What’s mine is yours

by André Dao

Originally published in issue 22 of The Lifted Brow. Buy it here.

I don’t know how to think about these things…[1]

On the one hand, I am distinct from you. I am distinct from my father and I am distinct from my children, were I ever to have any. My existence is discrete, bookended by a birth and a death. I am hermetically sealed from the outside world by my skin, by which I recognise myself in the mirror: an individual, a subject, not you or him or her or it but me. I am the bearer of rights and the holder of tastes. I assert my human right to self-expression.

I am trying to work out if certain culturally defining events that happened in the past also take place in the present… as a psychological inheritance.[2]

And yet I am not distinct from the world around me. I am a subject in my own right, but also subject to the arcane law of inheritance, which has operated since time immemorial.

Dear Neo-Colonialist Culture Stealer,

Wunman ninde wurk-wurk githa.[3]

I’m currently writing a novel, based on the lives of my grandparents. The story spans the history of modern Viet Nam, from French colonial Hanoi through to the American War and on to the present. It’s unlikely that I’ll be accused of stealing this story, though I wonder how it came to pass that an Australian-born, English speaking, privately educated young man can come to inherit a story like this. Is culture passed on through blood? Through language? Through knowledge? The first option is reductive, and if left untreated, can fester into an obsession, in Andrew Bolt style. The second, I barely have. And the third seems too indeterminate – how and when is such knowledge “properly” gained? Is it after all a flat nose and almond-shaped eyes that prevents me from being a culture vulture?

Property is theft![4]

Once at a girlfriend’s family Christmas, an aunt told me it was a shame I didn’t use my “indigenous” name, by which she meant my Vietnamese name, Huy. Anglo culture, she went on to tell me, was moribund, with nothing to celebrate. I didn’t tell her that I had majored in English literature at university. Needless to say, she loves refugees for their vibrant culture (and great food).

From birth, Yolngu people develop a knowledge of land, law, language, ceremony, autonomy, balance, responsibility and family through song. Music becomes a tool for navigation: of the self, and of all other things.[5]

Sometimes my mother sings old Vietnamese folk songs to herself as she does the chores. I don’t know any of them – I can’t even recall them now. But I recognise something in traditional Vietnamese singing, something from my childhood – most likely from old VHS tapes of Paris by Night, the ubiquitous Vietnamese language variety show produced somewhere in glittering California. Recently a friend sent me a link to stream an album that he thought I might be interested in – Canaxis 5 by Technical Space Composer’s Crew. The group was put together by Can founder/drummer Holger Czukay, and features traditional singers from Viet Nam. The first track is titled “Ho-Mai-Nhi (The Boat Woman Song)”. I listen to its caterwauling atonality with Western ears. It’s a killer track.

There is a difficult dichotomy between the desire of members of a certain culture to preserve their traditions and lifestyle and the desire of outsiders to preserve all traditional cultures – the former usually seems like an effort to hold onto a sense of identity while the latter can often resemble the collector’s desire to maintain artefacts and museum pieces, freezing a culture at a certain point in time.[6]

Saigon Rock & Soul is a collection of tracks from Saigon’s psychedelic rock scene from the late 60s and early 70s. It’s put out by Sublime Frequencies, a record label that specialises in digging into obscured musical histories in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, unearthing/discovering/archiving/exploiting everything from the street music of Rajasthan to Ethiopian tribal music. I get incredibly excited as I flick through their back catalogue – here, at least, is some authenticity, conveniently stamped onto 12-inch wax discs.

Gorgeous feather American Indian headdress. Black and white feathers in a faux leather headcap and straps and hand beaded headband. Beautiful workmanship and quality. Made in Bali.[7]

Golden Plains Music Festival is very white; even the people of colour there are culturally white. Native American headdresses were popular this year; the weekend’s best act, producer Tornado Wallace played a set that included a track by Coober Pedy University Band, his own side project that features a kookaburra’s laugh looped over some trance-didgeridoo. That track was followed by Yothu Yindi’s “Djapana”. Earlier in the night, Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav had led the crowd in an energetic chant of “Fuck racism”, between exhortations to visit http://www.publicenemy.com and follow him on Twitter.

The natives are restless.[8]

White people are so bored with themselves, the theory goes, that they need to steal other people’s culture to enrich their own dull lives.

For a group of people who have really used African textile patterns and traditional ornaments… and casually defaced images of black people, you might think they have some personal connection to the cultures they have profited from. But they are just as white as their $150 t-shirts… their support by art galleries and institutions like the NGV should stop.[9]

Almost everyone involved in the debate over Melbourne design outfit Perks and Mini (P.A.M.) has focused on P.A.M.’s culturally appropriative practices, ignoring the claim (made in the same video that calls out P.A.M.’s use of “tribal” motifs) that the line’s t-shirts are manufactured in Chinese sweatshops before being shipped here and labelled “Made in Australia”. Apparently the practice is legal, as very minor modifications are made when the t-shirts arrive in Australia. The spectre of material exploitation in China seems to outrage people less than cultural appropriation. Perhaps sweatshops are too commonplace; like the Sydney Biennale boycott, calling out P.A.M.’s cultural and artistic practice is more about purifying the sanctified realm of art then it is about effecting real change.

…it seems that a fair whack of the outrage at PAM is from ‘a bunch of white guys’. Not necessarily many voices from the peoples who are arguably being culturally ripped off / exploited (Javed could fill us in on this). Does this compound the problem? That a bunch of white guys are deciding that a bunch of non-white guys are being culturally exploited, and that ‘we’ feel offence on ‘their’ behalf?[10]

On a recent trip to the Northern Territory, I felt more Australian—more Anglo—than ever before. It seems that we always fall back on dichotomies. Between white and black Australia—between privileged Subject and oppressed Other—there is no room for a third.

Cathy, Gaz, Carmen: it is far from a ‘bunch of white guys’ who have been involved. In fact most of the people who come to mind as proponents of these criticisms, including myself, are people of colour, including Indigenous Australians who have voiced their anger at the use of culture that they identify with. I think the assumption that anyone who was involved is white is itself pretty problematic, and denying of agency.[11]

What position do privileged non-whites occupy in a country which in living memory prided itself upon a “whites only” immigration policy? And how do we ethically “do” cultural exchange? The transaction is always unbalanced; there’s no such thing as a level playing field, only a flattened perspective from on high. On the ground, things look a lot different. And anyway, perhaps we don’t “do” cultural exchange as much as it is done to us; these boundaries have always been permeable.

Gaelic psalm singing is, according to some American musicologists, the origin of American gospel singing. Scots immigrated to the Carolinas, taking the psalm singing with them. The slaves on the plantations sang it too, and it became known as line-singing and, later, gospel, fragmenting into many sub-forms, some of which were picked up by musicians like Ayler.[12]

Rock ‘n’ roll was an inevitable outgrowth of the social and musical interactions between blacks and whites in the South and Southwest. Its roots are a complex tangle. Bedrock black church music influenced blues, rural blues influenced white folk song and the black popular music of the Northern ghettos, blues and black pop influenced jazz, and so on. But the single most important process was the influence of black music on white.[13]

I know this much: artists are arseholes. They lie and they steal and they hurt others because they have something to say, they are a self that expresses – that must express. No matter how ethical or political an artist’s practice is, there is one act of solidarity they can never participate in: silence. Instead, the artist packages their silence as art, choreographing their strategic withdrawal from one space in order to fill another.

“That is my place in the sun.” That is how the usurpation of the whole world began.[14]

Unable to prevent ourselves from staking out the great territory of ourselves, we instead come up with strategies to defer and mitigate our guilt. We try to be respectful, to “understand” the cultures we borrow and steal from. We try to keep track of the affects of our actions – who we hurt and who we enrich, including ourselves. But something always escapes our calculations – something gained or lost that we can’t quite put our fingers on.

In their explorations of cross-culture, the original knowledge these songs and words hold disappears from the popular eye. We are left with some remnant of a sound of Aboriginal knowledge, but not what it meant. We are left to think that the primitive has found a use in our complicated expressive ways.[15]

Does losing culture make me sick? Or does that only apply to the black magic of primitive peoples? And if I steal culture, because I’ve lost my own, is that part of the cure? Like chemotherapy, this medicine leaves me feeling ill.

If this is within your attention span, you are going to or will get sick because you are not supposed to be using those markings or tell those stories that are not yours. The old people will come after you in your dreams and make you sick.[16]

I don’t know how to think about these things.

[1] Craig San Roque, “The Long Weekend in Alice Springs”, Adapted and drawn by Joshua Santospirito.
[2] Craig San Roque, “The Long Weekend in Alice Springs”, Adapted and drawn by Joshua Santospirito.
[3] Steaphan Paton, letter posted on steaphanpaton.tumblr.com
[4] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government, 1840.
[5] Rosanna Stevens, “White Ears and Whistling Duck”. Griffith Review 44.
[6] Alexander Provan, “Pirate Radio International: The sounds of Sublime Frequencies”, Dusted Features.
[7] http://www.ufimart.com.au/costumes/
[8] Text on t-shirt designed by P.A.M.
[9] art:broken, “p.a.m. (it’s a white thing too)”, video posted on vimeo.com
[10] Cathy Alexander, comment on “Selling Other People’s Culture at $184 a t-shirt”, Crikey.
[11] Javed, comment on “Selling Other People’s Culture at $184 a t-shirt”, Crikey.
[12] Ken Hyder, “Epihpanies”, The Wire, February 2014
[13] Robert Palmer, “Rock begins”, Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll
[14] Pascal’s Pensées, 112
[15] Rosanna Stevens, “White Ears and Whistling Duck”. Griffith Review 44.
[16] Steaphan Paton, letter posted on steaphanpaton.tumblr.com