By Melanie ChengFiction Text Publishing
Australia Day is a collection of stories by debut author Melanie Cheng. The people she writes about are young, old, rich, poor, married, widowed, Chinese, Lebanese, Christian, Muslim. What they have in common – no matter where they come from – is the desire we all share to feel that we belong. The stories explore universal themes of love, loss, family and identity, while at the same time asking crucial questions about the possibility of human connection in a globalised world.
Melanie Cheng is an important new voice, offering a fresh perspective on contemporary Australia. Her effortless, unpretentious realism balances an insider’s sensitivity and understanding with an outsider’s clear-eyed objectivity, showing us a version of ourselves richer and more multifaceted than anything we’ve seen before.
Melanie Cheng’s 14 tales roam widely (Melbourne, Uluru, Cambodia and the Maldives) and her characters hail from different racial, religious and socio-economic backgrounds. The book bears witness to the author’s empathetic eye, multicultural characterisation and easy facility with dialogue.
The titular opening gives you a sense of her overarching thematic interest. On Australia Day, Jess takes Stanley (her potential but not-quite boyfriend) to meet her father, a dairy-farmer and Ford Falcon tragic – both rather obvious markers of homegrown Aussie stock direct from central casting. Stanley’s a student originally from Hong Kong who’s just passed his citizenship test, but winning over Jess’s father is going to be far more difficult. Like many of Cheng’s other characters, Stanley is bumping against implicit racism, suspicion and unease. Quite a number of her stories examine the frisson and the fallout when people of different backgrounds meet by chance or by design.
Cheng is also a GP and of Chinese-Australian heritage; both these traits inform a number of stories in this anthology. But although her interest in cross-cultural relationships is evident, elsewhere in the mix there are more universal stories; tales about surrogacy, mental and physical afflictions, alcohol abuse, (single) parenting, generational gaps, infidelity, marriage, death and birth. It feels like Cheng has taken a wide sample from the census to craft this inclusive portrait of contemporary Australia. Indeed, this short story collection explores what it means to belong, to be Australian; its insight from different vantage points and its photo-realistic narrative make it an exciting and impressive debut.
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.
A groan of pipes. Rushing water.
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.
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.
‘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?
‘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 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.
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