After spending my last post looking at the history of a classic work, I’m returning today to more contemporary fare. The latest selection in my month of Japanese reading is a short novel with a slightly unusual setting, and focus, for a work of J-Lit. However, for several reasons, this is a story that is disturbingly familiar – mainly because I can imagine myself as one of the characters…
Kei Iwaki’s Farewell, My Orange (translated by Meredith McKinney, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) is set in the small (imaginary) town of Port Griffin, located somewhere on the coast in the southern part of Australia. One half of the novel takes the form of letters from a Japanese woman, Sayuri, to her old ESL teacher, describing life in her new home and the people she has met. Her reason for coming to Australia is her husband’s work at a small Australian university, and she must get through her days as best she can while caring for her young daughter.
However, the other half of the story features the life of a very different migrant. Salimah has finally reached safety after fleeing from violence in her African homeland, but life in Australia is not quite what she imagined. Neglected by her husband and disturbed by the stares she receives in her new home, she decides to make the best of things by taking up a job in a meat-processing factory and, eventually, deciding to study English, too. It’s here that she starts to make friends with fellow migrants – including a certain Japanese woman.
You suspect that there’s a lot that’s personal in Farewell, My Orange, with Iwaki having come to Australia herself more than twenty years ago and ending up staying. Sayuri is the writer’s alter-ego, another Japanese woman adapting to life in a new country, struggling to write in a new language and wondering whether it might be better to revisit the old one. However, her views on Japanese have been subtly influenced by her adventures in English:
I’d always just arrogantly assumed I knew it, without ever really trying to come to grips with it. It was dishonest. How much I’ve realised by learning a foreign language! You learn how to speak and hear, in other words you learn the sounds of a language, through the realities of everyday social life, and it’s seared into your ears and tongue forever, most especially through being associated with strong associations like mental and physical joy and pain.
p.36 (Europa Editions, 2018)
Little does Sayuri know that her words are prescient – shortly after this letter to her teacher she is to experience an event that will shake her to the core, and in a foreign land, too.
For the most part, though, Sayuri is actually a minor character in the background of Salimah’s story (where she is given the nickname Echidna for her spiky-looking hair). Where the Japanese woman is a fairly privileged migrant, Salimah is a very different kind of foreigner, a dark-skinned refugee in a small town with a relatively homogeneous population. She doesn’t really suffer from any active discrimination, yet the surprised looks she receives on the street from those unused to seeing black people make her uncomfortable. To make things worse, her family, which you’d expect to be her sanctuary, is anything but. Her husband has already shot through by the start of the book, and her sons, having picked up the language with ease, now mock their virtually illiterate mother.
The core of the story, then, is Salimah’s struggle to make a life for herself in Australia. Having plucked up the courage to get a job, she’s surprised to find that she’s actually good at it, and her determination and hard-working nature also help her when she decides she needs to improve her English skills. Where she is initially down on herself for being different, she gradually comes to change her views:
Perhaps the word weirdo indicated someone excluded from the group. But she herself hadn’t been born and bred in this group. I’m different – she said it aloud.
So they were born here and were happy to die here. Was this a boast? Or was it really a form of self-deprecation? If what they felt was indeed this mixture of scorn and anger, any sudden outlet would bring it seething out unchecked in the form of contemptuous and unjust treatment of others, thereby reinforcing for themselves the worth of their territory. (pp.79/80)
As an (immigrant) Australian, it’s hard to read this as anything but a subtle jab at the turn public sentiment (or perhaps merely government policy) has taken in immigration matters over the past decade. With scaremongering about ‘African gangs’ in Melbourne and children left to rot in detention centres on Nauru, there’s certainly a sense that being ‘different’ isn’t always accepted…
There are many books that deal with the immigrant experience, but one notable feature of Farewell, My Orange is its focus on women from different cultures. As well as Salimah’s experience of starting out from rock-bottom and Sayuri’s lonely life with a young child and a busy husband, Iwaki introduces Paola, a long-term Italian-born resident with very different issues. Married to a loving Australian husband, you’d think her life would be much easier, yet despite having been here for decades, she has never truly settled, missing the country and family she left behind. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that one of Iwaki’s solutions to the problems raised by migration is the creation of a new kind of family, a multi-cultural group of friends to turn to in times of trouble.
Overall, Farewell, My Orange is a novel that focuses on the positives, despite the problems the main characters face. For every dead-beat dad or gawking passer-by, there’s a kind-hearted neighbour and a helpful teacher at hand, and while the story does occasionally risk becoming a little cloying, in Iwaki’s (and McKinney’s) hands it finishes at the right time, with each of the women in a good place. It’s a novel that shows that differences are a good thing and can help make a stronger community – now if that message could just get across to certain politicians I could mention…
Before I finish today, let me return to the comment I made in the first paragraph. Farewell, My Orange interested me from the start because of the personal connection I had with the story (surprisingly, *not* the Japanese strand). You see, while I’ve spent most of my life in Australia teaching English to students hoping to study at a major university, there was a four-year period where I took a bit of a break and worked instead at a neighbourhood house, a kind of community center offering both lifestyle classes and more academic courses. The centre was located on the edge of Melbourne, so while still technically part of the big city, it actually had more of a small-town feel.
When I started, there was only one class for ESL, although the manager was kind enough to allow us to split the class for two of the four days each week, and I have vivid memories of attempting to balance the needs of Europeans with fairly fluent English and the demands of elderly African ladies who had never had any formal schooling before. It wasn’t always easy, but the community atmosphere here was wonderful, with students often becoming close friends and meeting up outside class.
In Farewell, My Orange, the only indication of Salimah’s nationality comes when Sayuri describes her as maybe coming from Sudan or Somalia, but this again rings true as many of the women (and they were mostly women) at our centre were from South Sudan. Most had been forced to flee because of ethnic violence during South Sudan’s war for independence, crossing rivers (just as Salimah does) and ending up in refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya. I remember a time we had a guest speaker from the South Sudanese community who described the journey from war to safety, and while the African students listened and nodded, everyone else had their mouths wide open in disbelief as he talked about avoiding machine-gun fire – and how to cross rivers without being eaten by crocodiles…
Iwaki’s book doesn’t really go into details about the harsher realities of migrant life (it’s a story – in a double sense – and Salimah represents the successful migrant). Many of the women I taught had serious health issues arising from the years of living in camps, and few ever managed to improve their English to the extent that they could work as Salimah does. However, it’s still a useful reminder that not everyone that comes to a new country can simply settle down for a comfortable life of sponging off the government. There’s usually a reason why they came here, and it’s the responsibility of wealthy countries to help those in need.
While this Europa Editions version of the book is probably available in some Australian bookshops, I’m a little surprised that there’s no Australian edition out there (assuming the rights are available). Iwaki’s novel won the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize in 2014, and with its Australian setting and timely content, it seems like a book that would find a lot of readers in the author’s adopted homeland. It would certainly be nice for such an interesting take on local affairs to get a wider audience, so if any Aussie publishers out there are listening…