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Acceptance, Segregation and the Need for Social

Allegiance.
Belonging essay by Asha Forsyth 2009
1,403 words

Fulfilment is the essence of being. To obtain this sense of self, we must actively
participate in the society which we exist in. Without social acceptance, our sense of
belonging is limited and cannot lead to true self actualisation. This concept is
explored through the prescribed poems St. Patricks College and 10 Mary Street by
Peter Skrzynecki, the painting Self Portrait (But I Always Wanted to Be One of The
Good Guys) by Gordon Bennet and the short story The Fat Man in History by Peter
Carey. All these texts explore the hardships of being ostracized by society, and how
this impacts on an individual’s sense of identity and belonging.

To allow our individual sense of acceptance to blossom, one usually finds solace in a
place of sanctuary and safety. In Skrzynecki’s 10 Mary Street, this particular place
comes alive. As an audience we plunge into the migrants home; experiencing each
cultural nuance as if we were actually there. Skrzynecki achieves this element by
employing a conversational tone throughout his poetry, this opens it up to the
audience and we feel a sense of connection to the people and places he goes on to
describe. Strong use of sensory imagery also helps illustrate the Polish cultural
bubble.
“Kielbasa, salt herrings / And rye bread, drank / Raw vodka or cherry brandy / And
smoked like / A dozen Puffing Billies”
By evoking our oral sense to the customs and traditions of the Polish community, the
true nature of their own sense of belonging within their neighbourhood is accurately
portrayed.

However this sheltered lifestyle is rarely enough to achieve a true sense of belonging
and without recognition from the wider community, most existences become hollow.
Skrzynecki’s poem St. Patricks College illuminates this concept, focussing on the
harshness of society and status.
“Impressed by the uniforms / Of her employer’s sons / Mother enrolled me at St Pat’s
/ With never a thought / To fees and expenses – wanting only / ‘What was best’”
A longing for acceptance is readily established within the first three lines.
Skrzynecki’s uses caesura to shed light on how important his mother believed social
inclusion was. She truly believed that by giving him an expensive education,
Skrzynecki would successfully fit in. However the reality of Skrzynecki’s isolation
contrasts his mothers’ expectations.
“Like a foreign tourist, / Uncertain of my destination/ Every time I got off.”
This quote reflects the persona’s constant sense of alienation; emphasising his day-to-
day struggle by repeating the line “For eight years. Lacking true recognition from
the wider community; Skrzynecki is left to go through the motions of school without
a strong sense of being.

This concept of steady exclusion is similarly laced through Peter Carey’s short story
The Fat Man in History. In the story, the protagonist Alexander Finch is part of a
group which has been excluded from the wider community due to their weight. In the
confines of their rundown home, they plot revolutions and ways of retaliating at the
civilization which has cast them out. Although they find support by grouping together,
they still yearn for legitimate social affiliation. And without this, their sense of
seclusion is accentuated, even to the point where they are isolated from each other.
The fragmented chapters within Carey’s story illuminate The Fat Men’s disjointed
existence. These chapters are as small as a few lines and separate the characters;
segregating their thoughts and emotions. Without the true respect of each other – let
alone society - each individual is left to lament their lonely way of life, disrupting any
chance of real happiness and fulfilment.
Carey also parallels the Fat Men’s secluded lifestyle with that of the wild thistle;
using the noxious weed as an extended metaphor and motif for the disrupted
conditions in which they exist in.
“Finch wonders why the thistles grow in these parts, why they are sad, why they only
grow where the ground has been disturbed, and wonders where they grew
originally”“…They have come near a main road and they wordlessly turn back,
keeping away from the street lights, returning to the thistles”
Carey highlights that both the minority of the ‘Fat Men’ and the thistles are
ostracized, and therefore lack any true sense of belonging to their society.
This idea is contrasted in 10 Mary Street, where although they lack true social
acceptance, the Polish migrant community flourishes within itself. They find comfort
by surrounding themselves with cultural memories and traditions; temporarily
shutting out the uncertain and foreign Australian society.
“My parents watered / Plants – grew potatoes / And rows of sweet corn: / Tended
roses and camellias / Like adopted children”
By referring to his parents treating the food like adopted children, this simile
reinforces the strong cultural sanctuary in which they are protected from the harshness
of society. Skrzynecki highlights their understanding of the value of cultural heritage
and generational traditions. However the feeling of belonging that his parents
experience is not passed on to Skrzynecki himself, and he is caught in social limbo –
one foot in his heritage, the other in his surrounding environment. With no true
connection to either; Skrzynecki explores the idea of growing up in the marginalised
minority of a second generation immigrant.

Similarly, Gordon Bennet uses his paintings as a vehicle for exploring the social
segregation he experienced as a child. He was brought up without knowledge of his
indigenous Australian heritage. At age 11 he became aware of his background, and
although theoretically his family’s acceptance and love of him wasn’t disturbed,
Bennet’s entire world changed.
“I decided that I was in a very interesting position: my mind and body had been
effectively colonized by Western culture, and yet my Aboriginality, which had been
historically, socially and personally repressed, was still part of me”- GORDON BENNET
He uses his art as a means of expression; illuminating his personal journey of self
discovery and fulfilment. ‘Self Portrait (But I Always Wanted to Be One of The Good
Guys)’ is no exception; as it highlights the impact cultural division had on his
impressionable childhood.
Bennet’s boyish innocence is conveyed throughout the entire painting, visually
evoking the audience to empathise with his insecurity and lack of belonging during
this time. He has depicted his four year old self donned in a western child’s cowboy
costume. The costume is a visual metaphor of Bennet’s confused attempt to cover up
the unmistakable difference of his Aboriginality.
This Aboriginality has been segregated and secluded all throughout Australian
history. Indigenous Australians find that their connections to traditional customs have
been severed, yet ties with western culture have never been fully established. This
leaves some in a constant state of uncertainty, which, in turn, jeopardises the ability to
feel a strong sense of connection to the social majority. In this state of cultural
confusion it is easy for an individual to be manipulated, influenced and even
dismissive of the society they so strongly yearn to be part of.

This concept is effectively reiterated throughout The Fat Man in History. When The
Fat Men decided to consume an accepted member of their revolutionary society, they
truly believe this will lead to their own acceptance.
“Rationale by A. Finch…The Fat Men of this society have been implicitly accused of
(among other things) loving food to much, of loving themselves too much to the
exclusion of the revolution. To eat a member or monument of the revolution could be
seen as a way of turning this love towards the revolution”
Carey expresses their ideas as a document written by one of the Fat Men. This allows
the audience inside the thoughts and emotions of the socially segregated, and we truly
see their innate desire to fit in. We are also shown the extents one will go to, in order
to attain an individual’s sense of belonging.

Ultimately, this sense of self can be attained through means of social recognition and
participation. With genuine inclusion and respect from the wider community, an
individual’s sense of belonging is guaranteed. Alternatively, if one is alienated or cast
out from the social majority, their ability to self actualise and fit in is restricted. Thus,
one must not deny that unadulterated social affiliation is a major influence on our
feeling of acceptance. Without it, we are simply lone soldiers; left to defend our
crumbling sense of belonging.

By Asha Forsyth