The Infernal Optimist

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 April, 2006, 12:00am

The Infernal Optimist

by Linda Jaivin

Fourth Estate, $175

Behind the Moon

by Hsu-Ming Teo

Allen & Unwin, $140

Britain and the US lead the way in fiction about the migrant experience, thanks to Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Andrea Levy, Gish Jen, Chang-rae Lee and the like. They tend to write about the parlous business of arrival for the immigrant who must dig into the new culture to make a home while holding onto as many of the old ways as possible.

Britain and the US are overwhelming countries for the migrant. They are politically powerful with distinctive cultures. That pushes most migrant writers towards the standard device of a story told from the perspective of the outsider stumbling into town. The stranger explains the town's ways to a reader who's likely to have more in common with the locals than the author.

Migrant writers usually pitch their stories at literary circles in the new country - readers who understand the criticism, but hesitate to believe they're part of the problem. The writers hope to teach the country a little about itself, but know that the migrant novel has a modest chance of sitting in the bookstore window.

Australia, a smaller country with a higher proportion of citizens with foreign heritage, has produced a different kind of migrant story in the past year. The Infernal Optimist and Behind the Moon are told more from the point of view of a less certain host country.

Many Aussies roll their eyes when the country is boiled down to beer and sport. Yet they struggle to blend added ingredients into the national personality such as its success in the arts, its prominent gay culture and a relative tolerance for multiculturalism. As a country trying to work out what it is, Australia has more time to hear criticism from within. Linda Jaivin and Hsu-Ming Teo write about people who came from outside, but don't see themselves as strangers. The authors make pointed fun of the community around them and expect those in it to at least try to read their books. Their novels have a light tone and are pitched wide of literary types.

Jaivin is a Sinophile and former Hongkonger who has written five novels and three non-fiction books, including The Monkey and the Dragon (a biography of Chinese songwriter, dissident and fung shui master Hou Dejian) and New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (an anthology she edited with Geremie Barme).

Punchy sentences make her novels easy to read. That may be Jaivin's way of wooing readers into the story before they realise her novels are erotic and political hothouses.

In The Infernal Optimist, Zeki Togan is a small-time criminal born in Turkey who came to Australia as a baby. He's as Aussie as Bondi. Zeki stretches his vowels wider than a Melbourne Cricket Ground crowd chanting 'oi, oi, oi'. His vocabulary is a cross between George W. Bush and a Microsoft Word grammar check gone berserk: his girlfriend, Marlena, wants him to give up crime in no 'unswerving' terms but he's easily 'detracted'.

Amid the heightened tension after September 11, Zeki finds himself in an immigrant detention centre in western Sydney. He had been too lazy to take out the Australian citizenship he was eligible for. After several stints in jail, Zeki finds it much tougher behind the razor wire with men, women and children who fled torment in their home countries in China, Cambodia, Africa and the Middle East. Asylum-seekers live for years in the centres while their visa applications are processed. Boredom and the fear of returning to persecution crush many.

One of Jaivin's characters is told he will be sent back to Afghanistan because the US has ousted the Taleban. 'First you don't accept me as a refugee because you say I am not from Afghanistan,' he shouts at an immigration official. 'So you keep me here for years while I try to prove I am from Afghanistan. Now you say, okay, you really are Afghani then - now go home. Do you understand how cruel this is? I need to know what happened to my family. I need to know if the people who went after my family, who wanted to go after me, are still around. You think Americans won the war and it's all over, it's that easy? That the Taleban are gone? Then you don't know my country. And if you don't know my country, you have no right to tell me what to do.'

The Infernal Optimist is deliberately light literature. Jaivin's prose is simple but her ideas are testing. She might have chosen a sympathetic lead character such as the Iraqi exile of Thomas Keneally's take on Australian detention centres, The Tyrant's Novel. But she backs herself to illustrate the wrongs of Australia's immigration system with a cheeky career-criminal who can't help cheating on his girlfriend with other detention inmates.

Malaysian-born Teo won the Vogel Award for her first novel, Love and Vertigo, about a Chinese family in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia, the country she moved to aged seven. Behind the Moon follows the families of three Sydney schoolchildren - Justin Cheong, Tien Ho and Nigel 'Gibbo' Gibson - across Australia and Vietnam. The trio come together as outsiders: Justin is gay, Tien is the product of her Vietnamese mother's affair with a black American soldier, and Gibbo is a fat westerner who wants to be Chinese. As they bounce off what Teo sees as racial and class barriers in Australia, Behind the Moon emerges as a novel for young people.

The story is bursting with ideas. It's perhaps too busy. Teo swings from long passages of narrative in the form of e-mails between characters to leading each chapter with an extract from Nguyen Du's 19th-century epic poem The Tale of Kieu, a masterpiece of Vietnamese literature. She hunts for insights by forcing the three teens into every corner of Australian culture, including the apartments of Hong Kong university students, before heading around the world. The strongest passages are set in Vietnam, on which Teo writes more precisely, restrained by the need for solid research on a time and country she's less familiar with.