In Joey Bui’s debut collection of short stories, Lucky Ticket (Text Publishing), the voices of displaced people are front and centre. In the titular story, a disabled war veteran sells lottery tickets on a street corner in Saigon. In ‘Mekong Love’, a young woman grapples with her society’s restrictive rules around arranged marriage, a mysterious rival and a new husband who she is not sure she loves or who loves her. In ‘Abu Dhabi Gently’, a Zanzibari migrant worker vacillates between camaraderie and extreme loneliness, while in ‘A Scholar’s Hands’, a young Vietnamese refugee in Melbourne struggles with his apathy and anger in a country that doesn’t feel like home. The collection is engaging and assured, both on an individual story level and as a curated collection, showing how migration and conflict shapes families and communities all around the world.
‘There’s a common theme of migration, but also feelings of isolation and regret and families being separated – it runs across different conflicts,’ Bui tells me when I speak with her, the day before her Melbourne book launch. It’s a subject she knows well – she currently studies law at Harvard and has spent a summer working at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as interning at the International Rescue Committee and teaching English to newly arrived immigrants. Bui completed a thesis in literature at NYU Abu Dhabi, and eventually the two parts of her life came together in Lucky Ticket. ‘At least 80 per cent of the population of Abu Dhabi are migrants or expats; I learnt so much about migrant labour in the region while I was there,’ she says. ‘I didn’t deliberately mean to write about [migration]; I thought of it more as my political and social work with refugees. But then it just happened to be the kind of stories I was writing about anyway. So once I realised that, I really leaned into it.’
As part of her research for the collection, Bui spoke to refugees and displaced people from Vietnam and other conflicts around the world, including friends, family members and complete strangers. ‘I wanted to get people to the point where they’re really passionate about what they’re speaking about. Sometimes it takes a while to find out what topic that is for people, especially how to get people to trust you enough.
‘There’s a common theme of migration, but also feelings of isolation and regret and families being separated – it runs across different conflicts.’
‘I think it’s surprising to a lot of people, but the war and the political factions are still a really, really sensitive issue in Vietnam,’ she says. ‘It’s one of the countries that puts the most journalists in jail, and political dissidents – so people were really nervous, and I kept hitting that obstacle with people not feeling like they could trust me and open up to me. That’s when I realised that freeform conversation for the purpose of fiction was much more effective.’
Despite this research, Bui is quick to stress that her characters are very much fictional. ‘I didn’t write any person’s particular story, and I didn’t really want to either. Once I chose to do fiction, [the interviews] would just be for inspiration – one person would have one particular story that I liked, or I liked one person’s attitude or manner of speaking, and I’d blend things together.’
While many of Bui’s stories use a more traditional first or third person narration, others are told in a conversational oral-storytelling style, with a noticeable disconnect between the author and the narrator. Bui tells me this style of narration was inspired by Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, as much as from her interviews: ‘I liked the idea of the story as a sit-down confession, with that really intimate style, and it allowed me to write the way that someone speaks, which I really enjoy – it’s compelling, I think it’s easier to read, and it flows more.’
Taking the collection as a whole, it becomes clear that Bui is subtly experimenting with authorial voice and the role of the narrator – and by extension the reader. In ‘I Just Want To Hear You Say It’, the fate of a young woman, Linh Ngô, is cast as a direct consequence of the storytelling decisions of the omniscient narrator: ‘It is no joy to write about what happened…At some point, when we are in the thick of it, you may be tempted to believe that I have a choice, but you should not; I do not.’
‘I liked the idea of the story as a sit-down confession, with that really intimate style.’
‘I wanted to make the narrator really abusive and nasty,’ Bui tells me. ‘I really wanted the reader to pay attention to the narrator as something that exists, and then the reader is implicated in this story as well – this is what you’re watching, and this is what you’re allowing to happen.’ It’s a friction that colours the more traditionally-delivered stories as well – particularly ‘Hot Days’, which revisits Linh without the interventionist narrator. ‘When you have “Hot Days” afterward, it means you think really about that absence of the narrator. The narrator has made herself invisible, but we we know someone’s still in control.’
The idea of controlling someone else’s narrative, even a fictional character, was something that played on Bui’s mind as she wrote – while many of the Vietnamese and Vietnamese–Australian characters in the collection are grounded in Bui’s family or personal experience, there are Argentinian, Pakistani–American, Nepalese and Zanzibari narratives being explored as well. ‘I admit I was nervous to write about them,’ Bui tells me, ‘especially the Zanzibari story (‘Abu Dhabi Gently’) – after I was finished, I was really nervous about showing anyone, just in case I got something wrong. I think my process is to be as respectful as possible, because I did so much research and I talked to people from there, and I studied the history, the politics, the art – I talked to friends that grew up in the places that I would write about.
‘My approach in writing is focusing on the human stories – more than a political backdrop, it would be about: how did this one person feel? what did they eat? who did they love? And I think those things definitely transcend cultures, and I think one of the great strengths of literature is that it’s an exercise in empathy for both readers and writers. So I think it can only be a good thing if I’m trying to learn as much about other people as possible.’
Indeed, a common thread running through all Bui’s stories is a sense that her characters, many of whom have been displaced, exist in a permanently liminal space – feeling constantly on the precipice of some large change, or grappling with a almost paralysing desire for something, even if they don’t know what. ‘I thought of it as untraceable trauma,’ Bui says. ‘Once it passes down the generations, a lot of the victims of it don’t exactly understand it, or know where their pain is coming from. And maybe in simple terms, people who have suffered, and know something is wrong, but don’t know what it is.’
‘My approach in writing is focusing on the human stories – how did this one person feel? what did they eat? who did they love?’
Many stories in the collection, Bui tells me, are inspired by a particular author – from Roberto Bolaño to Jhumpa Lahiri, Clarice Lispector and Sherman Alexie. This is particularly evident in ‘The Honourable Man’, a homage to and thematic inversion of Nam Le’s ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’. Bui tells me that reading Le’s The Boat as a teenager had a profound effect on her as a writer and Vietnamese–Australian. ‘That was the first time it clicked for me that literature could be about about refugees, and big families like mine, rather than just white families – really, that was what literature had seemed it was only about for my whole childhood.’ It’s an experience that Bui hopes to pay forwards with Lucky Ticket. ‘My ideal reader would also be someone about fifteen, a kid living in Australia, maybe he or she’s a migrant themselves, or in a family of migrants – I’d want them to read this and feel like my strange Australian story is also a great Australian story.
‘I think literature draws out a lot of empathy, so I hope that reading, not necessarily my book, but any book about refugees and migration stories would help people put themselves in the shoes of refugees and asylum seekers more, understand where their pain comes from and why that might lead them down dark places, or put them through really tough situations, so that maybe we can all understand more.’