Review: Robert Woodon Melanie Cheng

Flag-bearers for Tomorrow

Robert Wood is a recipient of a 2017 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the first of three essays by Wood that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Rita Horanyi and Darius Sepehri. Read all the essays here

Written over a period of nine years, Australia Day is a book of short stories by Melanie Cheng. It was the winner of the Award for an Unpublished Manuscript at the Victorian Premier’s Prize in 2016. Along with Maxine Beneba Clarke, Omar Sakr, Lachlan Brown, Michelle Cahill and Alice Pung, Cheng is part of a rising wave of culturally diverse writers concerned with the idea of Australia itself. Cheng herself has glossed Australia Day as a collection about ‘chance encounter, family, multiculturalism, identity.’

The collection is bookended by two stories set on Australia Day, the first being the titular one, and the last, ‘A Good and Pleasant Thing’. Both stories focus on immigrant characters, Stanley and Mrs Chan, who have moved to Melbourne from Hong Kong. They are at different stages of their lives: Stanley is beginning his journey into adulthood as a medical student; Mrs Chan is the aging widow of a family of professionals. In the two stories, Cheng reflects on loss and connection, relationships and belonging, foreignness and home.

‘Australia Day’ follows Stanley as he heads to the family farm of a potential love interest, Jessica Cook, a true blue, white, country Australian whose very name gestures to the nation’s colonial past. There are little details that depict a familiar scene: a milkcan for a letterbox, the arrival meal of tuna casserole. The dinner table conversation is dominated by Jessica’s father Neville, a ruddy, heavy drinking, misogynistic, homophobic dairy farmer. He is deftly drawn, but his views are straight from Hanson territory. When speaking about Hong Kong, Neville states ‘They love all that stuff, don’t they?’ Neville goes on. ‘Watches and cars and handbags’’; and shortly after, ‘They all want their kids to be doctors. The hotel doormen. The waiters. The taxi drivers. Everyone.’ Rather than asking him about Hong Kong, Neville ‘whitesplains’ this country to Stanley, a place the latter knows in his bones. Jessica, ever the good, young liberal, mouths an apology to Stanley across the table. Stanley’s tactics for dealing with Neville include apology, empathy, firmness, ignoring him and jokes. For anyone who has experienced something similar, including myself, they are familiar ways to deal with awkward if not hostile meals. There is an edge of threat to this ‘happy othering’.

Although Jessica’s father embarrasses her, Jessica does not defend Stanley and is often strikingly ambivalent about Stanley’s feelings. This is particularly the case when it comes to desire. That night, after dinner, Jessica climbs into bed with Stanley. But she pulls back from him sexually despite his obvious lust. Jessica’s view of Stanley as passive and asexual plays into ‘Asian’ stereotypes. This is reinforced by the juxtaposition with her libidinous ex-boyfriend, Eddie Mitchell, a (white) ‘goofy, barefoot Queenslander’ whose unused condoms fall from her car’s glovebox. The contrast between Stanley and Eddie is highlighted on Australia Day itself, when utes and four wheel drives bring eskies and sausages for a barbeque on the Cook property. Eddie steals the limelight, regaling the crowd with his manly exploits, while Stanley sits in a corner, ignored and quiet, drinking alone. His discomfort is obvious, due largely to his position as the only non-white person there, alienated because of the crowd’s view of his body, taste and culture.

At the end of ‘Australia Day’, Stanley and Jessica drive back from the Cook farm to the city:

They don’t speak. They only stare through the windshield at the straight black road and the clear blue sky and the occasional bright yellow hazard signs.

They are hungover, but after this experience at the Cook home, they know how wide the gulf is between them. It is a gulf between a certain type of white Australia and Stanley’s home – a ‘Mong Kok apartment… [with a sky] choked with smog and cut into neat slices by the blades of the buildings.’ This is a gulf that is cultural, personal and sexual, and acts as a synecdoche for identity on a national scale.

The last story in the book, ‘A Good and Pleasant Thing’ is both a structural and thematic counterpoint to ‘Australia Day’. Set in Melbourne, it follows Mrs Chan as she becomes ever more isolated from her family. She makes great efforts to shop for a birthday meal for her only grandson, Martin, only to be sidelined by her daughter Lily. At a bland Chinatown restaurant called Celestial Gardens, Mrs Chan finds that the food is ‘ordinary. The pork crackling was chewy, the broccoli was cold, and the rice was overcooked.’ The meal becomes a lens through which we can see the generational divide, the divide between the elderly migrant and her busy daughters who were born in Australia. As with the tuna casserole in ‘Australia Day’, food becomes a trope through which to regard identity as a whole.

The next day – Australia Day – Mrs Chan leaves her house to buy an ice cream. Still hurt from last night’s meal, she resolves to stay at a local motel so that her family will think she has disappeared. While there, a young drug addict collapses on the pavement outside her room and an ambulance is called. Mrs Chan is shaken, rocking back and forth, recalling that ‘Daisy [her daughter] had told her recently about some tourist being held in detention because she’d lost her wallet and couldn’t speak English’. But then, her grandson calls on her mobile phone and asks if he can come over for the traditional dinner of clay pot chicken and mushroom rice. Soon enough, Mrs Chan is reunited with her world and the story concludes that ‘she barely flinched as she stepped outside into the searing summer sun.’ This is the final line of the collection and one gets the sense that it is one of positive resolution.

This family reconciliation is Cheng’s answer to the problem presented in ‘Australia Day’. The question posed in that first story was: how is the immigrant to belong here? What are the structural conditions that allow contemporary Australia to be a place for all peoples in a way that recognises tradition and autonomy? The short answer provided in ‘A Good and Pleasant Thing’ is that belonging is a home-cooked meal rather than a piss-up in a paddock that ostracises the new migrant. The message resonates partly because of the cultural importance of food. It is a device readers can understand, a way of knowing who is welcome and at home because it expresses and locates a people. Cheng’s stories tap into academic work on this including Ghassan Hage’s ‘At Home in the Entrails of the West’ and Frances Bonner’s ‘The Mediated Asian-Australian Food Identity’, recent poetry like Eileen Chong’s Burning Rice and Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort Food, and popular culture such as Masterchef and the SBS Food Channel. Food is one important material expression of identity and in the aspirational multiculturalism of Cheng’s stories, it offers a political way forward. Where would Stanley be if Neville had welcomed him with jasmine tea and a plate of dumplings instead of beer and a tuna casserole? What would Mrs Chan feel if she had been allowed to pick the restaurant for her grandson’s birthday? These are not idle questions but go to the heart of representation in Cheng’s collection.

After all, ‘A Good and Pleasant Thing’ celebrates the intimacy and warmth we can share across generations and cultures when we eat together. It suggests that we can encourage each other to make a better place in the world despite our differences, to think about what coming together might truly be precisely because we miss and embrace the taste of home cooking. In other words, where would Australia be if we were still eating only meat and three veggies?

We might agree with Cheng that the new Australia Day needs to be one we can believe in together. With her, we are moving towards a republican celebration where lamb tibs is enjoyed alongside kangaroo tail and sausages in white bread. Australia Day articulates the belief that this continent, in its nature and its conception, can be welcoming for Indigenous traditional owners, white settlers and immigrant people of colour. This is not naïve sentimentalism or cynical self-interest, but a possibility that is there for all of us. It is not only that Cheng’s book is ‘diverse’ but that these individual characters suggest the ways in which we might move forward. We can do this without forgetting who we are or what has happened in our respective pasts. By entering more fully into the particularity of our identity politics, Australia Day imagines a tomorrow where we can love our communities, our celebrations and our food, without leaving behind critical good taste.

Published April 13, 2018
Part of Emerging Critics 2018: Essays by the 2018 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Rita Horanyi, Darius Sepehri and Robert Wood. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2018 essays →
Robert Wood

Robert Wood is interested in dream, enlightenment, nature, suburbs and philosophy, and is a...

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