If a book could be a horse, this book would be one. And not just any horse, but a Trojan Horse. This book is like that mythological subterfuge of the Greeks. The city of Troy is under siege, and Odysseus sends a wooden horse to its gates, as a gift. The Trojans pull the horse into their city. At night, soldiers stream from its insides, where Odysseus has concealed an elite force. The city of Troy is destroyed. Like this horse, Melanie Cheng’s book of short stories, Australia Day, appears pleasant. It is well crafted, compelling. It is also a horse left at the door of Australian literature, concealing a host of stories we might not have welcomed in before.
One could argue, of course, that we have already welcomed them. Australia Day won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and has been critically acclaimed. Christos Tsiolkas calls Cheng “astonishingly deft and incisive.” Jennifer Down says her characters are “utterly believable.” Annie Condon of Melbourne’s Readings bookshop calls Australia Day a “wonderful feat of storytelling.” But does this collection hold up to such praise? And does it deserve more? The answer to both is a resounding yes.
If a book may be shaped like a mythical horse, then so may a review. For this reason we may enter the text of Australia Day with a study of its anatomy.
In Cheng’s lead story we meet Stanley Chu. Stanley is attending an Australia Day barbecue with his would-be girlfriend, Jessica. After a series of awkward exchanges with the white Australians around him he ends up sitting in a corner, getting drunk. Internally he is a model of tension and control, making self-deprecating jokes and brushing off the casual racism of his hosts. The story is cringey and painful and quietly drawn, and by the end of it we sit uncomfortably with Stanley, in the corner, the outsider at the party.
Cheng’s text proclaims its preoccupation with ethnicity and positioning, as if to say: “I’m not being tricky about this!” But her work is tricky, in the most impressive way. Stanley loves Jessica, but does Jessica love him, or is he a stand in for other things? Stanley is a cipher, a player on her stage. Is he even really here?
The point of Australia Day may be summarised thus: in Cheng’s work we find an assurance that yes, we are really here, the ‘we’ that is not straightforwardly white.
The head of the horse is all about first impressions, but the neck contains the throat, and the throat speaks. ‘Big Problems’ tells the story of Leila, a Syrian au pair, who is visiting Alice Springs. Cheng cleverly conveys the middle-class concern with tolerance here, or rather, the enactment of tolerance. Leila was chosen by her host family so that they could sympathetically probe her for details of the Syrian occupation; but Leila was born in London. This story is all ironic juxtaposition:
Minutes later she saw a woman asleep on a mattress laid straight onto the bare earth. The woman was wearing a cardigan in spite of the heat, and a mangy dog was licking her feet. Suddenly the world Leila had inhabited for the past three months—one of skinny lattes and children’s yoga and organic bakeries where a loaf of bread cost seven dollars—seemed obscene.
The body of the horse is broader, as Cheng casts her net wide. The characters and the stories here are varied. Cheng’s experience as a doctor comes to the fore. Remember all those soldiers lying in wait in the belly of Odysseus’ horse? Here they are, ready for deployment, steady and calm inside their wooden casing. One highlight is ‘Hotel Cambodia’, in which Melissa goes to work as a nurse in Phnom Penh and is subject to expat corruption and missionary piety. Another is ‘Doughnuts’, a meditation on the futility of ‘helping’ those in need. The issues dealt with are not only those of race and identity. Cheng draws her characters in wide, playful strokes, allowing us full entry into a range of emotional worlds.
If the body of the horse contains the soldiers then the legs are responsible for moving it forward. One of these legs is ‘Allomother’, an ode to a surrogate mother. Another is ‘Fracture’ in which a racially charged feud comes to a horrific end. Possibly the most affecting story in the collection, ‘Muse’, is an example of skillful complication. We have an unsympathetic character in Evan, a washed up adulterer, and an almost-stalker. By the end of this story though, you will feel for Evan; you may even cry for him. Cheng enjoys walking all over our assumptions, and frankly, it’s a pleasure to be walked all over in this way.
The tail is the last part of the horse to come inside. This particular tail, a story titled ‘A Good and Pleasant Thing’, is full of all the pathos of generational cultural splintering. It is also full of intergenerational love. Mrs. Chan, an elderly Chinese immigrant, is facing the nursing home. She rests her hopes on Martin, her grandson, a young man who speaks broken Cantonese. It is poignant but not too poignant, and meaningful without being pointed. Culture is not static, Cheng implies, and neither are relationships. And maybe there is hope after all.
Despite its fine anatomy, this book is not only what it appears to be, which is a collection of great stories. Cheng is good at storytelling. She’s good at depicting social interactions without being heavy handed, and at drawing us in with subtle characterisations. Her depictions of Australian life are dissections of the interwoven strata of race, ethnicity, and economic status. But far from being didactic, her work is deceptively easy to read, conventionally entertaining. And this is why it is such an effective weapon. At first, the horse seems friendly and accessible. But it’s here to burn down your house. That is, if your house does not already include the migrant, the marginalised, the ethnic ‘other’. But, to push at the limits of this metaphor, if Australian literature is the city of Troy, can we not argue that it has already been stormed, by the likes of Nam Le and Christos Tsiolkas? Yes we could. But how thoroughly? Have these authors been celebrated as a kind of ethnic add-on to ‘us’, tchotchkes augmenting the white walls of Australian literature, giving it some welcome colour?
In our response to authors like Cheng, we may detect a certain eagerness. If we are keen to welcome Cheng’s material for its cultural importance, what does this say about the ‘we’ who is doing the welcoming? The implication is that this ‘we’ is white. But is white culture still so very dominant? Not according to the numbers in the latest census. Perhaps Australian literary culture does not represent who we really are. But Australia Day does.
Christos Tsiolkas accomplished something similar to what Cheng achieves here with The Slap. And Tsiolkas, like Cheng, is a writer of fiction. He didn’t set out to push a political view. What he did do was take his experience and turn it into literature. In The Guardian, Tsiolkas wrote that he
needed to give voice to the reality of the contemporary Australian suburb, one of high-street shops in which one can hear dozens of languages, populated by generations who have never felt an allegiance to a colonial British and Celtic history.
Dominant culture invisibilises the culturally complex voice. Writers like Tsiolkas and Cheng may be welcomed and continually qualified at the same time as ‘diverse’ voices. But Cheng, like Tsiolkas, merely writes about what she knows: an Australia as culturally complex as the characters in her pages. Her characters are Syrian, Lebanese, Asian, Anglo. They are also straight, gay, old, young, and working and living in a variety of situations. Cheng wrote these works individually, over a period of nine years. When she put them together, she says, she was “ excited to discover certain recurring themes, like chance encounter, family, multiculturalism, identity.”
When Nam Le was asked in an interview what constitutes ‘ethnic literature’, he answered:
What is ethnic literature? Is it determined by the author or the text? […] How does it exist in relation to commercial fiction? To literary fiction? Does it exist as a subset or superset of these categories? Or as something entirely separate?
Many of Cheng’s stories explore the specific tension of being the ‘other’ in the room. Does that make it ethnic literature? Or Australian literature? ‘Migrant’ or ‘other’ literature may be having a moment in Australian letters. Does that mean it is no longer on the outside after all? The way Cheng is received may be the test of this. Is she an author writing the real Australia, the Australia reflected in our actual demographics? Or will she be appropriated into narratives of national Australian identity, appreciated as one of ‘our’ interesting ‘other’ voices?
Narratives of tolerance aside, Cheng’s work is polished and affecting. Australia Day is that thing we all chase: a complex, engaging and timely read.
Michalia Arathimos is a writer from New Zealand who lives in Melbourne. She is the Fiction Reviewer for Overland Magazine, and a prize-winning author of short stories and essays. Her first novel, Aukati – Boundary Line, will be launched at Melbourne Writer’s Festival in September.
Overland Magazine: https://overland.org.au/author/m-arathimos/