Review: Nathanael O’Reillyon Christopher Raja

Imaginations Fed by Exile

Christopher Raja’s memoir, Into the Suburbs: A Migrant’s Story, takes readers on several kinds of journeys: from India to Australia (and later, back again); from the city into the suburbs; from childhood through adolescence to adulthood; and from ignorance and naivety to understanding and acceptance. Raja’s memoir has a limited narrative focus, with most of its 185 pages devoted to a seven-year period of Raja’s life between 1986, when his family emigrated from Calcutta to Melbourne, and 1992, his first year at the University of Melbourne. Nevertheless, the memoir deals with a wide range of subject matter, including immigration, belonging and unbelonging, cultural differences, racism, violence, adolescence, father-son relationships, exile, grief, sex, class, religion, masculinity and healing.

Although Into the Suburbs focuses on Raja’s late childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, he wrote the book in his mid-forties from the vantage point of a middle-aged man with ample life experience, including a university education, international travel, a career and fatherhood. He is also an accomplished writer, who has published short stories, essays, a novel (The Burning Elephant, 2015), and a co-authored play (The First Garden, 2012). His experience as a fiction writer is apparent in the book’s structure. Into the Suburbs reads like a first-person semi-autobiographical novel with an inciting incident, conflict, a series of complications, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement. Indeed, Raja’s coming-of-age story reminded me of bildungsromans such as Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, and David Malouf’s Johnno.

The chapters focusing on the first year after the Raja family’s arrival in Melbourne deal with their culture shock. Raja’s parents struggle to find work commensurate with their education, talents and experience. The young Chris attempts to assimilate, make friends, and find a way to belong in his new environment. The family initially settles in the south-eastern suburb of Springvale, and later relocates to nearby Keysborough. Raja is constantly subjected to racism and bullying during his first year of school in Australia at primary school, then later at high school.

The young Raja becomes obsessed with Aussie Rules football and enamoured with Warwick Capper, the flamboyant Sydney Swans star, so he joins a local team. Raja’s embrace of Aussie Rules is an attempt at assimilation and self-preservation. ‘Learning to play football felt like learning to belong,’ he writes in the chapter entitled ‘Becoming an Aussie’; ‘… I loved the sensation of belonging, but even though the team welcomed me, I never ceased to feel a stranger’. As Raja moves into his early teens, he becomes increasingly rebellious and comfortable with physical violence. His transformation into a disrespectful, uncaring, undisciplined student is so complete that his family withdraws him from the public high school. Fortunately for Raja and his parents, he is able to gain admission to a private school in Brighton, where his father teaches, and receives a scholarship courtesy of a generous benefactor. Set on a new educational path among the children of the elite, Raja gains new experiences and opportunities, along with insights into the class structure of Australian society.

Although the section of the memoir dealing with Raja’s last year of primary school and early years of high school contains frequent scenes of violence and racism, there are numerous amusing episodes, important friendships, formative experiences, and romantic relationships. Many of his experiences are typical of adolescence and widely shared, regardless of race, gender and sexual orientation. His descriptions of his sexual encounters are frank and occasionally explicit. Depending on readers’ preferences, the scenes may be interpreted as hilarious, cringeworthy, disturbing, or some combination of the above. I never got the sense that Raja intended to shock his readers with any of his descriptions; rather, these scenes struck me as honest and realistic.

I was initially drawn to Raja’s memoir by the title, Into the Suburbs. I wrote the first book-length academic study of suburbia in Australian literature, Exploring Suburbia: The Suburbs in the Contemporary Australian Novel (2012), and have long been interested in Australian suburbia, having grown up there myself. Moreover, the covers of Raja’s book and mine are remarkably similar. Both use a photograph of a red-brick suburban house with a tiled roof. The title and cover of Raja’s book led me to believe that his memoir would engage closely with suburban life and suburbia as a physical environment.

However, the suburbs are not a preoccupation of the book; Raja focuses on a portion of his life story, and the suburbs (especially Springvale, Keysborough and Brighton) are the setting, often relegated to the background. Nevertheless, he effectively describes key features of the suburban environment, such as shopping centres, railway stations, parks, quiet streets, manicured lawns and gardens, schools, churches, cemeteries, highways and freeways. Raja’s memoir covers thematic terrain similar to well-known Australian suburban narratives, such as Johnston’s My Brother Jack and Tsiolkas’s The Slap, but avoids many of the anti-suburban tropes that frequently appear in Australian fiction.

As the memoir progresses, it increasingly becomes a narrative about Raja’s relationship with his father, David. The Raja family’s emigration to Australia was David’s idea and dream. He made the final decision to move, despite his wife’s reluctance. During the flight from Calcutta, Raja’s mother states: ‘The plane smells of humans being left behind … and the anguish of leaving’. In typical immigrant fashion, David hoped to find a better life for his family. However, despite the fact that both David and Edith were teachers in India, and David was also a principal, the couple are only able to find factory work upon arrival in Australia and undergo significant struggles before David is able to re-enter the teaching profession and Edith finds work with the Commonwealth Bank. For a significant period of time, the family is considerably worse off in Australia than they were in India.

In addition to economic hardships and professional difficulties, the Rajas suffer from the racism and parochialism of Australian society. After a demeaning incident at work, Edith questions David regarding their decision to come to Australia: ‘People talk to me slowly or loudly – they think I cannot understand English. Did we come to this country to be humiliated?’ Throughout the memoir, Raja’s parents differ in their opinions regarding the quality of life in Australia and the wisdom of their decision to leave India. Edith misses India and her family there and begins making regular visits home once she has the financial means to do so. David prefers to forget his past life and focus on the positive aspects of his new life in Australia, but becomes increasingly disenchanted as time passes.

While discussing class in Australia and the environment at the private school in Brighton, David tells his son:

‘This place is more class-conscious than anywhere in India. Not everyone in Australia is equal. It is the myth of egalitarianism … You can never really advance in a place like this … You have to work harder than everyone else just to keep up.’

Chris’s classmates and David’s students are the children of political and business leaders, affluent professionals, and families with inherited wealth. Chris and his father are the only brown-skinned people at the school. Chris is known for three years as ‘Mr. Raja’s son’ and David is not treated with the respect that his education, hard work and experience deserves. In fact, he is often patronised, overlooked and underestimated.

Over time, under the influence of his affluent classmates, Chris becomes more materialistic and dissatisfied with his parents’ house and economic status, while David becomes increasingly disappointed with his son’s lack of appreciation and respect. David’s response is to put increasing pressure on Chris to perform academically and to succeed in a career:

‘You are the reason I put up with all this … You will make the most of these opportunities. You will make us proud.’

Chris becomes interested in literature, art and history, and nurtures dreams of becoming a writer. David has aspirations of his own, and enrols in a PhD program at Monash University, studying how Indian students are taught in Australia. Nevertheless, David continues to live vicariously through Chris, who realises that his father ‘was trying to give me everything that he had missed out on … Eventually, it seemed like I was his whole life.’

Although Chris aspires to become a writer and wants to study Arts at university, his father insists that he pursue a more economically stable profession, so he compromises and aims to study Arts-Law. However, when he matriculates, he falls a few points short of the required score and instead enrols in an Arts degree at the University of Melbourne. By the time he starts university in early 1992, he has developed a life away from home, having had several girlfriends and joined a social group that frequents concerts, pubs and parties in St Kilda and Carlton. He is well on his way to independence, but still lives at home and commutes by train and tram to campus. His lecturers and friends introduce him to writers that become an important part of his intellectual development and inspire him to write his own works, including Camus, Conrad, Naipaul, Nabokov and Henry James, all writers whose ‘imaginations … were fed by exile’. David wants Chris to transfer to Arts-Law at the end of his first year, warning him away from the writer’s life with some harsh truths: ‘Rejection, low income, little security, unnecessary heartache.’

The climax and emotional heart of the memoir occurs about two-thirds of the way through. Raja’s father leaves home in his car on a Sunday evening to return some library books but does not return as expected. As the hours pass, Edith and Chris and their extended family in Melbourne become increasingly concerned about David’s whereabouts, notify the police, and begin searching for him. Chris and his uncle Gary find David’s car parked in Brighton, not far from the beach and the railway station. David’s library bag lies empty on the back seat of the car, but there is no sign of him. The Raja extended family endures a terrible few days looking for David and hoping for news of his safe return. However, their hopes are futile, and the police inform them that David has been found dead in Port Phillip Bay.

Chris and Edith are shattered by David’s death. The loss of David becomes the great tragedy of their lives. The young man struggles with his studies and relationships. After the necessary tasks of identifying the body, making arrangements with the funeral home, holding the visitation, funeral and wake, Chris finds himself mostly left alone to deal with his grief. At one point, Raja states that he can barely remember most of what happened to him for the next few years. The inconclusive and sudden manner of David’s death makes the grieving process especially difficult for Chris and Edith. They eventually have to accept that they will never know the answers to their most urgent questions.

The final chapters focus on Raja and his mother’s grieving process, acceptance of loss, and recovery. Through grieving and healing together, they are able to develop a deeper and healthier relationship than they had enjoyed previously. ‘We are not going to be crushed by this’, declares Edith. She learns to take over the financial aspects of running the household and reads the books Chris is studying at university, including works by Edward Said and Vikram Seth. Mother and son learn, grow and heal together. The memoir concludes with a chapter focusing on a trip Raja and his mother take to India in 1995, three years after David’s death. The journey marks Raja’s first return to India after leaving nine years earlier as an eleven-year-old. The trip serves a useful narrative function of providing symmetry and unity, while also presenting a satisfying resolution and the opportunity for Raja and his mother to come to terms with their status as immigrants in Australia and outsiders in their former homeland. ‘I felt like a traitor to Mother India for emigrating,‘ Raja writes. ‘As much as I liked being back here, I no longer belonged. How could I tell them I felt like I did not belong in Australia either?’ He struggles with the condition of unbelonging that is the experience of so many immigrants, but comes to accept a new identity as an exile.

Raja writes in a clear prose style, which is at its best when he describes scenes with concrete language and specific details and shows the interactions between characters. The prose becomes more complex as the narrative progresses and Chris matures, mirroring his age, his education, and depth of wisdom (or lack thereof). Thus, the writing in the second half of the memoir is considerably more engaging and articulate than the first half. Raja provides more insightful commentary and wisdom when writing about his young-adult self than when writing about his late childhood and early adolescence.

However, Raja relies heavily on the passive voice to tell his story. Some pages contain as many as ten instances of passive voice. Raja’s prose would be more powerful if he focused on verb choice and emphasised the subject performing the action. The sentences in Into the Suburbs are easy to read, but it is difficult to find one that is surprising, unique, especially beautiful or challenging.

Raja focuses on structure and plot, constantly moving the narrative forward with short chapters arranged in chronological order, at the expense of analysis and reflection. Do contemporary readers really have such a short attention span that they can’t deal with long chapters? I hope not. I would have liked to have read longer chapters, spaces for Raja to explore his themes in greater complexity and perhaps to reflect on the healing process. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Into the Suburbs each time I read it, and I found the last third of the book particularly affecting. The content of those final chapters brought me to tears on several occasions (and I’m a stereotypically stoic middle-aged Australian male who didn’t cry once between the ages of seven and thirty-three). Raja describes the tragedy his family suffered with honesty, directness and tenderness. Into the Suburbs has taken its place on the shelf among my favourite memoirs, which include Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody?, Kári Gíslason’s The Promise of Iceland, Dermot Healy’s The Bend for Home, and Raimond Gaita’s Romulus, My Father.

Works Cited

Raimond Gaita, Romulus, My Father (Text, 1998).

Kári Gíslason, The Promise of Iceland (UQP, 2011).

Dermot Healy, The Bend for Home (Harcourt Brace, 1996).

George Johnston, My Brother Jack (Collins, 1964).

Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (Penguin, 1990).

David Malouf, Johnno (UQP, 1975).

A.L. McCann, Subtopia (Vulgar, 2005).

Nuala O’Faolain, Are You Somebody? (New Island, 1996).

Nathanael O’Reilly, Exploring Suburbia: The Suburbs in the Contemporary Australian Novel (Teneo Press, 2012).

Christopher Raja, Into the Suburbs: A Migrant’s Story (UQP, 2020).

Christopher Raja, The Burning Elephant (Giramondo, 2015).

Christopher Raja and Natasha Raja, The First Garden (Currency Press, 2012).

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (Allen & Unwin, 2008).