A Comparison of Migrant Hostel and Ancestors by Peter Skrzynecki and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
The statement ‘ A sense of identity, more than anything, is reliant upon the relationships between oneself, others and environment’ coherently defines the concept of belonging and identifies that in order for someone to know who they are and their purpose one must relate to internal and external relationships as well as the environment in which they reside. Belonging can be defined as the value, security and acceptance a person feels in the their environment and the poet Peter Skrzynecki demonstrates the idea of identity and belonging and, more predominantly not belonging, in two poems; ‘ Migrant Hostel’ and ‘Ancestors’, while the author and illustrator Maurice Sendak also explores the concepts in his picture book ‘Where the Wild Things Are’. Where Skrzynecki uses solely language techniques in the form of rhetorical questions and thought, similes, tone and visual imagery, Sendak incorporates both language and visual techniques such as colour and light, framing and character body language.
The relationship the personas have with themselves is allied to their awareness of where they do and do not belong. Max, the main character of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, conspicuously defies those around him with arrogance and consequently escorts himself into ostracism from his mother and the expectations society has on children to obey. In Peter Skrzynecki’s poems he deems himself excluded and rejected from both the new country and his parents’ homeland due to differences in culture and heritage as he migrates from a Poland he never knew to an unfamiliar Australia, and after settlement, continues to be prompted to his connection to a different past.
‘Migrant hostel’ communicates Skrzynecki’s personal experience of displacement and migration. He sets a negative tone in the opening line of the first stanza ‘No one kept count’. The tone reflects the alienation Skrzynecki felt as a migrant, with foreign authorities systematically processing the populace of the migrant camp with no affection for the masses, uncertain in seeking their place and left feeling corporeal, as a figure to count rather than a unique individual which is also demonstrated by Skrzynecki’s lack of personal pronouns rather using ‘we’ and ‘us’ to describe himself as part of the greater commodity. Concurrently the simile ‘like a homing pigeon circling to get it’s bearing’ expresses the transitory nature of migration and the unsettled, stressful experience of being in quest of, embracing and belonging to a new home in a foreign land. Like that of a homing pigeon without a master, the migrants are in a state of dislocation, unaware of which way to turn and suggests that belonging is not simply about location but possessing a sense of value and connection to a place. In this time of confusion ‘nationalities sought each other out instinctively’ developing the idea that despite being dislocated and isolated from familiarity, people of a common culture ‘recognised by accents’ receive comfort from ‘memories’ of their recognised heritage and share similar hardships wrought by ‘hunger and hate’ that brought them where they belong together in a safer country and where they will share in the experience of seeking out a new home to establish a broader sense of belonging to country and an exotic culture.
Similarly, the main character of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, Max, struggles with a state of dislocation, but between his reality and his own imaginings laced with desire for power, where he belongs to both, but not simultaneously. Max is required to strike equilibrium between his parents’ expectations and the want of power the he can only attain in a make-believe world. Following being sent to bed minus supper. Max’s anger draws him into a personal realm where he ultimately faces himself. The large white boarders at the beginning of the picture book are symbolic of max’s inner emotions, feeling boxed in by realities limitations, an environment where he cannot express himself. As the story progresses the boarders become smaller while Max’s expression simultaneously shows his satisfaction of his restraints disappearing to the forest of his extraordinary imagination where he can freely articulate a power that would not be accepted at home and rein leader of his own world. The beings of Max’s forest ‘made him king of all wild things’. The ‘Wild Things’, with their intimidating size and bold, poised claws, can be seen as metaphoric manifestations of the power, anger and arrogance Max holds in himself- a beast with the need to be tamed. However there is also the need to belong as a part of the ‘Wild Things’ own group, but above all the need to express himself as a child and belong to his own imaginative childhood. In Max’s wild world the illustrations are more vivid and colourful then those in his home depicting a lighter, cheerful mood. However in his forest, Max is able to freely control what he wants but in reality he cannot. This is where he realises he ‘was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best’ and that he cannot live alone in the forest with the ‘Wild Things’ rather must sacrifice his power to return home where he belongs with his family. On returning to his real world the illustration is both full page and with an even more vivid hue than the forest presenting Max’s broadened and illuminated perception of home and where he truly belongs. Despite Max’s disagreement with his mother, he found ‘His supper waiting for him’. Max achieves a clearer sense of identity following the realisation of the importance of having someone to love and care for him, which is worth much more than a superficial covetousness for power.
Like the wild beings of Max’s fantasy, Peter Skrzynecki faces demons of his own; phantoms of his ancestors from a past he was removed from, dictating the disconnection between a former culture but still has the inability to fully adhere to a new one while the past streams behind. In the dream state of ‘Ancestors’ the poem possesses a vacillating tone as Skrzynecki reflects on his identity and the chains that bind him to his past. He does not coherently comprehend the meaning of this visitation and the poem emphasises the composer’s isolation from these ancestral beings as they remain intimidating and out of reach as they ‘hang over you’ and stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ Skrzynecki uses abstract visual imagery of ‘whispers’ and ‘eyes that never close’ to portray that the these ancestors are unfamiliar, haunting and taunt him emphatically with stories and pasts that may never be known, thus excluding him from knowledge that would include him in a past heritage. The composer refers to himself in second person to allow the reader to experience this otherworldly occurrence personally and influences them to feel his own confusion themselves heightening the effect of haunting imagery in ‘why do you wake as their faces become clearer – your tongue dry as cakes mud?’ The fact that these ancestors evoke Skrzynecki to compose the rhetorical question depicts his bewilderment induced by the being unsure as to where he belongs, and fearing becoming too close to these ancestors of unknown intentions and the realisation that he could belong to his cultural heritage or discover something unfavourable. ‘Tongue dry as caked mud’ displays Skrzynecki’s discomfort of the unknown and how he experiences internal conflict between ridding himself of the past experienced exclusively by ancestors rather than himself to fully observe an Australian identity. Decisively, Skrzynecki refutes the call to his ancestral past gathered from the discordant imagery of where ‘sand never stir’ and ‘the wind tastes of blood.’ He cannot fully devote himself to belong to either or another culture, heritage or past because he has not yet discovered himself or developed a clear understanding of where he fits because the knowledge is being withheld.
A sense of identity is achieved through clear relationships between oneself, others and the environment. Peter Skrzynecki itemises the areas in which he does not belong, however in doing so, the reader can see that he does in fact belong to and identifies with both his Polish and Australian cultural environment through his relation to those in a similar situation as demonstrated in ‘Migrant Hostel’ with others, who like himself experience, displacement and must transition into a new life. Likewise, in ‘Ancestors’, despite the fact the Skrzynecki is unsure of the Ancestors intent he acknowledges that ultimately his and other generations’ past belong to him whether or not he chooses to fully engage with a particular culture . In Sendak’s story there is a clear delineation as to where Max develops his sense of belonging and understanding of his identity as part of his family. His make-believe environment allows Max to arrive at the conclusion that his unrealistic desires are not worth sacrificing his secure home environment for, thus comprehending his relationship towards himself and those around him. Both personas derive a sense of identity between interchangeable relationships.
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