I am the 2017 National Library of Australia Creative Arts Fellow for Australian Writing, supported by the Eva Kollsman and Ray Mathew’s Trust.
My fellowship project is titled Cosmopolitan Rangoon through the eyes of Gordon Luce or, how the politics of authenticity shape the intimate, and I will be working with private papers from the National Library of Australia’s Luce Collection.
Gordon Luce was one of Europe’s foremost scholars on Burma and lived in Rangoon from 1912 until 1964. You can read more about the project here.
And here is a link to the Luce Collection at the NLA.
My current project
In 2014 I spent 70 days in Yangon, the city of my birth. I left when I was still an infant, the year after the military coup. Nobody in my immediate family had ever been back.
I witnessed the immediate aftermath of decades of oppression, a profound, confronting experience. All around me, it seemed like the people of Yangon were staggering into consciousness. This was a moment that would never be repeated. It seemed that every artist, writer, taxi driver, cleaner, student had a story to tell.
Fascinating as this was, I longed for the Rangoon of my own past. I am Anglo-Burmese, of mixed Burmese, Indian, Dutch and German descent. We were part of Rangoon’s cosmopolitan social layer: a sticky, cross-cultural web of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and affiliation, one I associated with the rise of empire. I thought of my family as following the arc of colonisation, beginning with Oot Vandockum, the Dutch sailor stranded in the region who turned to piracy: to his ‘Zerbadi’ (Burmese/ Indian/European) grand-children, who profited directly from the proceeds of colonisation: to my own parents, who were caught out by increasingly violent nationalism after World War Two.
But the more I walked the streets of Yangon, the more I searched the archives for proof of the culture and history I’d lost, the more I realized that no matter how much I wanted to be connected to a place and its past, I also itched to be on the move, at-home in many places – Canada, Australia or wherever I found myself – shaped as much by affiliation as much as by tradition, heritage and inheritance. And that mobility was a pattern of life traced in the pre-colonial as well as the modern history of Rangoon.
So, where do we belong? In the homes we are born into or the homes we make for ourselves?