Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2015

Joyful Strains, Making Australia Home (2013), edited by Kent MacCarter and Ali Lemer

Joyful Strains Joyful Strains, Making Australia Home is a recent book, but it hasn’t had as much attention as IMO it should have had, given the importance of the immigrant experience to our country.  As Thuy On noted in her review for the SMH, it is apparently the first anthology to explore the experience of the expatriate, the refugee and the political exile, from authors who have variously made their home here.  It’s a fascinating collection of memoirs by 27 authors from all over the world, including these whose other work has been reviewed on this blog:

(What I like about that list is that it includes representatives of all the continents except the Americas.  And I’ll be able to redress that omission when I get round to reading Amy Esepeth’s Sufficient Grace – which has been on my TBR since I heard her read from it at a Wheeler Centre Debut Mondays session).

It was an inspired choice to have indigenous author Alexis Wright write the Foreword of Joyful Strains to complement the introduction by Arnold Zable . She reminds readers that there is a shameful legacy –  a history of dispossession and oppression – which is inherited by each person who arrives in this country to live, calling Australia home. But – in the spirit of generosity which seems to characterise so many spokespersons for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People – she also explains that the storytelling legacy that shapes their long history makes them open to stories from other cultures.

By reading each other, we grow our ability to understand, to acknowledge and to share one another’s joy, hope, grief, loss, and for many, the predicament of losing homes, lands, community, family and country. We are all people of stories.

Our stories define who we are and what we want to become, just as it was the stories of our ancestors that formed the basis of Aboriginal law, spiritual beliefs and an understanding of how to maintain a relationship with the land.

It is a basic human need to be offered hands in friendship, to be offered shelter and to live in peace with a sense of security.  This is how we can welcome and acknowledge all stories, and give them hearth in our hearts.  It would not be within us for it to be otherwise.

I have chosen just one memoir to share from this collection, and it comes from an expat from Indonesia, our neighbour with whom our relationship has too often been fractious.  This relationship began so well, with Australia supporting Indonesia’s post-war struggle for independence against the Dutch, but since then there have been significant issues to polarise opinion, often exacerbated by leaders and the media on both sides playing to domestic audiences.   And yet as visitors know from trips to Bali and elsewhere, there is a warmth and affection between the ordinary people of both countries that defies the media rhetoric.

Lily Yulianti Farid’s memoir, ‘The Range Hood and the Grease’, appealed to me immediately because she begins by referencing my favourite TV show, Masterchef.  For Lily, the show triggers memories of the two kitchens in her parents’ home in Makassar: the dry kitchen and the wet.

Our dry kitchen served as a display in the corner of our dining room, hardly ever used.  ‘Western people have a kitchen like this’, an interior designer explained to my mother.  Cupboards hung on the walls, filled with collectable items – plates and cups used only for special occasions.  The stove and oven were clean, shiny.  Not for daily use.  Their design was sleek and modern.

The wet kitchen was the centre of meal production, where our maids – yes, it’s typically middle-class in Asian countries to have one or two maids in the house – prepared food for my whole family, day and night.  The maids worked barefoot on the wet kitchen floor.  There was a gas stove, cooking pots, and tins filled with spices and herbs; fresh and dried chillies dangled from the kitchen wall and black stains marked the ceiling.  Sometimes we found cockroaches and rats that had run into the kitchen’s corners.  The wet kitchen is the real kitchen in most Indonesian households.   (p. 212)

Lily goes on to describe the culture shock she experienced when confronted by open-plan design when house-hunting in Melbourne.  Layouts that integrated the kitchen into living areas – because Australians interpret the kitchen as the heart of the family home – broke a taboo.  An Indonesian kitchen should be separated from the other rooms of the house, as it symbolises social structures and hierarchical relationships among Indonesian families.  It’s a cultural given.  Men don’t ever enter kitchens in a strongly patriarchal society – and maids in many households are confined to their designated spaces, the kitchen and dining areas.  Ideas like this are confronting to egalitarian Aussies (even when that’s a waning value amongst us).

Lily doesn’t share her grandmother’s views about traditional ways any more: her husband and son enjoy cooking, and she is amused by the idea that her father and grandfather couldn’t possibly avoid the kitchen because it’s right behind the front door of her home.  But that doesn’t mean that she has shed all the values that she brought with her to Australia because the scents and smoke of her childhood memories mean home and family.  It’s in the kitchen that she can assuage homesickness, filling her modern kitchen drawers with cloves, turmeric, tamarind, galangal, lemongrass and canned coconut milk – not quite right to reproduce her mother’s recipes, but some of her culinary choices are based on newly adopted values about wanting to consume healthier foods here in Australia while remaining vigilant in my search for delicious Indonesian dishes… 

Like many an expat, Lily has found that some apparently simple dishes can’t be reproduced in the new country.  It’s not just that she can’t buy banana leaves, it’s that no pot, pan, counter or floor space seemed right for the job of folding the leaves neat and tidy.  I remember my English father, in Africa, nostalgic for fresh Brussels sprouts because only frozen ones were available in the hot climate.  (Yours truly was infinitely relieved that sprouts, then, of any kind, were off the menu!)  Often it’s these seemingly trivial things that make adjustment so painful.  As Chu Vi says in her essay ‘The Uncanny’:

Living together in a new country is a series of conscious and unconscious decisions about what you hold onto and what you let go of.  Many are superficial choices, or are minor in their consequences.  Some have long-lasting effects on how others view you, on which doors will be opened or closed to you –  and which doors you will try to keep open, despite the price. (p.85)

I wonder what the price would be for a wet kitchen in suburban Australia…

It’s a rewarding collection to read!

Editors: Kent MacCarter and Ali Lemer
Title: Joyful Strains, Making Australia Home
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780987308535
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond: Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home


  1. This sounds amazing Lisa. I have been trying to find a group of short stories for a bookclub that I belong to that would be varied enough to sustain us – we only read short stories and novellas. It sounds like this might be perfect! And I am impressed that you are reading outside your zone – what made you pick up this collection of short stories?


    • I have to confess that I had never heard of it – until I Googled Lily Yulianti Farid because I’m interviewing her at the Bendigo Festival on August 8th.
      The other stories are compelling as well. So varied, and often quite challenging too because they have a different way of looking at things. Meg Mundell’s one was intriguing because she’s quite indignant about the way we Australians tend to think that NZ is pretty much like Australia – and it’s not.


      • Ha! My husband is a Kiwi and I agree that there are very distinct differences between Kiwis and Aussies.


        • I’m going to get there before long. They have very tempting literary festivals…


  2. Oh wow. I know Ali Lemer: she’s a New Yorker based in Melbourne.


    • LOL You know everybody! I am always green with envy when I read about the book events you get to in London.
      (PS Sorry about the delay in replying to your comment, I’ve only just got back from Qld, and stuff always goes askew when I’m up there).


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