Australia Day by Melanie Cheng

Australia Day (Text Publishing) by Melanie Cheng is worth highlighting as the 26th January draws near. The celebration of Australia Day is currently under fire and this work explores life in Australian society and on Australia Day itself from the viewpoints of characters from a range of backgrounds and beliefs. It is perhaps shaped more as a commentary than a criticism of Australia and Australia Day, although its smooth yet sharp edges niggle the reader to ponder about the diverse lives of those who live in Australia and what Australia Day may mean to those of non-Anglo (particularly Asian-Australian) heritage.

This book of short stories was the Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. It was then shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for Fiction in 2017 and is currently longlisted for the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction. Australia Day is Chinese-Australian Melanie Cheng’s debut literary publication. She lives in Melbourne where she works as a general practitioner.

The first story is ‘Australia Day’, a sweltering account of Stanley Chu’s uncomfortable visit to fellow medical student Jess’s family home. Hong Kong-born Stanley is out of place amongst the family’s form of celebration, epitomised by Jess’s father’s ignorant racism.

Syrian au pair, Leila, visits the Northern Territory in ‘Big Problems’. South African woman, Ellen, repeats that there are “big problems” caused by non-White races, without seeming to notice or recognise Leila’s heritage.

Tania carries capsicum spray, expecting abuse as she works at the car registry in ‘Ticket-Holders Number 5’ and Deepak, a doctor, is victimised in ‘Fracture’, giving another side to this issue.

My favourite story is ‘Muse’, about old Evan whose wife Lola has died, and his bossy daughter Bea who keeps an eye on him. Evan’s life changes when Bea brings her partner, Edwina, to dinner. Edwina is an artist who was “highly commended in the Archibald” art awards. Edwina introduces Evan to life-drawing and he becomes obsessed with the model. As the narrative moves forward, the author also offers glimpses into Evan’s past, particularly his affair with Ana from the milk bar, who wasn’t beautiful like Lola, but “didn’t slip out of my hands like silk when I held her”. A grandson completes Evan’s transformation.

‘Mrs Chan’ encapsulates the book with a tender portrayal of an old woman from Hong Kong cooking for her grandson’s twentieth birthday on Australia Day. This completes a thought-provoking cycle.

Indie Book Awards 2015

 

BushLast night I was fortunate to attend the Indie Book Awards. It was a great evening, hosted by Hachette Australia in Sydney. These awards are organised by Leading Edge Books, who support independent bookshops (see more about them in last weekend’s AFR and in this interview with Galina Marinov). The shortlists and winners are voted by staff at Australia’s 170+ indie bookstores; widely read and discerning readers who have a strong sense of which books are the standouts and what readers should buy and appreciate.

The Indie Awards are also the first of Australia’s slew of literary awards for the year and a valuable predictor of what is going to appear on shortlists across the country. They have a strong record of picking winners in their seven-year history, including last year’s overall winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, which of course went on to win the Man Booker Prize and jointly win the Prime Minster’s Literary Awards.

http-::www.boomerangbooks.com.au:Golden-Boys:Sonya-Hartnett:book_9781926428611Winner of the Fiction category, was Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett (Penguin Australia), which I reviewed for the SunHerald. Sonya wasn’t able to attend because of house renovations but she sent a memorable thank-you speech that brought the parlous state under her house to life.

The Bush by Don Watson (Penguin Australia) beat a strong field in the Non-Fiction category, which included Helen Garner’s This House of Grief (Text), Where Song Began by Tim Low (Penguin) and Cadence by Emma Ayres (ABC Books HarperCollins), who graciously attended. Her book, with its strong music background, looks fascinating. The Bush also won the overall Book of the Year award.

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette Australia) was the popular winner of the Debut Fiction. This was a strongly contested category, which included Emily Bitto’s The Strays (Affirm Press). (See my review here.) http-::www.boomerangbooks.com.au:Foreign-Soil:Maxine-Beneba-Clarke:book_9780733632426

The Children’s and YA shortlist spanned a picture book, Pig the Pug by Aaron Blabey (Scholastic); a YA novel, Laurinda by Alice Pung (Black Inc) (see my interview with Alice here) and two completely different novels for primary aged children, The 52-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton (Pan Macmillan) and Withering-by-Sea, the deserving winner by author-illustrator Judith Rossell (ABC Books, HarperCollins). (See my review here.)

A distinctive aspect of the evening was the announcement of the winners by booksellers from Sydney as well as interstate. This set the tone of the Indies as an award with special synergy and respect between authors, publishers and booksellers.

Withering by Sea