Setbacks and breakthroughs

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Adelaide Chin Christian Church choir. Used with permission.

About a year ago, I began interviewing Za Dim, a lady from the minority Chin tribe of Myanmar. After describing her experience of torture in an Indian jail, she said that each time she recounted the experience, she would be dizzy and unwell for a few days. We sat silent for a while, the air heavy with horror and sorrow.

Finally, I said, ‘I’m sorry for all that you went through.’

‘Nothing you can do about that. It’s in the past now,’ interpreted her son. ‘The story after this is happy.’

A few days later, her son called to postpone a meeting because his mother was unwell. My subsequent phone calls went unanswered and I almost gave up hope of seeing them again, wondering if the interview had caused her so much pain that she had decided to discontinue the retelling, wondering if she was still happy for me to publish her story.

To my great delight and relief, I recently reestablished contact Za Dim. Her family had moved from their inner city home to the northern suburbs. Warming ourselves before an antiquated wood burner, Za Dim and I exchanged pleasantries. I handed her a copy of her story, what I had written so far. She accepted it and invited me to her church.

As I drove her to church that Sunday, she told me that her youngest son had read her story and asked who had written it. ‘My friend, May-Kuan,’ she had replied.

It has been said that journalists have no satisfactory word for the people they cover – characters? subjects? – which may say something about the oddness of the relationship itself. So it meant a great deal to hear Za Dim call me friend.

Writing this book over the past three years, I’ve encountered various setbacks. The Cambodian lady I interviewed pulled out on reading the draft, desiring to ‘let the past be the past.’ It was a setback for the book, but, I’d like to think, a cathartic experience for her personally.  So many times when I’ve thought the book is nearly done, the finish line in sight, it turns out to be a mirage; there is more writing, more editing, more interviewing.

But breakthroughs like reestablishing contact with Za Dim, visiting her church, seeing so many Chin families thrive in Adelaide, makes me take heart. Press on. Move forward. Inch closer to the end.

 

 

Iced coffee instead of bush tea

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My friend Merrilyn remembers a wonderful Afghan family and has a visual picture of where she parked when she visited them twelve years ago. On hearing that I would like to interview Afghans for my book, the two of us set out in my little car to try to locate this family.

‘It’s a corner house like this, but this one looks too flash.’

‘It has a long backyard like this, but there are only men’s shirts hanging in the backyard.’

‘Look, there are council workers over there. Would you be embarrassed if I spoke to them?’

‘No, but I don’t think they are going to know the Afghan family.’ I was starting to have my doubts, but admired Merrilyn’s commitment to the mission.

When we crossed the street to speak to a lady wearing a fluorescent vest, I thought of Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, the detective and her secretary from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, as brought to life by Alexander McCall Smith. The only difference was location: Adelaide, not Gabarone.

‘I’m looking for an Afghan refugee family who live here. I visited them twelve years ago. You wouldn’t have stumbled upon them would you?’

‘No,’ she shook her head. ‘We’ve just started in this area.’

‘You’re probably not even asking ethnicity.’

‘No, dog registrations.’

‘Ah, that’s a good thing to do. Keep cool. Sorry to take up your time.’

‘Not at all.’

It was a cheerful exchange, though not a very productive one.

‘Let’s try this one,’ said Merrilyn, pointing to an old sandstone bungalow with a letterbox propped up against the chain link fence. My heart sank when we rung the doorbell and heard Broadway music from the last century. An Aussie bloke in a singlet shuffled to the door. Definitely not Afghan. We did however learn that he barracked for Carlton because his brother lived there, though he did occasionally barrack for Port.

Ah, well, it was not to be.

We had spied a bustling cafe and decided to quench our thirst after all that sleuthing. Once again, like Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, only we had iced coffee instead of bush tea. Waiting to pay, I read a small newspaper article pasted to the till. Loveon Cafe had been started by a certain Rashed Kabir, who came from Bangladesh 10 years ago. While waiting for our coffees, we admired the handmade clay earrings we had bought to commemorate our day of detective work, the artistic decor and the little teapot on our table with the words ‘Coronation 2 June 1953 Queen Elizabeth.’

We met Rashed before we left and I said, ‘Wonderful cafe. Who is the artistic person who did your decor?’

‘All of you. The community. Everybody contributes.’

‘Where are you from?’ asked Merrilyn.

‘Bangladesh, crazy place,’ he says, smiling.

 

His son was just behind the counter, a mop of curly hair and bright black eyes. The young boy moved to a small table with crayons and toys, and I understood why it felt like a child friendly place, not just because of the brown paper wall covered with children’s drawings, the high chairs, the mothers with their babies, but because it was this child’s space too.

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Trying to finish the first draft for the book while juggling all the other commitments in life, the best thing motto I can think of for now is: Love On. After all, ‘Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.’

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

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Loveon Cafe along Gladstone Road, Mile End. Well worth checking out if you’re in town.

Hello and Goodbye

My paternal grandfather

My paternal grandfather

I sit in my study in Adelaide, thinking of the journey that my paternal grandfather took from China to Malaya somewhere between 1900 and 1930. It’s an imprecise estimate, my best guess.

In the only surviving photo of his younger days, he is in Western attire. He was a scholar, or, as the Cantonese saying goes, one who holds a brush. I imagine him looking for a better life, fleeing the political turmoil of China, setting sail for the South China Sea.

For the migrant, life is a series of goodbyes and hellos, and for me, the modern day migrant, December is a month of long summer days, bush fire dangers, and holidays back home. But home is becoming harder and harder to pin down.

Maybe home is where the food is best – where I hear a metal spatula fighting with a wok and know that a good plate of char-kway-teow is coming up. But my children have developed a taste for Spaghetti Bolognese, Aussie meat pies and Kourabiethes, and I must admit that I am partial to a good tiramisu myself.

Or is it where I can walk the streets my grandfather walked? Where I can gaze up at his calligraphy, imagine his brush forming words that were cast in concrete and affixed to the newest building in town? But my link to him is tenuous. I never met him; he passed away before I was born. Those streets may hold my history, but not my home.

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My grandfather’s calligraphy on a building in Menglembu, near Ipoh.

 

My grandfather left China and never returned to see family left behind, establishing a new family in a new land. Modern migrants are luckier. We travel back and forth with our hellos and goodbyes and our bittersweet holidays, maintaining links with the past where all the talking and remembering is compressed into a few emotional weeks, and then we return home again to forge a path into the future, wherever that may be.

Emerging Artists Mentorship

Monarch Butterfly emerging

Mosdell Emerging

I am deeply grateful to be the recipient of an Arts SA Independent Makers and Presenters Grant, in the Emerging Artists Mentorship category. As a result of this grant, I will have the privilege of being mentored by poet, writer and teacher Dr Mark Tredinnick.

Writing is a solitary activity, and writing a book takes a long time, so long that there are days when I’m beset with doubts: Is this any good? Will it contribute anything true to humanity? Should I really gag the world with another book?

Although Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard said that these doubts are no more than mosquitoes to be ‘repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged’, dissenting voices in my head are not easily quelled. The support and belief of family, friends, and bodies such as Arts SA, strengthen my resolve, and give me the means, to keep going.

The category name – Emerging Artists Mentorship – is itself a hopeful one; it lends itself to the belief that an artists can emerge, from someone, somewhere, and that mentorships facilitate that process. This hope compels me to continue to sharpen the tools in my toolbox, to continue to string words into sentences, tame sentences into paragraphs, and sculpt paragraphs into stories.

The story I want to tell is the story of Adelaide, made up as it is of the stories of many people, some who have undertaken perilous journeys to get here, to make this place their home. The genre is creative non-fiction. The title is Place of Refuge.

Anger management

Benjamin

Benjamin Ivy covered wall

Gardening is good for my soul because I usually reap what I sow.

Sometimes I don’t reap at all, because of the weather, which I cannot control, or the weeds, which I can only try to tame.

When I am very angry with my children, and frustrated beyond words, I take my gardening shears and wrestle the ivy that grows vigorously on my boundary fence. In England and America ivy might represent prestige, aristocracy, and pre-eminence, but here in Adelaide, it is just a  weed. A nuisance. It lashes out at me, scars my arm; I yank the vines mercilessly, reach much further than I should as I balance on my ladder, survive my folly, and step back into my home a little tamer and a little saner.

Then I try to speak to my children reasonably, with love and patience if I can manage it, because I usually reap what I sow. And ivy is practically indestructible, but children are not.

Gardening is good for my soul.

Teleporting

I raided my local library and met Australian reporter Lynne O’Donnell.

That is, I read her book.

‘High Tea in Mosul’ is the result of O’Donnell’s encounter with two Englishwomen in Mosul shortly after the  Americans invaded Iraq in 2003. O’Donnell writes: ‘The landscape is breathtaking – mountains of untouched ancient forests; deep valleys sliced with rivers painted blue by the peerless sky; lush and sweeping plains that fatten sheep through winter and are burnished throughout the searing summers with the yellow and gold of wheat and oilseed rape.’

I read this and thought: She was there.

How am I ever going to write like that?

George Orwell. Photo Vera-Broadbent

George Orwell.Sketch by Vera-Broadbent

In ‘Finding George Orwell in Burma’, Emma Larkin (a pseudonym), comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter if Orwell had visited a particular place, because Orwell himself said that a writer’s skill lies in the ability to imagine what a place was like, or how someone else felt, or how events unfolded – imagine, imagine, imagine. (I am paraphrasing from memory, because I also borrowed that book from the library. I hope to get my hands on it again, and will post a quote here, or confess that I’ve misquoted as the case may be.)

I am interviewing displaced people who have settled here in Adelaide for my book Place of Refuge. In order capture the essence of their stories, I try to see people and places through their eyes and to do this, I need to cultivate a rich and varied landscape within me, a landscape of places far distant, places I have never visited before.

From the hard earth

Autumn Crocus

Autumn Crocus

In my garden, there is a patch of brown dirt that is unremarkable. My irrigation line doesn’t extend here so the earth starts to dry out in summer. By February fissures appear like cracks on a chocolate cake when it’s almost done. Visitors walk past it without a glance.

But sometime in March, a small, white tip pokes through the soil. From the hard earth, more delicate spears emerge and, after a few days, blossom into six-petalled blooms that transform the dirt patch into a carpet of purple autumn crocuses.

This patch is just outside my study, where I’m trying to cajole Sabah and Lamia‘s story into a work of creative non-fiction. To help me is Mark Tredinnick‘s Little Red Writing Book. On Creative Writing, he advises, ‘Write most quietly when the politics are shrill. That’s when quietness and calm and inconsequential beauty are most exquisitely needed.’

Back to my writing I turn. As I write Place of Refuge, I keep, at the back of my mind, a picture of the delicate spears, surprising in their strength, finding a way through rain-starved soil, catching visitors by surprise with colour and beauty where once was only nondescript brown dirt.

Harmony Day Celebrations

Ethiopian Bread Basket

Ethiopian Bread Basket

Last Sunday, at the Migration Museum in Adelaide, Anette and Zaid demonstrated how to make Injera, an Eritrean/Ethiopian flatbread. They have kindly agreed to share their Eritrean flat bread and beef stew recipe here. Anette became a mentor to Zaid as part of the Fuse Mentoring program, run by Baptist Care, where new arrivals are paired up with volunteers who help them find their feet in Australia.

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Outside the cooking demo hall, under a gazebo, an articulate young lady from Congo was delivering a speech to a small crowd. She described her experience of arriving in Australia as ‘landing on the moon.’ Bryan Hughes, the Fuse Mentoring coordinator later said that having a friend is a real lifeline for new arrivals, who might have little or no English skills.

The Australian Refugee Association (ARA) and Welcome to Australia  were partners in this event. All these organisations welcome volunteers. Various other groups in Adelaide also do their bit to help new arrivals, such as holding free English classes and coffee mornings. It seems timely to put up an  information page where various refugee resettlement resources in Adelaide can be listed in one place so that resources and needs can be more easily matched. I have therefore set up a page on this blog – Adelaide Asylum Seeker & Refugee Support – where groups providing services to refugees and asylum seekers can share their contact details and say a bit about what they offer.

If we work together, we can achieve more.

Ancient civilisations meet

Lamia with pizza - Iraqi style

Lamia with pizza – Iraqi style

When I drove across Adelaide for my first interview with Sabah and Lamia from Iraq, I had fanciful ideas about 5000 years of Chinese civilisation meeting 5000 years of Mesopotamian culture. You might remember Sabah from my previous post as the playwright, who discovered, taught, and fell in love with his leading lady, Lamia.

I took off my shoes at the door, as Chinese people do (and probably Iraqi people too judging by their bare feet) and exchanged greetings, and saw that Lamia had laid out a feast on the coffee table – a three-tiered plate of nuts and Ferrero Rocher chocolates, a six pack of coke with Italian crystal glasses to drink from, three kinds of cake and a platter overflowing with fruit.

At the end of the first interview, the family invited me for a biryani lunch the following week before the second interview. I foolishly declined. I was thinking of all the cooking that Lamia would have to do. You see, I used to teach Lamia English and she used to come into class tired from all the cooking and cleaning she had done in the weekend, and I wanted to spare her that. But as I drove away, I realised what an opportunity I had squandered.

I turned up mid-afternoon instead for the second interview. This time I met their grandson, playing on an iPad. Lamia gave me a tour of their home, I saw their fruit trees, the pergola they built, and she showed me a newspaper cuttings of their youngest son who does gymnastics and Parkour. Their younger daughter, Ranin, joined us mid-way through the interview, munching on a cucumber, and I found out that she has her own personal fitness business. Some of the before and after photos she showed me were spectacular and I wondered if I should sign up. I reflected on the many similarities between our families – chess, gymnastics, guitar strumming, picky eaters – and just by observation, I thought that both Lamia and I, as mothers, spend a lot of time shopping, cooking, and serving food.

The second interview was much more relaxed than the first. In fact, we were just chatting towards the end and Sabah said, ‘We’re going off topic.’ But it was in the chatting that I dropped my writer’s hat and simply became someone making new friends. And it was in that moment that I think I got closer to understanding what it cost them to flee Iraq, and what life is like for them now.

I’ll be spending the next few weeks writing up their amazing story for the book, Place of Refuge – a collection of creative non-fiction stories of displaced people who have made their home in Adelaide.

Sabah has kindly supplied the photos below.

Lamia Alkhad on the stage

Lamia Alnashi on stage.

Chess is a favorite game in my family

Chess –  a favourite game of the family

My family in Morialta 2015

The family at Morialta, 2015

Button Boy

A child working at a sewing machine making seats for cars and vans. Photo by Zoriah.

Child labour. Photo by Zoriah

Students come and go, but some of them leave a mark on you. As my last day of teaching in an organisation draws near, I think back and remember.

I remember the young man, the son of very highly educated parents, who wanted to be an engineer but couldn’t add comfortably beyond 100 because he spent his growing years sewing buttons in a refugee camp instead of going to school. He made me think of the cost of displacement.

I remember the young woman who couldn’t concentrate in class because she was worried sick about her mother who was stuck in a refugee camp halfway around the world. She made me think of the hope of reconciliation.

‘The cost of displacement and the hope of reconciliation’ were the seed ideas for ‘Place of Refuge’, a collection of creative non-fiction stories of those who have found a place of refuge in Adelaide over the past 40 years (1975 – 2015).

It is in order to interview and write the stories of those who have found, or are trying to find, a place of refuge in Adelaide, that’s why I’m saying goodbye to my class very soon.