2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Joey Bui, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Text, UAE, Vietnam

‘Lucky Ticket’ by Joey Bui

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 256 pages; 2019.

Joey Bui’s Lucky Ticket is a collection of short stories recently shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2020, which is why I read it.

A Vietnamese-Australia writer, Bui comes to these stories with an eye for the outsider. Her fiction tends to champion the underdog or the unseen.

In the title story, for instance, we meet a disabled old man —  a former foot soldier in the Cambodian War — who sells lottery tickets on a street corner in Sàigòn. He walks around on his knuckles (because he doesn’t have legs), smiling and laughing all day — “That’s a big part of my job” — hoping that people will buy a ticket from him with little to no persuasion.

When a lady buys a ticket from him and hands it over, wishing him good luck, he’s convinced the ticket is a lucky one. He does everything he can to hold onto that ticket, but as he traverses the city, doing business, meeting friends, enjoying drinks, he accidentally resells it — but instead of feeling sorry for himself, he recalls all his “good fortune” in a life that to anyone else would look anything but.

In another story, “Abu Dhabi Gently”, we meet a migrant worker who leaves Zanzibar in a bid to make enough money to provide his wife with a better standard of living. But life in the UAE is a struggle. He gets caught in an infinite loop of red tape that prevents the reimbursement of his recruitment fee — a staggering $US980 — so that he has to work long hours in a university cafeteria to repay back what he has already paid. His passport is held as a form of security, preventing him from returning home.

Meanwhile, he struggles to make friends — “There weren’t many Africans working at the university. Most of the other workers were Filipinos and Indians” — and becomes very lonely. Contact with his wife and his sisters in Zanzibar becomes repetitive and lacks meaning because they don’t understand what he is going through and he isn’t confident enough to tell them the truth. It’s a melancholy story, but one that ends on a hopeful note.

In fact, most of the stories in this collection trade on the idea that life is messy and complicated, that relationships can become strained, that racial identity, gender and socio-economic background can amplify pain, and yet this diverse range of tales and voices is not depressing. Every story ends on a relatively positive note — even if it is just a character coming to terms with their circumstances.

Earlier this year Lucky Ticket was longlisted for the Stella Prize, shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing at the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and won the University of Southern Queensland Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection at the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards. It’s an enlightening collection full of memorable characters and written in a straightforward, forthright prose style. I am hoping this talented writer tackles a novel next; I’d love to read it.

This is my 4th book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 19th book for #AWW2020.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Indochina, literary fiction, Marguerite Duras, Publisher, Setting, Vietnam

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras

The_lover

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Perennial; 130 pages; 2006. Translated from the French by Barbara Bray.

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”

So begins Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, an evocative and sensual novel about a young girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior, which was first published in 1984. I read it back to back with another (supposedly) sensual novel, the (rather horrid) Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, and they couldn’t be further apart — in mood, style or sheer literary power — even though they covered similar (sexual) territory.

The Lover is narrated by Hélène Lagonelle, a French woman looking back on her life in Indochina (now Vietnam) and, in particular, the romance she had with a wealthy Chinese man in 1929 when she was just 15. It’s largely based on the author’s own life — she was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to French parents who had emigrated there to work in the French colony. But things did not go well: her father quickly returned to France, where he died soon after, and her mother, a school teacher, made a bad property investment in the colony, which  mired them in poverty. Duras also claimed to have been beaten by her mother and her older brother.

In the novel, the narrator, who effortlessly flicks between first and third person, has a strained relationship with her mother, who wants her daughter to do well at school, to get an education and to study mathematics. The daughter does not think she is good at mathematics, but she excels at French and wants to be a writer.

But that’s not the only strain in their relationship. The mother often goes through periods of despair — I suspect an undiagnosed clinical depression — and locks herself away, despondent and unable to properly care for her family. This hardens Hélène, who blames this lack of care for the death of her younger brother, who succumbs to pneumonia, and it also makes her ashamed.

Search for identity

From the outset, it’s clear that Hélène is unsure of her own identity. She often dresses provocatively — a threadbare silk dress that is sleeveless and low-cut, with a leather belt, gold lame high heels and a man’s Fedora hat — because she feels confident in these kinds of clothes. Yet she realises this attire makes the “girl look so strangely, so weirdly dressed” and “might make people laugh”.

But it is exactly this outfit that catches the eye of the Chinese financier, who later becomes her lover. Hélène is returning to boarding school in Saigon from a holiday and is crossing the Mekong Delta by ferry. They talk on the boat and then he gives her a lift in his chauffeured limousine. Later that week he picks her up from school to show her where he lives, and from there a sexual relationship ensues. The rumour mill goes into overdrive:

Fifteen and a half. The news spreads fast in Sadec. The clothes she wears are enough to show. The mother has no idea, and none about how to bring up a daughter. Poor child. Don’t tell me that hat’s innocent, or the lipstick, it all means something, it’s not innocent, it means something, it’s to attract attention, money. The brothers are layabouts. They say it’s a Chinese, the son of the millionaire, the villa in Mekong with the blue tiles. And even he, instead of thinking himself honoured, doesn’t want her for his son. A family of white layabouts.

Surprisingly, the affair does not terribly worry the mother, who sees it as a means to an end: her daughter’s lover is wealthy, so he may be able to help the impoverished family with money. If that is a form of prostitution, she can live with it.

Hélène now becomes aware of her own power. She knows that her mother needs her to help support the family. And she knows that men look at her and desire her.

For the past three years white men, too, have been looking at me in the streets, and my mother’s men friends have been kindly asking me to have tea with them while their wives are out playing tennis at the Sporting Club.

Beautiful melancholia

There are a lot of complicated family dynamics in this novel, but it is the wise and knowing voice of the narrator, the self-confident schoolgirl who wants to forge her own path in life, to take risks and escape parental and societal expectations, that makes it such a powerful read.

The narrative, which often winds back on itself through Duras’s use of flashbacks, is compelling in the way it explores sexual taboos and the tensions between the French colonists and the South Vietnamese, while the writing has a beautiful melancholic tinge and pulsates with an aching loneliness  — “I grew old at eighteen” —  which is hugely reminiscent of Jean Rhys. It’s moody and evocative without being depressing, the kind of book that you can settle down with on a rainy afternoon and be swept away into another time and place.

I really loved and admired this short novel, but don’t take my word for it: The Lover was awarded the French Goncourt Prize in 1984 and it features in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It was also adapted for film in 1992.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canada, Clerkenwell Press, Fiction, Kim Thúy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vietnam

‘Ru’ by Kim Thúy

Ru-UK-Kindle-edition

Fiction – Kindle edition; Clerkenwell Press; 160 pages; 2012. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.

When Kim Thúy’s Ru was published in its original French language it won the Governor General’s Award for French language fiction at the 2010 Governor General’s Awards. Now the English edition, translated by the Canadian translator Sheila Fischman, has been shortlisted for the 2012 Giller Prize.

A refugee’s tale

Ru is an elegantly written tale about a woman who emigrates to Canada from Vietnam as a boat person. The narrator, Nguyên An Tinh, was born during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, “when the long chain of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns”.

The book reads very much like a fictionalised memoir (Thúy was also born in 1968 and came to Canada with her family as a refugee), but it doesn’t follow the normal conventions,  particularly in terms of structure and narrative. In some ways it feels like a long poem, broken into extended stanzas (short chapters), in which the narrator recalls certain incidences from her life, and the lives of her parents, cousins and other relations, in non-chronological order. This means her narrative continually switches from the present — where she is a mother of an autistic son — to the past — the privileged life she led in Vietnam, the stint in a Malaysian Red Cross camp, a treacherous journey across the ocean —  then back again.

But by recording her personal history and her journey, both physical and metaphorical, in this way, we are able to see the shape of her life and how 30 years ago it was dramatically changed by circumstances beyond her control. At times it is distressing, as this passage about the narrator’s journey across the Gulf of Siam on a tiny refugee boat reveals:

The small bulb hanging from a wire attached to a rusty nail spread a feeble, unchanging light. Deep inside the boat there was no distinction between day and night. The constant illumination protected us from the vastness of the sea and the sky all around us. The people sitting on deck told us there was no boundary between the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea. No one knew if we were heading for the heavens or plunging into the water’s depths. Heaven and hell embraced in the belly of our boat. Heaven promised a turning point in our lives, a new future, a new history. Hell, though, displayed our fears: fears of pirates, fear of starvation, fear of poisoning by biscuits soaked in motor oil, fear of running out of water, fear of being unable to stand up, fear of having to urinate in the red pot that was passed from hand to hand, fear that the scabies on the baby’s head was contagious, fear of never again setting foot on solid ground, fear of never again seeing the faces of our parents, who were sitting in the darkness surrounded by two hundred people.

At other times, it is almost joyous —  for instance, there’s a palpable sense of relief when the family arrives in Canada, where people are kind and helpful, and where their sponsors, a family of volunteers, help them to furnish their home in Quebec — even if, with hindsight, our narrator realises that they were buying inferior goods and that their father was given a red cowl-necked sweater that he wore proudly every day not knowing it was a “woman’s sweater, nipped in at the waist”.

Lacks emotional connection

Much of the story revolves around the theme of “the other”, of trying to fit in to a new life and a new country. It doesn’t help that our narrator is painfully shy — on several occasions she describes herself as “deaf and mute” or as a “shadow” — and that she struggles at school, “where there was a glaring gap between my grades and the results of my IQ tests, which bordered on deficient”.

But it is also about keeping history alive, the kind of history “that will never be taught in any school” — this is not so much about the Vietnam War but about its disturbing and heartbreaking effects on the civilians who had to flee for their lives and start all over again (if they were lucky) on foreign soil.

That said, there’s something about Thúy’s overly descriptive prose style that makes it hard to make an emotional connection with the narrator. I finished this book feeling strangely unmoved by it and yet I’d just read about the worst kind of pain and grief that a fellow human being could experience. (I felt exactly the same way when I read Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter, another Canadian novel, this time about a Cambodian refugee, earlier this year.)

Yet that is not to dismiss Ru — it’s already a massive bestseller across the globe and was the BBC’s Book at Bedtime in June — so there’s undoubtedly a vast audience to whom it greatly appeals. Sadly, I guess I wasn’t one of them…