“She wrote weird stories with no endings,” one character observes of another in Joey Bui’s debut. In a way, this could be said of Bui’s writing, too – Lucky Ticket is a strange and spellbinding collection of short stories with question-mark conclusions, presenting glimpses into the ordinary and extraordinary lives of migrants. These stories often finish on an image, a thought or a reflection, rather than offering any closure – they are about lives in flux, ever changing and not so easily defined. Even when diving into matters of great emotion, Bui largely avoids sentimentality, writing with a pragmatism that will feel familiar to anyone raised in a migrant family.
For this collection, Bui interviewed Vietnamese refugees around the world, and it is the stories about Vietnamese people – both inside and outside the country – that are the strongest. “Whitewashed” depicts an Australian university friendship fraught with the complications of race, class and sexuality; the sprawling “Mekong Love” follows the drama of an arranged marriage before slipping into the folds of quiet domesticity. Alternating between Western and Eastern gazes, Bui reveals the migrant’s suspension of fate – the in-betweens that colour an outsider’s world and present a constant threat of danger. “I Just Want to Hear You Say It” tells of a gruesome rape, with a mysterious, omnipotent figure narrating from an undisclosed location, compounding the sick feeling of violation, of transgression.
Other stories in the collection follow migrants of different backgrounds, always with this same feeling of unease. Food plays a major role in Bui’s writing, as it does in many ethnic communities – she writes of the smells that linger in her characters’ hair, the power that cooking and food have to unite and divide. Music, too, dances through Bui’s lyrical prose – one recurring character sings repeated words to herself as she toils, as she loves, as she breaks, a rhythmic pulse throughout her joy and sorrow.
Lucky Ticket is a tender, sophisticated collection of worlds, from the bucolic to the metropolitan, from life-shaking events to everyday minutiae. Some stories are much more compelling than others, but each inhabits a sphere often ignored by mainstream literature, creating a mosaic that illustrates the wealth of difference, and sameness, within the migrant experience.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 7, 2019 as "Joey Bui, Lucky Ticket". Subscribe here.