Celebration: An essay by Arnold Zable

Ours is a nation of immigrants and indigenous peoples. A new world with an ancient past. A grand symphony with many melodies.

Listen to the ancient melody, to the first song, to the Aboriginal elder, recounting tales which take us back to the time of creation; she is singing the song of the land, its eucalypt forests and mountains, its rivers and streams, its tranquil bays and coastal seas.

Listen to the song emanating through the open door of a single-fronted terrace in Canning Street, North Carlton, on a summer’s day sometime in the 1950s. My mother is singing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. She who lost her loved ones in a ferocious war, who fought her way to these shores in order to survive; who usually sings in Yiddish, the language she acquired in the Polish city she lived in for the first thirty years of her life; is singing an Irish song in harmony with a local radio station’s lunchtime singalong.

She sings as she cooks and sews and works her way towards a prosperity she never dreamt of in the run-down tenements of her childhood. For this is a new world, where shattered lives can be started afresh, and where we can share in the dreams of people from all corners of the globe.

People such as our Canning Street neighbour, the Italian patriarch, who sits contentedly on the verandah after a day of work and breathes in the heady air of freedom and opportunity. On the median strip lined with palms and poplars, his family gathers around a piano accordion and hums folksongs from distant worlds while we, the neighbourhood children, whose parents come from many nations, play epic cricket matches late into the night.

Come with me through the streets of the city. Today. Observe the rich abundance, the achievements of our immigrant forebears: the diverse buildings which have drawn upon the designs of many cultures; the restaurants and cafes that have vastly expanded our tastes; the art works that have extended our visions of who we are; and the factory floors and work sites, where immigrant labourers have toiled for so many years.

Glance at our calendars which are crowded with celebrations that have brought the world to our doors. Stroll through our parks and gardens which flourish with trees and plants from many lands. Observe our rolling vineyards and farms, our orchards and market gardens, and the rich harvests they yield.

We are surrounded by the ingenuity and inventiveness of our immigrants, and we continue to benefit from the enterprise of our new arrivals. Together, we have built a cosmopolitan society made up of many possibilities.

Perhaps we need a special day, each year, to reflect upon the perilous journeys of our immigrant forebears who sought to build new lives in a new world, while recognising the indigenous people, who have nurtured the land’s natural abundance for so long.

It can all be embraced, both the past and the present, the ancient and the new. To do this, we need to share our stories and narratives, our aspirations and dreams, our histories with all their shades of light and dark, and the many melodies that make up this diverse symphony of ours.

Arnold Zable

This essay was commissioned by Museum Victoria in celebration of Australia’s
rich cultural diversity and originally featured in the Immigration Museum’s Impacts Gallery.  Though this gallery has now closed, the themes touched upon in Celebration remain central in considerations of Australian cultural identity.

A photograph of Arnold Zable, 2007

A photograph of Arnold Zable, 2007.
Source: Arnold Zable

Arnold Zable is a dynamic and highly acclaimed storyteller, passionate about memory and history, displacement and community, and the multiplicity of cultures within Australia. He is the author of numerous columns, feature articles, essays, stories, and co-writer of Kan Yama Kan (2003), a play in which asylum seekers tell their stories. His books include Jewels and Ashes (1991), The Fig Tree (2002) and two novels, Cafe Scheherazade (2001) and Scraps of Heaven (2004). He has conducted workshops for migrants and refugees and played an active role in communicating migrant experience and the importance of cultural diversity.

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