Bangladeshi Australian author Samia Khatun’s Australianama is a book of books, a survey of divergent modes of historical storytelling, and a search for truth in the face of cultural erasure. It opens with Khatun visiting her mother, Eshrat, in a mental health ward in Sydney’s suburbs. Plagued with terrifying visions in Bengali, Eshrat is locked each night in a shared room with a uniformed Australian soldier – recently returned from Afghanistan – who she believes will murder her in her sleep. With the hospital refusing to relocate her mother, Khatun comprehends an irresolvable dissonance: “Western states cannot bomb, exploit, drone, invade and kill South Asians and have us as part of their citizenry at the same time.” She laments, “The migrant story I had inhabited for much of my life buckled, and eventually collapsed.” This acts as the catalyst for Khatun’s expansive history of the South Asian diaspora in colonial Australia.
Khatun’s expedition begins in a 19th-century mosque in Broken Hill, where a book of Bengali poetry forms the meta-structure for her vision – to fill the gaps of colonial-settler narratives with the subjugated stories of non-Europeans. Khatun traces the Indian Ocean’s commercial routes to Australia and the journeys of the camel and textile traders who dodged the burgeoning racism in the federated colony. These stories – while not well documented in this country’s official records – left a rich national inheritance. As Khatun highlights, this is more important than ever, with rising Islamophobia and our government’s flagrantly racist border policies and detention practices.
Epic in scale, Khatun’s history is a note-perfect composition of imagination and deep research. She slays a whole field of sacred cows: Western knowledge traditions trumping those of the colonised; progress and capitalism as the only coherent principles for social organisation; linear narratives as temporal gospel. Khatun breathes new life into the “dead object” anthropological view of colonised people, most electrifyingly in her exposition of the links between South Asian migrants and Indigenous Australians.
In this book, Khatun has given us a scaffold to build a hopeful future. As she says: “Understanding the past as a place crisscrossed by the tracks of numerous people and creatures is crucial if we are ever to glimpse futures beyond blank spaces.”
UQP, 320pp, $34.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "Samia Khatun, Australianama". Subscribe here.