Us in Western Sydney

By Stephen Pham

Review by Stephen Pham

An Elegant Young Man | Luke Carman | Giramondo

Lunar New Year weekend, I’m looking for food with Thu at the Tet festival at Fairfield Showground, in Sydney’s Southwest. Blue, red, and yellow lights are suspended with the smell of charring meat in the smoke that rises from hissing barbeques and bubbling vats. We get a bundle of lamb, chicken, and nem skewers and head back towards the grandstand to eat. Every now and then, we stop so that Thu can greet people, either passing by or working the stalls. She explains who they are afterwards, by way of apology. “Chào chú” – her neighbour. “Thưa cô”– her mum’s friends. “Bác khỏe hom?” – her granny flat’s tenant’s uncle’s friend.

By the time we sit down in the dark, the white paper bags are see-through, but the skewers are still warm. She asks me about my stint in the Inner-West, from which I’ve recently returned. I tell her about gallery openings that left me scratching my head, warehouse burlesque shows that made me cringe. She nods. We gaze back at the festival. From where we are sitting, we can hear faintly the bingo announcer weaving the numbers drawn into his never-ending song. Thu says, “I wish I was cultured, like you.”

It’s not as naïve a sentiment as it seems.

I live in Cabramatta, a suburb in Sydney’s West. In the 90s, it was notorious for its abundance of cheap heroin supplied by the 5Ts, a Vietnamese-Australian gang, and, following the murder of NSW State MP John Newman, for being the site of Australia’s first political assassination. The high crime rate went hand in hand with the question posed in Pauline Hanson’s 1998 maiden speech: “Do we want or need any of these people here?”

Nowadays, it’s a destination for day tourists who want to feel like they’re in Vietnam, cooling themselves off with woven straw fans between mouthfuls of Phở.

By portraying his experiences of growing up in Western Sydney … in an honest and complex way, Carman has opened up for me new possibilities in thinking about and portraying Cabramatta.

But after the sights, sounds, and smells that make up my home and culture fade away, what’s left? Little Fish, Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta, The Finished People, all films about drug addicts in Cabramatta of varying ethnicities. The Happiest Refugee, a book about coming to Australia in a rickety boat. Countless current affairs exposés about sly Asians cheating the school system.

And it’s not that these aren’t true stories; it’s just that there’s so much more to the communities that I belong to, and those things have yet to be talked about.

Which is why reading Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man was such a refreshing change. It’s a novel set in the neighbouring suburb of Liverpool. By portraying his experiences of growing up in Western Sydney – the beauty, the violence, the people, the question of authenticity – in an honest and complex way, Carman has opened up for me new possibilities in thinking about and portraying Cabramatta.

Carman’s description of the suburban landscape is startling in its accuracy. He describes Western Sydney as “a vast sprawl of scattered lights … like a plain of precious stones immune to the dark”. This simile, in comparing the streetlights of Sydney to “precious stones”, uses poetic language that I never thought could apply to my home. In this way, Carman encourages me to re-examine Western Sydney as a place of physical beauty.

Internalised racism is isolating, so to have this confirmed as an issue in my Western Sydney community … is extremely comforting, and encourages me to address this issue, not only within myself, but within my community as well.

It is the depiction of people, however, that makes An Elegant Young Man so much more than literature set in the suburbs of Western Sydney. Francis Teopa, as an example, is introduced as Carman’s friend who thinks that “black skin looks like shit”. It’s a simple, coarse utterance that stems from internalised white supremacy, which is something that I’ve been struggling with my whole life. As a Vietnamese-Australian, I am often reminded that my worth as a person is limited by the colour of my skin. Most recently, in the first tutorial for a subject at university, the tutor told me that I could not compete with Patrick White as a writer “because of your race”. Degrading comments like this, along with the homogenous standards of success and beauty championed in Australian media, have made me hostile to people who look like me. Internalised racism is isolating, so to have this confirmed as an issue in my Western Sydney community, to know that there is solidarity to be found in those around me is extremely comforting, and encourages me to address this issue, not only within myself, but within my community as well.

Of course, saying that Carman’s writing is comforting on the whole does him a great disservice, as he often ventures into uncomfortable territory, as with the figure of Hadie. Hadie is a violent yet enigmatic character, as demonstrated through Niki’s devotion to him. He is also young, male, Lebanese-Australian, and Muslim; Carman presents a much more complex figure within this combination of identifiers than that which has been demonised by the Australian media. Upon the 2013 release of Sydney gang rapist Mohammed Sanoussi, for example, news outlets did not fail to mention Sanoussi’s ethnicity, tying the Lebanese-Australian community into his crimes. Carman, on the other hand, only refers to Hadie’s religion when he questions whether or not smoking cannabis is against his religion.

The link construed by Australian media between ethnicity, religion, and violence is further subverted. A tense scene revolves almost entirely around Hadie’s gun, which is eventually revealed to be fake. What excited me most about this scene, apart from Carman’s masterfully paced storytelling, is that Hadie’s gun symbolises a dynamic reaction to negative and simplistic media representations of Western Sydney, if not symbolic of Western Sydney itself. With The Daily Telegraph beginning its campaign against Arab-Australian youth as far back as 1998, at the time reporting that guns were more readily available than pizzas and staging menacing photos of Lebanese-Australian youth, the question of authenticity in Western Sydney is interesting. An Elegant Young Man came out shortly before SBS decided to axe Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl, when it was revealed that one of its interviewees, Michael LaHoud, had entirely fabricated his involvement with gangs and crime in the area. Heavily tattooed, Lahoud’s image was central to Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl’s marketing campaign. Considering both Hadie’s gun and Michael LaHoud, then, begs the question: is Western Sydney full of criminals, or is it full of boys running around with empty guns and tattoos for the cameras? It’s complex territory to navigate and, considering the fact that Vietnamese-Australians were treated in a similar manner in the 80s and 90s, there is the question of how, if at all, these respective communities have emerged.

Violence in An Elegant Young Man, on the other hand, is not portrayed with any particular complexity, but rather in a straightforward fashion. In a monologue, Carman ponders upon John Lennon’s Liverpool, recalls his father being bashed in a park, and then thinks about karma. The nonchalance with which he switches trains of thought emphasises his attitude towards violence as an ordinary facet of life. In an interview with Kill Your Darlings for the Digital Writers’ Festival, Carman addresses critics’ astonishment at the amount of violence in the novel.

“Australian literature…[maintains] a very strange and fantastical view of our society, where people don’t get punched in the face when they walk down the street, and they don’t get their head cracked open when they go to a park, whereas to me, that is absolutely what happens.

[…]

‘There’s nothing particularly violent about this book I’ve written, it just so happens to be more violent than most of the other books that came out this year.”

He maintains that violence should be expected not in Western Sydney in particular, but in any society as “random and incoherent” as Australia. As a person who has grown up in Western Sydney, catching the tail end of the heroin and crime phenomenon that swept Cabramatta, I’m inclined towards Carman’s view, because I’ve always been wary of the violence that might ensue after a “Fucking Asian!” is shot my way, whether I’m walking home from the station in Cabramatta, or I’m waiting for a bus in Newtown. If I’m being honest, I actually had trouble registering the violence in Carman’s novel, just because it was, as he says, “quotidian” – I took it for granted in the stories being told.

I enjoyed An Elegant Young Man in so many ways. I loved Carman’s description of the landscape, and I was challenged by his criticism of so many facets of Australian society. I felt something surge through me for months after reading it. It was the feeling that literature belonged to us. Us in the headlines decrying multiculturalism and dole bludgers, us in photographs staged to scare middle-class Australia, us in Western Sydney.

Luke Carman and Stephan Pham will be speaking at the 2014 Emerging Writers’ Festival (27 May – June 6).

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