[Review] Shifting Terrains: Movement and Identity in Lachlan Brown’s Lunar Inheritance

{Written by Maja Milatovic, this review is part of Issue 39 (March 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Lachlan Brown, Lunar Inheritance, Giramondo Publishing Company, 2017. 96 pgs.

Lunar InherianceQuestions of identity and self-definition hold a special place in Lachlan Brown’s artistic imagination. His poetry engages with the elusive concept of belonging in a divided and contested world, within and despite social norms and hierarchies. Brown’s poetic impulse is to probe the tensions surrounding the need to self-define and the social prescriptions which label those who challenge normative categories.

Brown’s own background attests to the complex worlds he inhabits, growing up in Sydney with a Chinese and Anglo-Australian background. His first poetry collection, Limited Cities (2012), weaves intimate reflections on suburban locations and their centrality in shaping our sense of self. In an interview with Fiona Wright, Brown addresses his poetic journey and the ways the different facets of his identity inform his writing. Specifically, he discusses his visit to China as a way of connecting with his Chinese culture and heritage. He notes that he felt “constantly out of place” and adds that he has the same feeling in Sydney.

Brown’s second poetry collection, Lunar Inheritance (2017), is built around a poetic questioning of this very sense of “being out of place” while remaining immersed and emotionally tied to multiple locations. In her thoughtful essay on Lunar Inheritance, Eileen Chong calls this poetry collection “a unified object comprising multiple objects carefully juxtaposed with one another.” The shifts and juxtapositions enable a sense of continuous movement and complicate Brown’s poetry. However, his journey to China is far from a romanticised, linear path of returning to an ancestral country to reaffirm a sense of self and assuage alienation. The longing for ancestral voices and histories which may have inspired his visit is framed within the realities of industrialisation, political issues, economic and cultural differences and narratives of national belonging which exclude certain social groups. Brown thus complicates his search for familial histories through complex shifts between places, objects, voices and emotions and assumes confronting voices articulating difficult experiences.

The tension of self-defining within and against social prescriptions is represented in his poem “Filling out a Form.” The poem testifies to the difficulties of placing his identity in neatly defined or predetermined categories:

And yet, here, when asked

to full in ‘ethnicity’ you find yourself hesitating,
As though stranded atop the median strip
of John St, Cabra, passed by streams of traffic

While labels can have a powerful and affirming function of defining ourselves, as Audre Lorde puts it, “for ourselves” and thus against hierarchies, they can also be limiting and confining.[i] Forms frequently offer boxes to tick which cannot capture the complexities of one’s gender, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, religion, etc., and yet we encounter them in our daily life as a formalised method of declaring “who we are” for various purposes. While we cannot simply “do away” with all manners of categorisation, we are invited to consider how these categories are constructed by those in positions of power and risk negating diversity and complexity. This reluctance to define oneself through categories is aptly described by Eileen Chong as a “question about hybridity.” Considering whether she identifies as an Australian poet, she asks: “Am I a Singaporean poet? An Asian-Australian poet? An Australian poet? An interesting woman poet? A Chinese poet? A confessional poet? A food poet? I think I might be all of the above, sometimes all at the same time.” Chong embraces diverse facets of her identity, challenges reductive assumptions and rejects parameters which narrowly define and limit her artistic selves. Similarly, Brown does not offer easy solutions to explain away his hesitation when filling the form; Lunar Inheritance probes this emotion as a continuous process of negotiation.

Brown’s sense of self is tied to different places and locations in this collection, as he moves from busy Chinese streets to Australian suburbs. In his interview with Fiona Wright, Brown tellingly states that “when we go to places, we take our experiences with us.” His Australian context is a constant companion as he visits cities in China, and the sights he sees prompt returns to his Australian family, objects and memories. This reveals a deep sense of attachment to his Australian context frequently invoked throughout the collection as he moves through different locations in China. This is particularly evident in the evocative “(fathersong),” in which Brown details his visit to Yuexiu Park, Guangzhou and contemplates his past and a man swinging a sword:

Suddenly I want to ask that man to send his sword
….to visit my son in Australia.
“He is blond-haired and one-quarter Chinese” I want to say
….but I cannot speak the language of the Guangzhou morning.

This temporal as well as geographic shift allows Brown to question the significance of his inheritance for future generations. Envisioning his own familial past and ancestors leads him to consider his family and what these ancestral ties to China may mean for his son growing up in Australia. Significantly, Brown is unable to speak the language of his Chinese ancestors, a palpable consequence of familial histories of migration and the difficulties in maintaining cultural and linguistic ties in a new environment. His poetic experience of China is thus always framed through the English language, a simultaneous limitation and a necessary vehicle for poetic exploration and meditation.

Engaging with questions of identity in a diverse globalised society is inextricably linked to Australian histories of exclusion. Considering current political events in Australia related to social justice, decolonisation and discourses on migration, certain poems in this collection tackle timely and socially relevant issues. Specifically, contemporary Australia remains deeply impacted by ongoing legacies of imperialism and colonialism. In her article “Living with Racism in Australia,” Alice Pung points out that “racism has returned to the front of public discourse.” She discusses the prevailing effects of racism and white supremacy in Australia and remembers the rise of the One Nation party in the 1990s and a particular memory: “The next time I went to my best friend’s house, her father had tacked up a poster of Ms. Hanson draped in the Australian flag. He sought to reassure me that it had nothing to do with our family. Echoing my father’s line about white Australians, he said, ‘Yous are the good ones.'” Here, Pung reveals the insidiousness of racism articulated through the paternalistic and dehumanising notion of a “good migrant.” This is echoed in Uyen Loewald’s ironic poem “Be Good Little Migrants” where migrants are presented as passive tokens expected to “enrich” the dominant society, conform to its norms without critique or questioning and reduce their cultural diversity to monolithic stereotypes: “Just display your gratitude / but don’t be heard, don’t be seen.”[ii] Exploring Brown’s experiences as an Asian Australian, Lunar Inheritance also engages with the effects of stereotyping and marginalisation. Several poems detail these issues, from hearing slurs shouted at Brown from a bus to exposing voices which hauntingly invoke racist political speeches and prejudices. In “Tell it like it is,” Brown assumes the first person to represent dominant society’s anxieties surrounding cultural difference, the presence of Chinese people in Australia as well as the exclusionary effects of hegemonic discourses on nationhood. The first-person form is confronting and yet effective, encouraging the reader to inhabit such a voice and consider their own implication in social structures which perpetuate such ideas. Moreover, the poem effectively addresses anti-migrant discourses, Australia’s historically vexed relationship to Asian countries and cultures and narratives which privilege Anglo-Australian perspectives on nation-making and belonging.

Following Brown’s journey across countries and cultures is no simple task due to ongoing shifts in location, perspectives and memories. However, this movement enriches Lunar Inheritance as it embraces its inconsistencies and gives us the space to question and pause. Brown’s second poetry collection is therefore an inherently dialogic and valuable work, which invites a careful consideration of the ways in which different aspects of ourselves are formed by the contingencies of time, space and cultural ties.

[i] Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. California: Crossing Press.

[ii] Loewald, Uyen. Be Good, Little Migrants. In Growing Up Asian in Australia, edited by Alice Pung. Black Inc, pages.225–226.

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Maja Milatovic.png

Maja Milatovic teaches at ANU College, Canberra, Australia.  She holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh (UK) and an MA in Postmodern Fiction from Aberystwyth University (UK). Milatovic’s current research is located at the intersections of international student education, human rights and decolonising methodologies. She is passionate about literature and its ability to facilitate social change, community engagement and the use of educational technologies. Her publications can be viewed on her Academia page.

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