Review: Mindy Gillon Mirandi Riwoe

Long After You Have Left This World

An Anecdote

I spent several hours of my adolescent life working on PowerPoint presentations about the gold rush, just like everybody else. I remember my failures: one presentation day in Grade 8, I saw my peers had brought props (I had not) and knew they would get better marks for the effort. How they had managed collectively to source so many coolie hats – this is what our teacher called them – on the Gold Coast I don’t know. But once they reached the part in their speeches about Chinese diggers on the gold fields – three or four sentences, no more – they would put them on. Fortunately I had my face, and hoped that would work as suboptimal scene setting.

I found it difficult to fault them for turning so many vast and varied and, often, painful, life stories into a costume opportunity (Gold Coast, the 2000s, a different time). They were simply regurgitating what we’d been taught. Chinese labourers in our syllabus were nothing other than a link between a pre- and post-Immigration Restriction Act (1901) nation. They were a background prop and plot device in the creation myth of postcolonial Australia. We analysed the propaganda cartoon, ‘The Mongolian Octopus – Its Grip on Australia’, published in a paper in 1886, and that was that.

I googled the Australian Curriculum out of curiosity. This same cartoon still appears to be the only dedicated study area about the Chinese presence in the fields. It’s listed under the section heading ‘Making a Nation’, subsection: ‘Experiences of non-Europeans in Australia prior to the 1900s (such as the Japanese, Chinese, South Sea Islanders, Afghans)’. ‘Experiences of non-Europeans’, I think, as if they, the Europeans, were the majority. As if their experiences were dominant, objectively central to history.

‘Everyone will know you, forever, long after you have left this world.’

History runs in parallel tracks: there is the way things have been told, and the way things were. As in: not colonised, but civilised. And to be made civil, to be made ‘adequate in courtesy and politeness’, as Merriam-Webster defines it, makes it sound like a favour. Language obfuscates. It’s a way of controlling the narrative, forcing the eye into a narrow aperture. A single perspective becomes the singular perspective, which is how colonial literature came to skew mainstream cultural understandings of that period. Mirandi Riwoe seems determined to widen that aperture and, then, to shift the perspective entirely.

Sometimes I think about how crazy it is that people talk about Britain and the Netherlands as though nothing extraordinary ever happened. As though the world as it is today, its hierarchies and systems, its wealth or its poverty, its population demographics, naturally came to be. We refer to some countries as ‘former colonies’ and I think: how neutral. How vague. Then I think of who has the power to control global narrative. I think of who has the power of obfuscation on a global scale.

In Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors, Elleke Boehmer writes:

Postcolonial literature is … writing that sets out in one way or another to resist colonial perspectives. As well as a change in power, decolonisation demanded – still demands – symbolic overhaul, a reshaping of dominant meanings. Postcolonial literature forms part of that process of overhaul.

Riwoe’s fiction, including crime fiction published under the pseudonym M.J. Tjia, can be interpreted as an ongoing act of overhaul. Her work retells nineteenth-century histories from the perspectives of young Asian women, bringing historically sidelined characters and stories to the fore. By challenging the fictional representations of Asian characters in colonial literature, she also challenges the Eurocentric narrative of history. Riwoe, from an interview: ‘Rewriting can take the story back to something closer to what is was.’

Her 2017 novella The Fish Girl takes the unnamed ‘Malay trollop’ from the W. Somerset Maugham short story ‘The Four Dutchmen’ and names her Mina. Her father sells her to a Dutchman who brings her to work in a merchant’s kitchen in Wijnkoopsbaai (now Pelabuhanratu Bay), a West Java sea port. Postcolonial literature does not aim to rewrite facts, and Mina’s fate does not belie the reality of the lives women and girls in her position lived under empire. Instead, it offers perhaps more accurate imaginings of history, free from the biases and hierarchies imposed by colonising powers. For this reason, Mina’s life is propelled by a sense of inevitability she does little to resist.

As Mina settles into routine at the merchant’s house, befriending Ajat, a boy from her village who makes ‘her chest [tighten] until she can barely breathe,’ the master tells her he is giving her away. She is to go with Captain Brees, one of the four Dutchmen. He ‘lifts her onto his lap … calls her schatje, his treasure’ and tells her he wants to take her back to his home. The men give her a choice, to stay or to go, but how generous is the meaning of the word ‘choice’ when you are property of the person extending the offer? As with each section of the novella, the one that chronicles her voyage opens with an epigraph from Maugham’s short story:

All through the East Indies they knew that the supercargo and the chief engineer had executed justice on the trollop who had caused the death of the two men they loved.

This juxtaposition of the original text and the rewriting might provoke rage in the reader, particularly the feminist reader. Riwoe herself has noted she wrote The Fish Girl in response to her own rage as much as the Maugham story itself. However, the juxtaposition also reinforces the binary of colonial and postcolonial literature, which brings with it its own set of limitations. If theory assumes that postcolonial = subversive and multi-vocal, and colonial = dogmatic and ‘invasively confident,’ to use Boehmer’s expression, then it also assumes postcolonial literature implicitly disrupts imperial perspectives, whereas colonial literature implicitly endorses them. This is not, of course, always the case. Reality is more ambiguous than theory. In fact, Maugham’s story is rife with mockery of the four Dutchmen. The narrator finds them ridiculous, gluttonous, and thinks they look ‘like schoolboys together, playing absurd little pranks with one another’. He doesn’t bother learning their names because to him they are indistinguishable, ‘all big, with large bare round faces,’ and are ‘[grotesque in] their drollery’.

When the fate of the ‘Malay trollop’ comes to light, then, the story is not an endorsement of colonial violence. Rather, the opposite. The men, in their excess, greed and frivolity, in their very Dutchness at what was then the height of the Dutch colonial empire, are embodiments of colonial rule. We can hazard at where Maugham’s sympathies lie through the story’s handling of the ‘trollop’. She becomes a figure through which we can understand his moral argument. However, this is also to say she is a plot device, and one who has no real humanity of her own. It is with this in mind that I consider The Fish Girl as a text that does not necessarily encourage a shift in perspective. Rather, it more successfully balances perspective, countering a historically limited point of view, and foregrounding that which in colonial fiction is typically reduced to backstory.

For me, much of the delight in reading Riwoe’s work comes from these inversions, where the empire becomes the Other, the ‘grey place, where the rain falls white and solid and the women cover their whole bodies from the cold air and stares of men’. The anthropological gaze is turned onto Dutch settlements, the ‘small houses, square and neat with sloped roofs’, which seem strange to Mina in the way they promote solitude, opposite to the communal living she’s known all her life. It is the Dutch, ‘big, pink men’ with their strange ‘yellow teeth’ who are caricatured versions of themselves.

The novella has an allegorical mood which, combined with magic realist elements and the synaesthetic language that appears when emotions are described, such as envy, ‘redolent as sour durian,’ can over-embellish the text. There is more gravity when Riwoe shows restraint, like in the violent scene when Mina realises what it means to be stuck at sea with an all-male crew: ‘She thinks this is how it will be for her now’. Riwoe’s work serves as a reminder that violence and displacement were not effects of colonisation, they were strategies. It seizes the colonial gaze and turns the lens back onto the viewer.

Like Mina, the eponymous Annah from ‘Annah the Javanese’, published in the Griffith Review’s ‘The Novella Project VII’, finds herself in a life bereft of autonomy. In Paris, ‘she wishes to be cradled in the ocean’s embrace again … remembering the hot grit of sand between her toes.’ Annah soothes herself with vague sensory images of the sea, afraid of her mind drifting to a nearer memory, of ‘that time in her life, between René and wandering the streets with a sign about her neck.’ She is sold to work in house after house until she finds herself living with a man she calls Pol.

A note about Paul Gauguin’s Annah the Javanese: oil on canvas, 1893. Annah was thirteen or fifteen when Gauguin met her, was possibly half-Indian and half-Malaysian, or neither. After completing the portrait, Gauguin brought Annah with him on a trip to Brittany. While he slept in their hotel room, Annah fled back to Paris, sacked the studio in which they lived, and disappeared from history. In a 1950 issue of LIFE, a section titled ‘Artists’ Loves’ calls her ‘Gauguin’s Faithless Javanese.’ The painting’s estimated value is somewhere between 100 million and 150 million US dollars.

In Riwoe’s short story, Pol – Paul – tells Annah:

Your portrait will hang in a rich man’s house one day. Or perhaps a gallery. You would like that, wouldn’t you, Annah? Everyone will know you, forever, long after you have left this world. They will know of who you are and how you lived with me, a very great artist.

The preposition, ‘of’, is important. We know of who she was in the sense we know she once existed. But would it have been better for us to have not known her at all? A Javanese girl, alone in Paris in the late nineteenth century – had she and Gauguin never met, would her own life have been any better? Any worse? I am interested in Riwoe’s choice of subject matter here, how Gauguin – similar to Maugham’s four Dutchmen – has become a figure who represents imperial abuses of power and patriarchal entitlement. With each work, Riwoe cleaves closer to actual historical events, and the more I engage with it the more I wonder about this compulsion, not to retell history, but to tell it as it might have actually happened. What does Riwoe get out of it? What do we, as readers?

The power of the story lies in the way in which it makes no attempt to improve upon Annah’s life. Despite the chord of yearning in the work, manifested sometimes in laborious imagery – ‘She will fade from all memory like a fan of colour that disappears from a sun-bleached shell’ – Riwoe appears to be a realist. Annah is dependent on alcohol. She knocks back the dregs Pol and his friends leave unattended, anything that will help ‘[add] to the welcome fog in her head’. Although the illusions to her past can appear clichéd – a pregnancy quietly carried to term in countryside, the Madame selling her after learning of the father’s identity – they are not there to incite sympathy in the reader. Rather, her past serves as imagined insight into her life before Gauguin, a life which, in culture and history, she does not have.

At the centre of Riwoe’s work is the sense that history has not been sufficiently documented, either in fact or in fiction. Her work casts the contemporary perspective against the historical moment, and in doing so questions how far we have or have not come in our own prejudices.

What’s Past is Prologue: Stone Sky Gold Mountain

From an in-conversation about the novel with writer Benjamin Law, over Zoom:

MR: [The novel is about] seeing individuals as opposed to this hoard, this conglomerate, which we probably still do – we look at them as the ‘Chinese students’ or as ‘China’, especially now

BL: – yes, they’re coming to take your real estate and your baby formula.

MR: Yeah, the ‘them’ again, we’re back to the ‘them’, the ‘Other’.

What first struck me when reading Riwoe’s debut novel, Stone Sky Gold Mountain, was that nothing has changed. It didn’t take a global pandemic to bare to the world Australia’s race problem – it just gave it a little airtime. Writer, editor and photographer Leah Jing McIntosh published an essay a few weeks after I wrote the introduction to this essay, and in it she mentioned the same cartoon that I did, the Mongolian octopus cartoon, and I am surprised. I hadn’t thought about the cartoon since high school. I wonder if it’s the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or the frequency illusion, where once you become aware of something you begin to see it everywhere. Then I read:

the first time I see it, I think, we share the same nose. The man’s tentacles are wrapped around white people, in varying states of despair. On one of the tentacles it reads, Small Pox and under it, Typhoid. 133 years later, and yet.

The reason I’m – we’re – thinking about it, is because a cartoon published in 1886 is somehow relevant again. In the same in-conversation, Riwoe mentions that one of the scenes in the book, where a white character goes on a rapidly-escalating racist tirade, intentionally mirrors a 2017 incident in a pub captured and uploaded to YouTube. Stone Sky Gold Mountain is set in 1877. I think about what that means, that such a scene can slot neatly into the daily life of 1877, 2017, 2020.

Ying and her brother, Lai Yue, have fled China for the gold rush. They arrive in a Chinese settlement in Palmer River, North Queensland. They hope to make enough money to travel home, buy back their younger siblings who have been sold into slavery, and pay off their late father’s gambling debt. Their camp is a site of racist attacks, which leaves Ying – who has disguised herself as a boy – in constant fear of discovery. They trek with other Chinese workers to nearby Maytown. The passage is a reminder that, no matter how much violence Chinese workers experienced at the hands of white men, they were still – unlike Indigenous people – considered human beings. Riwoe writes racism in a way that condemns it by doing nothing to aggrandise those scenes. They are painful because the tone is understated, as if to say: this is just how it was. Which it was, and is.

On their journey to Maytown the sound of gunshots draw nearer and Ying thinks: ‘Who’s attacking them? She didn’t think the natives had guns. And surely white diggers wouldn’t attack the guards.’ Two white men emerge from the trees, aim their rifles at the foliage, then ‘[s]omething tumbles to the ground, lands with a soft thud … the others slap the man with the black hat on the back, laugh some more.’ From the 1870s onwards, the Kuku Yalanji people, traditional owners of the land surrounding the Palmer River, were targeted and systematically removed from the area. The land had been discovered to be a rich mining site. In the novel, Indigenous people are equally hated by the white people as they are feared by the Chinese. Indeed, racism towards Indigenous communities is one thing that binds these two groups. After arriving in Maytown, Lai Yue takes works as a carrier to a team of white men. Standing over a Kuku Yalanji man they’ve severely beaten, each takes turns to execute a last, needless blow. Lai Yue, who has been outcast by them (‘As bad as the bloody natives,’ one says), ‘bounds forward, kicks and kicks. Kicks until he feels the bone in his third toe snap.’ The men pat him on the back in approval, and Lai Yue is, for the moment, redeemed.

Stone Sky Gold Mountain succeeds in the way in which it re-centres racial violence, acknowledging it as the foundation upon which Australia was built. This is not to say that the novel is didactic, nor do the characters feel like mouthpieces – in this way Riwoe is never heavy-handed.

The novel shifts between three perspectives: Ying’s, Lai Yue’s, and Meriem’s, an outcast white woman who works as a maid to Sophie, a sex worker in Maytown. Meriem is friendless until she meets Ying, whom she calls ‘the Chinese boy’. Although Maytown is dominated by Chinese-owned businesses – in fact, she prefers Jimmy’s shop where Ying works, because he treats her with respect – Meriem is unable to see beyond their foreign faces, customs and eating habits. Only in becoming close to Ying does the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ seem like something less linear. From the horde she sees the individual, and from there begins to realise the constitution of a horde is just that: individuals.

Although Ying doesn’t have the language to describe her feelings for Meriem, refreshingly, she feels no shame for them. There is only her joy, and newfound sense of belonging, which transcends gender, class and race. It is through the interiority of the characters, their relationships with one another, that Riwoe upends the dominant version of this period in history. With such limited language between them, Ying brings Meriem gifts of food as a method of declaring her feelings. Their relationship begins to progress romantically, and Ying decides to steal a rare Chinese delicacy for Meriem. However, she declines when Ying offers it to her and Ying ‘feels too shy, somehow … faced with Merri’s revulsion’ to eat it herself. Riwoe writes the complexities of intercultural relationships deftly, describing how you can be on the same page as the other person, until you are not. How you can be part of the ‘us’, until you are ‘them’.

There are Gothic elements to this work, particularly when it comes to Lai Yue, whose narrative quickly separates from the main plot. The unfamiliar Australian bushland, his companions’ hostility, and the guilt he carries from the violence he has witnessed and participated in, prompts Lai Yue’s spiral from isolation into madness and self-destruction. The Australian Gothic genre is a traditionally colonial one, written by and for European settlers who felt alienated by the Australian landscape, thinking it equally suffocating as it was isolating. However, in postcolonial writing, Gothic tropes allow previously silenced narratives to be re-centred. The ‘isolation and madness’ trope, applied to Lai Yue – a Chinese migrant, who in colonial fiction would typically be depicted as the ‘Sinister Asian’, another trope entirely – slyly disturbs the expectations of the Gothic genre. Throughout the novel, Lai Yue experiences visions of his wife, Shan, who was killed in a landslide in China not long after their wedding. Although her dialogue is theatrical at times, it also measures Lai Yue’s tenacity – whether he believes or sees through her dramatics reflects his delicate mental state. She embodies the guilt he represses, until it engulfs him.

Given the novel’s more languid and atmospheric opening, and its violent second act, the ending of Stone Sky Gold Mountain is surprisingly abrupt. As this is Riwoe’s first full-length literary novel, I’m drawn to consider her comfort within the form. Her crime novels, being a three-part series, lend themselves to endings open to further resolution. However, Stone Sky Gold Mountain takes the reverse tack, and each character’s narrative is resolved, although unpredictably, perhaps too neatly. In saying that, this work will not leave the feminist reader disappointed. Riwoe, freed from the constraints of writing back to figures already ensconced in male narratives, allows her female characters what few colonial-era narratives do, which is hope, and the possibility to a future.

In a pile, stacked to the right of my laptop: The Fish Girl, Stone Sky Gold Mountain, Griffith Review 66: The Light Ascending, and ragged sheets of theory wrestled from my printer. I am going through my sticky notes. I count ‘past/future?’ nineteen times, which is the shorthand I use for three things: what the past can tell us about the future; how an incident from the past still feels relevant; how we have or have not learned from the past and keep making the same mistakes without learning from them, i.e. the definition of madness. I am looking at the pages around me. I wonder what might have happened had the version of history I grew up with offered something more closely aligned with fact. Unlike fiction, history has no protagonists. It’s only in the way we tell it back to ourselves that we decide who it is we refract history through, who it is we place at our objective centres.

In a TEDx talk, Riwoe says: ‘I am conscious that in writing to the past we can reflect upon the present.’ I think of how we, today, might be keeping account of the present. I think of what that will mean to our future counterparts. I picture them looking at us, nobly, moralistically, the way I, writing this essay, have been looking at the past. I think, how will we outrage them?

Works Cited

Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors (2nd ed.), Oxford University Press, 2005.

Hamish Dalley, The Postcolonial Historical Novel: Realism, Allegory and the Representation of Contested Pasts, Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.

‘Great Loves of Great Artists’, LIFE, 112, 11 September 1950.

Leah Jing McIntosh, ‘What I’m Reading’, Meanjin, 27 May 2020.

Nathanael O’Reilly & Jean-François Vernay, ‘Terror Australis Incognita?: An Introduction to Fear in Australian Literature and Film’, Antipodes, 23(1), 5-9, 2009.

Mirandi Riwoe, ‘Annah the Javanese’, Griffith Review, 66, 229-271, 2019.

Stone Sky Gold Mountain, UQP, 2020.

The Fish Girl, Brio Books, 2017.

M. Somerset Maugham, Sixty-Five Short Stories. Heinemann: Octopus Books, 1976.

Cynthia Sugars & Gerry Turcotte (Eds.), Unsettled Remains: Canadian Literature and the Postcolonial Gothic, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009.