Magic Pudding (BÁNH THẦNH) by James Nguyen
With text by Soo-Min Shim
2019, two channel digital video, 5 min
Image courtesy the artist
© James Nguyen
When I first moved to Australia at seven years old I experienced a culture shock so profound that I stopped speaking. If spoken to I would burst into tears overwhelmed by the faces that I could not recognise and the rounded intonations of their noises. I was promptly enrolled into ESL and speech lessons in the hope of curing my silence.
Mrs Jones was also technically an immigrant but had found that her British tones fitted comfortably and perfectly into White Australia. In between her attempts to pry my tearful eyes off the ground, she had a vast library of children’s books that she allowed me to peruse. Here I was tucked comfortably into the warm sheets of the pages of picture books. I rested my head along the spines of new worlds and new nations.
She showed me the worlds of Mem Fox, May Gibbs, and Norman Lindsay. They depicted a new earth that was untouched and replenished itself. This world, Australia, was plenty personified, a colonial cornucopia, terra nullius.
In particular she made me recite sections of Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding which follows the tale of Bunyip Bluegum: a koala, Sam Sawnoff: a penguin, and Bill Barnacle: a sailor, who must fight off pudding thieves that threaten to steal their pudding that magically reforms to be eaten again and again.
The three heroes swear to protect this pudding:
Our captive Pud to free;
Our banner wave, our words proclaim
We march to victory!1
The patriotic rhetoric usually reserved for war is evoked here to signal the pudding’s symbolic status as White Australia. The three heroes were then postured as the valiant defendants of this pure, vulnerable nation. Here I was first exposed to the structures of nationalism and its construction as a mythology.
This nation was characterised as a British entity and more vehemently a British possession. In The Magic Pudding Bunyip is described as “a gentleman of leisure” and is illustrated with a bowtie and a boater hat and strolls around with a walking stick having read “all the best Australian poets.” He is the epitome of British propriety and decorum merely inserted into an Australian backdrop violently erased of Indigenous presence. As Frantz Fanon observed in The Wretched of the Earth: “The history that the settlers write is not the history of the country which they plunder but the history of their own nation in regard to all that they skim off.”2
In contrast to the pleasant, likeable British characters, the pudding thieves are characterised as greedy and uncivilised:
He stole them here, he stole them there,
He knew no moderation;
He stole the coarse, he stole the rare,
He stole without cessation.3
As a child I took confidence knowing that these pudding thieves only dwelled in the blurry half-dream realm of fiction. Bleary-eyed I would awake and console myself to know that they only rose in the shadows of the imagination.
Only to realise, many years later, that Norman Lindsay’s intention would be to cast me as a pudding thief. In his time Lindsay was most famous as a cartoonist for the right-wing paper The Bulletin where he depicted images of the ‘Red Menace’ and ‘Yellow Peril’4, galvanising a fear of immigrants who would come to plunder and steal. In The Magic Pudding, Asian people specifically are personified by Mr Curry Rice. In one section the book depicts Sam and Bill roll Mr Curry Rice off an iceberg to drown at sea. A euphemism for death, Mr Curry Rice foreshadows decades of foreigners who have been, and continue to be left to perish off the shores of Australia.
Through metaphor, prose and verse, these tales brand the template of binary on plastic minds. Under the aegis of naivety and simplicity, these tales are left untouched by presentism. The historical context and its prejudices from which they were borne remain uninterrogated. But this is, as noted by Edward Said in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, “the quiet of unseen power.”5 Children’s literature remains one of the most important categories of literature precisely because it is pedagogical. They are the beginnings of bias, that may later calcify into violence; the violence of the settler-colonial. As Hannah Arendt asserted in A Special Supplement: Reflections on Violence, “violence always requires the use of tools to manifest its nature.”6 Children’s books are a tool to create mythologies in the minutiae.
In the final chapters of the book Bunyip, Sam and Bill find themselves in a court of law disputing the ownership of the pudding. While those present in the court begin to bicker among themselves, the three emerge victorious, stating:
I rather think they’ll rather rue
The haste with which they sought to sue
Us in the court of Tooraloo.
For, mark how just is Fate!7
These protagonists exist outside of legal systems becoming stronger than any parliament and law. Their ownership of the pudding, and therefore the land, is inevitable and attributed to ‘fate’. Their claim defies conceptions of temporality just as a ‘classic’ literature defies time and becomes foundational. These canonised texts continue as a mono myth, and they innocuously prosper through generations. In Nationalism and the Imagination Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes, “…nationalism is the product of a collective imagination constructed through rememoration.”8 The imaginary narrative of the nation is institutionalised through text and the fictive becomes actual.
But once interrogated, the scaffold of mythology is flimsy and paper thin.
Throughout the book the characters sing of home:
Home, home, home,
That’s the song of them that roam,
The song of the roaring, rolling sea
Is all about rolling home.9
Not everyone will be permitted to cross this sea. Fictive worlds will continue to exclude. Though I have lived here for sixteen years, home is still conditional in White Australia.
Eventually after a few years with Mrs Jones I was able to imitate her rounded intonations. But a discomfort lingered with the same stickiness of pudding sticking to the roof of a mouth. Words clung to my throat as dry crumbs.
Always grappling to find the words, I have come to realise that this is a nation that silences you.
Written by Soo-Min Shim 심수민
Art & The Public Sphere, Art Monthly, ArtAsiaPacific, The Artling, Art + Australia, Art Almanac, Artist Profile, Ocula Magazine, Peril Magazine, Runway Conversations, un Extended, and Running Dog.
1 Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1918.
2 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press, 1961: 50.
3 Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1918.
4 Take for example, Norman Lindsay’s ‘Sleeping at his Homework,’ featured in The Bulletin, 19 January 1911 in which a grotesque Japanese tyrant brandished with a sword sneaks up behind a sleeping innocent young boy who represents Australia. Another example is Lindsay’s ‘The Monkey and the Other Monkey’ in The Bulletin, 11 June 1907 in which a huge gorilla leers behind a young woman who represents virginal Australia. Lindsay wrote and illustrated for The Bulletin for over 50 years (1901-1958).
5 Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004: 135.
6 Hannah Arendt, A Special Supplement: Reflections on Violence, The New York Times Review of Books, 1969: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1969/02/27/a-special-supplement-reflections-on-violence/, accessed 05/05/2020.
7  Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1918.
8  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Nationalism and the Imagination, Lectora 15: 75-98, 2009: 86.
9 Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1918.
James Nguyen, Nguyễn Thị Kim Dung & Nguyễn Thị Kim Nhung often make work together sometimes with friends and other members of the family. The outcomes are not always art, but can take the form of mock theatre, poetry, clothing, and dialogue.
The Magic Pudding/Bánh Thần, 2019.
Two channel digital video, 5 min
Image courtesy of the artists: James Nguyen,
Nguyễn Thị Kim Dung & Nguyễn Thị Kim Nhung.
© James Nguyen