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Image: Michael Theis, Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

We were off—leaping and crashing up and down over the lurujarri. Inside the car we pinballed about, and I grasped the armrest. Nanna swore a few times, not enjoying the rough ride. Sophia cranked up a country music mixtape, which yodeled away on the car’s bass-heavy sound system. ‘Ride ‘em, cowboy!’ she cried.

The Lurujarri Trail is a high point in Monica Tan’s travels through the Outback, as recounted in her debut book Stranger Country (2019). On Goolarabooloo Country she meets the Roe family, who are now the custodians of the land. They welcome her with open arms, and she joins matriarch Sophia and her family on an exhilarating rollercoaster of a ride down to the beach. It’s on this country where everything starts to connect up for Tan, more than two months into her 30,000km road trip. She realises she can ‘physically dissolve’ and be in symbiosis with the land. Which contrasts with how she felt when she set out on her journey, worried about being a ‘perpetual foreigner, a person of no place, cut adrift’.

I had been afraid I would never love anything the way Aboriginal people[s] loved and knew their country—that their sense of connection and belonging would forever allude a person like me, trapped as I was between Aboriginal, Asian and European cultures.

Reading this I felt an acute recognition in Tan’s words. How could I not? My family were refugees who were offered safe haven here, but a refuge does not inevitably become a home. Given this underlying history, part of my inheritance is an impulse to travel, which has often provided me with important answers to my existential questions. It’s not surprising I was drawn to Tan’s book. Now her journey seems even more worthwhile, given the pandemic and global travel shutdown.

My family were refugees who were offered safe haven here, but a refuge does not inevitably become a home. Part of my inheritance is an impulse to travel.

Tan’s desire to embark on her odyssey is straightforward: ‘I just wanted to know Australia.’ She does not set out to answer definitively whether, as a second-generation Chinese Australian, she will ever truly belong, but her trip is motivated by a need to confront her sense of estrangement from the land of her birth and its original custodians.

*

It is seemingly easy for migrants to be drawn into the fantasy of a fresh start in a new land, to leave behind the darkness and shame of elsewhere and live under the bright sun. Some of us are not so easily seduced, though, and we see the shamefulness of White Australia soon enough; but still, it’s not our shame. So we forge ahead and make homes for ourselves in the suburban sprawl of cities like Sydney, where Indigenous Australia is far from mind and rarely visible at all. As Fiona Wright writes in The World Was Whole (2018):

It was easy to forget, because I saw them every day, that the suburbs were invented. That even though the vast majority of this country’s population lives within the limits of cities like Sydney, these cities are new compared to the stolen land that they stand on, and their suburbs even newer.

After high school I started commuting to Redfern for university and became friendly with a classmate who told me she was Aboriginal. It was, perhaps, a key moment in my realisation of just how little I knew about Indigenous Australia. My Catholic and public school education had done far more to suppress rather than reveal Australia’s true history. I wanted to know more, though I didn’t go to extraordinary lengths to seek answers. Indigenous history was, after all, just one of many areas I had questions about.

The only exception to my ignorance during my early years was stumbling across an autobiography at my local library: Home! The Evonne Goolagong Story (1993). I was a fan of watching the tennis, and it was an engrossing read, but I had no sense at all of how Goolagong’s glamorous life fit into the scheme of things. Thinking back, I can only imagine that I read her descriptions of growing up in the NSW Riverina as totally foreign, as distant as could be

Over time, my own story has become further entangled with that of Indigenous and European Australia. I think about how the cultural heritage of my children now overlaps with someone like Ismail, who Tan meets on her travels in Western Australia and she describes as being an Aboriginal Australian ‘with Asian heritage—and a dash of Irish.’ Then, in the Northern Territory, Tan spends significant time with a local family:

The Ah Toys had history in this community—not sixty thousand years of history, but history nonetheless. With one Aboriginal family in Pine Creek, the Ah Toys could trace four generations of friendship, spanning a century.

Tan’s family arrived in the 70s, after the end of the White Australia Policy; the first Australian-born Ah Toy was a little girl when the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (the White Australia Policy) was introduced. In the stories of the Ah Toys and others, Tan sees something of herself:

Boy, if there is anything we Chinese have been good at in Australia, it is working hard… The problem, though, is that while this garnered us respect from some sections of Australian society, it attracted resentment and feelings of insecurity from the rest.

Being an armchair traveller has its limits: I often circle back to wondering what we could learn by having one’s whole self in situ.

This was another moment I lingered over in Tan’s memoir. Certainly, I recognised the trap of being a Good Migrant, but I felt something else too: envy. My life converges with Tan as a fellow Asian Australian, but I am the product of another nation’s long and immense history. I’m not able to fall back on hundreds of years of Macassan, Chinese and Japanese migration to—and contact with—Australia the way Tan does to create a sense of connection through time, because the Vietnamese are late-twentieth-century blow-ins weighed down by our own colonial concerns.

What exactly can we ‘strangers’ learn from travelling on this continent? ‘To Aboriginal people of Australia,’ writes Alexis Wright in Granta (2017), ‘the land itself holds a vast archive of ancestral travel through a spiritual landscape.’ It is an archive, however, which most non-Indigenous people will never be able to access through travel—and rightly so. There is the profoundly ethical work of reading and considering the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and thinkers, which I have started to do more of but still have a long way to go. But being an armchair traveller has its limits, however, because it is an intellectual exercise above all else. So I often circle back to wondering what we could learn by poking around the edges in places we have permission to access. By having one’s whole self in situ, such as when Tan travels on Ngarluma Country and witnesses with her own eyes:

I looked at the standing stones—red and bone-like, pointing to the sky—and my heart felt heavy as I thought of the Yaburrara lives that had been taken by colonial forces.

*

Some of the most compelling travel writing for me as a reader and a traveller is where the journey of the self is mirrored by an outward one. Jessa Crispin, in the Boston Review, takes umbrage with this kind of ‘faux travel writing’ popularised by writers like Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed. ‘In this genre, the focus of attention is the self,’ writes Crispin. ‘The beautiful locale becomes the backdrop of the real action, which is interior psychodrama.’ That I seem to enjoy this kind of writing undoubtedly indicates my own privileged position in being able to freely move through the world.

Revisiting Crispin’s critique after reading Stranger Country, though, it’s clear Australia is not the mere backdrop to Tan’s ‘interior psychodrama’. Her book is more than inward-facing memoir; it is a journalistic endeavour involving 18 notebooks and an extensive reading list. Tan is a diligent student and has done her homework—which is perhaps one reason why Stranger Country feels a bit laboured and self-conscious at times. Whenever Tan references something she’s read, those inelegant moments would take me out of the story. But perhaps her references to reading in the travelogue are hard to avoid, given Tan’s primary source of knowledge about Indigenous history comes from books.

In any case, Stranger Country is an enjoyable book about travel; and not a compelling, extraordinary ‘lunatic plan’, as Robyn Davidson describes her infamous escapade—with camels! —across the Australian desert in Tracks (1980):

…I turned for the last time, the early morning wind leaping and whistling around me. I wondered what powerful fate had channeled me into this moment of inspired lunacy. The last burning bridge back to my old self collapsed. I was on my own.

Tracks is ‘one woman’s journey through the outback’—a white woman—and is (as Tan acknowledges) an obvious predecessor to Stranger Country. The experience of reading Davidson’s visceral account is difficult to describe in a few sentences. It is sui generis. As Davidson writes in her 2012 afterword:

…perhaps most importantly for someone like me, nothing was as important as freedom. The freedom to make up your own mind, to make yourself. And such aspirations inevitably involved risk, unleashing opportunities for learning, discovering and becoming.

Davidson’s emphasis on freedom also brings up another point from Crispin’s critique of Gilbert and others: ‘the authors of these narratives talk a lot about how they shouldn’t be on the road because good girls stay at home’. The vulnerability of being a solo female traveller comes up in both Tan’s and Davidson’s narratives, yet there is no real suggestion made by either that such travel is a transgression of their gender. As Australian travellers, Tan and Davidson seem to enjoy more freedom than their American counterparts, who seem to come from a culture suspicious of travel for travel’s sake.

When we travel, as some of us are wont to do, are we ‘wearing the colonizer’s cloak’?

Davidson and Tan travel in two vastly different eras—the 1970s and 2010s respectively—but one thing they share is the ability to chuck it all in and leave their homes on the urbanised Eastern Seaboard. They are able to choose to travel, and to be able to travel to another part of this continent is a privilege, whichever way you look at it. As such, it brings up important questions, as Intan Paramditha argues in LitHub:

Questions of travel must consider the unequal power relations that characterize present global encounters and how they are enmeshed in the historical processes in the past.

But what if the encounters are not global, as such, and not exactly local either? There is no doubt we have become enmeshed. When we travel, as some of us are wont to do, are we ‘wearing the colonizer’s cloak’? Neither Tan nor Davidson offer a definitive answer to this question, but both women do demonstrate why ‘knowing Australia’ has the potential to be transformative. In both their lives, the legacy of their journeys reverberate for them after the travel is done. Their accounts encourage us to consider just how important respectful, embodied travel is on the countries—Country—we are strangers on, especially those of us who are non-Indigenous. As Ambelin Kwaymullina writes in Living on Stolen Land (2020):

The places
where different worlds meet
can be places of connection
enrichment and transformation

Travel offers one such way for the worlds within Australia to meet in physical space, more than just words read and exchanged. These embodied journeys on ancient meeting places can lead us to more robust and mutual understandings, which might not be possible to gain any other way.

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Roads are central to the way the Australian continent has been traversed and mapped. They were, and continue to be, fundamental to the ongoing process of colonisation. The best parts of Tan’s book are undoubtedly when she goes off-road to ‘pare away what was unnecessary’, to quote Davidson describing her own journey. After reading Tracks, I considered whether Tan’s Rav4 and the use of roads do indeed form a well-defined barrier between her and the land; this is, after all, exactly why Davidson opted for travel by camel instead.

Travel offers one such way for the worlds within Australia to meet in physical space, more than just words read and exchanged.

Once they are built, however, roads take on lives of their own and are used in ways that veer from their initial purpose. In The Golden Country: Australia’s Changing Identity (2019), for example, Federal MP Tim Watts opens with a road trip to Ararat—the only township in Australia established by Chinese migrants (in 1857). Unlike Tan’s journey, this road trip is designed specifically for his Asian Australian son to contemplate his (Hong Kong) Chinese roots. Road trips have long been an important aspect of what it means for Watts’ (white) Australian identity.

As a child, I fell in love with Australia on family road trips. I fell in love with the golden-hour birdsong of the bush… I fell in love with the weirdness of the yarn spinners who would call into Macca on a Sunday morning for Australia All Over from towns with two dogs and a cat.

I regularly listened to that same radio program during my teenage years and into my late twenties. The Australian outback which filtered through my clock radio was a comfort, though a world I barely recognised from my home in Sydney. What I felt in the cosiness of my bedroom did not prepare me for how I would feel when I eventually visited some of those country towns for myself: an alien. I experienced wonder whenever I met anyone remotely like me—neither white nor First Nations—who had made a comfortable home for themselves in a regional area. In Coonamble I visited a local cafe run by a Lebanese Muslim family and felt the need to know just how they had ended up there. Before their radical relocation, they’d lived close to where I grew up—for many years we’d actually lived on the same country.

Not long after that trip I visited Bourke on Ngemba Country as part of my work on Story Factory’s State of Mind creative non-fiction writing project. We were in town to run workshops with dozens of young people, many Aboriginal. I was with my colleagues Helen Coolican, a white Australian who had grown up in Bourke, and John Blair from the Nucoorilma Clan of the Gamilaroi Nation. The two of them were on familiar ground, whereas I keenly felt my tourist status—it was the furthest inland I had ever been.

Outside of Bourke I saw red dirt for the first time. ‘Is this The Outback?’ I asked Helen, who laughed as this was close to where she had grown up. Yet it was foreign to me, and the photographs I’d seen up until then failed to capture how overwhelming and glorious Country could be. But it wasn’t just the red dirt that surprised me: in the soil I saw thousands of gorgeous wildflowers, blooming under the bright sun. I didn’t know that the red dirt had a way of making such vivid colours even more intense.