Lonely Asian Woman, Sharon Lam’s debut novel, explores various ways of not fitting in: not fitting in with one’s friends because they all have jobs, not fitting in with white/western society, not fitting in with expectations of adulthood. It examines the purpose of life as one’s low-humming worries cascade into post-uni existential crisis. How does one find one’s place in the world? What is one’s role, function, utility? What does a meaningful contribution look like?
Twenty-something Paula Mo is a ‘Multisector Freelancer’ between jobs. She lives in her parents’ apartment in Wellington with four fish. Her ‘crush’ (read: kind-of-boyfriend) Eric has just left for an internship in Copenhagen. She has an architecture degree. Since graduating, she has worked as a worm-farm attendant, coffee packer, mushroom picker, tutor for DESP220, tutor for WHAT221, cattery cleaner and textbook copywriter. When Paula wishes for a job that gives their employees lanyards (“Those people always seemed the most grounded to her, walking around with their ID photos around their necks”), I want to tell her, “A lanyard won’t save you bb.” Because I know.
When I was twenty-one, I moved to Canberra and joined the public service. I wanted to make a difference, to change the world. Instead, I was a tiny cog in a giant machine, making a difference somewhere, sometime over the forward estimates. I was yet to make close friends there and had no interest in climbing the APS ladder, buying a home, marrying and having children. My identity shrank to that of public servant/neglectful daughter. I was a seemingly put-together adult, destined for great! things! but just as Paula gleans, this was all a façade:
[The corporate people] looked more serious and more clueless at the same time…Now, as she watched an adult get off their scooter to drag it across the road, she saw in them the inexpertness of a child rather than a carefree spirit. If anything, they were uneasy as they scootered along, vaguely suspicious that they were complicit in something not quite right.
Lam’s irreverent depictions of adulthood, work, responsibility, friendship and disappointment steer clear of binaries. Rather, Paula ponders the meaning of work and parenthood. Are they not also forms of pointlessness, albeit socially sanctioned forms?
Those with salaried, nine-to-five jobs have an easy life…You can go through the motions and still feel like you’ve done something towards something, even if it was nothing else but money.
While watching repairman Avinesh fix her broken fan, Paula’s “mind drifted to the wish for some near-death but ultimately harmless experience, so that her own exact purpose would spill out”. I remember wishing for a similar epiphany in my early twenties. I remember reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, on the cusp of twenty-four, and feeling Esther’s fig-tree dream scene so damn hard:
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
I quickly learnt, as most young people do, that the world was not my oyster.
Lam uses tables to explain how Paula and Eric are the same type of person and how they are not. Lonely Asian Woman’s experimental structure provides detours into Paula’s personality and preoccupations. Lists include: PAULA’S LOW-HUMMING WORRIES, THINGS PAULA HAD GIVEN UP ON and THINGS PAULA HASN’T DONE. While stuck at home for four days because of a storm, Paula runs through a series of one-player games, ranging from confusing (DICTIONARY EYES and A B U N D A N C E) to ha-ha-funny (POW POW POST-IT PARTY) to ha-ha-funny-bam-why-life-so-futile (SPA DAY ROLE PLAY, EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES and DAIRY DELIRIUM):
Decide to attempt making butter…Keep whisking. Feel your arm and grip get tired. Cheer yourself on with the thought that it’s good hand-job practice…Have momentary day-dreams about starting up an artisanal hand-whipped butter boutique. Do some quick maths and realise it won’t ever be financially feasible. Accept that it’s just another thing you’ll never be able to do.
The novel’s more surreal elements are judiciously timed and spaced. For the most part, they add to, rather than detract from, the narrative. A glitching, abandoned baby provides a critical plot twist, nudging Paula towards adulthood. Paula’s alter ego Paulab is part comic foil, part manifestation of her inability to let go of a past love. Paulab is confident and all tough love, constantly prodding Paula into action. Paulab, however, is also unnecessarily depicted as morbidly obese and as loud, bossy, constantly eating, sloppy and childish – stereotypes commonly associated with fat people.
Lam’s portrayal of Paula’s interiority, in contrast, is a highlight, veering from banal to philosophical to brutal. Paula’s sharp bursts of insight, cutting at times, give emotional heft and keep her tethered to reality. While prone to mistakes (stealing a shopping trolley! taking a baby clubbing! meeting Jake for coffee!), she remains self-aware, rather than wallowing in self-pity. She sees through people’s BS:
People from Paula’s town loved moving to Melbourne. It was the most unimaginative thing you could do. From Melbourne they could pretend they were happy from a safe, inscrutable distance. Perhaps they all made a pact once they got there – no one could tell anyone back home that they were still miserable.
I laugh-cringe in recognition. I grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne. I thought moving to Canberra would make me happy.
After Eric relocates to Copenhagen, he quickly fades to the background. Emails become their preferred form of contact. Before he leaves, Paula deflects that conversation. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether they stay together; this story isn’t about Eric.
Similarly, Paula’s relationship with her parents hovers like a mirage, difficult to articulate. Unlike most Asian diasporic memoir and fiction, the novel focuses on friendship, rather than blood family. There is only one conversation between Paula and her mother, part Cantonese, part English. Like most migrant children, Paula’s existential crisis is tinged with a sense of familial debt and guilt:
Maybe the gratitude she felt towards her parents was too large for any language. No, I will not shoplift that hairclip, Ashley. My parents left everyone they ever knew for a completely foreign land just for me. Also, it’s like a dollar. All her parents wanted was for her to be happy, and she wasn’t sure she was.
Reading this, I think of Yassmin’s Story by Yassmin Abdel-Magied and No Country Woman by Zoya Patel, both memoirs. That sense of debt is a big deal but it’s also not. I don’t think of it every minute of every day but it’s there and it’ll always be there, significant, but not in a feel-sorry-for-me way. Abdel-Magied’s articulation, like Lam’s, struck me: “There is a level of existential responsibility, debt even, which sits in the mind of migrant children that means sometimes our decisions are made, whether consciously or unconsciously, out of respect to our parents and the sacrifice they made…To know that but for one decision made by our parents, our lives could have been entirely different – that tugs on a person’s soul, either anchoring you to reality, or drowning you.”
For all its confusion and angst, Lonely Asian Woman is quietly triumphant. It is small-l lonely, the most recognisable form of lonely, an incomplete but valid form of lonely. Paula is not an outcast; she is not in any real danger of slipping beneath the poverty line. She has a safety net of friends—Odie, Shogo and Jay are the only people to whom Paula reveals all—and successfully applies for an overdraft.
My introduction to New Zealand literature is Hera Lindsay Bird at National Young Writers’ Festival in 2015. The following year, I am deeply touched by Courtney Sina Meredith’s performance of ‘Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick’ and keynote speech at the Emerging Writers’ Festival and see Hera again and Freya Daly Sadgrove at NYWF. Through Twitter, I swoon over poetry by Nina Mingya Powles and Chris Tse and become friends with Rose Lu, also a writer of non-fiction.
Our friendship begins as DMs on Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and Chinese-Australian (Alice Pung, Ben Law and Julie Koh) and Chinese-New Zealand (Nina, Chris, Emma Ng and Gregory Kan) recommendations, segueing from Guo’s memoir Once Upon a Time in the East to whether it’s a ‘Chinese thing’ to not want to talk about the past. We later exchange long emails about our lives and writing. When Rose shares a piece on language, identity and memory, I recognise the argument she had with her mother about Saturday Chinese classes, word for word.
While reading Lonely Asian Woman, I kept thinking about how I'm similar to and different from Paula. This led me to ponder the appropriateness of ‘relatability’ as a measure of literary merit and cultural importance. To what extent is it appropriate to consider (un)relatability, as a critic? I know better than to judge Lam’s novel—indeed, any work—on how closely it hews to my lived experience; all the same, no work is created, or read, in isolation from this experience. As critics, we need to be aware of, and interrogate, the lens/bias we bring to a work. We need to ask: Have I done my research? To whom might this narrative be (un)relatable and why? Am I ‘qualified’ to review this work? As Evelyn Araluen writes in ‘The Other people: CALD and the ‘Cat person’’:
We [writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds] cannot afford to publish fiction that assumes relatability will allow readers to overlook clichés and cringe because we are not coded as relatable by white Australia; we are expected to write with sustainable difference, while providing a language to describe and understand experience for those who are without that language.
I appreciated Lam’s attention to detail—Eric taking his shoes off in Paula’s hallway, Paula making spring onion pancakes, her conversation in Cantonese with her mother (“Aiyaaaa, Paula why are you always so laow bao bao”, “Me laow bao bao! NO! I’m not! YOU’RE LAOW BAO BAO”), her not knowing how to respond to being ni hao-ed—for its verve and its familiarity. As Paula notes, “even the smallest of things made a difference, the reason a patch of masking tape on the underside of a ruler could save a drawing”. For writers and readers from marginalised backgrounds, relatability cannot be taken for granted; it is rare, magical, fun and empowering, an ‘I see you’ moment.
That is no small thing.