Today, on one of those wonderful winter summer days, I make my way to meet writer Melanie Cheng at her local library Bargoonga Nganjin in Fitzroy North.
I’m a little early so, after I nab one of the heavily coveted study rooms, I flick through my copy of Melanie’s newly released book, 'Australia Day'.
Over the weekend I read the book feverishly, carrying it around from room to room. A rich collection of short stories so honest and real, 'Australia Day' almost reads like creative nonfiction. I feel I have met Melanie’s characters, seen them on a tram, at a café, walked past them in a park. Evan in ‘Muse’ is naïve, lonely, falling in love at an art class on Sydney Road. Mrs Chan in ‘A Good and Pleasant Thing’ is angry and tired, hiding from her squabbling family in a Footscray motel. Weary Dr Garrett in ‘Macca’ is taking care of patients who do not want to be saved. With chapters as diverse as her characters, 'Australia Day' comments on what it means to truly belong in Australia here and now.
When Melanie arrives I have so many questions for her, I don’t quite know where to begin, so I start with the strong epigraph on the first page of the book: ‘There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian’ from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “I was tired of the black and white reductionist narratives that we see in the media all the time and the political rhetoric,” says Melanie. “I think we were all quite sick of the negative rhetoric of that time, and I can see what Malcolm Turnbull was trying to do, he was trying to make a positive message, but that statement was so overly simplistic and failed to recognise just how complex and diverse the Australian society is. I’m just raising the question – is it an exciting time to be an Australian? Perhaps for some it is, perhaps for some it isn’t.”
To address this question, Melanie has written her Australia, drawing heavily from her own experience, putting together particular traits of people she has encountered through her social networks and her work as a GP. “I take little pieces of people I know to make a new person. It’s that old cliché, write what you know.” In one of her longer stories ‘Muse’, Melanie writes about her experience with elderly widowers in her GP practice through the character of Evan. “There’s this wisdom that we assume people with a lot of lived experience have, yet they are still vulnerable, and may not be able to show it.” Another patient is Macca, seen through the eyes of junior doctor Dr Garratt in ‘Macca’. “She is desperate to appear to be the trigger of change that Macca needs, yet she does want to make herself feel validated.” By not making one character better than any other character, Melanie makes moments relatable and again and again, I’m pulled into little worlds with people and places I recognise.
Cross culturalism and connection bloom throughout the book, coming to a head in the last chapter ‘A Good and Pleasant Thing’ where protagonist Mrs Chan feels lost and frustrated in a world that she no longer recognises. The story began from experiences within Melanie’s own family, specifically her relationship with her grandmother, with whom she could only have a small, fractured conversation. “I wanted to explore what happens when families move to Australia. They’re turned upside down. Suddenly the younger members of the family are confident and social and acclimatising and the respected elderly are left alone in nursing homes – all these western values are influencing and degrading social hierarchies that used to exist back home.”
Melanie knows that making connections is never simple, it’s easy to stay inside your own little shell and it can be risky going outside, yet, in her experience only good things have come from reaching out. She pushes her characters out of their bubbles, into the world. Sometimes the world is ugly and cold, with grey cities and graffitied child care centres, sometimes the world is deeply beautiful, red dust of the outback, deep blue of little islands.
'Australia Day' is an accumulation of nine years of drafts that Melanie never expected to turn into a book. After attending meetings at the Creative Doctors Network with her work and being encouraged and validated, Melanie read through her drafts and was pleasantly surprised to find recurring themes: chance encounters, identity, multiculturalism and family. When writing became “a compulsion, something I needed to do”, she turned to Writers Victoria, attending a short story course with tutor Emmett Stinson where she met her mentor Mark Smith; “the breadth of courses, quality of tutors and networking and meeting other writers was fantastic, I can’t say enough good things about Writers Victoria.”
In 2016, 'Australia Day' won the Victorian Premiers Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Melanie was approached by Text Publishing shortly afterwards. “I can’t image a better publisher,” Melanie tells me. “Michael Heyward and Text have been passionate about 'Australia Day' from the beginning and I have really enjoyed the editing process.” Her original manuscript was “pretty raw” yet with help from her editor Elizabeth Cowell, she hooked onto the skeleton of the book and created three entirely new stories. Melanie has enjoyed the process immensely, used to writing for competitions and journals with strict guidelines, now she can write freely. It has been “wonderful and slightly disorientating” for Melanie to be able to email writer idol Jane Harper for advice, and with news on the day of our interview that 'Australia Day' has been shortlisted for The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2017, her email list looks to grow and grow.
Melanie has been commissioned by Text Publishing to write a novel, which she is busily writing now. “I carve out my time with a dedicated writing day on Mondays and big chunks of writing every evening. I write when my son takes a nap, and for the six hours when my daughter is at school, a recent luxury." Often, she writes at Bargoonga Nganjin, tucked away in one of the meeting rooms while trams stream past and the library slowly empties and fills. As deadlines loom, she sets targets for the week, not the day.
I can’t wait to read her new book and see her talk at Melbourne Writers Festival. It’s exciting to watch a writer soar, their work you connect with completely.
Now, a different kind of deadline approaches, Melanie has to pick up her daughter from school. After we say goodbye and she disappears into the afternoon, I settle into one of the comfy chairs by the window to read the book again, the sun on my face. I only put it down when the library closes at six.
On the way home, I walk through Fitzroy North for a while, looking for Australian faces and Australian stories.
'Australia Day' is available now at all good bookstores for $29.99
About Clare Rankine
Clare Rankine is a writer and poet. A graduate of The University of Melbourne's Creative Writing program, Clare interviews for Writers Victoria, writes little stories for litleWren magazine and sketch comedy with her friends at Seemingly Evil Productions. She likes laughing and the beach when it rains.