Every now and again, along comes a book so interesting that it almost takes your breath away, and Anguli Ma, A Gothic Tale by Chi Vu is just such a book. It’s from a new series called Giramondo Shorts, a collection of essays, novellas, prose poems, memoirs and literary criticism.
It’s almost as if the publisher Ivor Indyk had been eavesdropping on a conversation I had not so long ago with some of my blogging pals. Did he hear us bemoaning the dearth of books that originate from the diversity of cultures in contemporary Australia? We complained that although we are starting to hear more diverse voices in memoir, there seems to be very little literary fiction published by first-generation Australians, either in English or through translation. It seems so odd: many of our refugees and migrants are highly educated people in their home countries – and others come from countries with rich folk traditions – surely there must be a wealth of fascinating stories to be shared. Yet if we look through the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, we find that even after more than half a century of mass immigration to this country, nearly all our published writers are of Anglo-Celtic background*. And barely a month after this conversation, along comes Chi Vu’s novella in the post! (Of course it must have been in the pipeline long before our conversation, I know that).
A theatre-maker and performer born in Vietnam, Chi Vu is also a writer of short stories and a bilingual performance play called Vietnam, A Psychic Guide (an excerpt of which is in the PEN Anthology). This novella is a reworking of a story from her own culture and heritage.
Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale is a contemporary retelling of an ancient Buddhist folk tale about the Angulimala. According to the story, this Angulimala was a student who had provoked his teacher’s jealousy and was therefore sent on a grisly quest. By tradition, when training is complete, a student must offer a final gift to the guru who taught him. Before receiving this final approval Angulimala was told to present 1000 fingers, each from a different victim (the teacher hoping that at some stage the victim would fight back and kill Angulimala). Because it was his destiny, Angulimala took to this quest with enthusiasm and became a ruthless serial killer who wore his victims’ fingers around his neck in a gruesome garland. The story ends, however, with his redemption when he meets the Buddha and follows his teachings. The story is told to show that even the most wicked of men can be redeemed by the power of Buddhism.
In Chi Vu’s story, set not long after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Anguli Ma is a Vietnamese refugee who lives in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Almost against her will, Ðào agrees to take him in at her boarding house. She decides to overlook his origins in the Communist North, (which even today provokes hostility within the Melbourne Vietnamese community) because he impresses her: he is an educated man whose family chose to emigrate to the south in 1954 rather than live under the Communists. Now, however, his time learning to read ‘thick books and recite poetry’ is of no value for his new life in Melbourne: he works in an abattoir.
Before long, however, she begins to have grave doubts about him, and it’s not just because he brings home chunks of meat in plastic bags that ooze gore onto the kitchen floor. All the women are struggling to adjust: even the form of their household seems alien to them, ‘three women in a drafty old house without their husbands, children, siblings, fathers or mothers, without any menfolk‘ (p4). There is Sinh, who’d escaped by herself aged only 16 and now works as a cleaner, and Bác, a much older woman who has lost her husband and son. Ðào’s son Trung has ‘assimilated the laziness of the locals’ and is a disappointment to her, and her grand-daughter Tuyét is sulky and ungrateful. Ðào feels insecure and unappreciated.
So when strange things start happening, there is alarm. They thought that they had left trouble behind in Vietnam, but they have brought with them wandering, hungry ghosts. Unable to be reborn as a human or an animal, unable to enter heaven or hell because of their gruesome, untimely deaths’ (p 54). Like a play or film with very short scenes, the story is told in brief disconnected fragments with gothic elements that add to the mounting tension. In a way the novella reminded me of Sarah Watt’s film ‘Look Both Ways’ – not because of any similarities in the plot but because of its cinematic style and the way that inchoate disaster seems to be coming from every which way. Strange events bleed into the narrative: Azaria Chamberlain’s bizarre disappearance; an unnerving scene involving the death of a dog; and a ‘brown’ man with a body ‘scarred and deformed, broken and mended wrong’ menaces a monk on a bleak embankment but is confronted by serenity.
Ðào runs a hui, a kind of community loan scheme, where members pool money and can win it by ballot for a month or so in order to buy things or pay bills. These people do not use banks: the hui is a way of providing small loans amongst people who trust each other because they are all ‘struggling the same way…[and] have lost so much already’(p12). But when money goes missing that fragile trust is shattered. Threats of violence because of the missing money blind Ðào to the danger she has brought into her home.
It’s a macabre tale indeed!
Update: You can read more about the launch here.
Further update Jul 1 2012:
For The Wheeler Centre’s ‘Long View’ series Nicholas Jose has written a very interesting essay called ‘Everyday and Exotic: Australian Asian Writing’ and discusses Anguli Ma at some length. Click here to check it out.
Author: Chi Vu
Title: Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale
Publisher: Giramondo 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing
Availability: Direct from Giramondo
*Exceptions that I know of include Brian Castro who was born in HongKong, Nam Le from Vietnam, and Ouyang Yu from China, J.M. Coetzee from South Africa of course, and Michelle de Kretser born in Sri Lanka. But who else is writing literary fiction? Are authors of ethnic origin being published and I just haven’t heard of them? Where is the Australian Kite Runner? Where is the contemporary Rosa Cappiello?