Sunday, 29 September 2019

Book review: Lucky Ticket, Joey Bui (2019)

I wonder how some might feel about a young, Harvard-educated Vietnamese-Australian woman writing about a Tanzanian temporary migrant working in the United Arab Emirates (‘Abu Dhabi Gently’), a Nepalese student whose photograph hangs in a Kathmandu exhibition put on by an American (‘Before the Lights Go Out’), or an Argentinian musician (‘Dinosaurs’).

Some might think cultural appropriation of this kind strikes a note that sounds off-key. For my part, I have no problem with anyone writing any type of characters they feel like, but for parts of the left this sort of thing elicits feelings verging on suspicion. The question being: is it authentic? Well these short stories, while reading, certainly felt authentic to me.

They are full of life and they are interesting but tonally they are somewhat uniform, even at their endings. This kind of plain writing makes you trust the author – she is not unwontedly spicing up her narratives for effect, you feel. But what the stories lack in the way of that characteristic punch you find terminating some writers’ short stories they make up for in other ways.

Bui is a competent chronicler of the migrant experience, and the majority of these stories are about Vietnamese living in Vietnam or else Vietnamese who have migrated to Australia. Cultural markers such as filial piety and a solid work ethic are offset by other aspects of these people’s lives, such as a love of beauty or the remains of trauma due to war and displacement.

As important as the protagonists are the secondary characters, such as the father in ‘Before the Lights Go Out’, the father in ‘Mekong Love’, or the mother in ‘I Just Want to Hear You Say It’, each of whom perform important roles in the stories they appear in. There is a range of different voices and these men and women – and children, too, sometimes – give the reader access to other ways of living and other systems of value. And Biu is clear-eyed about the lives of her creations, she doesn’t spare anyone from her critical intuition.

In publishing a collection like this Bui is aware of the kinds of debates that circulate in the public sphere about migration. When I was younger I was employed by the police and many of the people we investigated were Romanians involved in the drug trade but there was also a significant number of Vietnamese running such businesses as well. In Sydney, where I was doing that work, common in the records that we generated by doing car registration checks and from other sources were addresses in the suburb of Cabramatta – where many Vietnamese migrants lived.

That part of the Vietnamese-Australian experience is happily, now, ancient history and although many Vietnamese-Australian families still live in Cabramatta how they earn a living is, now, for the most part legal. So it is salutary to read a book like this one, a book filled with important stories that add to the stock of credit that Australia reaps as a result of its generous immigration policies. As for Bui, I suspect that she will become better-known in future as her work is more widely read.

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