Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day (Text Publishing) is Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for August. Hear the author speak about the collection on the KYD Podcast, and read an extract from the story ‘Fracture’ here.At the opening night of this year’s Emerging Writers Festival, Melanie Cheng said, ‘What the world needs is empathy – and if, as the writer Malorie Blackman claims, reading is an exercise in empathy, then writers are the personal trainers. We need to make our readers sweat and tremble and cry until they see the world from a different point of view. It is important work that we do. We can’t afford to quit.’ Australia Day (Text Publishing), Cheng’s debut short story collection, most certainly encourages its readers to empathise with other Australians, Australians they may not meet in their everyday lives.
Cheng has spent ten years as a general practitioner, and this has no doubt made her a quick study of the Australian public. Australia Day is a deceptively easy read, thanks in part to the way she shapes her characters and their settings. In this way, Cheng paints a holistic snapshot of Australian life, with the result being a collection of stories that are simultaneously cynical and hopeful. Cheng’s characters, ranging from doctors and surgeons to university students and artists, are relatable, and reflect the diversity of the Australian population. References to Uluru, Centrelink and the Department of Transport not only contribute to such relatability, but also make her stories undeniably Australian.
Relationships lie at the heart of Australia Day. Relationships between sisters, brothers, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, and many more. Relationships between people of different ages, classes, and races. There are amicable relationships, hostile relationships, and relationships with those who have passed on. But most importantly, Cheng explores the relationship between these people – ‘ordinary’ Australians, if you will – and the idea of ‘Australian-ness’. My own relationship with the Australian identity has always been troubled. I feel like I am perpetually caught between two Australias – the one that we like to project to the world, and the one I have lived in my whole life. The ambiguity inherent in labelling something ‘Australian’ is also manifest in Cheng’s characters, prompting the reader to interrogate their own definition of what it means to be Australian.
Most importantly, Cheng explores the relationship between ‘ordinary’ Australians and the idea of ‘Australian-ness’.
Some characters, like Ellen in ‘Big Problems’, claim that Australia is ‘a lucky country’ because ‘the blacks only make up three per cent of the population’. Others, like those in ‘Clear Blue Sea’ and ‘Hotel Cambodia’, become aware of the privilege they hold as Australians after forays in the Maldives and Cambodia respectively. And then there are those who see themselves as the typical ‘Aussie battler’, whether they be a stay-at-home mother or simply someone who goes through the motions associated with the daily grind.
It is clear that Cheng’s medical background has had an influence on her writing. Many of her characters are doctors, and more still encounter some kind of ailment that requires them to have contact with someone with a medical qualification. These interactions, however, are not laboured – after all, we will all eventually have to go to the doctor or the hospital at some point in our lives.
Cheng makes use of her clinician’s eye for detail to persuade the reader to care about characters and situations that are often overlooked in real life. There is Dr Garrett, in ‘Macca’, who tries in vain to not care too much about a patient at the community health clinic she works at, even though a colleague tells her to ‘help the poor buggers as much as you can within the confines of this room, but whatever you do, don’t take their shit home with you’. There is Tania, in ‘Ticket-holder Number 5’, who works at a booth in a Department of Transport office with a canister of capsicum spray in her handbag, comparing her work days within ‘an eight-centimetre square of bench-space between two thick Perspex plates’ to war. There is the woman in ‘Allomother’ who was a surrogate for her sister’s baby, despite their animosity, and still babysits for them. Cheng’s stories are a peek into the lives of other Australians – Australians who, when it comes down to it, are not really that different from you and me.
Cheng makes use of her clinician’s eye for detail to persuade the reader to care about characters and situations that are often overlooked in real life.
The symmetry in the first and final stories, ‘Australia Day’ and ‘A Good and Pleasant Thing’, is a perfect example of Cheng’s attention to detail. The protagonists of these stories, Stanley and Mrs Chan, are both from Hong Kong. Even though Stanley is a university student, and Mrs Chan is seventy years old, they both share an uneasiness when it comes to forming relationships with others – and like many of Cheng’s characters, they are also trying to figure out what it means to be Australian.
Stanley regurgitates facts for his citizenship test – the First Fleet arriving in Australia on the ‘twenty-sixth of January, seventeen eighty-eight’ – but has not celebrated Australia Day ‘aside from the citizenship ceremony’. He makes jokes about his Chinese-ness, attempting to fit into a society built on racist roots that persist to this day. Mrs Chan, who sent her children to Australia to study, but only migrated herself after her husband’s death, faces a language barrier on top of a physical dislocation from her home country. Her daughters argue during dinner, with one saying, ‘I wouldn’t care if it was on a different day…or called a different thing…so long as we get a public holiday!’ It’s easy to infer that the subject of this argument is, aptly, Australia Day – but Mrs Chan, with a poor understanding of English, ‘could [only] sense a rift forming between her children’. There is a loneliness and a kind of disconnect unique to those who have left their home countries to settle in another – even if it is ‘a lucky country’.
There is a loneliness and a kind of disconnect unique to those who have left their home countries to settle in another – even if it is ‘a lucky country’.
The struggle to belong is universal, but possibly more contested and jarring in Australia, where we still have a way to go when it comes to acknowledging its origins and the atrocities committed against our Indigenous peoples. It manifests itself in an attitude whereby we are always ‘all right’, a thread that weaves its way through Cheng’s characters and stories. In ‘Macca’, the eponymous character repeats the refrain ‘she’ll be right’, even though he has a drinking problem, has been missing, and claims to be on a ‘working holiday’. Evan, the protagonist of ‘Muse’, tells both his daughter and his doctor, ‘I’ll be right’, attempting to brush away their concerns regarding his health. In this way, Cheng highlights the application of this mentality within Australian society – the insistence on being ‘all right’ means we don’t have to face up to our legacy of colonialism, racism, and our appalling treatment of asylum seekers and First Nations people.
Like Roanna Gonsalves’ The Permanent Resident, Australia Day is a celebration and a critique of Australian life. It is sharp and insightful, bringing together a wide range of perspectives that should make every Australian stop and think about their place in this country. I can only hope that this collection inspires other Asian Australian writers to speak up and write, even if it is after years of observing, watching, waiting in the background. It is important work that we do.
Australia Day is available now at Readings.