Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day: An extract

Last night, Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day was named the winner of the 2016 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. She joins an alumni of past winners including Miles AllinsonMaxine Beneba Clarke, Jane Harper and Graeme Simsion.

Photo: Melanie Cheng is congratulated by Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley at the opening night of the 2016 Emerging Writers' Festival, where the Award is presented

Melanie Cheng is congratulated by Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley at the opening night of the 2016 Emerging Writers' Festival, where the Award is presented — Photo: Jon Tjhia

Judges Kate CallinghamMaxine Beneba Clarke and Jennifer Down described the manuscript as 'mature, engaging, structurally sound and beautifully nuanced'. A short fiction collection, Australia Day's stories evoke 'a coherent kaleidoscope of characters and situations that sensitively explore contemporary Australia through themes of family and chance encounter'.

Sound good? Luck's on your side: here's a short extract of Cheng's winning manuscript.

Stanley collapses into the bed. Springs, arthritic from disuse, groan beneath his bottom. Jessica puts her hand on the brass knob of the door. Without turning around she says, ‘I’m really sorry Stanley. About Dad.’

She never calls him Stanley. He is, and always has been, Stan. Sometimes even Stan the man.  

‘That’s ok,’ he says, his thoughts turning, for some reason, to the citizenship test. He thinks how much better it would be if it included scenarios just like this one:

When faced with an awkward situation while visiting the parents of your Australian friend (who is not yet your girlfriend but who you hope, some day, might be), the most appropriate response would be:

a) Apologise – because, after all, it is always your fault.
b) Empathise, e.g. ‘This must be really hard for you.’
c) Stand up for yourself, e.g. ‘I don’t have to put up with this.’
d) Brush it off, e.g. ‘No worries mate.’

After a moment of deep thought, Stanley opts for 'd'.

*

The room smells of dust and mildew and naphthalene balls. Around 11, Stanley hears whispers in the hall.

‘So?’
‘He’s sweet.’
‘Isn’t he?’
‘But—’
A groan of pipes. Rushing water.
‘But what?’
Buzz of an electric toothbrush. Spitting. Squeak of a rusty faucet.
‘He’s no Eddie.’
A patter of slippered feet. Click of a light switch. The thump of doors being pulled firmly closed.

Stanley imagined coming straight out and saying it, like some American son in the movies. I’ve met someone. He pictured the fallout. Is she Chinese? What does her father do?

He had tried to talk to his mother about Jess, once. It was a Sunday night and she’d called him at the usual time of eight o'clock – in the half hour window between dinner and the start of her favourite soap opera.

‘Have you eaten yet?’ she said. A standard Cantonese greeting.

‘Yes.’ He could hear the tinny sound of the TV, ads for watches and anti-dandruff shampoo. ‘Where’s Dad?’

‘Out.’ His mother’s euphemism for gambling. She would wait up for him tonight, on the couch, as she munched on dried watermelon seeds.

‘Ma.’
‘What? Is something the matter?’

Stanley imagined coming straight out and saying it, like some American son in the movies. I’ve met someone. He pictured the fallout. Is she Chinese? What does her father do?

Melanie Cheng accepts the Award

Melanie Cheng makes her acceptance speech — Photo: Jon Tjhia

‘Nothing’s wrong. I have a new study partner, that’s all.’

‘Study partner.’ His mother scoffed, before blowing her nose into the receiver. ‘That’s the problem with Australians. They think everybody’s equal. You can’t study in groups. Everybody’s at different levels.’

Stanley scratched big circles onto an old gas bill with a biro. ’You’re right.’

‘And you should call your grandma.’

‘Why? Is everything ok?’

‘You need to apologise.’

‘For what?’

‘For never calling.’

*

Sleep evades him. Years ago, when Stanley had first arrived in Australia, he’d downloaded albums of traffic noise from the iTunes store. Now, in the impenetrable blackness of the bush, he finds his earphones and plugs himself in. As he listens, he pictures himself back on the balcony of his parents’ Mong Kok apartment, perched on a plastic stool between a sagging clothesline and a dripping air conditioning unit. And he imagines himself looking up at a sky which is not flat and blue and interminable, but choked with smog and cut into neat slices by the blades of the buildings.

Portrait of Melanie Cheng

Melanie Cheng is a writer of fiction and non-fiction from Melbourne. Her work has been published in MeanjinOverlandGriffith ReviewSleepers AlmanacSeizurePeril and Visible Ink among other publications. 

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