Literary bridges to Asia

Appearing in the Weekend Australian/Review –  August 20-21 2016


The Near and the Far: New Stories from the Asia-Pacific Region

Edited by David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short

Scribe, $28, 288 pages, ISBN 9781925321562Far and Near


Despite geographical proximity and economic ties there has been surprisingly little connection between Australia and our near northern neighbours when it comes to literature. This is a pity, because the countries of south-east Asia have both long literary traditions and plenty of fine writers working on contemporary themes. The Near and the Far is part of a project aimed at building two-way communication, and is the result of a series of workshops conducted by Melbourne’s RMIT University (both Carlin and Rendle-Short teach there, aside from being established writers themselves) under the rubric WrICE, for Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange, in Australia and Asia. The result is a remarkable collection of 21 pieces, and if not all of them succeed it is largely because of the risk inherent in the undertaking.

For a number of the writers based in Australia, there is often a sense of having to go away in order to see home clearly. Melissa Lucashenko, an indigenous writer, provides a remarkable story, Dreamers, about the effect of a child’s disappearance on the three adults left behind, the parents and an Aboriginal woman. But the strangest aspect of the story is that it was written mainly in Penang, Malaysia.

Likewise, Joe Rubbo’s story Trampoline, set in the suburban Australia of Rubbo’s childhood, was written in Vietnam. It should be said that this story is not entirely successful, seeming to merely stop rather than conclude, as if it is still a work in progress. A few other pieces suffer from the same sense of rawness, but perhaps this is what the book is meant, in part, to illustrate: that writing is as much about process as product. Each piece in The Near and the Far contains a postscript where the writer explains their thoughts, and this provides an important depth and texture.

Not all the contributions are fiction; there are several essays and poetry pieces as well. In some cases it is hard to tell where a piece fits: Xu Xi’s essay BG: the Significant Years, traces her development as a multi-sited, mixed-origin citizen of everywhere – she is a Chinese-Indonesian native of Hong Kong and a US citizen – in terms of the advent of Google (Before-Google and Post-Google). Xu also notes that the WrICE workshops gave her a breakthrough on her stalled novel, The Milton Man – one to watch for, from what we see here.

David Carlin’s personal essay Unmade in Bangkok looks at the position of the ladyboy community in Thailand, which leads him into a broader discussion of constructed gender and sexuality. Yes, the ladyboys have a place, and it is safe enough, but they are obliged to stay in it. Is this enough? Carlin is unsure, but it makes him think that transgender people are at the front line of identity issues, and there are broader lessons that can be learned.

Sexual identity is also critical in Omar Musa’s story (which perhaps is only pretending to be fiction) You Think You Know, set in Malaysia, a country where the government is hell-bent on modernising and but equally intent on enforcing rigid social conservatism. Bernice Chauly approaches the same issue from a different angle, looking at the opening of the Petronas Towers complex in 1998 as an ambiguous symbol of official self-congratulation and the hollow façade of a troubled, divided society. This essay, Standing in the Eyes of World, is part of a longer piece, and its open-endedness is a bit frustrating, but there is no doubting Chauly’s creative talent and her commitment to her subject.

Suchen Christine Lim, a Singaporean writer, had to travel the world before she could understand the loving relationship between the two women who raised her. My Two Mothers, developed at the WrICE workshop in Vietnam, is a tender look back, a way of reconciling with people displaced in their own country but connected in their hearts.

For Cate Kennedy, the dislocation is between what she anticipates and what she finds. She had expected Vietnam to be a place of postcard scenes and quiet French streets: yes, they are there, but so are floods of motorbikes (her problem with crossing the road is both comical and illuminating) and go-go capitalism. Appropriately, her piece Incoming Tides comes down to the image on an old man fishing peacefully – except that he is wearing a hi-visibility vest so he can be seen in the hubbub. No, not what she expected: something less, perhaps, but something more as well.

The sense of arriving somewhere you think you know and finding a different place is especially problematic for bi-racial returnees, who carry with them their parent’s old memories. Laurel Fantauzzo, in the wonderfully-named essay Some Hints About Travelling to the Country Your Family Departed, examines the indeterminate status that comes with mixed-race heritage. Her visit to the Phillipines, her mother’s country, for a WrICE event helps her to understand a few things, but also shows her that it takes a long time to see a country’s soul. But her sound advice – “have two karaoke songs ready” – suggests that she has made a pretty good start.

Anyone looking for coherence of style, content and purpose will not find it in The Near and the Far. But the book’s point is to showcase diversity and difference. In this, it delivers, and handsomely. As a bridge between literary spheres, we can only hope it is the first and not the last.

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