By Vivian PhamFictionPenguin Random House

The Coconut Children

Growing up can feel like a death sentence

Life in a troubled neighbourhood demands too much too young. But Sonny wouldn’t really know.

Watching the world from her bedroom window, she exists only in second-hand romance novels and falls for any fast-food employee who happens to spare her a glance.

Everything changes with the return of Vince, a boy who became a legend after he was hauled away in handcuffs at fourteen. Sonny and Vince used to be childhood friends. But with all that happened in-between, childhood seems so long ago. It will take two years of juvie, an inebriated grandmother and a porn stash for them to meet again.

The Coconut Children is an urgent, moving and wise debut from a young and gifted storyteller.

Portrait of Vivian Pham

Vivian Pham

Vivian Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian fiction writer, closet poet, amateur screenwriter, university student and hopeful dropout if any of the aforementioned ventures take flight. Her father was a Vietnamese boat refugee, and she grew up loving stories because she knew there was one inside of him.

In 2018 and 2019, Vivian attended the International Congress of Youth Voices and shared a stage with incongruously successful writers and activists like Dave Eggers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rep. John Lewis and Khaled Hosseini. It is her greatest hope to have an impact on political issues through her creative work.

Vivian is a fervent reader, watcher and listener. Her literary influences include James Baldwin, Monty Python, Wu Tang Clan and early 90s Hong Kong cinema. She is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Philosophy, but she will not be able to tell you the meaning of life until the relevant unit learning outcome is achieved in Semester Two.

Judges’ report

A love letter to 1990s Cabramatta and its Vietnamese diaspora, The Coconut Children is a coming-of-age story that both embraces and transcends the difficulty of much of its subject matter. Sixteen-year-old Sonny, brainy and wry, lives in a small apartment with her multi-generational family. She watches from her window as her former childhood friend Vince returns from three years in ‘juvie’, his grand re-entry a ride through the streets in a Woolworths trolley.

Pham’s language almost channels adolescence in its energy and scope for apparent contradictions. It’s grand and earthy, comical and wise, allegorical, romantic, wisecracking. Vietnamese words fit naturally as the details of Sonny’s home life and suburb are lovingly gilded, beauty found in the unexpected and the abject, the wonderful adaptability of transplanted culture ever present.

The embodiment of trauma – which lives within and around Sonny and Vince, embedded in their community – is superbly executed, as is trauma’s evolution through the process of inheritance. After one of her regular bouts of diabolical rage Sonny’s mother kisses her children with formal tenderness, declaring, ‘I live only for the two of you.’ When Pham lets the horrifying specifics of characters’ past suffering as refugees finally erupt, they are profoundly affecting.

Uplifting despite the weight of its themes, The Coconut Children is a story of first love and also a tribute to the extraordinary forbearance of migrant and refugee parents.

Extract

On the day of Vince’s release, you could hear his laughter thundering through the entire neighbourhood. It was February 1998. The centre of summer. The timbre of his voice shook the trees and rumbled through the streets, tearing through the delicate seams of silence. He was with his posse of old friends, the type of kids that carry knives in their back pockets. Maybe it was a trick of the light but it was almost as if he had never left – there was Vince, sipping on his sugarcane juice. There was Vince, with his gleaming gold necklace, the jade Buddha nestled contentedly between his newly defined pectorals. There was Vince, with his sunny smile and over-gelled hair, lying in the Woolworths trolley as somebody less important pushed him along. There was Vince, never less than vibrant, always pulsating, always looking as though he was about to break out of his own body.

He leant his head against the back of the trolley and looked up. As though the sky were an upside-down valley of fine powders, he sucked in a violent breath and closed his eyes to ecstasy.

‘The air smell different?’ his friends asked, amused. They watched how his face, once young and boyish, caught hold of the light, how it transformed again and again with every ripple of sunshine, as if to resist its own identity. What kind of secrets did the past two years hold?

Vince’s body rocked to and fro against the rattling trolley cart which rushed into gusts of air. He smelled the cooking that seeped from the houses and the stench of soiled mattresses on the curb.

‘Nah,’ he said finally. ‘Smells like home.’

Everybody was his friend. The stray cats with swollen eyes purred as he tossed them fried chicken. The Bible-swinging madman on the street corner, Vince smiled at him too. There was no pity in his eyes as he watched the man preach the Book of Revelation to a gathering of pigeons; he was so unlike the other passers-by who scowled and lowered their gaze. Even the sun reached down from its interstellar home to touch Vince’s skin and beam into his eyes, saying, Look at me, look at me.

Cabramatta welcomed her son back with quiet rejoice. The sidewalk trees, which usually surrendered under the battlements of dusty brown apartment buildings, seemed to straighten their spines. Further up the street, front yards spilled with offerings to him. Those who lived in their own houses took advantage of every inch of property that bore their name. In their gardens, they planted massive lime, dragon fruit and mango trees. Families boasted bathtubs of fish mint, coriander and sawtooth herbs and draped luscious winter melons on hardwood arbours. While their neighbours were cultivating personal rainforests, the apartment dwellers chafed within the confines of old bricks and concrete slabs. Some were fortunate enough to enjoy garden views from their balconies, but those who lived in units which faced inwards could only stare miserably into each other’s eyes as they hung their laundry out to dry.

The trolley-cart came to a halt and Vince jumped out. He crept into a garden and stared in awe under the dappled shade of a mango tree. He intended to only take the lone fruit that had fallen on the grass, but the others hung lowly on the branches blushed before him, draping the sunshine over their voluptuous figures, beckoning. He tore the two chubbiest mangoes from the tree, scooped the mushy one up from the ground and hopped back into the trolley. After prying apart the golden skin, he drank from its gently fermenting flesh. Then he whipped out his pocket knife and carved into the others. (He only ever used this blade for stolen homegrown fruits. In times of combat, he was imaginative with his choice of weaponry – he knew, for example, that the handle bar of the trolley cart he was riding in encased a usefully weighty pole.) Vince grinned as he offered slices to his friends, his mouth and fingers dripping with sap and syrup.

Mothers stood vigilantly, perched atop their apartment balconies like hawks. Across the neighbourhood, little boys set down their Pokémon cards and peered through the blinds, silently praying for a miracle: to grow up as big and strong as the neighbourhood menace. The glossy lips of prepubescent girls breathed life back into his name. Vince. The legend was alive and let loose on the street.

‘He’s gotten bigger, taller. I heard all he’s been doing in there is training.’

‘What got him in there in the first place?’

‘Who’s he coming for now?’

‘Look at his arms!’ 

Sonny watched from her bedroom window. Held her breath and the windowsill for dear life. For her, Vince’s return was something like a crack of light entering a prison cell. Since he had been taken away, it seemed a mist had settled over Cabramatta and their suburb had gone to sleep. The world was only awake when Vince was there to see it.

Now he was back. Wearing the same t-shirt he had left in, his back muscles rippling under the translucence of worn cotton, a few small holes revealing more intimate areas of skin, by courtesy of some peckish moths. And as Sonny watched him laugh with his mouth wide open and his neck craned as if in defiance of the sun, she tried to figure out what exactly this could mean for her. She hoped that maybe he would catch her eye and stop mucking around for one second, hold her gaze and make some kind of telepathic promise. Like: You look beautiful, I’m going to rescue you from your crazy mother. But of course, she wasn’t in his line of sight and he was too concerned with pulverising glass bottles as he raced down the footpath to notice her anguish. Besides, she wasn’t even sure if he remembered who she was. Sonny receded from the window, relieved she couldn’t be seen like this. Framed by glass. Stuck in her bedroom. Soiled by the unspeakable.

The procession passed. He was gone. How careless he was, to leave a girl wanting to slow dance with his shadow and not even stopping to ask for her hand. Sonny had trouble falling asleep that night. She tossed and turned, conjured up all sorts of fantasies. See: Sonny walking along a crowded street, skipping and giggling with the incandescence of a little girl, Vince’s arm easy over her shoulders. When she woke up, she thought to herself, Shit, this isn’t how I was raised – to aspire to be under the arm of a boy, and a street boy at that! The kind that sold stolen car parts as a hobby and had developed a stomach for alcohol ever since he was twelve, the kind of street boy who, if you stripped him of his hair gel and booming voice, probably resembled some kind of mangled cat.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist