A different fictional life: Reviewing ‘The Bogans’
By Michael Cooke, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
You see when you have a dark face White people expect certain things from you. To have an accent, to struggle with English and very importantly to be Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani or whatever the colour of your skin may suggest to them. I have been asked, not once but many times, if I am from Africa. But the last thing they expect you to be is Australian. Because you cannot be Australian if you are not White. Channa Wickremsekera
This unthinking assertion of racial hierarchy regarding people of colour sees them retreating into their silos of identity, culture and religion. This tendency is reinforced by the withdrawal of the state from some of its functions. While capitalist corporations have been the main beneficiaries of the outsourcing of government responsibilities, religious and cultural organisations and charities have also taken on some of the roles previously carried out by governments.
When multiculturalism was introduced in Australia by the Gough Whitlam government, it was part of a progressive agenda, including free education, Medicare, Aboriginal land rights, etc. But when Labor turned to neoliberal economics under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, multiculturalism survived as a fig leaf disguising the essentially reactionary nature of the government's economic policy. The weakening of the union movement led to the atomization of the working class. For some migrant communities, this vacuum was filled by ethnic and religious organisations. The decline of working class solidarity and the rise of "silos" have contributed to a coarsening of public discussion of race, culture, religion and social mores.
If you are from an Asian background who is a writer, artist, activist, you are expected to stick to your ethnic ghetto and when you come out with a piece of art, the discussion is conducted under the baleful gaze of Anglo-Celtic hegemony and approval. This becomes especially pertinent when it comes to the sampling of diverse cultures in terms of cuisine and festivals. Multiculturalism of this type leaves out the actual experience of living in a multi-faith, diverse culture. In the end it is about the majority community sampling edited and rarefied titbits of our food and culture, be it, a good curry or festivals like Diwali. It is all safe and palatable with the uncomfortable truths airbrushed out in a kinetic ballet of banality, leaving the interrogation of the cultural status quo of the Anglo- Celtic variety or of the culture being sampled in a perpetual limbo.
Channa rejects this artificial binary world. His fiction, like his life, reflects a much more complex interconnected one; a dance between his Sri Lankan/Asian culture and the one he migrated to. Like many migrants to our shores, he has spent more of his life in Australia than the land of his birth. Channa, like the characters in his new novella The Bogans, bridles at the suggestion of being pigeonholed into some safe and unrealistic ethnic ghetto.
Channa’s journey as a human being and as an artist is an odyssey on how we can become Australian. We are not there yet, we might never get there - it might always be a work in progress. The beauty lies in the journey. Not the colonial and penal Australia that we have mythologised beyond recognition; nor an idealised Asian one; but an uneasy hybrid. A negotiation mostly unconscious with the many different people, creeds and classes he is friends and neighbours with, socialises with and works with. This is the world he creates in his novella. A world hardly ever remarked on, let alone appreciated, because it does not fit the binary and scrappy world that our elites are pushing us into.
It is this world that Channa illuminates with grace, perception and humour, and with the appropriate dose of melancholy. The Bogans drama takes place in a typical street in any of our large metropolises, where there is a gorgeous cacophony of cultures, sexuality, accents and religions, whether they be Tamil, Sinhala, Lebanese, Timorese, African or from a Chinese-speaking background. They form a community – a fragile one it must be admitted as they bring their cultural baggage with them. But in their interaction with the ‘other’, a certain grace under the prejudices peeps out. For example, Channa portrays Sinhalese and Tamil neighbours. In Sri Lanka, both communities were involved in a murderous thirty year civil war. Given the rhetoric coming out of some of their premier cultural organisations it strikes an outsider as a dialogue of the deaf.
For the followers of Pauline Hanson, it is reason enough not to have them in the country. But being neighbours forces them to see beyond the murderous clichés and see the human being behind the ‘other’. Channa’s skill as a writer allows him not to present the characters in a didactic idealised way. They retain some of their prejudices but that does not prevent them from seeing the human being behind the cliché. He has an uncanny ear for dialogue and cultural nuance and he conveys this uneasy dance towards empathy by dialogue and humour. The prejudices against Muslims and the fear of Africans are likewise skilfully done. There is a fragile and brittle peace that could be shattered at any moment as there seems to be no commitment by our political masters from either of the main parties to enhance and build on this civility.
This fragile peace is shattered by the arrival of a family of Australians whose behaviour and cultural practices (for want of a better term) shatter this cultural harmony – bringing out the latent prejudices and grievances of this multicultural street.
One of the tropes running through the dialogue and actions of the characters are the unexamined class assumptions and prejudices of some of the protagonists. Just because a person is a professional and not heterosexual does not give them an automatic carte blanche to empathy for those who are not of their ilk. Empathy in the multicultural streets of our metropolis is a complex, fractious and sometimes humorous affair; it is earned by lived experience and the ability to be civil and tolerant.
Sometimes the tableau of imagery and dialogue is reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s later films, where his characters behave because of their religious and class positions in ludicrous ways. Unlike Bunuel, Channa does not savagely maul his characters and hold the social mores of characters in contempt. One of the protagonist’s supervisors happens to be a white Australian who is looked up to for his ‘sage’ advice. The advice is delivered in clichés and a civility which cannot mask his prejudices against people who are not white – advice that if adhered to would make the divisions even wider. The dialogue is unerringly accurate and funny, one could almost visualise such a person delivering these racist homilies in workplaces across our sunburnt land. A sad byproduct of the majority community never having to come to terms with our rich multicultural heritage in a meaningful way. Another humorous character is the successful migrant who has moved up to a more salubrious suburb with the appropriate mansion and accruements, which not only screams his status but encases his contempt for those migrants who are less well off than him.
Channa never judges his characters, there is nary a turgid social realist statement in the book – the world he creates is effortlessly developed in the seams of the drama and the dialogue. He gives each of them a modicum of humanity; which allows the small epiphany at the end a realistic grace. This is a very readable lively and graceful novella that shows in the absence of strong institutions, and in spite of the limitations of the current multicultural project, empathy and civility, no matter how fragile it is, is possible. Channa shows us this world and till the struggle for a much more viable, equitable, secular and multicultural state succeeds, it is all we can hope for, for now.
Such is life.
Dr Channa Wickremsekera is the author of three military histories, that deal with: the development of Sepoys during the early years of British colonialism in the sub-continent; the long resistance of the Kandyian kingdom in Lanka against the imperialist incursion of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British; and an exploration of the long civil war in Lanka from the contrasting military perspectives of the Sinhala majority government and the Tamil Tigers. In addition he has written a number of well received short stories and novels exploring the dilemma’s people from various backgrounds, beliefs and cultural practices, misunderstanding and communicating with each other, sometimes across the generation divide.
 Wickremsekera, Dr Channa (2017) “The Voices of a New Australia” in Doryanthes Volume 10. No: 4, November 2017.