4.1 Reflections of an Outsider, a Eulogy to an Unseen Fellow Traveler
In July 2012, I attended the ASAL (Association for the Study of Australian Literature) conference in Wellington, New Zealand. My paper, which discussed revisiting Australian history in the novels of Peter Carey, was scheduled as the only postgraduate paper in one of the first panels of the first day. Despite that, I was confident that I was well prepared and that my argument was solid, so I tamed my faltering voice early in the presentation. I had planned to explain to the audience that my approach was informed by the fact that I was an “outsider,” a non-Australian researcher. Briefly, I said that my perspective did and would always reflect a degree of scholarly distance, which, I argued, could bring sharpness and novelty into my research, if handled with tact and diligence. I survived the Q&A with no damaging embarrassments. “Time for networking now,” I thought, not knowing that the more arduous part of the conference was yet to come. The sense of triumph that followed a decent presentation soon became irrelevant.
Once we were about to leave the conference hall, one of the attendees, a man probably in his late fifties, emerged from the audience. When he spoke, I sensed a palpable Australian accent. “So, outsider!” He addressed me glibly, “You didn’t reveal to us where you were from.” “Iran,” I said. The collegial ambiance of the conference allowed me to successfully conceal my insecure feelings about the immediate implications of being an Iranian in Australia, and I assumed that this conversation was another conventional exchange at the end of each panel. A lukewarm smile surfaced on his face. “You came on a boat, then?” What initially struck me was a degree of mild confusion. “No, I came in an aircraft,” I said. My surprise at his travel-related illiteracy did not last long. ‘So, they let you in?’ There was little sign of assurance in the way I uttered my response this time, ‘Y-yeahh.’ “Why not?!” I added defensively. This obviously amused him. “Why not,” he mocked me, “as long as you people keep away from technology, one may tend to think so!” I smiled back, congenially, timidly. Trying to change the topic, I asked “You’re Australian?” “I am a Melbournite.” His tone was unflinching. We moved on side by side to the main hall to nibble over refreshments and chat as the enlightened intellectuals that we thought we were.
Less than a year later, a tapestry of will weaved with fortune paved my way to Melbourne University. I was granted a U21 Scholarship, which enabled me to base myself in Melbourne from March to July 2013 to take advantage of PhD coursework and also research Peter Carey’s archives, housed at the State Library of Victoria. People in both academies were generously supportive and made the angst of applying for a visa and settling in a new country much more bearable. Two months after my arrival, on a quiet afternoon, I passed by the same man from the conference on the University’s campus. We exchanged glances. I immediately recognized his face, but I don’t think he placed me at all. This time, what I had for him was far from timidity. Rather, he reminded me of a type of incorrigible ignorance that I could only approach with shielded intellectual humility. Something had changed in me. Had I become an “insider”?
From March to July, a few quick but fruitful months passed during which Melbourne proved to be both stimulating and accommodating. The outcomes of my engagement with Carey’s archives at the State Library significantly contributed to the course of my research. I flew back to Auckland, determined to apply for the doctoral program at Melbourne University. That happened in August. All went well, and I was offered a PhD Scholarship in December. In February 2014, I officially transferred my studies from Auckland to Melbourne. I must say this has been a thrilling move. For one thing, here, I feel as close as possible to the subject that I have been researching for the past five years in three universities and in three countries, including one of the farthest imaginable in every possible sense (Iran) and one of the closest (New Zealand). It might be fair to say that I have “migrated” through “the field.” And despite all the vicissitudes that this migration—like any other—has imposed on me, it has helped me gain perspective, which, in terms of how I can position myself in the field, can arguably add to the authenticity of my work. Paradoxically, however, the distance between me and my subject of study—which has always factored in my intellectual approach—keeps reproducing itself in interestingly fresh ways.
I reside in Melbourne. This vibrant “City of Literature” provides a surreal environment for my research as I write about an author who was born in Bacchus Marsh, a small town located only 50 kilometers west of where I live now. It requires little expenditure of effort for me to catch a train and visit the school that Carey went to as a child, the setting that inspired some of his early short stories, talk to the locals about Carey’s reputation in the area, or even—upon prior arrangement—possibly meet with his sibling. My project entails perusing a momentous collection of Carey’s manuscripts, letters, invitations, reviews, and many other documents that he or those related to him or his work have produced. Those who work with archives would agree that it is an empowering feeling to find oneself in the midst of all that has given rise to a highly renowned author. I have literally stumbled upon conversations with Carey’s acquaintances, his former colleagues, or his editors. Right above my head, where I work every day, there is a permanent exhibition of the materials that Carey used while he was writing his most famous novel True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). I am surrounded by my topic. I am “in the field,” as it were.
As it turns out, human existence—never a holistically romantic project—tends to show us its fragmented side very often. This applies to my interaction with my field as well. Still, sometimes I feel an invisible glass is barring me from fully encountering Australia. In those moments, I say to myself, “things are different here, I can’t fit, I don’t understand.” Ideas, mannerisms, sensibilities, and expectations can vary from unusually pleasing to extremely disturbing. But they are always different, never like “home.” This unbridgeable gap between me and my field—which involves my host culture in its broadest sense—facilitates learning to a great extent. Information about Australia as a culture and a nation rushes to me with an overwhelming pace. It is here that I have been fully exposed to the intricacies and significance of aboriginal culture, the threat of the bushfire, the historical repercussions of systematic racism, the hospitality and rigidity of the host community, and the sufferings and contributions of those who have arrived on boats. I may never get to pen my reflections on these dimensions of Australian life in my thesis but they always color my understanding of my area of academic interest that is contemporary Australian fiction.
Am I still an outsider? Something in me likes to invalidate that question because it is predicated on the false proposition that there is such an essential thing as an absolute “insider.” As I am writing these lines, I am aware that only a week ago, on the night of 17 February 2014, a 23-year old Iranian asylum seeker was killed in a violent attack in a refugee camp in the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, where the Australian Government has decided to transfer the new asylum seekers. Reza Barati embarked on a boat, hoping to arrive on these shores one day, maybe to be able to become a “Melbournite.” Alas, he did not know that he was not expected here, that he, along with many others, had even lost the dignity of being called an asylum seeker. He was now just a “transferee,” as the Australian government neutrally calls them, just another “boat person.” Reza was Iranian, I am Iranian, too. We are both ethnically Kurdish. We both went to university in Iran. We are both “transferees.” I could be him. He is very much me.
People have asked me if I arrived “on a boat” time and again, without mumbling an apology when they learn that they are mistaken in holding that assumption. Some raise questions about when I want to make arrangements for my family to come to Australia. Incredulity is usually the response when I say my people are happy to stay in their own land. Invariably, all of this composes a plethora of knowledge and ignorance of myself and my field, of which I hope to formulate and articulate one tiny dimension. Such reflective comprehension aids me in writing more assertively about Australian literature. In this light, the binary of insider/outsider becomes too fragile to even be considered as a real point of distinction. Maybe we are all “boat people,” fluid and afloat in our identities, moving from one arbitrary lived experience to another. One thing is clear: my privileges do not make me any better than Reza or any other fellow being who set sail for Australia on a flimsy boat.
Keyvan Allahyari is a doctoral student of English at the Australian Centre in Melbourne University. He has previously worked at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, Iran and Auckland University, New Zealand. His PhD project concerns the study of Peter Carey’s archives housed at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, the Fryer Library in Queensland University, Brisbane and the National Library of Australia in Canberra. He is looking at the politics of marketing Carey and how his recent fiction acknowledges and responds to the phenomenon of literary canonization.