'Multicultural' literature is defined differently according to its national contexts. In the United States for example, it appears to be distinguished from 'ethnic' literature, the former signalling the writings of those who are termed visible minorities and the latter indicating those who to some extent choose to affiliate with their ethnic roots but are not placed in the position of being the easy focus of racist projections. Thus there is a distinction between 'ethnicity' and 'race' as determining cultural factors. In Australia the term is reserved for those who write from outside the prevailing Anglo-Celtic traditions, that is, writers who have a privileged relation to languages and cultures other than those deriving from England and Ireland, the point of embarkation for most of Australia's first colonisers. Intimacy with other languages and traditions comes either from being born overseas or from having parents or grandparents who migrated from places other than England or Ireland. Clearly the degree to which these other languages or literary traditions inform writing produced in an Australian context varies considerably, and research and analysis in this area have barely begun.
The term 'migrant writing' is used not simply to designate those writers born overseas, but rather misleadingly to describe the writings of all those Australians perceived as not belonging to the literary and cultural traditions deriving from England and Ireland. Thus even a third-generation writer like Anna Couani continues to be labelled a migrant writer because her name signals her descent from Greek and Polish forebears. Related expressions such as 'ethnic' or 'multicultural' writer are coded terms for continuing to maintain these divisions. For the purposes of developing more precise analytical concepts pertaining to Australia's national literature it would be more useful to distinguish between writers who are overseas-born, and thus might be expected to be overtly concerned with the experience of migration and its attendent cultural dislocations, and those writers who have intimate access to languages and cultures that do not derive from England or Ireland and who may or may not write in English.
If the designations 'ethnic' or 'multicultural' are to have any real intellectual purchase they would need to include the specific cultural traditions of those whose ethnicity currently remains invisible, that is, the English (including the Welsh, Scots, etc.) and the Irish. One could argue that Irish ethnicity might be described as being highly visible to the extent that it has to some degree become synonymous with what is usually defined as quintessentially Australian culture, particularly in its folk-life manifestations (e.g. folk-music, ballads).
Certain conventions appear to be attached to migrant writing. Under this rubric, writers, particularly those who draw attention to their awareness of languages other than English, are perceived in the main as dealing simply with their own life-stories, as as providing material primarily of interest to sociologists or oral historians. The playfulness or reflexivity in their writings, as manifest, for example in the work of Rosa Cappiello and Ania Walwicz, remains largely unacknowledged. Those few writers who are generally recognised to constitute the field of 'migrant writing' are usually restricted to a realist mode established by the first writer to be thus considered, Judah Waten whose Alien Son was seen as the paradigmatic text.
Current bibliographical work which focuses on writers from backgrounds other than English reveals that they number around nine hundred such writers, which is not surprising considering that there are at present over sixty language groups in Australia. If one takes into account the second and third generation, roughly one-third of Australians derive from other than English-speaking cultural traditions. Clearly, a separate group with distinctive cultural characteristics is constituted by the Aboriginal or indigenous Australians.
The term favoured throughout this study as a way of negotiating the local and global contradictions set up by established terms such as 'migrant', 'ethnic' or 'multicultural' writers is 'ethnic minority writers' (Padolsky, 1991) .
Helpful references for Australian multicultural literary studies:
S Gunew, L Houbein, A Karakostas-Seda and J Mahyuddin (eds) (1992) A Bibliography of Australian Multicultural Writers, Deakin University: Centre for Studies in Literary Education.
S Gunew & K O Longley (eds) (1992) Striking Chords: Multicultural Literary I nterpretations, Sydney: Allen & Unwin. The latter includes further bibliographic information covering the field.