The poem that saved Luigi Strano from ending up behind barbed wire

It all depends / on what happened yesterday; / it all depends / on what the papers / say; / whether / today / you are a wog, / a New Australian / or an alien.

This poem, titled "“New AustralianAlien", was published in 1986 by Luigi Strano (1913-2009) one of Australia'sforemost Italian-Australian poets. Luigi, who was born in Reggio CalabriaItaly, emigrated to Australia in 1930. The terms "“New Australian" and "“alien" may appear to be unfamiliar tosome readers. These terms were used extensively in the post-war era to describemigrants who were not of British origin. For most of the 20thCentury in Australia's legal language to be an "“alien" meant you came, not fromanother planet, but from another (non-British) country, in other words, thatyou were foreign.

Strano's poem conveys theprecariousness of being a migrant. Or to use an Italian expression: "“to livewith two feet in one shoe." Whether you belong to any society, especially ifyou have a diverse ethnic or gender background, or sexual/gender orientation,greatly depends on media discourse and the political climate.

Today, unfortunately, we arestill "“alienating" people through our use of language. A good example is thecurrent debate about marriage equality or same sex marriage. But to return tothe theme of emigration. Some of you will be aware of the new citizenship actthat the Government has been trying to get through the Senate. Not all willhave read the finer print of the bill. In practice it would give the Ministerfor Immigration the power to revoke the citizenship acquired by any migrant ifwhen applying for citizenship, the migrant "“misrepresented" Australian values,or if their "“commitment to integration" was questionable. The minister can alsowithdraw approval for a previously granted citizenship application. In bothinstances the migrant would have no right of appeal to a court. The outcomewould be entirely at the minister's discretion.

Luigi Strano had another goodreason to write his poem. Not many will know that during the Second World War,the Commonwealth government interned 7104 civilians. Of these, thousands werenaturalised Australians and some were even born here. How could this happen? Becausethe Government believed that anyone of Italian, German or Japanese origin mightdecide to assist the Axis powers in their war against the British Empire, whichincluded Australia. So as a "“preventative" measure, these civilians of "“alien"origins were torn from their families and interned for years behind barbed wireand watch towers in camps that dotted the Australian landscape. The interneescould not appeal to a court. Whether you were interned depended on what theauthorities thought. At the time, the police also raided Luigi's home to arresthim and to confiscate any "“compromising material."

They found a poem, titled "“Sydney",written in English:

Sydneycity of my dreams / if I ever think of leaving you"¦ / my eyes become moist withtears. / If I ever return / to the land of my childhood"¦ / Yes. I remembereverything and everyone, my brothers. / But the memory of you, Sydney willalways be closest to my heart.

One of the policemen, moved bythese words, simply said "“Very good, Lou" and decided not to arrest him.

We can only hope that Australianauthorities will start reading the poems of those asylum seekers that they havebeen banished to Nauru and Manus Island, and of those migrants living here inAustralia whose access to social security they wish to deny. I would also addto these poems those written by Indigenous Australians, who have long beendeprived.

If the habit of reading poetryspreads, maybe we will be able to save the world too.

(Formore information on Luigi Strano see: Gaetano Rando, Literary and SocialDiasporas: An Italian Australian Perspective, Peter Lang, 2007, pp. 113,116).