A Chinese Affair, a debut short story collection recently released by Margaret River Press, is a beautiful work of art, and I am delighted to be introducing its author, Isabelle Li. It was my pleasure to work with Isabelle in the editing of the collection and I was impressed by its intelligence and depth, and the haunting beauty of the prose.
Isabelle grew up in China and migrated to Australia in 1999. She received her Master of Arts and Master of Creative Arts from University of Technology Sydney, and is currently studying her Doctor of Creative Arts in Western Sydney University. Her short stories have appeared in various anthologies, including The Best Australian Stories. Her poetry translation has been published by World Literature in China.
Here is the back-cover blurb for A Chinese Affair:
A Chinese Affair brings a new, exciting voice to the Australian literary landscape.
‘Be of service to the people.’ Chairman Mao’s command was once printed on posters, the front covers of journals, the flaps of school satchels, and I grew up believing that was to be my mission. But who are my people? Have I been of service to anyone? As if walking in a snowstorm, I look back to find that my footprints have been erased. I do not know where I am and can no longer find my way back.
In sixteen exquisite stories, Isabelle Li explores recent Chinese migration to Australia and elsewhere. Some are explicitly connected, through common characters or incidents; in others, the threads are both allusive and elusive—intergenerational and interracial relationships, the weight of history and indebtedness, the search for meaning, and the muteness peculiar to cultural dislocation and the inexpressibility of self in a second language.
The stories explore what it means to leave behind one’s familiar environment and establish a new life, the struggle to survive and thrive, the triumph and compromise, love and heartache, failure and resilience.
And here is Isabelle…
2 things that inspired my book
The title story in A Chinese Affair opens with a dream: ‘I dream of my mother again. She is sitting in front of the sewing machine, crying.’ The first story I wrote in this collection, ‘The Floating Fragrance’, also opens with a dream, and is followed by another one later. All three dreams are real, though altered, and the setting is the house where I lived for the first seventeen years of my life. My brother was the last to leave before it was demolished. He told me he locked up the place as usual, to ‘preserve it for dreaming’. Dreams intrigue me. Their vividness and strangeness, the haunting quality and unbound lyricism, the disappearing nature of an oneiric experience, inspire my writing. The code switching between dreaming and waking presents infinite possibilities for drama and revelation. ‘Further South’ also opens with a dream:
On the morning of my twenty-eighth birthday, I woke up from a long dream. My body still carried the bittersweet sensation of an epiphany, but the memory was like the last wisp of incense, blown out of shape by the first movement of the air.
At the end of the story, the narrator recalls the dream and understands its message.
This collection is also inspired by language, and the lack or loss of it. The characters are mostly members of the new wave of Chinese migrants. Their cultural dislocation, combined with the inability to express themselves, results in what I have termed ‘endemic muteness’. They do not belong to any overseas Chinese communities or social organisations. Even if they are part of a group, few personal disclosures are involved in their social interactions. They filter or disguise, say one thing while meaning another. Their loneliness and longing are individual and not shared. They are not mute because they do not want to speak, but because they have nothing to say. Living in an English-speaking environment, they have lost the rich context of their Chinese language. As a result, they lose the ability not only to communicate with others but to recognise and articulate their inner feelings and emotions. An example is ‘Narrative of Grief’. Lily is forced to abandon her mother-tongue as a child. She is dissociated from her own feelings, evidenced by numbness to her surroundings and a lack of understanding of her profound sense of loss. To survive, she has to toughen up, and she’s made the enormous effort in English. Chinese, the mere utterance of it, makes her vulnerable. Her propensity for melancholy proves just how traumatic the loss of language can be.
2 places connected with my book
The migrant characters feel rootless, floating constantly between spaces and permanently disoriented. They yearn for a place to belong, for an identity that is certain, while leading a transitory existence in transient spaces, which are simultaneously here and there, now and then, but are also nowhere and in-between.
In ‘Lyrebird’, Ivy shares a unit with Sam but is often out house-sitting. She has been to a doctor’s apartment with five budgies, a pink lady’s house with two cats, and an engineer’s balcony with a collection of bonsai. Ivy says:
I move from one place to another, sharing the unit with Sam in between. ‘Don’t you want stability?’ Sam asks. He does not know that all the while I am saving up to buy my own place. It will be a small apartment with an elevated outlook on a quiet street, where I will rise with the sun and sleep among the stars.
The protagonist in ‘Further South’ is also feeling out of place. She wakes up in a rented room in a country where she feels physically uncomfortable, goes to work in a corporation where she does not fit in, meets her friends in a restaurant where she is humiliated, and ends the day in her room where she receives anonymous phone calls. Late in the night, she says:
I sat on my bed, leaned on the windowsill, and opened a corner of the curtain. The city was asleep and I was peeping into a dream that belonged to someone else.
2 favourite character names
I named myself Isabelle after one of my favourite characters, Isabel Archer, from The Portrait of a Lady, though I prefer the French spelling. Likewise, my characters have chosen their English names for a range of reasons. In Chinese culture, given names are made up of one or two characters, carrying with them positive associations, good wishes and high aspirations. So my characters, in deciding on a name, have given hints to their inner selves.
One of the heroines, Crystal, explains her name:
People give me good-hearted advice: ‘You’ve got to be yourself. Why don’t you use your Chinese name? It’s very special.’ I do not want to be special. I am not an exotic bird and have no interest in showing off my plumage. I am Crystal, perfect in structure and form, hard and clear in every molecule.
Ivy, on the other hand, adopts her name for a completely different set of reasons:
‘You are what you eat,’ says my book of English proverbs. I believe in the power of food. When I feel tired, I eat ginger. If my eyes lose their shine, I eat goji berries. If my hair looks dull, I eat seaweed. I tend to myself like a gardener tends a plant, and that is why I named myself Ivy—hoping for low maintenance.
On the surface, the characters blend in by giving themselves English names. Deep down, they have demonstrated a distinctively Chinese attitude and carried forward their Chinese heritage.