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  • Writer's pictureIsabel del Rio

Ready for the polyglots

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Set in Australia at the beginning of the 20th century, the story is a dialogue between an immigration officer and a linguist. The subject is discrimination by language. It is based on historical facts: in Australia prospective immigrants were required to take a dictation test, under the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901.

The language for the dictation test was eventually decided by the authorities, regardless of the languages the individual was familiar with. The purpose of the test was to stop non-whites from entering the country, part of the “White Australia Policy”.

I have taken literary licence and extrapolated the essence of the story, so that it becomes universal and relevant in multiple settings, especially in these times of widespread discrimination against immigrants, even though the jargon, location and period can be identified as being Australian. The narrative is about creating a foolproof system to stop immigrants entering a country, and ultimately I tell my own story of the facts. I was inspired (shocked is a better choice of word) by this chapter in Australian history, but my story is literary, and therefore it not only depicts the facts albeit in a more inventive way, but also touches on other subjects, such as the power of the Establishment, the manipulation of existing laws, the collaborationism among certain professionals, and ultimately the widespread fraud, with eventually no one passing the dictation test.

The story is dedicated to Egon Kisch, a Shephardic Jewish writer, who suffered the ignominy of having to take the dictation test in many languages when he arrived in Australia in 1933, fleeing the Nazis. Kisch passed the dictation test in every single instance, and only failed when he had to take the test in Scottish Gaelic.

My story was rejected by a well-know Australian literary magazine, but has now been published by Whispering Dialogue, an online Arts magazine led by the outstanding May-al-Issa.

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