Melanie Cheng won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for this collection as an unpublished manuscript – more evidence perhaps of the renaissance of the short story in contemporary publishing. It begins with a distinctly non-literary epigraph: Malcolm Turnbull declaring that “There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian”. This claim is deconstructed in a series of social portraits that exposes the blindness of Turnbull’s patriotism.
Cheng writes from a Chinese-Australian heritage, and her stories are international in flavour. In the title story a university student from Hong Kong experiences an Australia Day barbecue on a dairy farm. He is treated to a display of traditional Australian masculinity, defined by casual alcohol abuse, hostility to education and the arts, and an irrational commitment to football. In response to the laid-back racism he also experiences, he sardonically imagines a multiple-choice question for the Australian citizenship test, which might teach him how to best respond:
A) Apologise—because, after all, it is always your fault.
B) Empathise—e.g., “This must be really hard for you.”
C) Stand up for yourself—e.g., “I don’t have to put up with this.”
D) Brush it off—e.g., “No worries, mate.”
In “Big Problems”, a Syrian–British au pair travels to the Northern Territory, where she witnesses the obscenity of Aboriginal poverty, observes tourists climbing Uluru against the wishes of the traditional custodians, and listens to a South African woman concur with Australia’s description of itself as a “lucky country” on the grounds that “the blacks only make up three per cent of the population”.
White guilt is the subject of “Hotel Cambodia”. White youth are described as working for NGOs in the Third World for the purposes of “making themselves uncomfortable”. The story provides shocking glimpses of Cambodians struggling with PTSD, the kind of poverty that leads mothers to sell children, and child sex tourism.
Cheng’s medical background gives her extra insight into the extent of marginalisation and suffering in our communities, but her stories can seem clumsily resolved or unfinished, and sometimes the characters function too obviously as vehicles. Certainly, each has an important point to make. If only the PM might pick up a copy, even by mistake. KN
Text, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 24, 2017 as "Melanie Cheng, Australia Day". Subscribe here.