Margin calls

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2006, 12:00am

THE MIGRANT daughter of a Singaporean mother and a Malaysian father, Hsu-ming Teo knows she could go to writers' festivals and talk about being alienated and marginalised.

'There's always an audience for that kind of thing,' she says. 'But I just don't want to do that. I think it's really important that I don't slide into some kind of victim mentality of poor Asian immigrants.'

Instead Teo, 35, who moved to Australia with her family at the age of seven, wants to be thought of as an Australian writer, one who both draws on her own family background and documents the world in which she lives.

That desire moulded her second and most recent novel, Behind the Moon, a story of three Sydney friends and their families, each from a different background: Tien Ho came by boat as a refugee from Vietnam; Justin Cheong, a closet gay, is the son of Singaporean migrants; and Nigel 'Gibbo' Gibson, a character based on a friend of Teo's brother, is an Anglo-Australian outsider who wishes he was Chinese.

The narrative follows them from school, where they were inseparable, into adulthood, documenting the forces that both unite and divide as they grow older and apart, then draw close again.

'I didn't decide consciously to make it multicultural,' says Teo, who grew up and still lives in the ethnic melting pot of Sydney's western suburbs. 'I just wanted to write about the Australia I knew.'

It's not so much that the world she writes about is undocumented, she says. Rather, it's the way it's documented - as something special, or to be celebrated, rather than an everyday, diverse reality.

Her reality is an affectionate, warts-and-all portrait of a country in which people are struggling with the notion of what it is to be Australian in the 21st century.

A friend told Teo that an incident in Behind the Moon, in which Tien and Justin are racially abused while riding an Adelaide tram, belonged to the Australia of the 1970s or 80s. To which she replied: 'It happened to me last time I was in Adelaide.'

Yet she prefers not to dwell on such incidents. 'I don't want to get caught up in the whole victim thing so much that you lose sight of all the times that it doesn't happen,' she says.

'I don't want to forget for myself how very fortunate I am. For every racial incident that happens to me there are so many others that don't and so many good things that happen. Bad news is so much more interesting that we tend to take the good things for granted.'

Part of the appeal of Behind the Moon is characters who, although likeable, are also real and flawed. Set partly in Vietnam, it was an ambitious project for a young writer with a heavy weight of expectation on her shoulders. In 1999 Teo's first book, Love and Vertigo, about a Malaysian-Chinese family adjusting to Australia, won Australia's most prestigious young writers' award.

Teo is anxious that neither Love and Vertigo nor Behind the Moon be seen as so-called migrant novels - the one was about dysfunctional families; the latest is about dysfunctional friendships.

'The dysfunctional is really important in being able to explore the underlying things that are so often left unsaid in relationships,' she says.

The character of Gibbo - fat, friendless apart from Tien and Justin, a social misfit - is a way of showing that 'you can be perfectly white and still feel like an outsider - that's the case with Nigel and that was the case with my brother's friend', Teo says.

But Teo, who based the character of Justin's cleanliness-obsessed mother, Annabelle, on her aunts, and who has a closet gay cousin, understands all too well the pressures faced by migrants' children.

Her father, who lived through race riots in Malaysia and believed that being a doctor offered security and position in society, wanted her to study medicine. But she switched to history and is now a postdoctoral researcher and full-time lecturer at Macquarie University.

At times, there's surprise that a Chinese-Australian is a European history specialist. Two of her latest research projects are about the culture of romantic love in Australia, and colonialism, race and the mass-market romance novel. Both must be written up as books of up to 90,000 words before Teo begins her third novel.

The occasional surprise of colleagues, despite the sheltered environs of a university, illustrates another of Teo's fictional themes. 'The other thing I wanted to do was just to normalise the presence of Asians in Australia,' she says.

'I read a quote, I can't remember it exactly, from Plato where he talks about the fact that it's the people who tell the stories who will control society. It essentially was about how storytellers have a lot of power to determine a lot of things in society.

'One of the things I feel about Australian culture generally, especially in the past 10 years, is that things have become quite Anglo again and there has been a retreat from the courage to represent the everyday, ordinary, multicultural Australia that in reality we have become.

'It's partly because at the same time nationalism is growing, but it's a particular white kind of nationalism that not everybody can plug into.'

Teo speaks no Chinese and lived in London with her doctor father and dentist mother before they migrated to Australia in 1977.

When she won the A$19,000 ($110,000) Australian/Vogel award, she felt disappointed by suggestions its so-called migrant content might have carried the day. She's Australian and wants to write about her Australia.

But as Behind the Moon so effectively illustrates, her Australia is a different place from that of those who wrap themselves in the flag to reclaim Sydney's beaches. 'I do see myself very much as an Australian writer - but not an Australian writer in the bush-and-beach tradition.'

Behind the Moon (Allen and Unwin, $135)