry from the Friendly Street group, based in Adelaide. While ‘Love or meteorology’ does not engage in an overt way with Shen’s position as a diasporic Asian Australian, it does examine issues of diasporic belonging in a covert way, particularly through the relationship of the poem’s protagonist to the beloved.

The poem begins with the protagonist attempting to read the beloved, who is depicted as (part of) the ocean. He ‘senses her moods by watching the fluttering of flags’ (line 1) before directly asking the reader, ‘Is this love or meteorology?’ (line 4), thus setting up the main conflict in the poem. This conflict, between the protagonist’s desire to dissolve and be one with the beloved, and the inability to let go of the desperate need to critically interpret the situation, is what drives the poem.

The speaker describes how the beloved ‘approaches tidally’ (line 5) and the protagonist ‘chases like a washed-up stick; / so she withdraws, but he goes too— / they go back and forth in this way, with this rhythm, /without final destination’ (lines 5-8). The unity achieved in this ebb-and-flow is noteworthy, as both the persona and the beloved are implicated in the movement. In other words, the tidal action involves the actions of the two moving together. The protagonist is happy to be ‘without final destination’, a sundering of control and an embrace of a fluid existence.

This immersion in a form of fluid existence does not last long, however, and the protagonist ‘wants to shape / this strange passion for her as if it were pliant, but it’s evasive as water between fingers. / The drops sizzle on the ground’ (lines 8-11). The protagonist tries to contain, define, hold her/the water, but it slips through his fingers, and this slippage leads to evaporation on the hot ground. The beloved then pulls him with ‘[t]he dark hair of her heart’ (line 11) and the protagonist ‘is swimming willingly with the line’ (line 13). He realises that he can only give in to the tidal pull to and fro, the ‘between’ state, which could be viewed in a positive light, in the sense that he sees his identity as highly mobile and multiple, and that this gives rise to further complexities for his understanding of self, especially through art. According to this new understanding, ‘[t]he heat of attraction is the heat of reticence / melting and wavering, a horizon indistinct / at the edge of sky’ (lines 14-16). The protagonist embraces the fluid possibility that love and belonging can provide and rejects the ideas of solid certainty, as shown in the way even the horizon becomes indistinct in this state.

The poem ends with the protagonist wanting ‘the reassurance / of a January forecast—hot days, high tides / and signs of any cool change unimaginable’ (lines 18-20). The warmth of the Australian summer enables the protagonist to comfortably dwell in this seaside setting which symbolically represents his newfound sense of belonging in the space of the fluid.

Debbie Lim ‘My Lover’s Ear’ 1

Debbie Lim, a Sydney-born Asian Australian poet, published ‘My Lover’s Ear’ in the June 2008 volume of Quadrant. Lim’s ‘My Lover’s Ear’ focuses on the intimacy between a couple, and despite being a relatively short poem, its dense imagery engages with the complexities of a fluid diasporic belonging.

‘My Lover’s Ear’ is similar to Shen’s ‘Love or meteorology’ in that the beloved is closely associated with the sea, though here the water is depicted as stagnant rather than flowing: ‘Lying down after a swim / my lover’s ear holds seawater / in its folded rim / like a rock pool’ (lines 1-4). Rock pools are changeable entities; stagnant when the tide is out, yet renewed and washed clean when the tide returns. This changeability reflects Devine and Grewe-Volpp’s idea that water is able to represent multiplicities without collapsing into incomprehensibility. It is this aspect that Lim draws on in her poem.

In contrast to the stagnant image of the ear cavity as a rock pool, the beloved’s ear is viewed by the persona as a river, suggesting a more dynamic entity: ‘Cartilage gullies plateau / into a neat damp lobe, / faintly furred / as a baby fern’ (lines 5-8). This is further developed with the description of the beloved’s capillaries as ‘a river system aerial / of the most delicate tributaries’ (lines 10-11). The ear as river presents a dynamic opposite to the ear as rock pool; the ear as an entity is alive and pulsing. Indeed, the alliteration of ‘faintly furred/ as a baby fern’ creates this sense of blood/water pumping/flowing, and is further emphasised by the image of the capillaries being compared to river tributaries.

The persona, having set up this contrast, aims to remove the stagnant water as an act of caring, in this way washing the beloved’s ear clean, just as the sea replenishes a rock pool. Lim describes how: ‘Drawn to the warm dark / hole endlessly generating / wax, I excavate / the sticky sunlight / with a careful fingernail’ (lines 12-16). By removing the wax that has been soaked in the seawater, both deliberately and with care, the persona takes on the position of the sea in its act of renewal. Consonance is significant; the ‘s’ sound is repeated through the ‘x’ in ‘wax’ and ‘excavate’ as well as in ‘sticky’ and ‘sunlight’. This links the excavation of the wax to the sticky sunlight in a way that insists on the connection between the action and the substance, but also prevents the sunlight becoming a positive image. Rather, it is sticky and must be excavated, the stickiness enhanced by the consonance of the ‘s’ sound and the way it sticks with the reader through the uses of ‘x’ and then ‘s’. In excising the stagnating water the persona actively chooses the dynamic and fluid, as represented by the movement of sea and river, over the stagnation embodied by the image of the rock pool.

The persona takes on the position of the sea as a force for renewal: it is the sea that refreshes rock pools, and it is the persona that removes the wax obstructing the beloved's ear. Through this act of care and devotion, the persona-as-sea ‘meets’ the beloved-as-river, a fecund, estuary-like meeting point that could also symbolically represent the space of diasporic belonging.

James Stuart ‘Linger’ 2

Asian Australian poet James Stuart’s work frequently focuses on travel, relationships and the intersection of technology and writing. ‘Linger’ was published in Anthology: new words and pictures by young Australians.

Fluidity is a fundamental aspect in this poem. It begins with the persona in bed, pondering the beloved and commenting that ‘light had sluiced / from the bark of spotted gum and I was lost / in you and your routine’ (lines 2-4). Here, the light is depicted as sluicing, and fluidly combines the persona’s half-dreaming state with the fantasy of the beloved. The second stanza takes place on the following day when the persona and the brother drive ‘to where Cuttagee / meets the Pacific’ (lines 9-10).

Cuttagee is a lake in New South Wales, and it reaches to the sea. In ‘Linger’ this location is depicted as one of flow and abundance. The persona and the brother catch fish, ‘silver darts caught themselves for a piece / of bread in the plastic tubes of the traps’ (lines 15-16). They also play a game, throwing ‘a dilapidated / tennis ball around’ (lines 10-11) from which ‘rays of salt water went spinning’ (line 14). In this stanza, the persona does not think longingly of the beloved, but rather resists this: ‘I did not once think of you or your routine’ (line 13). Here, rather than the flow of water bringing thoughts of the beloved, it instead distracts the persona from these thoughts.

The third and final stanza refers to water more indirectly; the persona returns home to find the beloved has rung, which triggers a memory: ‘you had kissed me, a moonlike / kiss that sent the tides off kilter’ (lines 19-20). The depiction of water as an absence continues with the breath of the beloved: ‘the trace of your lips in the air, a moist / signature, flutter in the South Coast breeze’ (lines 23-24). It could be said that the desire of the subject of this poem is symbolically consonant with an understanding of belonging as an often fraught concept aligned with ideas of longing, frustration, absence, and difficulty. Stuart allows ‘Linger’ to explore desire and belonging as they occur with all their ambiguities, strains and unexpected delights. In this way, Stuart’s poem represents a relationship with the beloved in a very different way to that showcased in the poems by Shen and Lim, in that the poem does not bring the persona and beloved together in a fluid union, but instead ‘lingers’ in a moment of perpetual (be)longing. Water in this poem presents a substitute for the absent lover, which could be interpreted as the absence of a fixed/established relationship to home. As such, this is a form of belonging that is depicted through the beloved and the sea that is active, contested and being continually reimagined.

The three poems that have been explored in this essay each utilise water as a motif to depict desire (for the beloved/for belonging) as fluid and changeable. Seen in the context of these poets’ identities as diasporic subjects, and the theories of transnational belonging as ‘fluid’, it may be said that water provides an ideal motif through which to explore diasporic belonging in poetry. While the poems, due to their use of the natural motif of water and romantic themes, could be viewed as lyrical, ‘love poems’ relating to their authors’ personal experiences, they may also be read, through a diasporic lens, as representing a more complex holistic view of identity and belonging in a transnational milieu.

Note: Research for this article was undertaken as an AGL Shaw State Library of Victoria Fellow in 2013.


End notes

  • 1. Poem reproduced in appendix 1, by permission of the poet.
  • 2. Poem reproduced in appendix 2, by permission of the poet.
Works cited: 

Aitken, A ‘Asian-Australian diasporic poets: A Commentary’, Cordite Poetry Review 1 August 2012, at: (accessed 15 August 2014)

Ashcroft, B 2010 ‘Globalization, transnation and utopia’ in W Goebel & S Schabio (eds) Locating transnational ideals, US & UK: Routledge, 13-29

Babacan, A & Singh, S 2010 ‘Introduction’ in A Babacan & S Singh (eds) Migration, belonging and the nation state, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 1-6

Bennett, B 2006 Homing in: essays on Australian literature and selfhood, Perth: API Network

Bobis, M 2010 ‘The Asian conspiracy: deploying voice / deploying story’ Australian Literary Studies 25.3, 1-19

Devine, M & Grewe-Volpp, C 2008 ‘Introduction’ in M Devine & C Grewe-Volpp (eds) Words on water: literary and cultural representations, Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 1-8

Garbutt, R 2011 The locals: identity, place and belonging in Australia and beyond, Switzerland: Peter Lang

Grosz, E 1994 Volatile bodies: towards a corporeal Feminism, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin

Hayes, A & Mason, R 2012 Cultures in refuge: seeking sanctuary in modern Australia, England & USA: Ashgate Publishing

Irigaray, L 1992 Elemental passions (trans J Collie & J Still), London: Athlone

Irigaray, L 1993 je, tu, nous: towards a cultural difference (trans A Martin), London: Routledge

Jones, R 2011 Irigaray, UK & USA: Polity Press

Lange, C (ed) 2000 Being Australian women: belonging, citizenship and identity, Western Australia: Centre of Western Australian History

Lim, D 2008 ‘My Lover’s Ear’ Quadrant LII:6, 110

Shen 2003 ‘Love or meteorology’ in KM Mann & G Catt (eds) Blue: Friendly Street 27, Kent Town: Friendly Street Poets Wakefield Press, 30

Stuart, J 2002 ‘Linger’ in A Carvan (ed) Anthology : new words and pictures by young Australians, Sydney: Pluto Press, 37


Appendix 1

'My Lover’s Ear' by Debbie Lim

Lying down after a swim
my lover’s ear holds seawater
in its folded rim
like a rock pool.
Cartilage gullies plateau
into a neat damp lobe,
faintly furred
as a baby fern. Concentration
brings capillaries into view:
a river system aerial
of the most delicate tributaries.
Drawn to the warm dark
hole endlessly generating
wax, I excavate
the sticky sunlight
with a careful fingernail.

Appendix 2

'Linger' by James Stuart

I was thinking last night, or dreaming
awake, whatever the case, light had sluiced
from the bark of spotted gum and I was lost
in you and your routine for the new millennium.
A half absence mounted there. A possum
dinned across the corrugated roof. I wanted
to break down in the simplicity of black,
that complete and absolute absence.

The next morning, I drove to where Cuttagee
meets the Pacific and threw a dilapidated
tennis ball around with my brother, waiting
for the poddy mullet to glide into the bait traps
we had set. I did not once thing of you or your routine
as rays of salt water went spinning from the ball
and silver darts caught themselves for a piece
of bread in the plastic tubes of the traps.

When I came home, though, Mum told me
you had called. I snapped right back then
for you had kissed me, a moonlike
kiss that sent the tides off kilter
and for which I was not there, having
arrived in time to catch its aftermath,
the trace of your lips in the air, a moist
signature, fluttering in the South Coast breeze.