Life Inside the Hyphen: fiction by Shirley Le and Stephen Pham

by Luke Carman

Seven years since the publication of Nam Le’s The Boat, the author, and professional gambler, is still being feted for his short story collection; just last month, for example, SBS launched an animated online adaptation of a story from the collection (it can, and should, be viewed here). This ongoing celebration of Le’s work is not without good cause – The Boat is certainly an extraordinary contribution to Australian literature that is often attributed with reviving an interest in short stories (e.g. here). Amongst the many reasons for the collection’s broad appeal is the fact that Le’s work captured something deeply resonant about the iconography of ‘the boat’ for an array of Australian and international readers and critics. The symbolism of ‘the boat’, loaded with a multiplicity of meanings that span the social and political spectrum – from imperial coloniser to displaced refugee – seems perhaps more salient to our nation’s sense of itself than ever before – becoming both the central motif and the unifying message of our last federal election.

Forty Years On: A night of Vietnamese Australian Stories, an event commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, was an occasion in which the presence of ‘the boat’ loomed large. In front of a packed audience, seven Vietnamese-Australian writers took to the front of a hall in Ashfield library and performed their stories. In many of these performance readings (and during the brief Q&A), the figure of the boat was powerfully evoked. Kim Huynh, a lecturer in international relations at ANU and author of Where the Sea Takes Us: A Vietnamese-Australian Story, read a piece titled Different Strokes for Vietnamese Folks, which served as an examination of Vietnamese-Australian public pool culture in all its fraught complexity. The story began by connecting the image of a mother (Huynh’s own) cradling a child on an overcrowded boat in search of refuge and the obsession with swimming lessons that characterises our coast-centric country. Likewise, Sheila Pham’s story, There are no kangaroos in Austria, was threaded together with references to the image of ‘the boat’ as a short-hand for diasporic Vietnamese mythology. Toward the end of her story, finding herself in a foreign country but united with Vietnamese-Austrians whom she believes will share the common conception of ‘the boat’, the narrator turns for a moment to directly reflect on the meaning of this shared language: ‘Up until that moment, I’d only ever met people from the boat who were related to me, so that harrowing journey might as well have been a creation myth about how we came to be’.

Of course, the image of the boat in creation myth is central to the Australian literary imagination in every sense. After all, as our glorious PM has explained, the arrival of European mariners on this island continent just a couple of centuries ago is the most important thing that has ever happened to this long-settled country. The image of boats packed with arrivals is one that perhaps serves the needs of a pre-existing repertoire of Australian stories and the colonial-settler history our literature serves: one that links a diasporic longing by both European colonial settlers and recent generations of Vietnamese-Australians.

While it is doubtful that a literary tradition exists which is not concerned with creation mythology, it is hard to imagine a nation more preoccupied with the individual writer’s place within (or without) the dominant literary mythos than our own. The recent ANZAC centenary madness, which happened to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the ‘fall of Saigon’, is an extraordinarily shameful example of what can happen when origin myths are permitted to dominate cultural narratives so ruthlessly.

Forty Years 1

It is perhaps for this reason that the two writers at the Forty Years event who captured my imagination most strongly were the two working strictly in the form of fiction. Stephen Pham, a young writer from Cabramatta whose work is concerned with ‘life beyond Malaysian refugee camps and 90s gangland suburbia’ (here) and Shirley Le, an award-winning writer from western Sydney, both stood out amongst the performers at the event as being most directly interested in the radical and vitalising possibilities offered by fiction, with its emphasis on what is yet to be written, rather than the memoir-focused work of the other participants. In the stories of these two writers, subtle oscillations between familiar and unfamiliar, local and global, textured the world of the displaced subject. That is to say, in a sense, both stories were written in the uncomfortable tradition of Australian illegitimacy – stories about people who are definitively Australian in their inability to recognise themselves in their cultural surroundings and signifiers. The emphasis, however, was an unexpected one – the milieu of suburbs in Sydney’s western suburbia – normalised enough in both readings that the extraordinary moments of the fiction could be located in the ordinary landscape of the suburbs without resorting to exotification, sentimentality or caricature. This handling of the suburbs is one that allows the importance of life to overshadow the trappings of landscape – an inverted approach to writing Australian literature.

Such an analysis is perhaps too dismissive of the cultural specificity of these texts: there is no doubt that – as with the other writers and performers at the event – the uniqueness of Vietnamese-Australian culture is richly present in their work, but if ever there is a universality in fiction, it is located in the hermetic separation between the subject and the Other which language must straddle in order to pass from one human being to another. On this note, I am tempted to quote the Viennese philosopher who explained that being a good writer requires being an émigré in at least two senses, but I am restrained by the thought that the narrator of Shirley Le’s story, Johann Strauss in Yagoona, would no doubt despair at such a cheap reference to the dull authority of old Europe.

Forty Years 3

In Le’s story, the narrator experiences the tribal imposition of European high culture upon her as an act of domination when Mrs. Seaton, her piano teacher, pushes romantic visions of elegant Austria in attempt to pass on the secrets of music and beauty. For Mrs. Seaton, to understand the piano, to know music, means dreaming of walks through the Austrian fields. Underneath the piano teacher’s matronly and ethereal wisdom stirs a grand-dragon of euro-centric mythology: her ‘grey eyes’ are blind to the world that the narrator embodies. Mrs. Seaton stares, death-like, into the narrator’s inner being, seeing in what she does not understand an incurable absence. Such blindness is contrast to the keen sight of Le’s narrator, who recognises her teacher as an exile herself; too deluded in her dreams of the old world to ever come to terms with her living surroundings.

The narrator, though only very young, can see the deathly delusion of her teacher in the incongruity of the porcelain cats that Mrs. Seaton has lined her house with. As the narrator tells us:

I reckon, if these cats became real, they would probably be fluffy and sleep on your lap. They’re not like the cats that I see at Yagoona Station when I walk to school in the morning. These cats rip apart the KFC boxes that people chuck in the carpark behind the IGA. If I made statues of them, it would take me a long time because I’ll have to put in all the details like a missing eye and a crooked tail.

In her naivety, Le’s narrator recognises that life, as she perceives it, does not correspond with the story as Mrs. Seaton would have it. Mrs. Seaton, it becomes clear once the lesson begins, sees things precisely the other way round: listening to the young narrator play ‘The Blue Danube’, Mrs. Seaton’s hand halts the child’s playing and she chides her, saying: ‘Ah, it doesn’t sound like it should. It lacks personality. Imagine dancing along the riversides of Austria. Then you will understand the Romantic style of the music.’

The piano teacher’s dreams of Europe are not just illusions that conflict with the narrator’s reality – they are part of a powerful, living entity which threatens to chew the young girl up, to swallow her whole. Entering the piano room, the narrator describes the instruments enormous black body as being ‘like the angry whale that swallows Pinocchio and his grandfather.’

At home, by contrast, life is realer – more immediate. There are no dreams, but a secure (if necessarily messier) materiality. At home, the body comes into focus – the self-determined defiance of Tupac Shakur, for instance, on the cover of a CD becomes an image of talismanic empowerment, one that her older brother carries in his movements and attitude, scoffing at his sister’s absurd obsessions with ‘Beethoven or whatever’. The power of the ‘Tu Pac’ gaze is enough to demand reflexivity from Le’s narrator – his challenging eyes provoke the kinds of questions that are allegorically present in the apparent hybridity of the character’s surroundings, and palpable in the very language of the text, which is written in both Vietnamese and English.

Forty Years 2

I began this discussion looking at points of connection; similarities between Vietnamese-Australian writers – and between Australian writers in general – but I’ll end it looking at Stephen Pham: which is to say, looking at what was most strange, most different about the Forty Years On event. If there was any reason to doubt the above claim that Pham makes to be interested in exploring what has yet to be written – such doubts were absolved by the young writer’s delivery. Though there is a tonal ambivalence, and a tenderness to Pham’s story Moving House, the incensed reading style that was brought to the performance raised the writing’s slow build to a disquieting crescendo of volume and distortion. At the end of the story – about a young Vietnamese-Australian’s unexpected, and brief, acquaintance with a boxer from Sierra Leone named Concrete – the narrator and his new companion come upon a man shitting in an alley in Cabramatta’s town square. Pham’s narrator wonders what Concrete the boxer will make of this disturbing apparition, and in his uncertainty our hero experiences a sudden onrush of rage at the burdens of his hyphenated heritage:

I grab some skin on my right wrist with my left thumb and forefinger. I squeeze and twist. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. Maybe he’s thinking that Cabramatta is dirty. Maybe he’s thinking that the person in the alleyway had skin that was as yellow as mine. Maybe he’s thinking that, even after decades of being demonised, mocked, and, finally, tolerated in this white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, Viets are still no better than animals that shit in the street.

Delivered in Pham’s mega-phonic style, these lines, for all their excessiveness, became an articulated end-point that is stridently antithetical to the Australian literary sensibility – one that fears the unbound and undisciplined moment of expression.

When Pham ended his story, there was an awkward applause – as if the room wasn’t quite sure what to make of this angry young man and his story about an alleyway shitter with a turd dangling from his muscular, bare arse. What Pham made entirely clear, however, was his intention – in both the forcefulness of his reading and the uncanny vulgarity of his imagery – to demonstrate that there is an astonishing diversity of stories that defies not only the threadbare clichés that are inscribed upon and around Vietnamese-Australians, but also a plurality of tones that threaten to fill the emptiness that has been fostered by the timidity and restraint of our literary culture.

In the final scene of Pham’s story, the narrator shows Concrete into his Cabramatta home; the centrepiece of the single-room shop in which the narrator lives is a partition wall that he and his friends have set up. The wall is so flimsy that it shakes when Concrete walks over to test its stability. Nevertheless, Concrete grabs the wall and declares ‘This is fucking great’. Sincerely or not, the story ends on a note of solidarity: strength in the face of something comically fragile.