'Australia Day' is an engrossing short story collection that won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2016. The book charters the experiences of everyday citizens and the circumstances that can make them feel stuck, stagnant or alone. It represents the cultural fusion and diverse social structures that inform Australia as we currently know it. When did you decide these stories were destined for the ‘Australia Day’ collection?
‘Australia Day’ includes almost all the stories I’ve ever written. I started writing seriously after I completed my GP training, nine years ago now. At first I wrote for my own amusement. Later, I wrote for submission to literary journals and competitions. All the while I never had a book in mind—the idea of publishing a single-authored collection seemed like an impossible dream to me. But my preoccupation with chance encounters and family and multiculturalism emerged as recurrent themes in my writing. A recent review of ‘Australia Day’ in the Australian Book Review commented on the loneliness of the characters and that was definitely something I wanted to convey. When I started working as a GP I was struck by how profoundly lonely people were. In our individualistic society we spend a great deal of time and money erecting barriers around ourselves. We live alone, we distrust each other, we are fearful of strangers—especially those who look and act and speak differently to us. The stories in ‘Australia Day’ are about people from all walks of life reaching across these barriers, albeit reluctantly, to make friends, to build homes and to create families—some with more success than others. James Baldwin said that every writer only has one story. For me that story is the search for belonging.
Many of your stories are slanted toward characters and narratives that centre on the medical industry. How much did your background as a GP inform your writing?
I feel extremely privileged to have a job in which people share their lives with me. Sometimes patients tell me stories they have never shared with another human being. Patient confidentiality is sacred and I do not write about such things, but stories like this contribute to my understanding of the human condition. I have learnt many lessons over the years but perhaps the single most important one is to never make assumptions. People are flawed and inconsistent and they will often surprise you. For better or for worse this is what makes human beings, and life in general, exciting and interesting. I want to show readers what I have learnt through my work—that we are more much more alike than we are different.
Which character in 'Australia Day' would you say is most like you? Whose experience do you relate to the most?
All the stories draw on my personal and professional experiences to some degree. I feel I can only write believably about people, places and encounters that I have observed first-hand. I, like Leila in the story ‘Big Problems’, overheard a fellow tourist on a tour of Uluru, say: ‘Australia is a lucky country because blacks only make up three per cent of the population’. I, like Evan in the story ‘Muse’, did an untutored life drawing class on Smith Street. And I know a doctor who, like Deepak in the story ‘Fracture’, experienced a patient sticking up defamatory posters about him at the hospital where he worked. Of course there are some stories that draw more heavily on my personal experiences than others. 'Hotel Cambodia' is one such story. In 2006 I travelled to Cambodia to do volunteer medical work with an Australian-based NGO. This was a particularly eye-opening journey for me. After only a few weeks I started to question my real motives for volunteering. What made me think that I, a junior doctor from Melbourne with limited experience—and certainly no knowledge of tropical medicine—had anything to offer the Cambodians? Was I being altruistic or simply living out my own version of the western saviour myth? It took me ten years to write a short story about my time in Cambodia. I think sometimes the more profound the experience, the more time a writer needs to process it. Time and distance are essential to be able to write honestly about such moments.
Christos Tsiolkas called yours ‘"a compelling new voice in Australian literature" and Alice Pung said the stories in 'Australia Day' were "complex without being contrived". How important has it been to draw on the support of fellow writers?
To have Alice Pung and Christos Tsiolkas write endorsements for the book was a particular thrill for me. They are writers whose work I admire greatly. I was able to approach them for endorsements because they were both judges for the inaugural Deborah Cass Prize, in which I came runner-up. Prizes are a great source of validation for emerging writers but perhaps even more important than prizes are writing buddies. I think my writing really only improved once I started seeking feedback on my work—not feedback from friends and relatives but from other writers who were not afraid to say what wasn’t working (in the kindest possible way of course). Having now experienced publication I see how much a manuscript changes during the editing process. This has made me realise that while writing is important, re-writing is ultimately what’s going to make readers love the book.
How much would you say the current political climate in Australia informed the underlying themes in each of your stories?
Ai Wei Wei said that if somebody questions reality, truth, facts, they are performing a political act. I did two very political things with my collection. Firstly, I used the title ‘Australia Day’, and secondly, I used a very non-literary epigraph—the now famous quote from Malcolm Turnbull that there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. Individually the stories deal with recurrent themes of chance encounter and family and multiculturalism but as a whole I think they challenge the conventional narrative of what it means to be Australian. These are not your typical Australian protagonists—they are old, they are from the LGBTI community, they are from mixed-race backgrounds, they are migrants who can’t speak English. But they are also the Australians I have come to know through my life and my work. By juxtaposing these stories with that controversial title and epigraph, I’m daring readers to ask themselves, what does it mean to be Australian in 2017?
You’re currently working on a novel that’s set to be published by Text in the coming year. Can you give us any hints on what the book will be about?
I don’t like to speak about works in progress in too much detail, partly because it may change and partly because in talking about it, the project loses some of its mystery and magic for me. I will say that it is set in Melbourne, it centres around an unlikely friendship between two very different characters, and it will explore many of the same themes as ‘Australian Day’.
As a debut author, what has been the best piece of advice you received on the process of writing and becoming published?
It sounds trite to say, but I believe persistence is key. Many so-called overnight successes have actually been years in the making. I’ve read enough interviews with writers now to know that the ones who get published are the ones who keep at it. They are all talented—whether it be their ability to write beautiful prose or to tell a rip-roaring story in plain prose—but it’s not necessarily the most talented writers who get published. The published writers I know don’t spend hours talking about their writing projects or lamenting permanent writer’s block. They don’t need great swathes of time or an idyllic setting to put words to paper. The published writers I know write and re-write and write some more.
Melanie Cheng is a writer and general practitioner. Of Chinese-Australian heritage, she was born in Adelaide, grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in Melbourne. In 2016 she won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Australia Day is her first book.