In this Issue - Web Exclusives
This issue’s theme is ‘Diaspora and Migration’. We at the Asia Literary Review chose it before immigration became one of the most explosive socio-political topics of the year. We set out simply to explore how the combining of cultures and ethnicities can shape or rattle personal identities, and to consider how the mingling of East and West have led to captivating and often disconcerting story lines.
Verbena. What kind of a name is that? I s’pose it’s OK in Guyana or one of them Caribbean places, but in Haringey? No way. My bloody parents’ fault. I shoulda had a British name, not something that makes out like I’m some kinda tropical flower, so that they can harp back to those ‘good good days’ before they came here. If they were so bloody ‘good good’, why on earth did they up sticks and em-ee-grate to London in the first place?
This year, Madeleine Thien has been honoured with Canada’s Governor General’s Award and the Scotiabank Giller prize, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She took time out recently to speak to the ALR about her novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and about the role of a writer in a changing world.
Listen. Here’s a story from the era of General Chun Doo-hwan – one of the more preposterous dictators to have ruled our land.
Thirty-odd years have passed since these events transpired. Yet as the fate of our protagonist-hero demonstrably shows, sometimes it makes no difference at all that whole decades have gone by. Today he’s still a wanted man, just as he was then.
Nobody tells you how vulnerable you’re about to become. The plane lands and your emotions start to heighten once you pass through immigration. Even if someone is waiting for you in Arrivals, you know somewhere deep within that your whole world is about to change. You just have no idea how, or how much.
I can hear crickets, luminous crickets singing inside my veins, singing and telling stories of sun-baked earth and marshlands and bogs, crickets merrily taking those stories into my pumping heart.
My mother-in-law, Wang Wei, has a key to our flat. She moved to Beijing when I was very pregnant with Echo, our daughter, but she didn’t move in with us as most Chinese mothers-in-law do. Instead, she rented a flat in the same compound, just a building over, because, she said, living with us would be bu fangbian (inconvenient). The unspoken reason was our cultural differences, but I didn’t care about the why; I just exhaled, gratefully.
That didn’t stop her from entering our flat first thing in the morning and not leaving until after dinner every day. You see, in Chinese culture, a child’s home must be fully accessible to his or her parents. But for twelve hours a day? There were no boundaries.
Everyone was talking about the bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade. Yun and her classmates had seen angry commentators dominating the news every day since the event had occurred, a month before, in May 1999.
We float and swim, we boat and punt on the storm waters aglow in the weak sunlight. In a freak occurrence, an accident of the El Niño year, warm and cold currents met and mingled, a dance of opposites that birthed the rains in gleaming rivers. If there is a line that separates land from warm turquoise, it blurs, and we fall into our shadows or perhaps our shadows swallow us, the outlines of boat and people, wavy lines of form.
In the summer of 1875, exactly a year after my wife died, an English hunting party set up camp by our village in the Satpuras. I was twenty years old, and woke up each day hoping it would be my last. My parents thought me mad. Every year, all across the hills, people died of ailments for which we had no names. We buried our dead, and then we forgot about them. But I could not forget. My fingers were still stained yellow from the turmeric my wife had applied on her skin; I heard the clatter of her bangles as I ploughed the landlord’s fields. Men whispered as I passed them, and plotted exorcisms with my parents. I took to walking on tracks that had known only the hooves of deer; I learnt to summon clouds of quiet in my head that softened the shrillness of other people’s voices. Then the English arrived and I made up my mind to leave with them.
Life sometimes has a way of chewing you up and spitting you out. After eleven years in Singapore and Hong Kong, I made the curious decision to move back to Australia. I left my home in a seething metropolis for a new home in a sleepy seaside village, and my world shrank to the size of a postage stamp.
Pearl Beach is a pristine strip of coast nestled beside thick bushland, an hour and a half’s drive north of Sydney. There is nothing here but a café, a general store, an upmarket restaurant with limited opening hours and a community hall offering seniors’ yoga, seniors’ stretching and seniors’ Pilates, depending on the day. The neighbouring beach towns offer little in the way of attractions, but each has a shop selling motorised scooters. Then there are the funeral parlours, each with slight variations on the same shopfront display: a vase of white flowers standing on a wooden coffin, set behind a wispy white curtain. I did not come here to die, but in the short time I have been here, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it.
‘Please get ready. Number 36.’
We move into position, me behind Wee Kiong. He bends low, legs apart. The sensors on us light up and begin clicking. Those embedded in us – the permanent ones – start ticking, the wiggle of worm-crawl under our skins. It is not an unpleasant sensation; in fact, it is mildly sensual.
I prepare myself, using the lube. The air-con in the room dries it up quickly. I apply a dollop on Wee Kiong. His muscles clench, then relax.
Maganbhai Patel is better known as Masterji, a portrait photographer of the Coventry South-Asian community. In November 2016 his first solo exhibition opened to massive acclaim, with features on local, national and international television, online and in local and national newspapers. In March 2017 his black and white photographs will be a centrepiece of the Mumbai Focus International Photography Festival. This from a man celebrating his ninety-fourth year. In this article, we reflect on the art of the Master through his portrayal of the lives of South-Asian migrants to Coventry during the second half of the twentieth century.
The sound of dogs barking woke him up. Ahn reached out reflexively for his phone, which he had placed at the head of his bed. It felt familiar and solid in his hand, but his ears were still mistaking his ringtone for the barking of dogs.
Coincidentally, he had been dreaming that he was being chased by a pack of black dogs and had just ducked into a phone booth with broken glass. The barking dogs were slavering at the mouth, sharp teeth bared. Ahn clutched the phone with trembling hands as his knees nearly buckled from a sharp urge to urinate.
Hello? Is s-somebody there? Ahn sputtered, when the signal finally went through. The dogs vanished as suddenly as if they’d been swallowed by a thick fog. Not just the dogs, but the streetlights, the vandalised phone booth, and the handset he had been clutching, leaving Ahn standing alone in a deserted field.
Where the river bends I’ve made my home
Sauntering quotidian on the towpath
From Hammersmith Bridge, clad in green and gold
To Barnes Bridge, steel-grey-painted;
The colour of the water beneath.
When light strikes the point of reflection
everything falls into place:
you and I are no more
there is only one space...
I should have kept it –
the tongue I grew up with,
the language of my mother
and her mother before her...
Memory is a desert, she takes us
to the dust of construction sites, a broken trail of
bricks and Banksies, hiding on the corner wall....
The woodpecker’s catechism, doctrinal, drilling the house,
is the discordance between thinking and thought,
is the candelabra of your hand, there, effacing thought,
is the clock’s cluck-clucking: What is the chief end of man?
The fossil air stiffens into breeze, into heat, folds light
over itself in waves, impossible to trace without smearing
the instruments with agency. Particularising whatever will be.
I can imagine the look on her face now
filled with fright as something clutches her
from somewhere out of nowhere, catching
in her throat, just as you enter her, the look
on your face printed in her eye. In there, in that eye,
you will see my face, my ghost, glaring back....