A newly minted Australian sits in the shadow of his girlfriend’s ex, wondering how he’ll ever fit in when her family regard him as an outsider. A young tourist of Syrian heritage steels herself in the face of casual racism at one of Australia’s iconic landmarks. Two young mothers watch their two daughters bond at a play centre, but struggle to overcome their own differences. A single mother wonders how the abandonment of her child’s father impacts his childhood. Haunted by his late wife and her domineering father, a retired artist finds a second chance at building a family with his daughter and grandchild. An elderly Chinese immigrant watches her grandson try to bridge the distance between the two worlds he exists in. These are just some of the stories that make up Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day.
Despite the diversity of characters in this collection, each story shares a common thread: people experiencing a sense of displacement who are searching for belonging. However, as Cheng astutely observes through each tale, that sense of belonging can prove elusive in the complexity of contemporary Australia.
Defining the typical Australian becomes more difficult as our society evolves; Cheng makes that subtle point here through the sheer range of characters she presents and the situations she places them in – there is no one character that represents the ‘typical’ Australian. Defining Australian-ness has become much more than a single stereotype, and Australia Day captures that challenge through a rich tapestry of people, all different, yet all striving to fit that elusive category.
The book is unavoidably political; addressing a number of issues currently affecting the Australian socio-political landscape including immigration, healthcare, mental health, non-traditional families, and homelessness. Cheng doesn’t shy away from addressing some of the less savoury elements of Australian culture either. Sometimes Cheng’s blatant, including racist remarks from tourists at Uluru; other times she’s quite subtle, when Macca expresses a quiet pride in the drinking exploits of him and his friend. These could make for difficult reading but for the author’s deft hand in humanising each of the characters by putting them in universally relatable situations. Australian culture is also framed in a world context when Australians find themselves abroad and confronted with differences they are unprepared for.
Much of the beauty in this book comes from Cheng’s effective use of language; her careful use of adjectives and ability to focus on a single, meaningful detail draw the reader quickly into the story. The emotional resonance makes the collection truly sing. In deftly bookending her collection with two stories set on Australia Day, Cheng reminds us where we’ve been, and where we could potentially go. Cheng powerfully uses structure to take the reader on a journey through contemporary Australia; before looping back to another version of where the book began, and laying out new possibilities.
Defining ‘Australian’ is no easy thing. In this collection, Melanie Cheng rises to the challenge beautifully. While Cheng’s collection doesn’t shy from the darkness, ultimately there is a message of hope – that a sense of belonging, of finding your place, isn’t out of reach.