Beneath the conscious mind, mysterious images lie. They move like tectonic plates, shaping our choices, moods, days, lives.
Two years ago I started to read about Bengal and Java, where my grandfather and father are from. As I made my way through the fiction of Amitav Ghosh and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a recurring dream I used to have as a child came back to me in fragmented images. The dream was not remarkably unusual; its most striking aspect was the bird’s eye perspective it granted me, from which I observed an island cradled by the ocean. I was aware, from the omnipotent knowledge that we possess only in dreams, that the island was empty of human occupation and predated our existence.
My lifelong preoccupation with islands, oceans, ships, anything near or on water instantly crystallised. After reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi as a kid, hadn’t I also been obsessed by the novel’s carnivorous island? Self-sustaining and free of human occupation, it epitomised the ideal place to me. I remembered how, during a brief flirtation with transcendental meditation in my mid-teens – carried out every morning and afternoon through Youtube video guides made by an ex-monk-turned-social-media-sensation – I would recite a mantra and after thirty minutes, find myself in a place like that of my childhood dream; levitating above an island.
My younger imagination revealed itself again, as though it didn’t want to be overshadowed by my new knowledge about the places where my family came from. The new images I encountered through reading were realistic, alive, elemental in a way that frightened and clashed with the vague, ethereal things I used to dream about.
I was sure that my childhood fantasies were intimately connected to my familial identity. Had I experienced visions of the ancient places where my ancestry lies, carried through my DNA as a primordial current? I found this hard to square with what I was learning. If anything, the histories of my parent’s and grandparent’s countries emphasised to me not the emptiness of those places, but their life, their societies’ constant shifting and transforming.
Maybe it was because I was at the time coming across identity politics, moving my relationship to my heritage from a site of tension to one in which I sought to embrace that heritage, but the images became overlaid with much meaning for me and I felt I had to disentangle them.
I believed the island was my cultural inheritance: not materially, but psychologically. Surely, an island of untouched nature symbolised ‘ways of being’ which countered the individualism and materialism of contemporary Western culture that I both despaired at and couldn’t live without. Energised by these ideas, I went to visit my father.
At midnight, driving to his house from Jakarta airport, the lights of buildings spread out underneath the highway, my step-mother and cousin’s Indonesian lulling me to a feeling of peacefulness, for neither the first, nor likely the last time, I was gripped by the certainty that this visit would bring me the sense of belonging I had always craved. Any memory of my previous visits to Jakarta were suppressed. It became a place in which I had never stepped foot.
A week or so later, I was sitting in a glistening Starbucks cafe after three hours of crawling through clogged, smoggy traffic in the car. My cousin showed me a video on her phone of the building across the road being bombed a few months prior. I spooned whipped cream from my iced coffee, feeling a cacophony of discomfort and restlessness.
During this trip, I was forced to confront my own ignorance. The race politics I had clung to at university held little resonance for, or relevance to, my family. I could not help but feel disillusioned with what dominated life in Jakarta: pollution and construction, obsession with money and status, a love of whiteness and technology. I was overcome by a feeling that reaching the ‘island’ – whatever I had hoped its material, present day manifestation would be – was impossible.
Of course, I was as capable as any Westerner of falling prey to ideas about non-Western cultures: living in harmony with nature, infallible to social ills, operating from a position of righteousness at all times.
The fallacy of this idealisation of the homeland is often pointed out to us. The conservative tendency to remind us that our cultures weren’t utopic, more often than not, serves a political end. On the other hand, by playing into such idealism, we risk upholding tropes like that of the Noble Savage. Our places were and are home to cultures which impact upon their natural environments, which can hold violence or corruption.
The island of my dreams embodied essentialism. It reeked with the illusion of authenticity, of what was ‘natural’ and ‘uncorrupted’. In the cold light of an international chain cafe, I saw that my homeland – a place that was beyond the reach of colonialism, violence and trauma, beyond the psychic torment of modernity and the environmental destruction it sanctioned – was imagined. It existed, and could only exist, in my mind.
This realisation seemed to matter little. How could I reject the image? It had made itself so indelible on my psyche, it must be serving some emotional or practical need.
David Eng and Shinhee Han coined the term “racial melancholia” to refer to the effect of the loss of social comfort and familiarity, national belonging, language, family, and social connections on second-generation Asian Americans.
“The melancholiac is unable to resolve the conflicts, ambivalences, and other feelings of loss associated with the difficulties of immigration and assimilation. … The melancholic preserves the lost object or ideal by incorporating it into the ego and establishing an ambivalent identification with it – ambivalent precisely because of the unresolved and conflicting nature of this forfeiture. … In identifying with the lost object, the melancholic is able to preserve it but only as a type of a haunted, ghostly identification. That is, the melancholic assumes the emptiness of the lost object or ideal, identifies with this emptiness, and thus participates in his or her own self-denigration and ruination of self-esteem.”
The idea that it was the emptiness of the island – not its pre-colonial symbolism – that formed part of my identity was not unconvincing, albeit confronting. My adolescence was pervaded by feelings of uncertainty towards the political and cultural nation, physical landscape, and people among which I found myself living. The accidental nature of my placement on earth seemed always to scream in my face; and accidentality begets ambivalence.
Fredric Jameson writes that displacement and globalisation has caused diasporans to experience and express time as loss, and the present as loss that sometimes only feels real when it’s mediated by memory and nostalgia. But what of those born in countries like Australia, raised into Western ways of being yet made aware, in the micropolitics of everyday life, of our ambiguous and conflicted relationship to ‘Australia’?
Sophia, a second-generation Korean Australian, tells me about the last time she was in Korea. Visiting the ruins of a kingdom, walking outside the houses where the aristocracy lived, she says, “I had this really strong image of me wearing the traditional Korean clothing, walking outside the house. It just felt really familiar, like I’d already been there, and I’d already walked around the whole area, around all the houses, up on all the steps.”
“Along with that memory there was a feeling of sadness about not being able to remember anything else. I mainly stayed in the city, and just walking around and seeing the still continuing class disparity, the dilapidated buildings along with the very modern department stores, feels unfamiliar. Even though I’ve already gone to Korea a couple of times and seen it, every time it still feels like it shouldn’t be there.”
Sophia clarifies that it’s not that she would really want to live in the pre-colonial era, with its patriarchal culture, inequality and poor health, but that the problems in Korea caused by modernity and technology – a high unemployment and suicide rate, huge wealth gap and harmful pollution – make her nostalgic for what seems like a simpler time. She points to Korea’s conservative culture and obsession with European beauty standards as other reasons for her disenchantment. Her lack of cultural knowledge about Korea, combined with some of the values she has grown up with in Australia, create in her an idealisation of pre-colonial Korea alongside feelings of dissonance toward present-day Korea.
For Maddy, a Maori woman whose father was adopted into a white Australian family, the homeland is intimately connected to family, “When I was younger I would mostly imagine my family, or rather what I considered them to look like. My dad never met his biological father and we don’t know any of our family on that side. I guess most of my images of a ‘homeland’ and family come from movies and books like Whale Rider or Bulibasha, ones that focus on family. I also have the romanticised idea of rolling hills and forests and streams that characterise the landscape of New Zealand.”
She says that these idealised images of family and landscape increase her anger toward the government and non-Maori that inhabit the country. Maddy has never been to New Zealand, but is planning on going later this year for Te Moko, the sacred tattooing practiced in Maori cultures. “I’m not sure how I will feel toward the place when I visit, though I’ve built it up a lot in my head, particularly the connection I will feel to the land. Perhaps that’s set me up for disappointment.”
The sense of loss that Jameson writes of clearly does not end with the second-generation immigrant. The difference is that we have no memories of, and thus no real nostalgia for, the homeland which with to mediate the feeling. Time does not alleviate it. Rather, the passage of time deepens the sense of loss, as the homeland is left further behind, made more abstract and less real by an ever-widening distance to its position on a historical timeline: before the point of colonial contact.
Maybe the kind of utopia that I conjured up in my dreams – a paradox in that it is a utopia located in a romanticised past and impossible to realise – represented nothing less than my mind’s attempt to cope with this loss, carried by the vehicle of fantasy rather than memory.
To imagine such an image, with no hope of realisation, is not a vain act. Scholars have written about the potentiality that lies within the liminal figure, who exists on the margins and in the interior, is everywhere and nowhere, experiencing belonging and loss in many places at many times. Such a vantage point holds a transformative power for culture and politics.
It’s in this liminal space, an imagined place, that I find hope.