Trying to work out where to start analysing the six poems by contemporary Asian Australian poets set for Mod A for the HSC? You’ve come to the right place! This ultimate cheatsheet breaks down all six texts and identifies the common themes which connect them to Module A.
Module A is part of the Year 11-12 Standard English course. The clue is in the title: it focuses on Language, identity and culture.
“Language” refers to the words writers use and the way they organise them into sentences and paragraphs.
“Identity” is determined by a combination of how we see ourselves and how other people see us. Our identity can be described based on physical features like our age, sex and race, as well as things like our sense of humour, our interests and what makes us happy.
“Culture” refers to the group (or groups) we belong to. Cultures can be large and diverse (for example, “Australian Culture”) or much smaller (for example, the culture of an individual family).
Now that you know what Module A is all about, let’s take a look at each of the poems by contemporary Asian Australian poets and see where they fit in.
Note: You only study six of the poems from the collection Contemporary Asian Australian Poets for Module A.
‘This is where it begins’, Merlinda Bobis
‘Home,’ Miriam Wei Wei Lo
‘New Accents,’ Ouyang Yu
‘Mother,’ Vuong Pham
‘Circular Breathing,’ Jaya Savige
‘Translucent Jade’ (Maureen Ten, also known as Ten Ch’in Ü)
Summaries of the six poems
Before we look at the techniques used and themes explored in the poems, we first need to establish what they are about:
‘This is where it begins’, Merlinda Bobis
The speaker in this poem (possibly the poet herself) starts by writing in Bikol, then in Pilipino and finally in English.
Bikol and Pilipino are languages spoken in the Philippines; Bikol is a particularly ancient language spoken by First Nations peoples there. The speaker traces her ancestry to this ancient civilization.
The poem is an origin story: she is trying to work out where she came from.
She describes her grandmother and grandfather who were both great storytellers.
The title “This is where it begins” is repeated throughout the poem as the speaker tries to work out where her own desire to tell stories came from. Was it her parents, her grandparents or her ancient ancestors?
As the poem develops, the speaker rejects the cliché that poets sit “alone in dark rooms” writing stories. Instead, she suggests that poets are channelling the stories told by their ancestors.
‘Home’, Miriam Wei Wei Lo
This poem is divided into three parts.
In the first, “One Day I Will Find It”, the speaker dreams of a home in which she feels safe. She doesn’t imagine a physical place at first, but thinks of home in terms of the smells, tastes and other sensations.
The second part of the poem, “Without Warning” describes the sudden sensation of arriving in a place of intense sensations which might be heaven – a kind of spiritual home.
Part three, “A Place to Return To” sees the speaker snap back to reality, describing the place where she currently lives: “Bed, toilet, kitchen. Exposed brick walls.”
She is disappointed by her home, but then she remembers how much more luxurious it is compared with the home her father grew up in.
She resolves to be satisfied with what she has.
‘New Accents’, Ouyang Yu
The speaker remembers living in Melbourne in the late 1990s and having conversations with people who spoke English with distinctive Chinese accents.
The poem explores the challenges which face migrants who stand out from the general population when they move to a new country.
‘Mother’, Vuong Pham
Vuong Pham is the son of refugees from Vietnam who settled in Australia.
This poem describes his mother, who always wanted to teach English, and the pride she has in her son now that he does exactly that.
It contrasts their pleasant life in Brisbane with the escape from the mother’s home country during the Vietnam war.
‘Circular Breathing’, Jaya Savige
The speaker, an Australian, is in Rome when he sees a man playing the didgeridoo in a public square.
At first. he is drawn to the music, which reminds him of home, but then he recalls that similar street musicians are simply ignored in large Australian cities.
This realisation causes him to feel uncomfortable. The ancient music is contrasted with the symbols of modern materialism: “Armani, Ray-Ban, Dolce / & Gabbana…”
The speaker realises how fragile and fleeting the modern world is.
‘Translucent Jade’, Maureen Ten (Ten Ch’in Ü)
When she was young, the speaker received a present from her grandfather. She describes this gift as something “made” for her out of jade, and it is possible to interpret this as a reference to the poet’s Chinese name, Ch’in Ü, which can be translated to match the title of the poem: Translucent Jade.
In Chinese culture, jade is an important symbol, representing luck.
This can be read as the poet acknowledging the name her grandfather gave her and choosing to adopt it again, alongside the name her mother gave her, as twin symbols of her family identity.
She describes feeling like an “imposter”: because she is both Australian and Chinese she feels like she doesn’t truly belong to either culture.
Get ahead with your poetry analysis!
Learn with our HSC experts to level-up your analysis of these six poems.
Each of these six poets has been chosen because they fit the description ‘contemporary Asian Australian poets.’
This means that they are alive today (‘contemporary’) and that they have a multicultural background: they consider themselves to be both Asian and Australian.
In some cases, this is because they were born in Asia and then moved to Australia; in other cases, this is because their families contain both Asian and Australian members.
Many of the poems explore what it means to belong to these two cultures.
Of course, being ‘Asian’ or ‘Australian’ can mean lots of different things to different people. In order to understand how each poet approaches this topic, it’s helpful to know a bit about their background.
Merlinda Bobis is an Australian-Pilipino poet and short story writer who grew up on the slopes of an active volcano, which often features in her writing.
She often performs her poems aloud, and sometimes sets them to music. She is a singer, dancer, artist and teacher as well as a writer.
Miriam Wei Wei Lo
Miriam Wei Wei Lo mostly writes for children. She has Chinese, Malaysian, English and Australian ancestors. She was born in Canada, grew up in Singapore, and now lives in Western Australia.
She studied Literature and History at the University of Western Australia, and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland.
Ouyang Yu is a translator who moved from China to Australia in 1991 and has written many poems and translations. He is known as a political writer with strong views on the topic of immigration. He writes poetry in both Chinese and English.
Vuong Pham was born in Brisbane, the son of Vietnamese refugees. He is now a schoolteacher of English. His poetry has been described by reviewers as spiritual, and he is a practising Christian.
Jaya Savige is a Lecturer in English at New College of the Humanities in the UK. He is a prize-winning poet who received a PhD for his work on the Irish novelist James Joyce.
Maureen Ten (or Ten Ch’in Ü) has directed plays and documentaries, written newspaper columns and tutored at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. She came to Australia in 1989.
Major themes and examples
Now that we know a bit about these six poets, it’s time to consider the major themes which their poems explore.
Theme #1: Struggling to fit in
Of all the six poems, ‘New Accents’ has the angriest tone.
The anonymous Chinese person the poet speaks to, known as “C from Canton”, is unable to complete his university studies because the professors discriminate against him based on his accent when he is speaking English.
The same theme is present in ‘Mother’, but this is a more hopeful poem: although the poet’s mother was unable to achieve her desire of being an English teacher, the fact that she escaped war-torn Vietnam means her son can achieve this same ambition in Australia.
Here are some examples where the poems explore these ideas:
1. A description of the dangers the mother was escaping in ‘Mother’
I know now, as I did in my childhood wonder what it must’ve been to mother, there among the refugee boat’s thrum, the faces of Saigon watching – eyeballs ribboned with flames incandescent, a disorder of diaspora animate in the missile storm.
The vivid imagery in this passage clearly conveys the extent of the danger which the mother experienced. The onomatopoeic word “thrum” helps to put the reader in the midst of the action.
The metaphor “eyes ribboned with flames” creates a memorable image which enhances our impression of the horrors this family has escaped.
This passage contrasts with the earlier, positive descriptions of Vietnam – what the poet calls a “halcyon-time” (meaning: peaceful and prosperous). The vividness of the imagery reminds us that the mother has lost her home and can never go back.
2. Use of ironic humour in ‘New Accents’
When I first arrived in Australia They tried to fool me around because I couldn’t
Speak “Anguish” What a wonderful Anguish that I’ve spent all these years Labouring on […]
In the speaker’s Chinese accent, the word “English” sounds like the word “anguish”.
This is ironic because “anguish” means suffering, and the point of the poem is that this person suffers because his accent marks him out as different from other people.
This contrast is repeated at the end of the poem, distinguishing between “their English” and “my Anguish”. The point is that the speaker feels he will never fit in.
These poems appear very different, but they both involve the challenge of having to make a new life for yourself if you move to a new country.
Strikingly, both the mother in ‘Mother’ and the person known as “C from Canton” in ‘New Accents’ speak English exceptionally well. Yet, despite this, the mother was never able to achieve her goal of becoming an English teacher and “C” was unable to complete his university studies because his accent marked him as different.
So, how does this theme relate to Module A: Language, Identity and Culture?
1. The way characters in these poems use language says a lot about their national background and the culture to which they belong.
2. The mother’s identity is partly defined by her status as a refugee: having left Vietnam she can’t go back. In ‘New Accents’, a person’s accent is shown to inspire prejudice in many of the people he meets so that they never get to know him properly.
3. Modern cultures evolve when people with different backgrounds come together in the same place and form communities. Sometimes these cultures are welcoming – as in ‘Mother’ – at other times they can be exclusive – as in ‘New Accents’.
Theme #2: Trying to understand yourself
‘This is where it begins’
Because the speakers in these poems often come from multicultural backgrounds, they sometimes struggle to define themselves. Whether or not this troubles them varies from poem to poem.
1. Rejecting isolation in ‘This is where it begins’
No, storytelling is not lonely, not as we claim – in our little rooms lit only by a lamp or a late computer glow. Between the hand and the pen, or the eye and the screen, they have never left, they who “storytold” before us, they who are under our skin.
The pronoun “they” in this passage refers to the poet’s ancestors who, like her, were great storytellers.
The image of them living on “under our skin” reminds the reader that they are present in everything the poet does. This creates a sense of cultural continuity –the idea that stories are passed down from one generation to the next to help shape culture.
The word “storytold” is a coinage (newly invented word), reflecting the poet’s own creativity with language, which she believes she has inherited from her ancestors.
2. Imposter syndrome in ‘Translucent Jade’
What vibrations are these? Does this begin to become me, Do I to it belong?
The “vibrations” referred to represent the speaker’s experiences of feeling a connection with her past.
She is torn between her grandfather’s Chinese culture and her own Australian culture. She is trying to decide whether the label “Chinese-Australian” is one she feels comfortable with, since she knows so little about China.
This poem is about being unable to escape from your past.
The use of rhetorical questions suggests to the reader that she doesn’t know the answers and that cultural belonging is really difficult to define.
Theme #3: Home
These two poems both deal with the common experience of searching for a place to call home.
1. Contrasting an old civilization with an ancient one in ‘Circular Breathing’
The poet, an Australian, is far from home visiting Rome.
Hearing the sound of a digeridoo being played, he remembers how Australia itself is a modern country built on a land where the world’s most ancient continuous (Aboriginal) civilization continues to thrive.
I want to bolt up the stairs of the fountain and claim that sound as the sound of my home – but stop when I recall how rarely I slow to hear the truer player busking in King George Square. Memory kinks my measured walk into a lurch. My stomach fills with fire. […]
Sensory impressions can produce strong emotional responses. Here, the sound of the digeridoo makes the poet homesick.
At the same time, he recognises that a “truer” musician would be one who was authentically Aboriginal Australian.
This poem explores the theme of cultural appropriation: because the sound is unusual in Rome he stops to listen, but back home in Australia he would barely notice it.
2. The poet compares her sense of foreignness to a plant in ‘Home’
If there must be a place, a tent for the body on this earth, I’ll take this one, with the blue plumbago waving defiantly through the natives, the climbing white jasmine rampant over the fence, and the mulberry tree, that foreigner so completely at home, growing taller each year.
Throughout the poem, the speaker has complained that she doesn’t feel truly at home in her daily life. She wishes for a safer, more peaceful place to call home.
In these closing lines, though, she compares her situation to that of a mulberry tree, which she refers to as a “foreigner”. This is because mulberry trees have been introduced to Australia from elsewhere in the world.
Despite this, they grow here comfortably, not realising they did not originally belong in this soil.
The poem compares this with the poet’s own experience of discomfort. She reaches a kind of resolution: her home might not be perfect, but it will do.
Written by Brian McMahon
Dr McMahon completed his PhD in English at Balliol College, University of Oxford (UK). Brian has been tutoring English, Politics and Drama since 2012 and delivered lectures and seminars to undergraduate students.