The Burnished Sun follows Mirandi Riwoe’s acclaimed historical novel Stone Sky Gold Mountain (2020), the latter about siblings Ying and Lai Yue, who flee China for the Australian goldfields. Writer and historian Yves Rees uses the term counter-historical to characterise the novel’s placement of marginalised histories at its centre. This energy and ethical drive, along with an exquisite attention to the bruising textures of the world and to those who survive them, is a signature of the short fiction collected in The Burnished Sun.
A pair of novellas frames 10 short stories. Annah the Javanese was published in Griffith Review, and The Fish Girl, winner of Seizure’s Viva la Novella competition, was published in 2017 and shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Each novella responds to another text. The Fish Girl was ignited by the throwaway image of a “Malay trollope” in “The Four Dutchmen”, a short story by W. Somerset Maugham. Both works blaze with fury at the belittlement and abuse of these protagonists, and the restorative tenderness with which Riwoe brings into focus their lives, bodies and agency.
Annah the Javanese takes its title from a 1893 painting by Paul Gauguin. Its subject is routinely described as Gauguin’s “model and lover”, yet a quick calculation of its date and her 1880-81 birthdate casts a different light on this nude portrait – she was only 12 or 13. Stories about Annah allude to her theft from Gauguin and depict her as knowing and nefarious. These ideas remain unchallenged in descriptions of the painting, just as they do in victim-blaming discussions of violence.
Riwoe brings Annah to the centre of this story of a young woman brought to Gauguin after she is found wandering the streets, bereft, rejected and alone, following abuse by a family that employed her as a servant. This compact, tensile novella is set mostly in the cramped apartment where the impoverished Gauguin lives amid the wreckage of damaged relationships with his wives and children, annoyed by being constantly compared to Vincent van Gogh, “a rough and noisy fellow”. More familiar to Annah are scenes in his paintings of Tahiti: “Of brown people, cobalt sea, viridian grass. Of sienna heat and blue air.”
The many ways Gauguin forces Annah – as muse, positioned on a chair, as plaything, made to interact with a pet monkey she finds frightening and repugnant, and as sexual object – accumulate alongside her gestures of refusal. She sews coins into her hem, sips from her master’s glass and learns to conceal herself behind a facade as she expresses a furious refusal of her circumstances: “The girl in the painting is not her. Annah will hug her real story close to her chest, as tightly as a mother might clasp her baby.” Riwoe’s stories enact a gentle midwifery as they bring to light and air her protagonists’ concealed, fragile and ignored stories, narratives inconvenient to those who benefit from their erasure.
Riwoe’s writing is lush and sensuous. She often works by stacking evocative phrases, a compression resulting in compact and rich description. Annah notices “... ash on the hearth, the blanket of dust, the mould on the one apple that sits, pockmarked and lonely, upon the sideboard”. In this sensuousness, and also in a syntactical pattern of vivid triplets, Riwoe’s style resembles Jhumpa Lahiri’s early fiction. The economy and lyricism are akin to poetry. The Fish Girl’s cataloguing of touch, tender and brutal, recalls Michael Ondaatje’s writing, especially his poetry collection The Cinnamon Peeler. Mina, “the fish girl”, notices “the traces of spice left on her fingertips – the peppery coriander, the tang of the lime leaves”.
Each story in the collection is distinctive, but together they return to narratives of women in the various forms of exile deemed necessary to the machinery of white supremacy, patriarchy and class structures. In “Cinta Ku”, a rich woman is “tossed” to a poor fishing family when her mother leaves home, drying and salting sardines “until the pungent flesh crumbled in her fingers”. Though at each stage of her life her history is erased, sensuous memories provide ballast and consolation.
In “Growth”, a mother is regarded by other school mothers as “a bit of a cow, a bit standoffish, but it’s just that I don’t have the time or money to hang out with them”. Another watches as kindy party invitations are distributed to everyone but her small son, while a young woman in “What Would Kim Do?” finds that measuring herself against the models of femininity prescribed by porn systematically alienates her from pleasure and her body.
Women are separated from their children by economic necessity – one tending another woman’s child and home to send wages home to a family in Indonesia – or through other forms of bereavement. Through the stories circulates a catalogue of lost children and the haunted spaces that remain behind them.
The Burnished Sun is sensitive and inventive, rich with vivid and striking writing. Only occasionally does a story feel a little less distilled, a bit more rushed or sketchy, and rare moments of well-worn imagery, such as clenched stomachs or dread lying heavy in a belly, stand out as anomalous.
This collection fortifies Riwoe’s reputation as a lyrical stylist whose purposeful stories revisit, upturn and shatter oppressive and ossified narratives. Riwoe’s work is part of a reckoning with violence: a choice to show its contours, instead of its endless representation and regular glorification, and to imagine resistance and courage.
UQP, 288pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "The Burnished Sun, Mirandi Riwoe ".
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