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ANDRÉ DAO: Redirecting The Culture Misdirect.


André Dao lives a life immersed in narrative. A writer of fiction and nonfiction, Dao’s work has appeared in a wide range of publications including the Griffith REVIEW, The Monthly, SBS True Stories and The Lifted Brow.

In 2014 Dao co-founded the oral history project Behind The Wire, a non-for-profit organisation that with the aim of bringing a new viewpoint to mandatory detention by documenting the first hand stories of the people (adults and children) who have been detained by the Australian government whilst seeking asylum.

They Cannot Take the Sky, an anthology of those stories, is out now.


THE PIN. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Melbourne and my parents were born in Vietnam and both made their way to Australia following the Vietnam war. My mum was a boat person, she came over in the early ‘80s. My dad was also a refugee, but he actually went to France first because he had family connections there. My parents were engaged at that time and were at opposite ends of the world. When my mum got accepted from the refugee camp in Malaysia to move to Melbourne. They were corresponding for quite a while by letter before my dad decided to move from Paris, where his family had resettled, to be with mum in Melbourne.

Was there a culture in your household that was different to the outside world?
When I was very young, before school, I spoke Vietnamese at home. It actually caused a bit of an issue when I started at Kindergarten. My mum tells me she got in a bit of trouble with teachers and they told her off for me trying to speak Vietnamese in Kinder and said I had to learn English.

From then on my parents didn’t involve me in Vietnamese school and they really thought they had stuffed up. They thought I would fall behind if they didn’t push for English. Now as an adult, even though that was my first language, my Vietnamese isn’t as good as I would like it to be. My written and reading skills aren’t as good as I would like them to be because of that initial reaction. I think growing up in an outer Northern suburb of Melbourne where there weren’t many Vietnamese people meant that teachers weren’t used to a bilingual child and perhaps that could have influenced their decision to push my parents in the direction that it did.

Did your family try to retain Vietnamese culture in other ways?
I think in a lot of ways, yes, because they still speak Vietnamese to each other. Even though they have been here for thirty plus years they still very much feel Vietnamese and watch Vietnamese television shows and are engaged with Vietnamese community gossip. At the same time, they chose not to live in Richmond or Footscray, they moved out of those areas very quickly. As a result, growing up, I was aware of Vietnamese culture but I wasn’t steeped in it.

Looking back at the direction your parents took because of the push from your teachers and those sorts of things, do you now feel as an adult that understanding your cultural heritage isn’t important to the development of your own identity?
It took me a long time to start to ask questions and to understand anything about my cultural background. It wasn’t until I finished school and started to think a lot more about questions of identity that I delved deeply into that stuff. Since that time I have gone on to live for a short period in Vietnam and have also gained an interest in Vietnamese literature.

The real issue was that when I was growing up, I connected the ideas of literature and art and intellectualism with Western culture. I just wasn’t exposed to the idea that Vietnamese culture could have great poets and great writers, so as a teenager being interested in reading and writing I went to the Western canon as a matter of course because that just seemed to be the place where that stuff existed. It took me quite a while, and I am still in the process of, widening my horizons.

Have you always been drawn to fiction and nonfiction writing?
Yes, from a really early age stories and narratives were something that I was completely immersed in. Particularly fiction as a kid and more recently, in the last ten years or so, I’ve become really interested in the creative possibilities of non-fiction as well.

Delving into the site that you co-founded, Behind the Wire, and the idea of documenting stories from a person’s perspective. How did this project come about?
In various ways, Sienna [Merope], the other co-founder and I, have been involved in human rights work and refugee advocacy for a while. Then, a couple of years ago we thought there was a gap between how refugees and asylum seekers were represented in the media, and the complexity and depth of the people we were meeting. I guess we were frustrated by the lack of opportunities for people to come across in real three dimensional, nuanced and complex ways.

And the issue was that that complexity just wasn’t reflected in much of the material that is out there or in the debate. Particularly in the anti-refugee rhetoric, but even to a certain extent in the pro-refugee movement. So we were trying to fill that gap and it became obvious that the way to do that was through narrative.

To take that further we thought it was really about the people who had experienced immigration detention and the people actually fleeing persecution. It was important that they they share their narratives rather than us talking or writing about them. It made a lot more sense to create a platform where their voices could be heard rather than more noise from other people talking on their behalf.

How has the project been received?
It’s been received really well. We have a book coming out with Allen and Unwin and an exhibition at the Immigration Museum in Victoria. We’ve had, I guess, a bit of success in convincing the institutions and larger publishers to be interested in these stories. I guess that’s what we saw our role as, to be able to amplify these voices. The reception so far has been really positive.

On your personal site there is an interesting piece that you speak about cultural appropriation. Do you think there is an actual line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation or exchange?
I definitely don’t think there is a distinct line that I could draw. I find the conversation around appropriation is a really difficult and complex one. What I am always afraid of is that the conversation will be simplified. I don’t think it’s just a line between cultural appreciation on the one hand and cultural appropriation on the other with one being good and one being bad. The main thing we have to remember in this whole conversation, is the concept of power. If you throw that into the mix, it complicates things but also makes it a more meaningful conversation if you understand it in those ways.

In Australia, cultural power is normally understood in terms of white and nonwhite culture, and of course that’s understandable. But looking at appropriation exclusively through that lens misses other potential power relationships – how should we approach white working class culture, for example? There’s also the question of power imbalances between non-white cultures within Australia. So I think if you’re going to look at issues of exploitative appropriation, you need to be attentive to power.

We throw the term multiculturalism around in Australia. What does multiculturalism in Australia mean to you?
My way of approaching it would be to try and think about what I would like it to mean, which is the idea that as a society we were genuinely comfortable with radically different ways of approaching cultural and moral and political questions. An example of that would be the way that we try to recognise Aboriginal land rights, that’s something I’ve been doing in my other work. I think it’s fascinating because it’s one of the few areas where you’ve actually got Western law trying to understand and accommodate a completely different system.

I think if we were to have a true multiculturalism in Australia that would require us to accommodate and engage morally, culturally and politically, with other cultural traditions. That would involve, for example, recognising that in many non-Western cultures, kinship ties extend far beyond the nuclear family. Practically speaking, that then requires us to change assumptions about the identity of caregivers, it requires us to change how family reunion is defined for migration law, and so on.

I don’t think we have that at the moment. I think it’s something much more accurately described as tolerance or attempted tolerance. A true multiculturalism would go much deeper than that.

Touching on Indigenous culture in Australia. You would have most likely heard a bit about the RECOGNISE campaign. Australian politicians are engaging with this campaign and the Australian public is as well to a degree, because it is trying to achieve something in that space of recognition but there is the opposing side to that where some Indigenous people are saying it could be detrimental. How do tackle this issue from a legal perspective when it is an issue within the community itself? How do we even begin?
From my view as an outsider on those issues, where things seem to work at least to some extent because there has been really extensive grassroots consultation and there has been a really long process of finding out what people want and how they want to be represented. When it doesn’t work at all is when it comes from top down, whether that’s from...I mean obviously it’s been a disaster when it’s been top down from a white Australian government but it can still not work when it’s been a top down thing from particular Indigenous leaders. It seems like the only way for a big campaign like that to work is to have truly broad grassroots consultation. But then I think it becomes a question of community education and that sort of stuff takes a really long time. If you try to rush that process it’s only going to create divisions as opposed to bringing people together.

On your site you talk about how culture is passed on, through knowledge, blood or language. Do you feel that you yourself belong to more than one culture?
I feel that I have connections to more than one culture. Belonging is a hard word to define. There are definitely days where I question whether or not I belong to Australian culture or, if Australian culture belongs to me. There are also days where I definitely question that about Vietnamese culture. I feel I have connections to those cultures and also, I have connection to French culture through my dad and the language that he still has. Belonging is a difficult concept.

We’ve spoke with people who have said that in Australia they don’t feel fully Australian but when they go to the country where they have family ties they either feel more Australian or they don’t really feel like they are particularly anything. Does your identity change when you travel abroad?
In Vietnam I have a very specific identity which is Việt Kiều, which translates to ‘overseas Vietnamese’. It means your parents left the country during a particular period after the war. Fundamentally, means you’re not Vietnamese and that can carry with it negative or neutral connotations. I’ve spoken with people my age who I get along with in Vietnam who will say it casually. They don’t mean anything by it, they’re just stating a very simple fact. I obviously grew up somewhere else and have different cultural values.

Then when I travel outside of Australia, in some ways feel much more Australian but then there is also those interactions with people in places like Europe where they are completely bemused that I am from Australia. It’s an odd experience.

THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
I think I’d say that it’s possible to be connected to your parents culture in a way that doesn’t make you any less Australian. I think that was definitely something I thought and felt as a young kid.

It’s not a matter of having to choose. That would have been useful advice.

They Cannot Take the Sky is available here.

*This interview has been edited

Photo credit: André Dao