Sun and styrofoam snow

September 4, 1991

By Tracy Sorenson

Speaking with the sun
New stories by Australian and New Zealand writers
Edited by Stephanie Dowrick and Jane Parkin
Allen and Unwin, 1991. 223 pp. $16.95
Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen

The overarching presence of sky and sea infuses this collection of stories by New Zealand and Australian writers. It is there in the Pacific island-hopping of a health-worker nun in Margaret Sutherland's "Particular friends" and in the New Zealand beach resort town of "We could celebrate".

In Australian writer Judy Duffy's "It took Uncle Albert to die", the drive is inland — a concept deeply embedded in the psyche of a nation permanently facing outwards to the sea, our reference point, despite the bush/outback mythology.

This is the anthology's common thread; on it hangs a world of difference. No "grand statement" emerges from it, says editor Stephanie Dowrick, but a reflection of "those similarities and differences between people which make short story reading, like chance conversations, so intensely rewarding".

Differences: these are present not just between the stories but examined within individual stories. In "The Harmonic Convergence" by Margaret Combs, the scene shifts from life in Sydney's urban ghetto, complete with a gay inhabitant of Kings Cross whose rigid conformity to an alternative social life makes him utterly predictable, to life perched on the edge of the breathtaking Illawarra escarpment. There, beauty is an unremarked-on backdrop to a long afternoon family barbecue where the narrator finds herself "petrified of seeming aloof and yet at the same time hurt at being ostracised".

Dislocation and fitting in are themes examined in Beth Yahp's "So we walked down Abercrombie Street", a story about an overseas student at the University of Technology ("the tower") who enthusiastically embraces the bohemian student lifestyle and keeps quiet about the frilly T-shirts and peep-toed plastic shoes her grandmother had given her as a going away present.

On her first encounter with a genuine Abercrombie Street student house, Lisa, the Asian student, lies on the sofa, "swallowing the knot in her chest. It's a familiar knot, one she associates with the loss of language. Of familiar things."

"A lot of my stories are to do with coming from somewhere that is different, because I come from somewhere else", Beth Yahp,

who came to Australia in 1984 as an overseas student from Malaysia, told Green Left Weekly. "Language is the first thing: speaking, not speaking the same as everyone else. And I found it very difficult, in the first year, to understand what people were saying ... That was the first barrier."

Then there was the anti-Asian campaign: "I had people throwing rocks at me in the street". And the struggle against massively increased fees and charges for overseas students.

Now, Yahp is completing a novel on a grant from the Australia Council. She has had her stories published in anthologies, and has co-edited two collection of stories.

Yahp speaks of reading avidly as a child, mostly English literature: with Thai/English and Chinese Malay parents, the common language in the Yahp household was English. Again, the displacement of language and culture: British colonialism had left a cultural stamp that included white Christmases complete with styrofoam snow, "but I didn't think it was weird, that's just the way it was. I used to read Enid Blyton. I knew what kippers were. And potted meat, even though we didn't have potted meat."

The sense of displacement continues. Living and working in Australia, Yahp thinks and writes about Malaysia ("it's the place of my imagination"); the real Malaysia, experienced in visits every couple of years, is never quite the same as the fantasy ("it usually seems worse than how I remember it").

Yahp will participate in a panel discussion of young writers during Australian Feminist Book Fortnight activities in Sydney.

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