Is Australia out of balance, spiritually and environmentally? Are we alienated from the land and ourselves as a result?
Yes, argues Monica Tan in her travel memoir, Stranger Country. Non-Indigenous Australians huddle together in cities, ‘face out to sea because our minds are always someplace else’ (214). Globalisation has swamped local culture in a digital age, and non-Indigenous Australians fear, ‘we are nothing but shitty, distorted photocopies of compatriots in our respective motherlands’ (214).
A second generation Australian, Tan searches for a sense of belonging that includes her Chinese Malay heritage and her Australian birthplace. Tan resists stereotyping of Asian migrants as bananas—‘yellow on the outside, white on the inside’ (189). Yet, like many Australians, she acknowledges knowing little about Indigenous culture, other than the whitewashed history of high school textbooks.
Tan sets out in a Toyota RAV4 to find a way to be Australian that balances Country, history and race, educating herself and her readers along the way. In this sense, Tan’s memoir mirrors Robyn Davidson’s famous exploratory narrative where a lone female narrator encounters the Australian outback as a foreign place, and her internal and external journey is the subject. More than forty years after Tracks was published, Tan also explores physical, personal and ideological versions of space in the outback (Beck).
Throughout her road trip, Tan weaves in history of the White Australia policy, and Anti-Chinese sentiment expressed as ‘yellow peril’. Yet as she travels to Broome, a hybrid outback Australia emerges, beautifully described as a ‘stir-fry mix of countries and cultures’ (121). In the late 1880s, Darwin’s population was largely Chinese or ABC (Australian-Born Chinese), outnumbering Europeans at least four to one. Tan is surprised to learn that their Chinese descendants identify as Australians. Eddy Ah Toy in Pine Creek, is comfortable being a third generation ABC and ‘Territorian of the year’ in 2005, and seems disinterested in his ancestral village.
As she travels further away from cities, Tan discovers that a deep connection to land is possible and that all Australians can learn from Aboriginal culture. Language about the land is lyrical and has a sense of reciprocity: ‘I had left tracks on its sand; it had blown sea salt over my skin’ (174). Tan eschews desolate bauxite mines and land degraded by multinational industries, instead affirming the wisdom of Aboriginal relationships to the natural world as active caretakers. Readers are shown the Aboriginal, cooperative relationship to Country as an alternative to Western extractive mentality that mines and removes the land’s riches.
On Yirritja land, Tan writes of Australian environmentalist Val Plumwood and her wrestle with a crocodile in Kakadu National Park. She describes how this changed Plumwood’s anthropomorphic view of the world, as seeing herself as part of the food chain, rather than as a superior human with the right to exploit the natural world through industry and agriculture (246).
Lurujarri trail takes her deeper into Country and its Dreaming. She goes fishing with a Goolarabooloo family who bring back a turtle to roast on a campfire. While white urban walkers are confronted by the ‘butcher’s mess of gullal organs’ (165), Tan relishes both the experience and turtle meat.
Tan wrestles with colonial Australian attitudes to Aboriginal culture, inextricably linked to the land. Sacred Aboriginal art is desecrated by the resources industry and an ignorant mainstream culture. In remote Karijini National Park, the native bowerbird’s nest is built of natural matter, as well as glass and plastic rubbish. Meanwhile, white Australians are oblivious to Indigenous signs to respect the place as significant; their jumping and squawking if not malicious then outright disrespectful.
At times Tan seems to sermonise a little. After all, her experiences with nature, from pristine beaches in Western Australia to cassowaries in rainforests of far north Queensland, are in themselves privileges affordable to the few. It is only through her connections as a former Guardian journalist that she has the chance to meet locals such as Indigenous filmmaker and digital artist Tyson Mowarin in Roebourne, near Port Hedland.
On the other hand, Tan is self-conscious of her privileged urban status, ambivalent about her own motives and aware of her responsibility to respect Indigenous culture in her writing. As Asian Australian, she too is implicated in ‘the ugly historical mantle of coloniser’ (126). Tan is mortified when one prominent Indigenous man is annoyed by her trip, and ‘sick of Australians who used Indigenous Australia to "find themselves"’ (126).
Fair call. At a tavern in Nhulunbuy, Tan confronts her own bias as liberal city-slicker. Her recent travel partner and lover reveals himself to be anti-refugee, a supporter of Tony Abbott. However, he means her no offence, implicitly accepting her as Australian, regardless of her Asian heritage. Tan realises that agreeing with boat-stopping political rhetoric doesn’t necessarily make him an extremist. Racist attitudes are easily spread in digital environments but ‘face-to-face conversations fostered natural empathy’ (277). Finally, Tan rejects the notion that Pauline Hanson represents an Australian mainstream, ‘draped in the Southern Cross and speaking Strine’ (301).
Tan muses on reconciliation and how it could be achieved, eventually settling on Yothu Yindi’s vision of Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldviews enriching each other and merging, ‘like two long-separated rivers joining and running as one’ (229). Australian identity is elastic, and she need not be ‘trapped between Aboriginal, Asian and European cultures’ (175).
After 30 000 kilometres, Tan has a deeper acceptance of herself and feels connected to Australia. For the reader, Stranger Country does not really challenge the cartographic and textual map which embodies power structures. In that sense, Tan is unlike Robyn Davidson who literally and metaphorically, ‘plots a new track’ (Collis 184).
An Afterword ends her story with optimism. Stranger country led Tan to teach a complex, nuanced understanding of Australian history and politics. Tan now works for climate change with the NT Environment Centre. Readers might similarly be inspired.
Beck, M.S. 2016. ‘Traveling, Writing and Engagement in Robyn Davidson’s Tracks‘. Ilha do Desterro, 69(2), 93–106.
Collis, C. 1997. ‘Exploring Tracks: Writing and Living Desert Space‘, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 179–84.
Davidson, R. 1980, Tracks, New York, Vintage.
Monica Tan, Stranger Country. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2019. ISBN 9781760632212