Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Brian Caswell and David Phu An Chiem, Only the Heart (1997)

Brian Caswell and David Phu An Chiem’s novel Only the Heart (1997) is aimed at a young−adult or school-age readership.  It was written at a time when immigration in general, and Asian immigration in particular, including that of unauthorised boat arrivals from Asia, was causing concern in the Australian community.  This was the period that saw the rise of the politician Pauline Hanson in 1996 and the establishment of her Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party in 1997.  Caswell and Chiem would have seen this trend as a manifestation of prejudice based on ignorance, and believed that by countering this ignorance with pertinent, persuasive and morally compelling information they would be providing an antidote to anti-immigration and anti-boat people sentiments. 

Caswell, who was a high school English teacher, seems to have been particularly interested in moulding the opinions of the young, and seen this book as making a contribution to creating a more enlightened younger generation and ultimately a more just society.  Chiem was a Vietnamese refugee whose experiences, and those of his friends and family, were used as inspiration for much of the content of the story. 

Since Caswell and Chiem’s principal aim seems to be to encourage the acceptance of refugees, the hardships that refugees must overcome are articulated in ways to generate sympathy and admiration.  The admirable qualities that the refugees must display to successfully escape their troubled homeland and settle in Australia are presented to maximise the readers’ appreciation of these people as ideal additions to the community.  These qualities include courage, enterprise, family loyalty, respect for elders, a love of hard work and education, a willingness to make sacrifices to succeed, and an overarching appreciation of the political freedom that most Australians enjoy and often take for granted. The refugees are presented as risking their lives for such freedom. 

Complementing the authors’ aim to present refugees in the best possible light is their attempt to explain away or rationalise anything negative that could be said about the Vietnamese community in Australia, in particular the existence of criminal gangs.  These gangs are treated as a source of unfair negative generalisations.  The gangs are presented as the regrettable but understandable consequence of the dislocation of family life through war and the upheaval of becoming refugees. 

Caswell and Chiem also discuss issues relevant to multicultural Australia, in particular issues relating to migrant settlement and identity.  These issue can be appreciated in terms of the three approaches to this issue: assimilation (where migrants adapt to become very much like their hosts), integration (where migrants blend values from their original and new cultures), and multiculturalism (where migrants are seen to enrich Australia with their cultures or opt for separate development in suburbs of high migrant concentration).  In this regard, the authors were primarily interested in the variation in attitudes to settlement and identity of different generations of migrants.  Many, but not all, older migrants are shown to want to retain more of their original culture, while many, but not all, younger migrants are shown to adopt more of the Australian culture.  While displaying tolerance towards those migrants who wish to retain much of their original culture, the authors seem particularly keen to celebrate the attitudes of the younger migrants who see their identity as Australian despite their Asian origin. 

Caswell and Chiem also set out to write a story that Australian students of various ethnicities can relate to, especially Asian students.  In this novel, young Asian readers are presented with situations, stories and characters with which they can identify.  The authors would probably see this book as a gesture towards the inclusion and acceptance of Asian people into the mosaic of Australian life. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Only the Heart meaning, Only the Heart themes, Only the Heart analysis, Only the Heart notes