15 October 2014

I have been reading Australian novelist Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell (Allen & Unwin, 2007). The main character, who is also the narrator, is an elderly German who was a child during World War II. He relates being unable ever to ask his father what he did during the war. He says “I’ve felt all my life that I’ve had to apologise for my existence. I’ve always known myself to be on the wrong side. You might think that has been a small price to pay. And of course it has been.”

As a white South African born just ten years after the introduction of apartheid, I can relate to this – never being able to escape the feeling of being on the wrong side. The child who was privileged through an accident of birth – being born white – and therefore granted access to education and opportunities far beyond what could otherwise have been expected. Always being on the wrong side is indeed a small price to pay in the face of what millions suffered and lost during 40 years of a brutal racist regime. It is so small that one feels unable ever to give voice to it.

Moving to New Zealand towards the end of the twentieth century was a kind of liberation. It meant becoming part of a society where relationships between tangata whenua and Pakeha are enshrined in a Treaty that is more or less honoured by those with political power. It also meant living in a welfare state where those who are unemployed or unable to work or single parents or elderly and infirm are taken care of to some extent. It meant that working and paying the taxes, which provide in part for treaty settlements and various welfare benefits, put one not on the wrong side for once. Being unable to give voice to one’s sense of relief was once again a very small price to pay.

Moving to Malaysia this year has removed that relief. I once again live in a society where political power is determined by race, education and opportunity are not equally available to all, wealth is unevenly distributed and poor people struggle in their millions. I live as a privileged expatriate among the wealthy in a gated community. Once again I am unable to give voice to any of this – I have no status here, I am prohibited from working and do not contribute anything to the country in which I am living.

Unlike me, Miller’s character achieves redemption of a sort. He visits Australia and, in writing an account of a massacre of settlers by Aboriginal people, he begins to understand the history of human conflict, which he has spent his life studying, more clearly. It also enables him to overcome his “capacity for deep silence” that he had learned as a boy. By the end of the novel, he is thinking about researching and writing about his father’s life.

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