Is there truth within fiction?

I listened to a very interesting talk on the ABC podcast “The Minefield” about literary fiction, non- fiction and which format is more conducive to truth telling. Given that my work is in academic research, which centres on truth and justification through evidence and rational reasoning, I was very surprised when the guest Christos Tsiolkas, a novelist and playwright said that it’s fiction that can tell more truth than non-fiction.

One of the reasons that Tsiolkas gave is that through fiction, the specific experiences and emotions of the characters are made known in a way that evoke the truth about those experiences and emotions for the readers. In that way, it is not so much about the actual characters, plot, stories shift, settings and voices that are the “truth”, but rather, that these elements speak to the truth in a more generalised way. Tsiolkas’ premise is that truth is something that is not universal, therefore can be objective or objectified typically through non-fiction. Truth, rather, is dependent on the mind and can be subjective or relative to the people to whom the stories are told.

I have been thinking about Tsiolkas’ claim for a long time.

I want to first explore this idea of “truth” telling in the context of “cultural appropriation” in fiction writing.

There are those like Lionel Shriver that argue it is okay for fiction writers to write on minority cultures and that “cultural appropriation was opposed to the spirit of fiction”. Then, there are those, like Yassmin Abdel-Magied that argue in doing so, fiction writers “celebrate the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.” 

This debate on cultural appropriation is about the issue of identity of the minority groups. Shriver would argue that the problem of cultural appropriation is identity politics. It stifles the freedom of writers and narrows the scope of writing and creativity. Abdel-Magied would argue that telling stories about minority groups rob the voice of the minority writers who could not write or publish. It is not appropriate for white writers to ride on the coat tails of the experiences of the minority groups that are marginalised and profit from it, thereby perpetuating the hegemony by allowing the former to continue to have the stage and the microphone.

I can’t help but sense a familiarity to anthropological research practiced in the early to middle twentieth century, that usually involved an Anglo-American or European working in a small isolated community in a remote area of the world, often in Asia, North Africa, or the Middle East with a group of people who often lived without modern amenities, had little or no formal education, and existed at a modest if not impoverished economic level, and then they reported on that cultural group as exotic stories from the Far East.   

There is a deep moral issue here between the freedom to write and the responsibility to others when one chooses to exercise that freedom. The question is more than about representation of the people whom writers write about but who can be represented and who can write the representation and for whose benefits? This is also the point that Tsiolkas was trying to make in that there is something to be said about literary fiction and moral life. It is a philosophical question that never gets debated because of the politicisation of cultural appropriation itself.

I now want to draw on my own experience as a writer and a reader to ponder on the ultimate question: “How we can know an experience we have not had?”

Given my Vietnamese refugee background, whenever I read literary fiction about Vietnamese refugees written by Vietnamese authors in the diaspora, there is always something that strike me deeply. Perhaps, it’s the use of words, Vietnamese words woven into English words; or descriptions of small incidents that immediately take me somewhere back into my deep chasm of memories that I thought I had forgotten. It is almost as if the words are written for me.

There is also a sense of alliance between the Vietnamese writer and me because they have been where I have been. As writers and readers, we connect deeply through the real world. I recall Nam Le’s life at sea, what the child saw on the boat, or that the word “boat” resonates a familiarity that is deeply experiential about that time we di vuot bien (go across the sea). I also feel a sense of embeddedness within Emma Cao’s reflection on father-child relationship as nuoc duc (murky water) to nuoc trong (something is better than nothing) as my own fishing for memories about my father.

These experiences speak to me because I have lived them, and I know the authors have lived them. Somewhere in that space of reading, we share the language of experiences that is more than just words that have been crafted to stories on those pages. For me, the world is not imagined. It is real.

As a writer, and I have only written on the experiences of Vietnamese people that came to my research. As written in an early blog, I could only write on these people’s experiences as I imagined them to be, but I can only do so because I too have travelled the journeys that they have. The idea of representation becomes not methodological problem but an identity problem of what is and can be represented or who can represent or be represented. I could not tell their stories if I was not also a Vietnamese who struggled with identity issue, cultural norms issues and geographical and geopolitical positions which I was put into.

So, as a writer, I grappled with the idea of identity as a moral as well as practical problem. How can we not as writers who create characters and tell stories? Unless we see ourselves as outside the stories that we write, and that literary fiction serve as mere instruments for the craft of writing to which we bear no responsibility for.

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Assimilation: multiculturalism or racism at the core?

Last year, I had a conversation with another researcher about my work on Vietnamese diaspora in Australia. I shared with her my project of examining cultural artefacts from Vietnamese newspapers in Australia. My analysis revealed proliferation of business relations within the close community of Vietnamese-Australians. At the same time, promotions of these business alliances in Sydney were juxtaposed with melancholic overtures of Saigon’s pre-1975 years.

I argued that the Vietnamese sense of ‘self’, home and belonging are constituted within the Vietnamese social and cultural norms of close family and community networks. These networks are intentional in procuring the social relations predominantly within the Vietnamese community. It is intentional because of economic pragmatism, rather incidental as they adjust to new life in Australia.

This researcher, whose work is in multiculturalism, was unhappy with my argument. She asked, “Are you not concerned that what you say will feed into the narrative that immigrants don’t try to fit in with the Australian ways?”

My argument actually rejects the “assimilation” premise of this researcher’s view – the idea that immigrants must assimilate to the Australian way of life, although what that is remains unclear in a country like Australia whose population comprises mainly of immigrants.

The problem with the “assimilationist” view is that it often is spoken by those who appear to fight against cultural oppression. Yet, it also implies that immigrants need to change their behaviour, their culture, who they want to hang around with in order to catch up to the new society and assimilate into that society. Unsurprisingly, the assimilation arguments tend to be located in the white Western countries, in telling stories about people from the non-White non-West.

I recall visiting Kuching in Borneo, Malaysia, and marvelled at the cultural diversity of the region. In this small area, there are over 40 cultural groups including the Malays, Melanau, Chinese, Indians, Iban, Bdayua, Orang Ulu, Melanau, and many more. They all seem to live happily side by side each other. Their ways of life, distinctly different, are all visible in the market stalls or food, and in different areas in Kuching. There is no dominant group that is seen as the cultural identity of Serawak. In conversations, people talk about food, languages, ways of life, clothes, traditions, houses in references to particular sub-ethnic groups without “othering” the groups.

Communities in Kuching are what I see as cultural diversity and inclusion. We must not be afraid to live our life predominantly within our ethnic groups because we have a sense of connection with our ethnic groups. If multiculturalism is viewed as simply about assimilating to a particular culture, then it risks cultural oppression and racism, and paradoxically it marginalises the fundamental core of multiculturalism.

Racism comes from the perception that different cultures behave differently, often in comparison to a preferred culture, therefore people of different cultures should be treated differently and often marginally to that preferred culture. If we accept assimilation, we are putting the blame for racism onto the people who is encountering racism. This is also Ibram X. Kendi’s view in his latest book about racism and antiracism in the American contexts. Kendi argued that talk of failures in culture or conduct supposes that black people are somehow to blame for the effects of racism—as if they could have chosen, instead, to be unaffected by it.

Perhaps in the Vietnamese diaspora case, networks within the Vietnamese precincts are important because they are the clientele. The mentality of the Vietnamese society is having a business typically a family business. The community in which the people live, and personal networks that they build in these communities are often the basis of their trade because they know the people’s “values” and their products can be offered along these values.

Another explanation could be that the Vietnamese diaspora locate themselves in areas where there are congregations of Vietnamese-Australians like Cabramatta or Bankstown because these clusters provide the opportunities that they otherwise are shut out of in the mainstream labour market.

It could also reflect the close community ideals of closed villages in the Mekong Delta or Red Delta as the fabrics of Vietnamese society. They are simply cultural ideals that transcend geographical borders rather than a resistance to the Australian values.

To address the concern of the researcher whom I had the conversation with, I replied, “I think we should be advocating for cultural acceptance rather cultural assimilation. We can do this by recognising cultural ideals in different pockets rather than according with universally preferred cultures, especially if we are aiming to advocate for those that belong in these different cultural pockets.”

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International education as a public good

Vietnam has been a significant source country for international students in the last 30 years, and there is no sign of this trend changing in the near future.

Such growth aligns with the country’s economic development since the 1990s when Vietnam transitioned to a market-based economy with strategic efforts in entering the global economy. This is certainly seen at the national level with government and bilateral scholarships as a key element in the internationalisation of higher education policy.

The growth in Vietnamese students studying abroad also reflects a societal aspiration for Western education that has deep historical roots of colonial days. It would not be inaccurate to say that every Vietnamese family wish to send their children to study in the US, France or Australia.

What does this mean in terms of social equity for Vietnam?

First, studying overseas is expensive. In my research about Vietnamese international graduates, the majority of scholarship recipients was from high socioeconomic backgrounds while those that self-financed were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. This may suggest that the provision of scholarship by the Vietnamese government, bilateral agencies, and host universities amplify the “meritocracy” notion that reproduces the privileged class by giving them access to international experiences.

In a society that is undergoing dramatic economic change and increasing level of economic inequality, international education carries equity and social justice agendas from the wider society through unequal access.

Second, if acquired international education results in differentiating local-trained graduates from international graduates that advantage the latter over the former in terms of entering the jobs market and income, then it entrenches economic disparity that produce advantage in the first place. In a high-network society like Vietnam, where material is linked with social status, this would further marginalise those that are left outside the (local or international) education system.

My research also found that the majority of graduates participated passively in community work for public benefits citing economic betterment as the main benefit of international education. While this finding is not generalisable, it highlights the moral problem of the effects of international education.

If one sides with education as a private good, then one may accept the idea of education to benefit the individual.

The equity issue, though, is about “who pays and who benefits” in sending students abroad. If students are sent overseas to study on public funds through government scholarships, a return on this public investment ought to be students’ contribution to society for the benefits of society not only for themselves.

It is not possible to separate the contribution of international education to society if the selection of students carries social inequity of the wider society, and if these students are not willing or able to contribute to public benefits and improve a fair and just society.

The moral problem of equity can be addressed by shifting the international educational paradigm as a private good to a public good. A public good is when society is seen as the final beneficiary of education while the student is the target beneficiary. The public good concept originates from the political economy contexts where human capital is the goal of education. Given that international education is in part a response to Vietnam’s economic transition, as Singapore, Japan once were, this theoretical underpinning of public good has some appeals.

However, in the context of capitalist-developing economy, there are overlapping issues of access to and effects of international education in terms of social equity. The notion of education for human capital therefore needs to go much further.

Creating pathways for international graduates to participate in community development or service learning can be some ways to balance private interest position and public benevolence. Civic opportunities need not be seen as binary to career development. They can be embedded in internship or experiential learning programs in the home countries while abroad or upon returning home.  

Some of these initiatives are already part of the learning model in some Australian universities where students take internship in developing country in NGOs or community-based organisations. Leveraging these programs and the networks society in Vietnam to cultivate citizenship could be the key to sustainability in Vietnam’s development.

If you are an international student or graduate engaging in community development in your home or host country, I would love to hear your story. Please connect with me on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Email.

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Let’s talk about intergenerational trauma of refugees!

I was recently interviewed about intergenerational trauma of refugees. This is an issue that is hardly ever talked about in the Australian media, public forum or in the Vietnamese community.

The majority of the Vietnamese diaspora came to Australia as part of Malcolm Fraser’s response to the Indochinese refugee crisis in 1977. 

References to the Vietnamese refugees in Australia tend to be highly positive, often noting how well we have settled in, our achievements in education and businesses, and how we have contributed to the Australian society, particularly in food.

Such representation is wonderful, and if the intention is to promote pro-refugee values against the current wave of anti-immigration or anti-asylum seekers, then it really is for a greater good.

But such representation also masks the struggles that refugees face, manifested by displacement of place and deeper sense of alienation and loss of identity.

During my interview, I recounted my father’s loss of sense of self – his work. He stayed in Vietnam after the war ended because he could not bear losing everything he had ever known. But only to actually left everything he had ever known a few years later.

Whilst the refugees’ journeys on leaking sardine-packed wooden boats and all of their tragedies have been written a lot to hero courage and resilience, the lingering trauma of such tragedies are seldom understood within and external to the Vietnamese community.

After our initial period of settlement in Sydney, my father found a new job – from ship magnate to contract electrician. Like many Vietnamese people, he preferred to run his own business rather than working for someone. Perhaps for my father, it was about regaining that sense of self control.

My early childhood memories of my father in Vietnam are that of a tower figure, tall and so unreachable. My adult memories of him in Australia are that of strength but feebleness, contentment yet sadness. He was still unreachable, but not in the mountainous way that I remembered him before.

“But how does intergenerational trauma affect you?” my interviewer asked me.

Most of my adult life has been about reflecting on the cultural impasse of a Vietnamese refugee growing up in Australia. It is a series of fragmented accounts of places and spaces between Vietnam and Australia, between moments of holding onto to my mother at the back of a motorbike in some old town Saigon markets, and running through a windstorm on Pulau Tarenganu swallowing sandy porridge as we tried to find safety from days on sea; or eagerly making tuna sandwich for school at the East Hills Refugee Settlement centre, and yelling abuses back at strangers barking “Asians go home” on some dilapidated streets in Auburn.

“How do you think intergenerational trauma affects second Vietnamese generation in Australia?” my interviewer asked.  

I could only see my children’s world views through my own laments. In our situation, they do not have the village that is required to raise a child. Like me, they do not have the anchors of family values of the Vietnamese traditional culture. Unlike me, they do not have to abide by these traditions because after all they do not have access to such model of filial piety and personal relations of the Vietnamese virtue system.

 “I think intergenerational trauma doesn’t go away. It is only less visible between generations.” I said.

I sensed my answer was incomplete for my interviewer.

“What about the continuous drinking? Do you think whenever we have these Vietnamese family gatherings, people always drink so much so they can forget the past?” My interviewer asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Vietnamese culture of drinking.” I replied. It was a throwaway comment, without much thought or conviction. I seldom not know what to say.

Then I realised something. I saw in my interviewer – a well-spoken young second-generation Vietnamese – a glimpse of my father with layers of lost identity and disconnection beneath a façade of content and control.

I felt connected to my interviewer.

“Aline, if you want to write about intergenerational trauma of refugees, you should write your story!”

I thank my interviewer, who inspired me to write this blog. Aline is not the interviewer’s real name.

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International education and development of citizenship and social responsibility

The benefits of education lie not only in economic betterment for the individual. It is also in developing students’ capacity to be informed and enable positive change in their societies.

In that way, education can contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The same can be argued for international education. Those who are lucky enough to experience studying abroad could bring their acquired knowledge, skills, and personal development to make a positive civic contribution to society.

This is the objective of SDG 4: Target 4.7, Citizenship education for sustainable development.

The reality for many international graduates returning to Vietnam looks sketchy although hopeful in this aspect.

One of the key findings in my research about Vietnamese international graduates’ citizenship and social responsibility was that graduates felt a heightened sense of ‘civic self’ and citizenship brought about by their changed conception of ‘community’.

Living overseas allowed them to experience different government systems and community structures, which extended their idea of community beyond the Vietnamese traditional extended family and kinship lines.

Social responsibility became important, and with that, perceptions of opportunities for social change and confidence to take up some of these opportunities.

These graduates took part in a range of civic activities, from humanitarian to community services. Their aspirations to contribute to social development were varied. The international experience was often highlighted by graduates as informing them of the value of building human capacity, which was contrary to the Vietnamese culture of short-term welfare and gifts.

More strategic rationales, such as to cultivate networks for career prospects, were also evident at times, particularly in some graduates’ desire to engage with international NGOs. The Vietnamese priority attached to personal relations and trust emerged as a counterpoint to the more formal structures of these same international NGOs, which explained many graduates’ preference for informal networks.

It was also within these networks, which were an extension of families and friends, that the returnees found their shared values and opportunities to do ‘good’ for the community.

They perceived the potential for change to come about in non-systemic ways, even unintentional ways, or as a result of their interaction with existing political institutions and community groups.

One of the great insights was the graduates’ commitment to long-term community work, which was mainly driven by the values of community work itself, rather than achieved outcomes or a perception of possibilities for social change.

This may explain why many felt that benefits of international education are somewhat limited in the area of social development such as health, social welfare, poverty and underprivileged groups, democracy and human rights.

Nevertheless, there is a sense of social responsibility and perceived opportunities for social change even if opportunities are not always taken up.

This sense of citizenship should be the motivation for undertaking and reaping benefits of international education.

This post is extracted from my recent commentary piece in the University World News entitled “Improving the contribution of returning students to SDGs“.

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The purpose of education

There are different views about the purpose of education. Here are three approaches.

The first one is a pure economic one where education is seen as important in terms of developing knowledge, skills and improving work productivity. The benefits of education are considered in terms of increased productivity through jobs and remuneration. People choose education based on expected return of their education in economic terms.

This view is a pure instrumental one. It assumes that people know in advance completely all future jobs and salaries that they can command as a result of their education, and that people are rational enough to gather such information about the future, rank them and decide to undertake education accordingly.

This is highly improbable and quite unrealistic. At best, people are guessing about these outcomes and in shifting economies, for example from labour-based to automation, or in declining economies, such guesses can be quite irrational.

Although there is nothing wrong with taking on a return-on-investment view of education, it would be interesting to consider other non-economic ones.

From a policy perspective, if education is to be evaluated purely based on instrumental benefits, it can lead to unjustified discrimination in providing education. Is education for those that are disposed to be employed more worthwhile than education for those that may not be disposed to employment for no fault of their own e.g. those with disabilities?

The second approach focuses on the right to education. This is the core of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It considers that every human being must be able to acquire adequate education for its intrinsic value rather than instrumental benefits of economic returns.

But in practice, right is not actually and universally guaranteed. It is also complicated by foundational principles and administration. Is it legal or moral rights? Is it the responsibility of the government, the sector, the institution, or at the individual level e.g. teacher, student, principal etc? Often, these rights conflict at various levels.

Even if rights are enacted, the opportunities and processes of schooling themselves can lead to discriminatory application thereby preferencing certain groups and marginalising others. Do English texts in literacy curriculum discriminate against students from non-English speaking background who may not have access to the contexts in which those texts were written?

The third approach is the capability approach. It considers education to be a basic capability because education is important in itself and is useful in increasing opportunities in one’s life.

The capability approach sees education as developing the person as an ends not means to jobs or employment. In other words, education enables human flourishing in its entirety and keeping in mind all aspects that would impact a person’s opportunities in life.

The benefits of education are about expanding people’s choices and freedom to choose the kind of life they want to live.

So, if by having a university degree, a person has increased their opportunities and ability to choose things that they want to do as they value, then they have increased their capability.

But if by having a university degree, the person has narrowed their pathway with less opportunities and ability or freedom to choose the things they want to do and be that they consider valuable, then they have not increased their capability. Although if the narrower track provides higher remuneration which accord with their want, than that would also be considered in the capability equation.

The capability approach puts the person at the centre of their education. They are in charge because ultimately, they are considering the benefits of education according to their own values, rather than others’ values.

In application, this approach is difficult to implement at a policy level because of its multifaceted considerations. But certainly, for every one of us who are living in our everyday life, it is worth the thought.

Does your education enhance your capability?

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The paradox of democracy

The recent Australian federal election result reveals the paradox of democracy in a world of economic decline and social inequality.

Almost all Queenslanders voted for the Coalition government because they were promised continuation of the coal mine industry that would provide jobs – labelled as pursuit of aspiration albeit seen through the veil of economy. This was posited against the threat of the Labor Party’s stripping away the coal industry and thus a future of no jobs. This so-called choice that Queenslanders took up have been said as reasonable because they were voting for economic survival.

But here is the problem, under capitalism, the burden of survival is put upon the people whose autonomy and agency are hailed through their capacity for employment. Yet this capacity is based purely on their past experience and past or existing conditions. In order for them to continue to make good of such capacity, these conditions have to continue to exist. In other words, economic survival is about being dependent on the conditions in which those past experiences were enabled which, for the Queenslanders, is the coal industry. Thus, the Coalition’s claim of ensuring a continuation of coal industry created that perceived opportunity structure for survival – a survival that necessitates the maintenance of exiting conditions.

At the same time, those at the higher end of socioeconomic percentile – those who own capital like property – also rely on past or existing conditions in order to maintain their status, which are tax breaks through negative gearing or franking credits. These people also voted for the Coalition in order to ensure such conditions continue to exist so as to maintain their economic position, also termed as aspirational people.

Both groups, whether at the lower or higher end of the socioeconomic ladder, are caught in the structures that created the conditions that put them in their respective positions in the first place. In fact, we are all caught in these structures, but in a declining economy, those at opposing ends of socioeconomic groups perceive the needs to maintain their status quo much more than others and any claim to maintain existing conditions that address these groups would be most effective. That is why the Coalition campaign was so effective because they struck at the perceived needs of these groups.

Herein lies the paradox of democracy. Rather than creating a platform where people can address their real concerns with the government, democracy has effectively let people to “unconsciously” maintain their respective socioeconomic position without knowing that they are “subjects” of the structures that put them there and construct their choice in ways that make them think they have a choice.

It is not that democracy is not worthwhile, but democracy only works to produce its desired effect of common good when all people are on even ground to make “real” choice. The paradox of democracy is that in conditions of heighted inequality, it can be used as a tool for the State to create false perception of its regime – as Foucault terms “a regime of truth” – thereby creating conditions in which the State can maintain their political legitimacy. The creation of false perceptions is what the Australian media calls Morrison’s effective campaigning. Or it is just simply that sowing fear is easy because existing structures have conditioned people into accepting what they see as choice. In fact, this is how authoritarian states operate, for example in Singapore, China or Vietnam where economic prosperity is the conditions too appealing to forego in exchange for real democracy.

This is where Marx is wrong in proposing that capitalism is unsustainable because at some point economic inequality would lead to people’s revolt. He was basing his thoughts on the morality principle of common good whereas the reality of capitalism has seen entrenched individualism in ways that makes it incredibly difficult for any political Party to prosecute a vision of common good as opposed to individual good.

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