There’s nothing I love more than cups of tea with my grandmother and great aunt, where I am regaled with stories of their youth in the old country and their passage out to the new one. We all know that Australia’s multiculturalism stems from a wonderful heritage, giving migrants whose lives, homes and entire realities were rabaged by wars, famine and struggle a new chance to dream, live and prosper down under.
As they get older, I’ve started to think that now is the time that I need to record their stories. The kinds of stories that have inspired spin-off tales in my head for future novel ideas, and that have instilled in me a massive admiration for their character and all that they went through.
My grandparents came out here in 1966, and are still settled in the same area that they lived in when they first came out here, though their reality is obviously far different. By all means, Australia already had a diverse influx of migrants from the second world war at the time, so they weren’t the only different ones, but their experience is still a source of fascination for me. I love reading about assimilation, integration, ethnic communities and culture, and as some of you know, it does form the basis for a lot of my writing and research work.
Which is why my chase of the day today is this fantastic book by novelist Diane Armstrong. Polish by birth, she arrived in Australia in 1948 and grew up at a time where European migrants were still finding their footing, amidst the distrust, fascination and curiosity of their Anglo-Celtic neighbours.
This is the framework that dominates Empire Day (4th Estate, $29.99), a book based on Armstrong’s childhood memory of the Empire Day bonfire that blazed in her Bondi street as a child. A beautiful story of old Australia meeting new, it tells the story of refugees like Sala, unhappily married but trying to negotiate her wartime past with her Australian future, and Hania, a teenager who wants to be like her Anglo friends but whose Polish Jewish mother’s distrust and fear forbids just about anything. Then there’s the mystery man, with troubles of his own thanks to a war-time ache that’s wedged itself in his heart.
But the Aussies in the street aren’t exempt from troubles either. And even though the strange ways of the refugees are a threat to gossips like Maude McNulty, for others, like Ted Browning, they bring opportunities of new love.
Somehow, despite all the drama, you get the feeling that everything is going to be all right, but it still makes for impeccable story telling. I absolutely loved the book, and would totally recommend it to those who have similar interests to yours truly.
A couple of weeks ago, I emailed my friend Rachel Hills and said more ethnic Australians need to be included in our debates, especially those concerning feminism, gender and other women’s issues. Empire Day had the power to transport me to an Australia that exists in the memories of my family and older neighbours. But even though I was reading it from a seat in an entirely different time and a vastly different place, I couldn’t help but wonder that in reality, we hadn’t moved at all.