In the barest sense, Ouyang Yu’s fifth novel is a fictionalized biography of celebrated World War I ANZAC sniper William Edward ‘Billy’ Sing — an Australian-born Eurasian of Chinese and British parentage. These basic details have led many reviewers to celebrate the novel for all the wrong reasons; as if it were simply a history, a cog in the machinations of Australian nationalist ANZAC memorialization, or self-congratulatory multiculturalism (which Yu has called elsewhere “malticulturalism” pointing to its frequent malfunction). To quote the Billy of the novel, these sorts of reductive readings are “Boring enough to make you puke”. Yu’s writing is precisely hostile to, and in a way, anticipates and mocks, readers who would want to claim this novel to prop up Australian nationalist sentiments.
By way of introduction to Yu’s extensive oeuvre — which by now includes more than ninety published books of poetry, criticism, translation and fiction — I’ll quote from his poem ‘Fuck you, Australia’. In ‘Fuck you, Australia’, the speaker is seated on a “plane for home which is / of course china”. He says, “through the arsehole of a window: / fuck you australia!”
The reviewers who have somehow sublimated the ‘fuck you’ so audible in Billy Sing have missed out. Yu writes the liveliness of a life beyond the false-transparency of realism. Yu is a troublemaker. Yu does not give his reader a respectable or expected history — but a poetically playful, painful, gruff, churlish, and sometimes obscene “deathistory”.
The narrative voice of Billy Sing is channelled through the poet-medium-cum-‘Flower Watcher’ Ouyang Yu, and You, the reader. Billy addresses the reader as ‘you’, the author is ‘Yu’. The reader and writer are merged homophonically — submerged in the intensity of Billy’s “loneliness and isolation”. Billy asks you/Yu: “Are you going to write about me? You think people are really dead when they die and that death doesn’t live like life?” Well, do you?
Billy speaks with the ‘I’ of a memoir — first-person, recollecting. The ‘I’ and the ‘eye’ is another homophone played to great effect: “I warn you: you have to live my intensity of loneliness and isolation and see with my eyes”. The I/eye being narrative point-of-view as well as the locus of Billy’s racialisation and persecution:
I constantly heard a voice saying to me: ‘You are no good, mate. You are neither here nor there. You should have been born elsewhere. You were wrongly born. You were born wrong. You’ve got a wrong skin. You’ve got wrong-shaped eyes. You speak our language with a hint of wrongness. Your dad came from a place we all despise.’
The border is most visible and painful at the point of transgression. Billy is neither white nor Chinese, and the (white) banality around him won’t let him forget it:
Someone commented behind my back that I had a monster’s eyes because they were neither black nor blue. I ignored it but examined them, only to find that they were both black and blue, a realization that threw doubt over my English teacher’s motto about ‘neither/nor’ or ‘either/or’.
Billy the deconstructionist. His eyes are ambiguous, indeterminate — blue and black with no possibility of being one or the other. Yet he is surrounded by a mediocre (white) world that demands bifurcation. Not seeking a resolution to his supposed illegibility, Billy is often alone in the bush landscape which swallows him, and which he in turn swallows:
So here I was, naked except for a loincloth tied around my thing, in this hole filled with water cold to the bones that was clean enough to drink if I felt thirsty. I swam alone, lying on my back in the water, kicking my feet in and pedalling my hands to support me, watching a large white cloud overhead, at times so aligned with me that I was enveloped in its shade. […] I’d milk myself until I shot. As I lifted my cloth I could observe what looked like eggwhite coming out in blobs of love […]. On one occasion I, without knowing why, found myself scooping it, along with the water, and swallowed the whole thing. I thought it might act like a load of dynamite, blasting me to pieces. But nothing happened. Instead, I choked on it a bit, like it was a sticky piece of sodden bread.
In fact quiet defiance, his silence is misread as defeat. But Billy would rather his own company, his own pleasures. He aches for something but he is no hero, no sage, and why should he be? Billy offers no solid vision for anything as didactic as ‘social justice’, but still his longing presence lingers beyond his own circumstances, beyond his own time: “a continuity that merges the past, the present and the future in a river that flows endlessly”. Despite his I/eye being the locus of his vilification, it also becomes his greatest power and weapon: “My eyes, both black and blue, had acquired a quality that none of the white boys had; they were so intense a mere look from them would render things lifeless.” Billy’s eyes and his speaking ‘I’ become his lasting legacy – surviving long into the future. Billy is “a living person that never dies after death, living in another existence, through another individual, to tell the tale, a tale of my own life”.
That racism is shit, as I imagine Avery Gordon would say, “is a folk theoretical statement”. Racism and shit come together deliciously in this scene from Billy’s turn-of-the-century schoolyard days:
a big bear of a boy […] smeared my face with shit from the dunny. I spat a turd into his mouth, which I had dug my both thumbs into, pushing it wide open as hard as I could ‘til his head almost break like a brick. When I removed my thumbs, they were bleeding, half broken from his biting. I scraped the running shit off my face and pushed it up his nose, into his eyes and hair. Both of us were covered in shit, like they sang in the Ching Chong Chinaman rhyme. I must say nothing tasted better than human shit amid a fierce fight.
In a present-day context of resurgent white nationalisms, the sentiment that nothing tastes better than human shit as you’re pushing it into the eyes, ears, nose, mouth of a racist is pretty damn satisfying. Yu does not give us a laundry list of the alienating factors of Billy Sing’s biography — being mixed-race Chinese in a time of extreme anti-Chinese sentiment and open white supremacy — but creates an inner-life and agency for Billy. He is not simply a victim, but an agent within his own historical circumstance — as are we all. Billy spits a turd into Tony’s mouth and relishes the moment: “nothing taste[s] better than human shit amid a fierce fight.”
Billy Sing is a striking prose-poem-cum-novella that conjures a past that is not done with us yet. Yu has reappropriated a figure from the treasured ANZAC imaginary and created a work that cannot be claimed for Australian nationalism. As the novel comes to an end, Billy lives more and more in a dream until his death brings us back to the speaking ‘I’ at the centre of the novel; circling, haunting, trolling, complaining, killing, reflecting, feeling, ever restless, always longing and never be-longing. Through Yu/you, Billy Sing is re-membered, re-made, won’t stay in the past but surges forward; a ghostly “sticky piece of sodden bread” that is so hard to swallow. Billy’s eye/I becomes a sniper’s rifle that shoots a ‘fuck you’ into the heart of White Australia.
Terri Ann Quan Sing is a writer and a reader. You can find her on Twitter @terriannqs where her bio reads: 'the gay alexa chung'.