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Two children stand holding hands.

A family photo of Khin Myint and his sister taken from the cover of his debut memoir, Fragile Creatures. Image: Black Inc.

In her poem ‘Diaspora Blues’, Ijeoma Umebinyuo writes of the specific discomfort of being a second-generation migrant: ‘Too foreign for home / too foreign for here / Never enough for both.’

As the child of immigrants, I have been long preoccupied with this subject position, having always struggled to fit into mainstream Australian culture. But there is another version of this experience, one that takes the dissonance I feel on a purely cultural level and places it deeper inside the body, into the very substance of one’s DNA: the experience of being mixed race. It is this conflicting identity and its consequent experiences that Khin Myint writes of in his searing memoir, Fragile Creatures.

Myint and his sister Theda were born in Australia to a Burmese father and English mother in the late 1980s. Growing up in Perth, this complex cultural identity was difficult to navigate. Myint opens the book by setting the scene of his childhood at a time when hate crimes, led by the arson attacks on Chinese restaurants by Jack van Tongeren in ‘89, were dominating the local news cycle. Dogged by racism and bullying at school, Myint was angry with his parents as he struggled to reconcile his identity. ‘Mixed-race children weren’t illegal,’ he writes. ‘But why did my parents think it was a good idea to bring my sister and me into existence?’

This existential frustration and despair are core themes of the memoir, which catalogues a particularly tumultuous period in Myint’s life. In 2013, Myint was struggling with a sudden and messy breakup with his fiancé, Rachel—an American whom he lived with and planned to marry in Perth, before she abruptly broke up with him and returned to the States. Myint follows her, determined to fight for the relationship but finds himself instead facing a stalking charge. While all this is happening, back in Perth, Theda is suffering acutely both physically and mentally from an illness that has yet to be correctly diagnosed.

Existential frustration and despair are core themes of the memoir.

The book is told along two timelines—in one, we follow Myint to America, and watch as he navigates his grief for his sister’s illness and eventual death by voluntary euthanasia, as well as the rejection he faces at the hands of Rachel. The second timeline takes us into the past, through Myint’s childhood in Perth, one of increasing alienation.

Fragile Creatures is a deeply affecting memoir. Myint’s writing is excruciatingly honest, and he doesn’t attempt to blur the realities of the racism and bullying he encounters, even that of his own father, who regularly bemoans how disappointed he is in his children for not being Burmese enough. Theda’s illness is also laid bare, demonstrating the failures of the medical system and the difficulties she faces in both finding a diagnosis and managing her symptoms, which lead her to a reclusive existence with psychotic breaks and eventually her death. Myint’s experiences in America, facing a lawsuit from his ex that he doesn’t see coming, and trying to eke out time in the country on a minute budget while anxiously waiting for news from home, add to the overall energy of the book, which is dark and filled with emerging catastrophes.

Where the memoir falls short is in the complexity afforded to the other perspectives Myint tries to explore via his own story. Myint often appears uncomfortable writing about the people in his life, despite them being major drivers of his experiences. It leaves renderings of these important relationships feeling somewhat two-dimensional. His father becomes a stern and forbidding figure, his mother an anxious and loyal keeper of his sister, who in turn feels hazy and unconstructed—a figure lying in a bed, with occasional glimpses into the version of her that existed prior to her illness.

Even more so, Rachel—a young woman who at some point loved Myint enough to want to marry him—is presented as vengeful, irrational and unforgiving. Myint expresses his own bemusement at this shift in her character: ‘I had a similar feeling to when I’d met my sister during one of her manic psychotic breaks. The impression was of a different person inhabiting the body of someone you knew intimately.’ Without more depth and detail provided to their relationship and to Myint’s own actions in the context of their breakup, it’s hard to feel connected to his experiences.

Myint’s writing is excruciatingly honest.

Where Fragile Creatures shines is in Myint’s sharp insights, his dissections of society’s treatment of marginalised identities and the intersections between them. He explores masculinity as it entwines with race, health, relationships and writing: ‘Over the years, I’ve come to think of masculinity as a shadow. Growing up, I didn’t have a word for it, but I understood it as a pressure that follows you around.’ It is in these reflective passages that Myint’s talent is most visible.

Though the writing sometimes gets bogged down in explaining concepts, especially in relation to Theda’s experiences of medical institutions, it is pacey and engaging when Myint is confidently espousing his revelations about how he is has been defined by society’s expectations of brown men. The overwhelming feeling one gets from reading Fragile Creatures is that Khin Myint has a lot to say. Perhaps this book is the story he needs to tell first before others can emerge.

Fragile Creatures is our Debut Spotlight book for June. Find an interview with author Khin Myint here.

Debut Spotlight is a paid partnership with Australian publishers designed to promote the critical discussion of new authors’ work to a wide audience. Titles are selected by KYD, and all reviews have editorial independence.