A Chinese Affair
Margaret River Press
Isabelle Li’s collection of interlinked short stories is a valuable contribution to the understanding of contemporary Australian society. It explores the Chinese migrant experience in Australia, Singapore and elsewhere, but also contains tales set in China, such as “Fountain of Gratitude”, where the youthful narrator listens to the radio announcement of Japan’s surrender in August 1945. As is characteristic of Li’s stories, this momentous event is registered as part of the twists and turns of everyday life: illness, treatment and recovery, issues of status and first love.
Li’s heroes and heroines often exist in a liminal space between China and the host country, making efforts to adapt to their new society, negotiating new existences and identities, and dealing with rewards as well as challenges. Disorientation and rootlessness are stock themes of fiction about migration, and Li certainly re-examines them. But she opens up these topics in new and affecting ways through the subtlety of her treatment of inter-cultural encounters.
The importance of language is at the heart of many of these negotiations between different groups and individuals. The language of the stories themselves is a startling blend of the poetic and the naturalistic. When a character’s Dad returns from a communal bathroom, Li writes that he does so “carrying with him the smell of tobacco and his morning ablutions”. At the end of the final story, the aptly-titled “Two Tongues”, protagonist Crystal observes that “You’re a star waiting to be discovered. But who has the telescopic vision to see you when you’re a loner, an outcast, not orbiting within any constellation?”
Engaging with the English language is at the heart of the characters’ experiences. A woman reflects on how to translate her Chinese father’s speech at a dinner party with his daughter’s new family and friends. His words are deeply-felt but also in an awkward register. A young woman working on a mental health helpline searches for the right words to offer those who phone in. The eloquence of poetry, as experienced by a translator, contrasts with her own social interactions and connects with what Li has called the “muteness” of Chinese migrants in an English-speaking environment. Many of the stories focus on the border between organised activity, work, social rituals and more or less frustrating acts of verbal communication.
Some of these verbal interactions involve the English names the characters have chosen to go by. Crystal, who appears in a number of the stories, finds it hard to explain her taste in Chinese music to her new (Anglo) husband because “it is a Chinese affair”, as is the unpleasant reaction of Chinese men in the street to the sight of their “mixed” relationship. But her choice of new name is decisive: “People give me good-hearted advice: ‘You’ve got to be yourself. Why don’t you use your Chinese name? It’s very special.’ I do not want to be special. I am not an exotic bird and have no interest in showing off my plumage. I am Crystal, perfect in structure and form, hard and clear in every molecule.”
Li’s characters exist in the space between a rich history and range of cultural reference, and a more time-bound and limited register. This does mean that a number of the stories have a melancholy tone. The source of that sense of loss is not always the inadequacies of a newly-learned language. It can also derive from the exigencies of living in Mao’s China or, in one graphic instance, the 1989 murder of a student after he speaks his mind to thugs from the district court. They chase down both him and his girlfriend – the story’s narrator – and beat him to death. This story, “By the Riverbank” starts and ends with the narrator saying “I decided to leave my country,” a decision she acts on ten years later.
Li’s writing does have light and shade, and the experience of loss – of life, of hope, of language, of a hoped-for child – is often balanced by nourishing connections with others, surprise discoveries in the Blue Mountains, the line of a song or poem, or sensuous encounters. Donning work wear in order to help make a path, one narrator is surprised by the intimacy of the moment. “He gave me the pair of gloves Kieran had been wearing the day before,” Li writes. “My fingers could feel the shape of his hands”.
While some stories, like “By the Riverbank” have a strong narrative drive and a clinching conclusion, Li’s way of handling the form is more often tentative and reflective, as if her narrators were turning over various events and possibilities, looking for their significance before coming to a suggestive but ambiguous conclusion. For example, the vividness of a dream at the start of a story can give way to a complex and shifting search for significance in the everyday, rewards and losses, frustrations and illuminations. This aspect of Li’s writing is rewarding, and well-suited to her subject matter. One has the sense of being ushered into a complex arena that illuminates the Chinese migrant experience, while deliberately avoiding exotic or other clichés. A Chinese Affair deals movingly with important matters: the psychological and social implications of the mass movement of populations across the globe in the 21st century.