Book Review – Samia Khatun, Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia
In Australianama, author and academic Samia Khatun skilfully weaves an intricate patchwork of hitherto unexplored connections between South Asia and Australia. I first heard about Australianama at an Islam and Print in South Asia Workshop at the British Library where Khatun was presenting on her work on South Asian peoples in Australia. She shared her research journey, relating how she came across a photograph of a book labelled as the Quran located in the desert lands of Australia in Broken Hill, noting how the words looked like Bengali script. At the workshop, as well as in the book, she shared her experience of visiting the mosque to find that the book was not the Quran but a book of Bengali Sufi poetry called Kasasol Ambia (Stories of the Prophets), all the while wondering how a book published in Bengal found its way to an inland Australian mining town. (Khatun, 3) This question is where Khatun’s Australianama begins.
Khatun uses “the storytelling strategies and interpretive keys contained in non-English-language texts” (14) to chart a transnational history of South Asian presence in Australia, through travelling and trade, and close contact and intermarriage with Aboriginal communities. For instance, in asking how Kasasol Ambia found its way to Broken Hill, she uses the book as a textual repository, an “entry point” (4), into traversing stories of contact and migration. One story about Nuh, a spiritual guide, who wept when no one would listen to his stories, led her to consider whether the book arrived via a spiritual guide from South Asia. She trawled the archives for passenger lists and exposit journeys between South Asian cities and south Australia (33-34). Using a methodological approach foregrounded in epistemologies of the colonised, rather than in colonial knowledge production, Khatun maps oceanic circulation of people, stories and objects by tracing a seafarer journey and delving into the dream interpretation of Aboriginal communities. In this way, texts are read as living objects and a global history is imbued with rich sketches of human endeavour and adventure.
By bringing indigenous stories to the fore and exploring points of contact between Aboriginal communities and people from the Subcontinent, Khatun re-evaluates and decentres Eurocentric/Occidental histories. Throughout the book, Khatun continually shows readers a different way of thinking about and writing histories— rather than dismissing and subjugating the “oriental” or the “blank space” geographies espoused by colonists when encountering Aboriginal lands as inferior— historians can, and should, consider native epistemologies as a praxis for interpreting (evolving) identities and geographies. As such, the book augments narratives of twentieth-century and contemporary migration patterns as part of a commentary on the processes of othering and the entrenchment of racism and Islamophobia in Australia (and elsewhere). Historians will also be fascinated by Khatun’s journey of interrogating place, space and text in her quest to decipher how the Bengali book got to Broken Hill, from family conversations and scouring handlists to tracing the spatial journey of the book in libraries, Kolkata streets and the Australian interior.
As an Australian born in Bangladesh it is also a deeply personal book that contemplates identity, belonging and migration across various borders and interiors. It is also a testament to imaginative landscapes that allow one to listen, to enjoy and to connect with what we read. In the last chapter entitled “To Hear”, Khatun recounts her own intimate family history of migration and situates her story within the vast terrain of South Asian odysseys including how Kasasol Ambia had once captivated her great grandfather, as stories were shared and revived over time. Australianama is a rich text in which academic scholarship, investigatory work and colourful storytelling coalesce.
Image: “First map of Australia [cartographic material]: from Nicholas Vallard’s atlas, 1547, in the Library of Sir Thomas Phillipps, Bart. at Middle Hill, 1856” (public domain via Creative Commons)