Common views of Asia and the Pacific, from the outside, often confer undue prominence to such things as typhoons, tsunami, earthquakes, malaria or even magic. While these can be confronting realities in the Asia-Pacific region beyond such differences even more remains unseen and misunderstood. Frequently unacknowledged are the influences Asian and Pacific cultures exert far beyond their borders.
Seen & Unseen: A Century of Stories from Asia & the Pacific is 29 stories inspired by one family’s experience spanning three generations of change. It blends anthropology, botany, ecology, economics, geography, history, politics and spiritual traditions. While each story is cradled in reality and crafted with a careful eye for historical accuracy, frailty of memory, the natural passing of people and the need to protect others has rendered some fictional even when they are not.
Influencing this work is an acceptance that interactions with people from our own culture are generally tangible and familiar, but when beyond our immediate culture things change. Now meaning and understanding must often be negotiated in intangible, non-rational and unseen ways. Foucault’s notion of the third space has influenced this work. Another influence is the Balinese belief that reality is an interaction of Sekala (The Seen) and Niskala (The Unseen).
Precisely what comprises the unseen realm varies throughout the region. What might be understood as mere micro ecology, in the developed world, can have spiritual explanations in some Asian and Pacific cultures. In rational secular society people commonly eschew magic as mythology or superstition, yet in parts of Asia and the Pacific what might be seen as myths and misconceptions can possess the power of reality.
I begin this journey in 1914 with Sid Thompson and D Company, a tale inspired by the little known ANMEF sent to capture New Guinea from Germany. While easily defeating the enemy unseen forces took an enormous toll. Sid Thompson also appears in Red Poppies and Janur. Several stories address changing Australian views of Japan through the encounters of ordinary people. Joss Sticks and Cracker Night and An Encounter with White Australia reveal Asian influences in Anglo-Australia of the 1950s. First Landfall and The Sublime to the Horrific chronicle my own first bumbling attempts at being in Asia. Some 15 stories are set over an 18-year period in Indonesia from the comfort of urban to life to that of forest people yet to develop the habit of money. These begin with tales about engaging with manifest cultural differences and lead into matters of more global significance. Campaign and The General Election take two Australians and Indonesian friends through a transition to democracy. An Unusual Kind Of Thunder and In The Charnel House deal directly with the Bali Bombings of 2002 while My Second Meeting With Jonathan unfolds in its aftermath. Singapore 43 years On is about returning to Singapore, a city transformed. Vietnam A War Revisited is a story of the anti-war movement and the draft told retrospectively from Hanoi. Finally, Sid Thompson returns in the more metaphysical tale Headland.
The basic and enduring interplay of the seen and the unseen worlds is of great significance to those of us from the land that’s girt by sea. While we might choose not to see, to look inwards and to rejoice in the notion that our land abounds in nature’s gifts, regional and planetary systems are unfettered by such introspective cultural constructions.
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