Tag Archives: Year of the Asian Reading Challenge

Translating Feminisms

Translated poetry collections from Indonesia and the Philippines

Content warning: sexual themes, sexism, violence

A couple of months ago, I came across a Kickstarter campaign for two translated chapbooks on Twitter that really caught my eye. I have been doing The Quiet Pond‘s Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, but the majority of the books I have been reading have been novels. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I was very interested in supporting this project. Since there are two separate chapbooks, I’ll review them both separately within this post.

Deviant Disciples: Indonesian Women Poets

“Deviant Disciples: Indonesian Women Poets” edited by Intan Paramaditha is a collection of poems by Indonesian writers Toeti Heraty, Dorothea Rosa Herliany, Zubaidah Djohar, Shinta Febriany and Hanna Fransisca translated by Tiffany Tsao, Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Eliza Vitri Handayani.

Paramaditha introduces the collection against the backdrop of the Balinese tale of Calon Arang and the idea of the subversive woman. The poems are concerned with sexuality, controlling the female body and how public morality encroaches on the private life. The women in the poems conduct rebellions in their own ways: navigating the spaces between mythology and social expectations to express their sexuality and inhabit their own bodies, sometimes at great risk to their own personal safety.

In Herliany’s poems Marriage of the Knife, Marriage of the Bodiless Whore and Sinta’s Elegy, she explores the danger and violence of prioritising female desire, reveling in the perceived darkness of succumbing to sex alone or with hypocritical and pathetic lovers. Febriany’s poems Open Body and Nightmare from the State consider how bodies are policed by friends, the state and even our own spirituality. In Djohar’s poems Siti Khalwat: An Excerpt and Here on the Land of 7000 Skirts, I, gendered violence is real and present and it is women who must accept punishment for the consequences of male desire. Heraty’s poems Entreating the Goddess Durga and A Middle Aged Ballad delve into the psyche of middle-aged women defying the roles set for them, speculating on the way these roles grow into gossip, rumour and folklore. Fransisca’s poems are concerned with Chinese-Indonesian women’s bodies specifically, objectified and reduced to their parts for consumption through labour or sex.

This is a fantastic, diverse collection of poetry that provides an excellent sample of some of the rich, evocative writing from Indonesia. Having lived in Indonesia and studied Bahasa Indonesia for many years, I am again inspired to read more Indonesian literature.

Pa-Liwanag (To the Light): Writings by Filipinas in Translation

“Pa-Liwanag (To the Light): Writings by Filipinas in Translations” compiled by Gantala Press is a collection of poetry by women from the Philippines. There are 27 different contributors acknowledged in this chapbook, so I won’t list them all here, but the contributors come from an incredibly diverse range of ethnic, linguistic, gender, sexuality, class and age backgrounds. Gantala press “is an independent, volunteer-run, feminist small press/literary collective” and sourced the poetry included in the collection from across the archipelago.

Some of the major themes that permeate this collection are motherhood, grief, state-sanctioned violence, poverty and forced disappearance and I’ll just mention some of the poems that particularly struck me. Kaisa Aquino’s poem Mother and her Ghosts Left Hanging in the Yard is a frisson-inducing poem about a mother whose husband is no longer there with beautiful nocturnal and domestic imagery. Liberty A. Notarte-Balanquit’s three poems Switch, A Gift of Suspicion and Birth are succinct reflections on the trauma and bargaining associated with motherhood. Miriam Villanueva’s Sister and Brother is a vignette about a sister who stands in for her mother who must leave the home to provide for the family. Pasig Jail by Melanie dela Cruz is a heartwrending account of exploited workers punished for trying to assert their rights in a corrupt system. A poem attributed to Organisasyon dagiti Nakurapay nga Umili ti Syudad We, the Poor reads like a prayer, a protest chant or even a working song. Abbey Pangilinan, Mixkaela Villalon and Ica Fernandez’ prose Hens in the Cull: Women in the Time of Tokhang uses chickens as a compelling metaphor for women under the Duterte Administration, particularly with respect to the instinct of mother hens to protect their brood.

This is a raw, challenging and heartbreaking collection full of as much love as it is hardship. The introduction of this chapbook states “[c]ompared to other Asian or Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines does not really engage in translation – whether of foreign books to local languages, of local books to another local language, or local books to foreign languages. This book is our response to that gap”. An incredibly important collection that certainly achieves the goal of sharing a feminist Filipina experience.

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A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing

Novel about a child prodigy all grown up

Content warning: sexual themes

This book was released this year, and I had seen it mentioned a few times on social media, so when I came across it while scrolling for my next audiobook, I thought I would give this one a go.

A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing cover art

“A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing” by Jessie Tu and narrated by Aileen Huynh is a novel about a violinist called Jena who once was famous as a child prodigy. Now in her early 20s, her life in Sydney is consumed with rehearsals, auditions and hookups. As her ambition for music reignites, Jena is forced to confront what happened to make her career come crashing down in her late teens. For Jena, the violin is everything, but it is not enough to keep the deepest feelings of loneliness at bay. As her liaisons grow more and more complicated, Jena struggles to balance her dreams, her friendships and her lovers.

This is compelling book that attempts to answer a question I have certainly found myself wondering from time to time: what happens to child prodigies when they grow up? Through Jena, Tu explores the ways in which talent, work ethic and family support each influenced Jena’s success and downfall. Tu also examines how the lack of meaningful emotional connection as a child has impacted Jena’s relationships as an adult, resulting in messy, overlapping friendships and casual sex. Although Jena seems to yearn for close friendships, she also can’t seem to avoid self-destruction and choosing the gratification of feeling wanted in a fleeting sexual encounter over friends. However Tu challenges the reader to consider whether the standard by which we judge Jena’s behaviour would be equally applied to the men she sleeps with. Tu also explores the sexism in classical music: in the music written, the music selected and the people who gatekeep it.

I thought that the narrative decision of sending Jena to New York to confront her demons and the limitations of her talent was very clever, and it was this part of the book where Jena undergoes the most introspection about her past and the possibilities for her future. I also liked how Tu explores themes of race, countering stereotypes in a subversive way and subtly comparing Jena’s experience as Asian in Australia with her experience in New York. Despite her perfectionist approach to music, Jena’s personal life is largely an unmitigated disaster and she is often selfish and blunt, making a litany of poor decisions. Her ruthless ambition and frank descriptions of her sexual encounters are a far cry from the stereotype of Asian women as meek and unassuming. Huynh narrates the story with a flat, deadpan style that initially I found a little disconcerting but quickly warmed to. I felt that it actually captured Jena’s way of viewing the world well, and helped to translate Jena’s lack of emotional connection into the lived experience of loneliness.

I think that the part of the book that I found the hardest to reconcile was Jena’s affair with Mark, an older wealthy white man who is in a relationship with another woman. Tu leans uncomfortably into the cliche of seeking validation from sleeping with an unavailable man, and we have to watch Jena overlook Mark’s racist and sexist comments, and increasingly violent, dominating behaviour in bed. Conversely, a character that I really would have liked to have seen more of was an artist Jena meets called Val. There were a few points in the book where I thought that Tu might be hinting that Jena’s desire to be Val’s friend might translate into the intimacy she had been unable to find elsewhere, but unfortunately Val remained a relatively minor character.

There is plenty more I could go into, especially about motherhood, but I’ll wrap it up to say that this was a raw, challenging and fresh book that left me with plenty to think about.

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To Hold Up the Sky

Collection of science fiction short stories

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher, and I was really excited to read it. I have read the first book in this author’s trilogy previously, and have been meaning to read more of his work, so this is the perfect interlude.

“To Hold Up the Sky” by Cixin Liu and translated by multiple translators is a collection of science fiction stories set primarily in China. There are 11 stories in the collection set in the past, present, future, on earth and in the furthermost reaches of outer space.

Liu is a very creative writer who is contributing significantly to the genre of hard science fiction. Using quite a classic science fiction style, he explores fascinating ideas about maths, science and humanity through a Chinese lens. Science fiction is a genre dominated by Western-, and particularly American-, centric ideas and reading stories about alien encounters, time travel and the future of humanity from a non-Western perspective is unbelievably refreshing. Although all the stories contained in this collection are vastly different in subject-matter, I felt that they were all connected by the theme of trying to reconcile the macro with the micro. Liu also explores a number of real-world issues in his books such as industrialism, government surveillance and control, poverty, war and environmental issues. He writes confidently and creatively about physics and mathematical concepts, assisted significantly by his background in computer engineering.

I really enjoyed the first story The Village Teacher which was about the different a small piece of information and fortuitous timing can make to the survival of an entire race. I also enjoyed The Time Migration, a new take on the idea of remaining in stasis to re-emerge in a new era, and The Thinker which was as much about platonic love as it was about finding a pattern in the stars. However, I think Contraction was the one that really stuck with me in a brilliant yet disturbing way.

Although I enjoyed a lot of the stories, there were some that felt a little slower than others. Even though it had some interesting concepts around humans being raised as farm animals for an alien race, Cloud of Poems didn’t really capture me overall. Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming was very heavy on military tactics, something that I find a bit hard in sci-fi, and even though it had some fascinating ideas about the impact of predicting the future on society, Mirror took a really long time to get there.

A thought-provoking collection that is a must for sci-fi fans.

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The Book of Gold Leaves

Literary novel about love and conflict in Kashmir

Content warning: war

I picked up this book at a Lifeline Book Fair some time ago, and I was so excited it was back on this weekend after a long, COVID-19 hiatus. When I selected this book from the bookshelf, there was no doubt why I had chosen it at the book fair in the first place. The cover is stunning. There is a great little story at the end of the book where the author explains that the design is actually a photograph of his great-grandfather’s own painting – a tradition passed down from father and son. The book is embossed, and the floral designs just feel lovely to touch.

Image is of “The Book of Gold Leaves” by Mirza Waheed. The paperback book is gold with embossed, stylised floral art in reds and greens on the front. The book is pictured on a wooden board with rice and curry in ceramic dishes and two paint brushes.

“The Book of Gold Leaves” by Mirza Waheed is a literary novel set in the disputed area of Kashmir. The book is about two young people: Faiz, an artist who paints papier-mâché boxes, and Roohi, a university graduate who dreams of romance and gazes out her bedroom window. When Roohi one day spots Faiz near the shrine by her home, she contrives a plan to meet him through old school connections and by navigating proper decorum. While their connection is undeniable, after Faiz witnesses several very personal instances of violence, he is compelled to leave his terrorised city to train as part of an armed militia. Divided by distance and differing religions, can their love survive?

This is a beautifully written book that juxtaposes a classic love story against the slow erosion of freedoms that comes from living in a place experiencing conflict. The gradual takeover of a local girls’ school by the military was a heartbreaking metaphor not only for the loss of rights gained in the past, but for the loss of a future. Waheed imagines an armoured vehicle called the Zaal that literally catches people in nets and disappears them, morphing into a horrifying urban legend within the already terrified community. Waheed also juxtaposes the gentle artist Faiz, who dreams of painting a masterpiece inspired by a painting of Omar Khayyám, against how easily he trains to use assault rifles and make bombs in nearby Pakistan. Faiz walks a tightrope between his obligations to the militia and his desire for a peaceful, loving life with Roohi and Waheed does an excellent job of capturing this tension.

The only additional thing I will say is that Waheed is such an evocative writer and uses so much imagery that multiple times I found myself off on a daydream tangent thinking about ideas he introduces. This is a thoughtful book that requires some time to ponder about, but which has a lot to teach a willing reader.

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Little Fires Everywhere

Realistic novel about family, secrets and trust

I first heard about this novel when it won the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fiction. Since then, it has been adapted into a TV miniseries that was released earlier this year. I’ve been really enjoying some of Reese Witherspoon’s work adapting books to film, so I picked up an edition of this book with a tie-in cover. After Marie Kondoing my bookshelf this year, and doing the #StartOnYourShelfathon challenge, I’ve been making a big effort to chip through my to-read shelf (yes, shelf!) and it was time to read this book.

A photo of the book cover on a background that is a cropped collage of scenic and touristy photos I took when I was in the USA in 2017

“Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng is a realistic novel about a real town called Shaker Heights. The story is about two families. The Richardsons are a well-to-do family with husband, wife and four children while the Warrens consist of a single mother and her daughter. When artist Mia Warren rents a small home from Mrs Elena Richardson, she promises her daughter Pearl that they will be able to stay there for good this time. Pearl quickly befriends Moody Richardson, then his siblings Trip and Lexie. Meanwhile, youngest daughter and black sheep Izzy begins to visit Mia and assist her with her work. As the family grows more and more intertwined, journalist Elena begins to grow suspicious of Mia’s past life and starts trying to investigate.

This is a strong novel that examines a small community and the forces that shake up its apparent idyllic existence. Ng is particularly concerned with motherhood, what makes a good mother and who deserves to be a mother. This book also examines class, race and profession and the ways in which these factors impact someone’s “suitability” as a mother. At the heart of the novel is a fascinating ideological controversy in its own right that in turn drives a wedge between Mia and Elena and kickstarts Elena’s skepticism about Mia’s background. This is a very readable novel, and I really enjoyed the earlier chapters as Pearl begins to navigate friendships with Moody, Trip and Lexie.

While this book is very readable, I did find myself a little disappointed at the ending. The opening pages of the book are very compelling and hint at a significant mystery to unfold. Without giving too much away, I felt that rather than the “spark” Ng hints at throughout the novel, the ending was an underwhelming fizzle without any of the twists or big reveals that I felt had been promised earlier on.

A well-written and insightful book that I wished had a bit less contemplation and a little more punch at the end.

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Singapore, very old tree

A collection of photographs and stories about the trees of Singapore

I first came across this project on Tumblr (remember Tumblr?) where I followed this great Singaporean bookshop called BooksActually that sadly this year transitioned to a fully online store. I spent a lot of time in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore growing up, and this celebration of South-East Asian trees and history really resonated with me. I ordered this beautiful pack that included a book, postcards and a poster back in 2016 but, like many of my books, it sat on my shelf waiting for the right time. After chatting to a friend online recently about banyan trees and thinking about how long it will likely be before I can go back to South-East Asia again, I figured now was the right time to read this book.

This photo was taken at the National Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Collection, and this particular Bonsai is a fig

“Singapore, very old tree” curated by Zhao Renhui is a collection of stories and photographs about trees in Singapore. The collection is inspired by a postcard dated 1904 and titled “Singapore. (very old tree)” with an enormous tree towering over a small figure. The photographs and accompanying stories highlight the relationship between individual Singaporeans and individual trees, and weave in themes of history, urban planning, environmentalism and horticulture. The contributors are represent a diverse cross-section of genders, race, age and class in Singaporean society united by a love for the trees that have given them shade, fruit, peace and comfort.

This is a beautiful project and book that I am so, so glad that I supported. It features 30 different trees, and the photographs are edited in a way inspired by the techniques used in the original postcard. The introduction to this project was really helpful to provide some political context for this project and Singapore’s own identity as a Garden City. However, this project also includes the real tension between maintaining this arboreal identity and the pressures of development, and the times where protests have saved trees through compromise. Many of the trees featured in this book are banyan trees, a species of fig that is great not only in size but in spiritual significance.

This is a beautiful collaboration and while the first edition of this project is now sold out, you can now order the second edition online. If you are looking for something incredibly soothing and beautiful to take your time over, I cannot recommend this project enough.

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The Good Girl of Chinatown

Memoir about burlesque dancing in Shanghai

Content warning: racism, drug use, family violence

Three years ago I went to an event at Muse Bookstore where I saw this author speak about her new memoir. Even though it was a great talk and I was interested enough to buy a copy of the book for the author to sign, for one reason or another, this book has waited very patiently on my bookshelf since then for its turn. This year I have been making a bit more of an effort to get through my to-read shelves, and it was high time I read this book.

“The Good Girl of Chinatown” by Jenevieve Chang is a memoir about her experiences as a burlesque dancer in Shanghai, China in the late 2000s. After moving to the UK from Sydney to study dance, Jenevieve marries a man of Nigerian heritage called Femi. Although she envies his close-knit family, living with three generations under the one roof eventually becomes too much, and the couple jump at a job opportunity for Femi as a yoga teacher in Shanghai. Despite her family being from China, Jenevieve struggles to find a place in the performing arts scene in a city looking for Western faces. She mixes instead with an eclectic mix of “expats“. Her marriage slowly unravelling, when an opportunity comes up to star as a showgirl in a vaudeville, Jenevieve jumps at the chance. Cecil’s dreams of a club called Chinatown are intoxicating, and it’s easy to overlook some of the issues with payment, venues and transparency in the beginning. However, when things begin to really fall apart, Jenevieve is forced to face up to who she is beneath the costumes and performance and the traumas that ripple through generations of her family.

As I have mentioned many times on this blog, memoir is a genre that I often struggle with. However, this was an excellent memoir. Chang is a natural storyteller blending hard truths and entertainment on every page. The structure of this book was very effective using three key perspectives: Chang in the first person, Jenevieve as a child in the third person and fictionalised accounts of family history. I think it is a really courageous thing to write about your family, and although Chang provides plenty of empathy and cultural and historical context, she does not shy away from writing about the impact of corporal punishment on her family. One of the most powerful parts of this book, after having learned as a reader about Chang’s grandparents being exiled to Taiwan after the fall of Kuomintang in 1949 and Chang’s own estrangement from her parents, was her connection with family who still live in China.

However, Chang’s experience as a burlesque dancer and “Chinatown Girl” was also riveting reading. Cecil is the classic charming con artist, winning supporters over with his plans for Chinatown as the next great thing while quickly succumbing to greed and siphoning invested money instead of paying staff and contractors. Despite little to no pay, the performers are whisked along on a journey of late nights, flowing champagne and many creative differences. There was a particularly striking part of the book where many of the performers are taking an experimental drug that just seems to be available all the time, and it is strongly suggested that whoever is providing it is using the performers as guinea pigs. A big turning point in the book is Chang’s realisation that the Chinatown concept is a nostalgic colonial fiction that bares no resemblance to her family’s experience of 20th century China.

This is a captivating memoir and a testimony to Chang’s flexibility as an artist. In a time where the possibility of Australians travelling to and living in Shanghai in the near future is extremely low, and anti-Asian racism is on the rise, this is an important book as well as a great read.

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The Buru Quartet (Tetralogi Buru)

Content warning: colonialism, racism

This series was given to me as a 21st birthday present by some family friends, and I must admit that was a very long time ago. They were no longer banned in Indonesia, and although I was nevertheless a little nervous about it, I decided to take them with me when I studied in Java for a year. I definitely finished the first book and had at the very least begun the second, but while I was over there, my third book went missing. It took some time of scouring op shops and the Lifeline Book Fair before I finally found another copy in this set. It’s a beautiful set, and it’s been gathering dust on my shelf far too long. Some relevance to research I’ve been doing recently and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge finally encouraged me to give this series another go. I also found out that last year the first book was adapted into a really great and well-cast film which is currently on Netflix.

“The Buru Quartet” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Max Lane is a series of four historical novels called “This Earth of Mankind” (Manusia Bumi), “Child of All Nations” (Anak Semua Bangsa), “Footsteps” (Jejak Langkah) and “House of Glass” (Rumah Kaca). The series is largely about Minke, a young Native Javanese man of significant family standing who, at the end of the 19th century, is permitted to study at the HBS – a secondary school typically reserved for students of Dutch or Eurasian (Indo) heritage. One day, an Indo classmate invites him to visit another Indo friend at his family’s home. Despite being on of the most educated Natives in Java, Minke is struck by the impressive Nyai Ontosoroh, a Javanese woman who is both concubine to a Dutch man and single-handedly managing his estate and business without ever having been formally educated. Minke is also struck by Nyai’s beautiful Indo daughter Anneleis. Growing close to this unusual family sets Minke on a new path of enlightenment and understanding about the true nature of colonialism. Already a published writer, Minke begins to write about his observations of inequality under colonial rule. When he experiences an unthinkable tragedy, he focuses his attention on how to wake a sleepy Java and navigate the subtleties of class and culture to bring a national awareness to his readers.

I cannot stress enough how excellent this series is. In it’s own right, it is a masterpiece of historical fiction combining meticulous research, characterisation (my absolute favourite character was Darsam the bodyguard) and political insight. However, I cannot write about this series without mentioning the circumstances around how it came to be published. Not unlike the historical figure Tirto Adhi Soerjo upon which his books are based upon, Toer was imprisoned under the Suharto regime and forbidden from having any writing materials on an island called Buru which became the novels’ namesake. Toer, who had spent many years researching this story before his personal library was burned, recited the story of Minke to his fellow prisoners and was eventually able to write it down. After release, Toer published his books himself where they were subsequently banned for nearly 20 years in Indonesia despite being available to great acclaim around the world. The fact that they exist at all is a veritable miracle and it is a privilege to be able to read them in Lane’s well-considered and nuanced translation.

There are so many things that I could write about these books, but I think that I’ll limit it to two key things: it’s brilliance as a piece of historical fiction, and how well it has stood up to the test of time. If this is the result of a narrated story after a library’s worth of research was destroyed, I cannot fathom what this book would have been like had Toer not gone through so much hardship in writing it. The book is crammed full of cultural references from the Dutch East Indies at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s. Toer refers heavily to literature, art and music of the times, Native and European alike, bringing the story alive with context and colour. Toer helps the reader to understand the extremely complicated social hierarchies made up of traditional Javanese feudalism, white supremacy imported by the Dutch, emerging roles for educated and elite Javanese within the colonial bureaucracy and the uncertain position of Indos and Chinese people. Language is extremely political, and Toer introduces the reader to the concept of Malay as an egalitarian language through Minke’s initial internalised prejudices about Dutch and reluctance to write in his native Javanese. I was fascinated by the way in which Toer leads Minke to nationalistic ideas by referring to news of political movements in the Philippines and China through conversations with Dutch friends because news in the Indies was so suppressed by the colonial regime. Lane did an admirable job of capturing this nuance and providing informative yet unobtrusive notes, commentary and a dictionary in each book to help readers to understand some of this cultural context.

I think one of the most delightful and surprising things about this series is its progressiveness given it was published in the 1980s. Toer is without a doubt a feminist and the women in his books are fierce, intelligent and determined. A cornerstone of these novels is the lack of rights over children and property under Dutch colonial law that nyai have as compared with their Dutch masters. Minke is a lover of women and throughout the novels has a number of wives and lovers of all ethnicities. Each is adroit, beautiful, capable and brave and unlike his compatriots, Minke refuses to have more than one wife at a time. However, it is the issue of racism that is at the heart of this book. Minke, whose nickname is itself a distortion of a racial slur, observes racial inequality in the home, in the street and in the courts. His own education is limited by both his race and the availability of further education in the Indies and his only option is a medical school though his heart lies in writing. He observes stolen land, debt bondage and Javanese women traded to Dutch men for position and money. He observes the hierarchical nature of traditional Javanese society and how that hierarchy was exploited by the Dutch to place themselves firmly at the top. He observes how the riches of the Indies are extracted and exported with no financial benefit to his people. Eventually, Minke’s observations begin to be published and people begin to listen.

There is so much more I could write about this series, including the emergence of organisations, Toer’s handling of mental illness and the troubled policeman Pangemanann. However, I’ll stop here and just say that there is only one thing I regret about reading it which is that I didn’t read it sooner. I hope one day I can read it again in Bahasa Indonesia.

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Stone Sky Gold Mountain

Historical fiction about Chinese siblings during the Queensland gold rush

Content warning: racism, mental illness, sex work

When I heard this book was coming out, I was really excited. I absolutely loved the author’s first book “The Fish Girl” and was really looking forward to this release. Unfortunately, this book came out around the same time as the pandemic starting which meant that lots of authors missed out on the usual author events and publicity that accompany a new release. However, one advantage of everyone going remote is that I didn’t have to worry about travelling for an event, I was able to sign up and livestream. The cover is really pretty – my photo doesn’t quite do it justice but it has little flecks of gold foil in the lettering.

“Stone Sky Gold Mountain” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novel about two siblings, Ying and Lai Yue, who have travelled from China to Far North Queensland to seek their fortune on the gold fields. Older brother Lai Yue takes responsibility for saving the little gold they find, purchasing supplies and making decisions. However, when Ying, disguised as a boy, begins to weaken from the hard labour and lack of food, the siblings eventually must move to Maytown to seek more stable employment. With Ying settled in as a shop assistant, Lai Yue takes a job with a team of men headed for a sheep station and the siblings must each make their own way in this strange and hostile country.

This was a fantastic book. Riwoe is a phenomenal writer and in a full-length novel really stretches her muscles to bring to life an era from somewhere that is now nothing more than a ghost town. Ying is a curious, resourceful and flexible character who quickly adapts to her role as shop boy. Enjoying the freedom that a male disguise buys her, she pushes boundaries and befriends a white woman called Meriem – another point of view character. I really found myself cheering Ying on and enjoying her delight in the world and her adventurous spirit playing different roles. Meriem is a complex character who has run from her past to work as a housekeeper for a sex worker. Riwoe does an exceptional job of examining Meriem’s initial prejudices against Chinese people and sensitively handles the stigma and allure of sex work in the Maytown community.

However, I think the real masterpiece of this book is Lai Yue. Laden with the responsibility as the older brother, Lai Yue buckles under the weight. I was initially reminded of the older brother Seita in the film “Grave of the Fireflies“, with Lai Yue initially hoarding the gold they find away instead of using it to buy food Ying so desperately needs. However, as the book progresses, we learn that there is a lot more going on with Lai Yue. Riwoe’s exploration of how mental illness and self-esteem are intertwined is heartbreaking, and initial frustration with Lai Yue quickly makes way to empathy. Riwoe also doesn’t shy away from the many types of racism experienced during this period of history. Unflinchingly, she depicts Chinese people participating in brutal acts of violence against Aboriginal people while back in town, Chinese people themselves are victims of racist attacks and discrimination. At a time when people of Asian heritage are increasingly experiencing racism, it is an important and timely reminder that racism is a part of our history and that we can and must do better.

This is a rich, touching novel and I honestly could continue to wax lyrical about it but instead I very much recommend you read for yourself this critical and necessary contribution to Australian historical fiction.

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Dead Man Dreaming

Novel about coming to terms with a genetic illness

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.

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“Dead Man Dreaming” by Uday Mukerji is a novel about a man called David who is going through the final interviews for a prestigious position at a Canadian hospital as a heart surgeon. However, when the panel ask him a question about whether or not he has Huntington’s Disease, David is taken by surprise. Suddenly he is forced to confront the possibility that, like his father, he has Huntington’s Disease and impact it could have on his career, relationship and desire to have children. David’s drastic life changes as a result have him seeking and finding fulfilment in new places.

Mukerji is a clear, realistic writer with believable characters and premise. This is an interesting book that raises a number of pertinent ethical questions: is it reasonable to ask people about their genetic information during a job interview where hereditary conditions may impact performance? is it reasonable to encourage, or even require, people to undergo genetic testing prior to having children? These are questions that David himself ponders as he comes to terms with taking his own genetic test. Mukerji also asks the reader about openness in relationships, and the extent to which we need to make time to communicate with our partners and be honest with them.

The only thing that I found a bit challenging was that Mukerji relies heavily on David’s thoughts as a narrative device, and a not insignificant proportion of the book is David going over events and conversations again and again and mulling over his own worries. While this is probably a very accurate depiction of what it would be like for a real person in David’s situation, there were times where I felt the book needed a little more plot or conversation to help propel the story along.

A well-written story that explores issues arising from testing for hereditary conditions from a number of angles.

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