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Looking for Magda

An Australian story

IN 2017, MORE than one hundred books were published telling the stories of Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds. They bore titles like Becoming Australian: Two Home Countries (Inspiring Publishers),[i] The Man from South Sudan (Africa World Books)[ii] and Accomplished Dreams: From Hardship in a Tiny Croatian Village to Success in Australia (Sport and Editorial Services Australia).[iii] Many were written for family and friends, others aimed for a wider audience, and several were released by commercial publishers.

The recent proliferation of such migrant memoirs and biographies is driven partly by the falling cost of publishing, including self-publishing; but it also reflects a growing interest in reading about other people’s lives, including those from non-European cultural backgrounds. Think, for example, of Anh Do’s bestselling memoir The Happiest Refugee (Allen & Unwin, 2010),[iv] which Russell Crowe reportedly wants to turn into a film and which has already spawned a children’s book[v] and a stage show, as well as inspiring the title of a tongue-in-cheek counter-memoir, Hung Le’s The Crappiest Refugee (Affirm Press, 2018).[vi]

Before 1980, there were only a handful of published memoirs by writers from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Their number gradually increased throughout the 1980s and 1990s, before growing exponentially this century. One of the few Australian memoirs written by a non-native English speaker in the 1980s is Gather Your Dreams, an inconspicuous paperback of less than one hundred pages that was released in 1984 by Hodja Educational Resources Cooperative, which was set up in 1981 to publish texts by and about Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds, mainly for the use in schools.

Written in the first person, Gather Your Dreams aims to tell ‘the first twenty years in the personal journey of one migrant’:[vii] her departure from Europe; her subsequent life in Canberra and Darwin; and the process that led to her becoming a ‘naturalised, well-integrated, English-speaking New Australian’, and calling Australia home.

The book’s back cover informs prospective readers that Gather Your Dreams ‘is the story of one migrant which echoes the stories of thousands of migrants’ and that its author, Magda Bozic, is a married woman living in Canberra who ‘left her home country in 1948 and did not return until 1968’. The author’s notes do not provide further biographical detail, such as Bozic’s country of origin, her age or her place of work. More surprisingly, neither does the memoir.

‘I made some feeble attempts to draw an identikit of him,’ Bozic writes about her courtship with a fellow migrant, who later becomes her second husband. At the time, her attempts failed: ‘I knew nothing that really mattered: his family, his friends…his experiences and what those experiences had done to him – I did not know who he was.’ My first attempts at drawing an identikit of Bozic proved similarly unsuccessful. ‘It was soon after the war and the city still in ruins,’ begins her narrative. But only a reader familiar with the city in question would recognise the stylised skyline depicted on the book’s cover; the text never mentions the city’s name. There are hints of a tragedy in the author’s pre-migration past, but other than those, her ‘private universe’ back home – ‘[c]hildhood days and school years, growing up, finding love and getting married’ – and the friends who witnessed it remain outside the scope of Gather Your Dreams.

Readily available information about the author in the public domain is contradictory. According to the National Library of Australia catalogue, Bozic was born in 1920, while the AustLit database of Australian literature claims that she was born in 1926. According to AustLit, Bozic ‘was born in Yugoslavia’. A Google search for her name throws up an interview with ABC presenter Caroline Jones, who recalls Bozic ‘describing how she left Warsaw’.[viii]

Archival research, rather than Gather Your Dreams, reveals that its author was born Magda Benedek in 1915 in Budapest.[ix] In 1947, under her married name Magda Breuer, she migrated to Australia from Hungary via France, arriving in Sydney on the SS Tidewater on 18 November 1947. Her visa was sponsored by her older brother Stephen, who had moved to Australia in 1939, and she was accompanied by her mother. In 1950, she married Ivan Bozic (called Joseph in the memoir), who had come to Australia in 1949 as a displaced person from Yugoslavia.

Bozic justifies her decision to end her narrative in the 1960s by saying that an account of ‘a family living a secure, quiet life like millions more in a free country’ would be of no interest to others. An equally important factor in that decision may have been her reluctance to ‘[trespass] on the personal worlds of friends, foes and family alike’, which made her use pseudonyms and prevented her from identifying the institution where she spent most of her working life (the classics department at the Australian National University, where she was employed as a secretary).

Other than the author, only one protagonist in Gather Your Dreams is referred to by her real name.[x] This is the sociologist Jean Martin, to whom the memoir is dedicated. Bozic and Martin (then known by her maiden name, Jean Craig) first met in 1952 – one of the reasons why that year is singled out in the book as ‘memorable’. According to Bozic’s account, Martin provided a sounding-board for migrants who were disaffected or simply homesick. She was a sympathetic listener but also somebody who was able to subtly change her migrant interlocutors’ attitudes. Bozic may have been as important for Martin as vice versa; Bozic’s ‘interest and help’ are acknowledged in Martin’s 1954 PhD thesis about the assimilation of displaced persons in Goulburn, and in her 1965 book, Refugee Settlers (ANU Press).[xi]

Martin encouraged, and probably prompted,[xii] Bozic to write her memoir. She provided feedback on drafts. Gather Your Dreams also reads as a companion piece to Martin’s studies of migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds. It is an account of a migrant’s individual experience, which complements the synthesis of experiences provided by Martin. Like Martin, Bozic is looking for experiences that can be generalised – that make her life representative of that of other migrants. And like Martin, Bozic is both a clinical observer of one migrant’s life, and an author who is deeply involved in her subject’s affairs.

 

BOZIC’S NARRATIVE BEGINS with a letter from her brother urging their mother to contact him ‘soon so that I can book your passage and arrange your trip’. ‘Gather Your Dreams, they will all come true here’, he writes. ‘And so it all began,’ Bozic remembers decades later. ‘We gathered our dreams and came to Australia.’ Australia is at ‘the other end of the rainbow’; it is ‘the Promised Land where our dreams come true’. But in her memoir, Bozic is silent about any specific expectations of Australia – perhaps because ‘after the war we were more concerned about departure than arrival’. After landing in Sydney, she tells her brother that she doesn’t have any particular designs for her life in Australia, explaining that she ‘never thought of plans further than a day ahead during the war. I suppose I just want to be happy ever after…’

The book nevertheless makes three references to dreams gathered before the departure from Europe. In the first, writing about the sea voyage to Australia, Bozic describes how her ‘mother was standing on the deck for hours, peering at the horizon, cleaning her glasses…and humming to herself a song from an old opera of her youth, “Kennst du das Land”’. The lyrics – ‘Knowst thou the land where citron-blossoms blow,/in shaded grove the golden orange glows’ – are from one of the songs of Mignon that are part of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.[xiii] In the context of Gather Your Dreams, the story about the mother’s association of Australia with Goethe’s Italy is evidence that ‘we kept thinking of this strange new land in old familiar terms: perhaps it will be like Budapest, or Warsaw, or Vienna or Prague – only bigger and better’.

The second reference too is about the mother’s dreams. To her, ‘Australia was above all the wonder-place where she could talk every day of the week to the son who achieved the dreams of yesteryear.’ He studied medicine in Sydney, and eventually became a highly respected psychiatrist.[xiv] In Gather Your Dreams, his aspirations and achievements are not mentioned. Neither are the author’s own. For her, markers of success in the new country are not professional accomplishments or ‘material rewards’ but the ability to belong.

Towards the end of the book, in the final reference to the book’s title, Bozic returns to the brother’s letter: ‘Perhaps he knew…that the dream that was sure to come true was a life in a free country. A life sometimes happy and at other times not, but always free.’ It is only with the benefit of hindsight that Bozic recognises what she could have hoped for in 1945. This recognition is likely informed by the sentiments of other postwar Hungarian migrants at least as much as by her own experience; after all, she left Hungary before it became communist, and thus did not share the experience of the so-called 1948ers nor of those of her compatriots who were resettled in Australia as refugees following the 1956 uprising.

Gather Your Dreams provides more detail about dreams that became possible only after the author’s departure from Europe. ‘I often see the old house in my dreams, the way it was before the aeroplanes circled and the sirens wailed around us,’ Bozic writes, referring to these dreams as ‘friendly’ and implying that there were others: of the bombing raid that destroyed the old house, of the deaths of her father and sister, of the day when she received a ‘grey army-card informing me that my husband was missing, thought dead’. While the dreams gestured at in Stephen Benedek’s letter are visions of a better future, the friendly and less friendly dreams that Bozic has in Australia are memories of a past life that could be ‘as sweet as acacia-honey’ but which also knew ‘hours of fear’.

For Bozic, these memories are an obstacle on her way to making a life for herself in Australia. ‘A plague on all my memories, good and bad,’ she writes. ‘Can you hear me, Memories? A plague on you all! I want to start a new life, I want to enjoy parties, stop breathing down my neck wherever I go.’ The friendly memories fuel her homesickness, the ‘old occupational hazard of immigration’, in the ‘barren, desolate Canberra evenings’ when she ‘longed for [her] city where neon-lights flickered late into the night and the city took on a life of its own’.

For Bozic, her mother’s predicament is evidence of what happens when these memories take over. While the mother had been peering at the horizon on board the ship, imagining life ‘in the land where the lemon trees bloom’, in Sydney she would stand ‘near the window, wrapped in the loneliness of a silent, empty house…pretending to admire the azaleas, but her thoughts were 12,000 miles away.’

The desire to forget about the former home is informed by the realisation that it would be in her own best interest to dissociate herself from her past life. But she also believed that she was ‘expected to integrate, to assimilate, to conform, to take a jump into a community melting pot and forget about her own real self’ because Australians did not want her to cling to her Hungarian identity: ‘They regarded the “Otherness” of other people as a mild disease, a slight handicap that ought to be treated if it cannot be prevented.’

While ‘otherness’ could be treated, its symptoms would never vanish, and therefore her new identity would always remain incomplete, and unable to match what she tried to forget. Bozic remained torn between herself as a New Australian, and ‘[t]hat other-Me who came from Europe’. One was ‘a foreigner with an accent, a migrant without a country’, while the other spoke her native tongue effortlessly.

 

MIGRANTS TEND TO have a keen ability to notice the peculiarities of their new country and its residents, things the locally born generally overlook. Bozic’s book is a good example. She is a perceptive and unforgiving observer of Australian gender roles in 1950s Canberra: ‘those friendly and incredibly helpful women’ who were her neighbours ‘lived a humdrum and lacklustre existence within narrowly defined roles and by the time they were middle-aged their souls were drained of all the dreams they had ever had about life’, the men labelled topics ‘[o]utside their own narrow sphere of interests…as “women’s talk” or still worse “culture” – something not really becoming to grown men’. But she is also able to lighten her diagnoses with a dash of humour: ‘I had worked on a theory that the emotional inertia that afflicted so many Australians was due to the terrible national habit of drinking tea with milk – a beverage that looked like dishwater and quite often tasted like it too.’

Living in a language that is not your mother tongue can also increase awareness of how the world is named and how words are used to negotiate relationships. The initial response to being removed from a familiar environment and the language that made sense of it, though, is alienation. Soon after arriving in Sydney, Bozic takes the train to Canberra. The landscape is more than strange to her; all she can see is ‘the scorched earth barely covered with dry grass and a few lonely parched ghost gums standing in the middle of nowhere’. She wonders how Australian artists could make sense of that landscape, which words and which colours they could use to do it justice. Later, she learns to see Australia and to notice ‘beauty of a very different kind’ in the native trees. But noticing that beauty is a long way from being able to put it into words, or having the confidence to try to do so.

In this respect, it proved impossible for Bozic to shed her European ‘other-me’. English would always remain a second language, although it was the lingua franca used at home (her husband did not speak Hungarian, and she did not speak her husband’s native language, Croatian). Realising that ‘for the rest of my life I would speak a borrowed language with an accent’, she was ‘overwhelmed by a sense of loss and grief’ that would stay with her.

Is the idea that she could not possibly have the same command of written English as a native speaker informed by an acute awareness of her own limitations as a writer? Or does it reflect the widely held assumption that non-native speakers could, at most, aspire to contribute to what in the 1980s was called ‘multicultural’ or ‘ethnic minority’ literature, but would never be a match for those who owned the language because they were born into it?[xv]

‘Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world, uniting a multitude of cultures, experiences, beliefs and traditions,’ begins the Turnbull government’s Multicultural Statement, launched in March 2017.[xvi] This and similar assertions assume that the success of a society is measured by its collective achievements. Often, they reveal very little about how the individuals who constitute the society in the first place have been able to negotiate their relationship with a ‘we’, and about how individual cultures, experiences, beliefs and traditions – and one could add: languages and histories – fared when being united. The success that ‘we’ Australians boast about when deeming ‘our’ multicultural society superior to others is rarely qualified by the violence of what has been variously termed assimilation or integration.

Bozic’s book is a poignant reflection on the often painful experience of migration. It is about a non-native English speaker’s difficulty to truly belong. It is about the losses incurred in the process of making a life in a new country, and the traumatic aspects of assimilation. The reception of Bozic’s book, on the other hand, is evidence of the pervasiveness of an interpretative lens that does not allow for individual pain to distract from a narrative of collective success. Some readers found that Gather Your Dreams offered a sense of redemption. Fiona Capp, reviewing the book for the Australian Book Review, found evidence of Bozic’s ability to counterbalance ‘her feelings of disappointment with a positive, compensating alternative to her European expectations’.[xvii] For Caroline Jones, who interviewed Bozic for the ABC radio program The Search for Meaning, Bozic’s migration experience was proof that it is possible to overcome trauma and adversity: ‘Her story tells us what is possible for the human person. It does not promise that it will be easy but it suggests that we may choose how to look at difficult circumstances and how to respond to them.’[xviii]

Each of the more than twenty-four million individuals who make up Australia brings with them a unique experience, which is informed by their cultural background, among other factors. Yet, when the authors of the Multicultural Statement refer to ‘our story’, they don’t conceive of it as the aggregate of a multitude of stories. I would like to propose that in order to gauge the nature – and success, or lack of success – of ‘our’ multicultural society, we may want to concern ourselves with the individual stories that add up to that collective ‘our story’ – not to illustrate the diversity of experiences (as the Multicultural Statement does) but because every single one of these stories matters. They also allow us to understand multicultural Australia as a project in progress, rather than as the product of a process that has already been completed, with the many ‘I’s’ having been united to become a ‘we’ subscribing to ‘our common values and commitment to freedom, security and prosperity’.[xix]

If ‘our’ (collective) story could be conceived as an aggregate of individual stories, we might also want to think of ‘our’ history not as the account of the past of a territorially defined nation-state, but as the cumulative total of the lives of all those who have ever belonged to ‘Australia’, including Indigenous peoples before European invasion and other citizens and non-citizens, former and current residents of Australia. Their lives matter (and therefore form part of ‘Australian’ history), even if they have been spent outside an Australia with clearly demarcated geopolitical borders.

Shortly after her book was published, Bozic told an interviewer: ‘In one hundred years’ time when somebody wants to write a history of Australia perhaps they will pick up this small individual account and it will help to re-create Australia just as much as the official accounts and the accounts of the accredited historians.’[xx] However, like the accredited historians’ accounts of Australia, Gather Your Dreams omitted a crucial part of Australian history: Bozic’s life before arriving in Australia. When she chose not to include an account of her pre-migration past in her memoir, she did so because she thought that dwelling on that past made it difficult to become Australian. She did so also because that was expected of her. Even at a time she called the ‘Great Ethnic Bandwagon era’[xxi] she was probably afraid that her – supposedly non-Australian – past would have been considered evidence of a pathological otherness.

 

THERE WAS NOTHING unusual about Bozic’s decision to omit her life in Hungary from her book. Others too respected the expectation that an Australian life began with a migrant’s arrival in Australia. At the time, those migrants from a non-English speaking background who wrote about their pre-migration lives, sometimes exclusively so, did so mainly to testify. The best example is Holocaust survivor Matylda Engelman’s two-part autobiography, Journey Without End and End of the Journey published by Lantana in the late 1970s.[xxii]

By the early 1990s, that had changed: almost all of the autobiographical recollections published in the last twenty-five years are also about their authors’ lives in their native countries. Often, such narratives are designed to illustrate the boastful claim that ‘ours’ is the best country in the world, as if migrants in particular had the obligation to prove that their individual trajectories comply with the broader patriotic Australian narrative: from hardship (in a tiny Croatian village, or elsewhere) to success in the new country.

I suspect the interest in migrants’ pre-migration lives is also due to an exoticist curiosity – an extension of what Susan Hawthorne in an essay for Meanjin once termed ‘cultural voyeurism’.[xxiii] It is not evidence of the understanding that a childhood spent in Hungary, for example, is as much part of the Australian story (and of Australian history, for that matter) as a childhood spent within Australia’s national borders. I would like to suggest that it would be worth contemplating such an understanding – not only because it could subvert Australia’s boastful nationalism, but also because it would allow migrants such as Magda Bozic to belong, regardless of their cultural and linguistic background. Maybe that’s what a successful multicultural society would look like.

 

The research for this essay was made possible by a National Library of Australia fellowship. I would like to thank Robert Barnes and Richard Johnson for sharing their memories of Magda Bozic with me.

 

References

[i] Shisei Ōya, Becoming Australian: Two Home Countries (Calwell: Inspiring Publishers, 2017).

[ii] Deng Atak Ken, The Man from South Sudan (Osborne Park: Africa World Books, 2017).

[iii] Steve Horvat, Accomplished Dreams: From Hardship in a Tiny Croatian Village to Success in Australia (Bannockburn: Sport and Editorial Services Australia, 2017).

[iv] Anh Do, The Happiest Refugee: The Extraordinary True Story of a Boy’s Journey from Starvation at Sea to Becoming One of Australia’s Best-Loved Comedians (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2010).

[v] Anh Do and Suzanne Do, The Little Refugee (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2011).

[vi] Hung Le, The Crappiest Refugee (South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2018).

[vii] Magda Bozic, Gather Your Dreams (Richmond: Hodja, 1984), 74.

[viii] Caroline Jones, quoted in Philip Bell and Theo van Leeuwen, The Media Interview: Confession, Contest, Conversation (Kensington: University of New South Wales Press, 1994), 123.

[ix] Information about the migration to Australia of Magda Breuer nee Benedek, Ethel Benedek, Stephen Benedek and Ivan Bozic has been gleaned from the following National Archives of Australia files: A261, 1945/100; A261, 1945/101; A997, 1939/17; A439, 1952/11/6480; A435, 1945/4/708; A435, 1950/4/8042; SP 11/2, HUNGARIAN/BREUER M; A11937, 248. See also Peter Ploughman, Australian Migrant Ships 1946–1977 (Kenthurst: Rosenberg Publishing, 2006), 16.

[x] In an earlier draft of Gather Your Dreams, the first-person narrator was also anonymised. The prologue of a 1979 draft began: ‘Once upon a time, there lived in a small European country a woman called Maria. She lived an ordinary life – like millions of others. One day her ordinary life was uprooted and transplanted 12,000 miles away. She became a migrant in Australia. This book is an account of her personal journey and makes no larger claim than that.’ (Magda Bozic, ‘Gather Your Dreams’, draft ms, n.d. (1979), Jean Martin Papers, Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University, N132-443)

[xi] Jean I. Craig, ‘Assimilation of European immigrants: a study in role assumption and fulfilment,’ PhD thesis, Australian National University (December 1954), acknowledgements; Jean I. Martin, Refugee Settlers: A Study of Displaced Persons in Australia (Canberra: Australian National University, 1965), vi-vii.

[xii] Virginia Cook, ‘A Voice for All Migrants’, Canberra Times, 19 December 1984.

[xiii] The lyrics were set to music by dozens of composers, including Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Liszt and Wolf. The reference to the ‘old opera’ is likely to Mignon by French composer Ambroise Thomas, which premiered in 1866.

[xiv] Harris P. Greenberg, ‘Dr Stephen Benedek’, Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences 14, 4 (1982): 175-178.

[xv] However, at least one reviewer of Gather Your Dreams thought otherwise. In the Canberra Times, Hope Hewitt wrote that Bozic’s ‘command of English, idiom, rhythm, overtones of double meanings is now so good native speakers might envy her’ (‘Swapping Cultures Successfully’, Canberra Times, 23 March 1984). Bozic, by the way, was never considered a key ‘ethnic minority’ writer, and her work wasn’t included in key anthologies. She also never attracted much scholarly interest; an exception is Valarie Holzer’s ‘Unveiling the Female ‘I’: Autobiographies by Australian Women Born in the 1920s’, PhD thesis, University of Tasmania (1991), but Holzer wasn’t interested in Bozic as an ethnic minority woman.

[xvi] Department of Social Services, Multicultural Australia: United, Strong, Successful: Australia’s Multicultural Statement (n.d. [20 March 2017]), 7, https://www.dss.gov.au/settlement-and-multicultural-affairs/australian-governments-multicultural-statement/australian-governments-multicultural-statement.

[xvii] Fiona Capp, ‘Migrant Dreams’, Australian Book Review (September 1985), 34.

[xviii] Caroline Jones, An Authentic Life: Finding Meaning and Spirituality in Everyday Life, 2nd edition (Sydney: ABC Books, 2005), 262. Jones’s interview with Bozic is included in Caroline Jones, The Search for Meaning (Crows Nest: Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1989), 129-139.

[xix] Department of Social Services, Multicultural Australia, 7.

[xx] Cook, ‘A Voice for All Migrants’.

[xxi] Magda Bozic to Jean Martin, 13 May 1979, Jean Martin Papers, Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University, N132-6.

[xxii] Matylda Engelman, Journey Without End: An Autobiography (Melbourne: Lantana, 1977); Matylda Engelman, The End of the Journey: Concluding Journey Without End, an Autobiography (Melbourne: Lantana, 1978).

[xxiii] Susan Hawthorne, ‘The Politics of the Exotic: The Paradox of Cultural Voyeurism’, Meanjin 48, 2 (1989): 259-268.


From Griffith Review Edition 61: Who We Are © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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