Dragon Chica

The fascinating American writer May-lee Chai, one of my most treasured Twitter-friends, has recently published a Young Adult novel, called Dragon Chica, about the the experience of a Cambodian-Chinese family settling into small-town America.
It so happens that I am at the moment working on my own book about Cambodia, so I was doubly fascinated to read Dragon Chica. And I was not disappointed. Based on a brief experience in her own life, when as a youngster she met an exotic family of Cambodian-Chinese running a restaurant in a rural district of America, May-lee Chai has been working on Dragon Chica for the best part of 10 years, and the care and time taken seems definitely to have paid off. It is a beautifuly nuanced work of enormous appeal, not just to its intended Young Adult audience, but to anyone interested in the themes of race, belonging and the mysterious dynamics of family. It is also an exploration of outsider-ship, that meta-theme of all young adult fiction. And while specifically (and masterfully) dealing with questions of racism and ethnic identity, it is ultimately much more universal in its story. It is about the great pain and torment of all adult awakening: the struggles with sexual identity, the search for a more strongly (and separately) identified self and the enormous resentment at family strictures and eccentricities. One of the themes that spoke strongly to me as someone who grew up in a regional area (as did May-lee Chai) was the fury at being isolated at a point in life when experience and glamour seem to be the very most important elements of existence. The dullness of a provincial teenage existence and the constant thwarting of adolescent fantasy are brought to life in the pages of Dragon Chica in a way that brought constant smiles of recognition (and occasional pangs of long-forgotten angst) to my reading face.
The characters are rich and complex in a way that would be enormously attractive to a YA reader. What it also does, with great sophistication and lightness of touch, is bring to life the rich, complex and shifting cultures of the Chinese diaspora, and the special (and harrowing) historical circumstances of the Cambodian-Chinese in particular. There is a magic in Chai's treatment of legend, folklore and superstition, and the characters - especially the older ones- occasionally lapse into a kind of dream-world of memory that is at turns whimsical and harrowing. There is, too, an exquisite and subtly-played symbolism to these stories, as when the hapless Uncle, the family's struggling patriarch, reflects on his experience of the Buddhist tradition of releasing caged birds to cultivate merit. He recalls his wife's words in the face of his scepticism about the project:
"Maybe they like to fly in the air for a day? Even if they return at night, how do you know they don't enjoy their freedom durng the day?"

All this in the context of his own horribly caged existence, limited, ironically, by that same wife's tenuous grasp on reality and her inability to overcome the tragedy of her past.
Of course, mine is a particularly adult reading, one especially intererested in the nuances of remembering and the play of culture and tradition in the narrative. I mustn't ignore the main part of the book, which is the journey of the lovely Sourdi, the big sister charged with caring not just for her siblings but for her impossible mother; and the novel's true heroine, the gutsy and terribly real teenaged girl Nea, who isn't even that interested any more in any identity that isn't her own. It is Nea's growth into adulthood that is the novel's central story.
Chai's intention with this book seems to have been an ambitious one, describing the tensions of race and identity that are a unique part of multicultural societies - tensions which are not necessarily resolved till several generations have passed, and which are frequently played out, as in Dragon Chica, among the more aware and more socially equipped generation of migrant's children. The ambition has, in my opinion, been rewarded. Dragon Chica is a beautifully written, clever and perfectly crafted novel, one that succeeds at every level without ever falling into the embarrassing and cringe-making didacticism that can frequently plague the "issues" novel, particularly one directed at young people. Chai speaks perfectly to her young readers, trusting in their intelligence, their sensitivity and their great desire for subtlety.
For me the most intriguing character was the tragic, scarred and monstrously selfish Auntie. She is almost an archetype, and a figure that is easy to recognise if anyone has had anything to do with migrant families. Auntie's is the life that is lived on the knife-edge of tragedy; she is the one who bears the pain of exile, lost forever in the old stories the others can't afford to recall. Neurotic, spiteful and attention-seeking, Auntie is both the family's matriarch and its ultimate betrayer. She uses her health and her fragility to manipulate those around her:

"She insisted that we take her back to the house even though it was a busy night...she had to go home immediately. She couldn't wait . She'd forgottten her medicine. There was no telling what would happen if she delayed."

It is May-lee Chai's genius that she delivers such a familiar figure so sensitively and, I should add, with a wonderful dose of mystery and intrigue that has the reader guessing right to the very end. The author's sympathy for the outsider is palpable, and allows each of the characters to be fully human in their greater or or lesser alienation.
I adored this book, and would recommend it to any young person, particularly those with an interest in Asia and the Asian immigrant experience. May-lee Chai deserves to be better known in Australia, and Dragon Chica is the kind of book that almost any young Australian could indentify with.

My List for 2011

Inspired in part by Stephanie Dowrick's fabulous thoughts on New Year's resolutions, I thought I'd be brave and make my list of wants for 2011 public. These are NOT resolutions - I never make them. These are just ideas, intentions, little seeds that I want to put out there into the universe. They may or may not happen in the next year, but I know I will be thinking about them, and doing something to turn my wish-list into a reality. So here goes:

A List of Things I'd Like to Be in 2011

1. A fitter and healthier person: I am 40 now, and weight-loss is a bigger and bigger priority in my life. I need to pay more careful attention to my health, and I need to be more serious about exercise. I'd really like to take up yoga again this year, and get back to weight-training - two things I haven't done in many years! Searching for new ways to deal with some chronic and life-long health problems will also be on the list for me in 2011.

2. A more prayerful and meditative person: In general I meditate every day, and I certainly pray at several points in the day. But I want to bring some kind of discipline and order to my spiritual life, because I know this would benefit my wellbeing significantly.

3. A kinder, more tolerant and more respectful person: This is something I have to work on every year. In particular I need to remember my wonderful life partner and extend my care and regard in his direction more constantly. I am by nature a selfish person, and inclined also to be irritable, judgemental and nagging. None of these are attractive states of being, and none are really very effective in making me happy, or in making the people around me like me more. So in 2011 I have to be far more active in training my thoughts and curbing my more negative habits and impulses.

4. A more prominent and harder-working writer: I'd like to get more review work and journalism this year, and I need to be more active in seeking it out and following through with it. Once I have a deadline I'm normally quite good at keeping it - I just have to get someone to set those deadlines in the first place. I'd also like to do some substantial work on a few side projects (not just my upcoming travel book on Cambodia). I am capable of being a much more productive and prolific writer, and I mustn't give in to my innate laziness. To this end I'd like to get some work teaching creative writing in 2011, too, as this is something I enjoy doing and I plan on it being an essential part of my future career.

5. A better-known academic: I've already been accepted to give two papers at different academic conferences this year, but I'd also like to get some academic articles placed in journals - at least three. I'd also like to organise a few extra seminars on subjects and areas that interest me. Plus I need to get creative in bringing my academic work to a broader public, which means more talks and articles about my area of expertise intended for a general audience. I am passionate about making scholarship accessible and interesting for everyone, and need to walk my talk a little more.

6. A better friend: Although some people might think me gregarious, I am by nature a shy person, and I actually find it really difficult to stay in touch with people. I am a dreadful phone-phobic, and sometimes the thought of going out and seeing friends and leading some kind of active social life exhausts and frightens me. I am committed this year to working harder at staying in touch with old and new friends and being more communicative.

Monday Blogcrawl

I'm back! I have committed the cardinal blogging sin of not doing anything for weeks on end, but I had a good excuse - I was in Cambodia and the only web connection I had was unbelievably slow, so I was more or less unwired. Strange, and strangely exhilerating for hyper-connected me. But now I'm back home and will be back on top of my blogs in no time. Here are some of the things I missed while I was away:

(Image from thailandlife.com)
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