Review: Australia Day by Melanie Cheng

Prime minister Scott Morrison described his 2019 election win as one for the “quiet Australians”. Just who the quiet Australians are (apart from people who just like Scott Morrison) remains a bit of a mystery. They seem to be middle class, economic conservatives who believe that hard work is all it takes to get ahead. They are people I suspect who see themselves as “tolerant” of social diversity, up to a point.

I was reminded of Morrison’s quiet Australians reading Melanie Cheng’s collection of short stories. This collection is about Australia now, but it also has a timeless quality. Only mentions of iPads, Trump or the GFC jolted me into the realisation that this was published in 2017, and not during the Howard years. Its title is reminiscent of the annual debate around shifting the national sausage fest that is Australia Day to a date less traumatic for Indigenous Australians.

Many of Cheng’s stories are explicitly about multiculturalism. Usually a white, “quiet” Australian finds their assumptions challenged, revealing the edges of their multicultural tolerance. In the opening story, Jess takes her Chinese-Australian boyfriend Stan to meet her father Neville in regional Victoria. In a highlight, Fracture, it is Tony, of Italian heritage, confronting Deepak, a surgeon, over a botched operation. Inevitably, the white people react badly, reinforcing their position of power in Australian society. They are textbook examples of white fragility.

These encounters aren’t always racial. Cheng is also interested in other forms of marginalisation: poverty, mental illness, class.

Family is Cheng’s other major concern, how our idea of it both resists and is moulded by social change. In Allomother, a sister struggles with the burden of surrogacy she has taken on. In the longest story, Muse, widower Evan finds himself drawn to a life model while wrestling with a lifetime of unresolved daddy issues.

Cheng has a medical background, and these stories are full of examples of a health system in crisis. Again and again characters come up against an amorphous, callous, bureaucratic system where noone seems to be accountable. It feels like a metaphor for Australian society more generally.

I couldn’t help but thinking that Cheng’s medical background also influences her writing. It is precise, surgical, a little too neat. There is rarely a word or an idea out of place. Characters, if not necessarily stereotypical, certainly conform to cultural archetypes. A South African woman is racist; a Middle Eastern woman is sympathetic to Indigenous Australians. I sometimes wished things were a bit messier, a little more unpredictable. But as it is, this is a revealing and uncomfortable diagnosis.

Australia Day is published by Text.

Gay rating: 2/5 for one set of same-sex parents and some casual homophobia that suggests Australia is just as ill-equipped to have conversations about sexuality

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