What? Book group night again already!
Time does not seem to have flowed with a rhythmic ripple through the intervening hours and minutes, but has hurtled through this short epoch of space. Little pieces of ‘self’ seem to have come adrift as this trajectory created bumps and collisions with objects and forces along the path of this journey.
But fortunately, it IS time to gather around words that share the capricious workings of fate of another’s journey. This never seems to fail to bring me back to a truer sense of perspective.
But before I ration out opinions about this month’s book, let me show you how wonderfully our host, Annie spoiled us:
Moet. Strawberry Cupcakes. Chocolate Coated Strawberries.T’was all good.
Now to the discussion.
I have wondered how the ‘universe’, or however you would like to describe the forces beyond ourselves, collates the sequences of life events. I’m not talking about the larger and meaningful events in life, but the smaller arrangements of information and experiences that we come across.
Our reading list for the year is compiled by firstly book group members selecting their preferred hosting month and then the book title is added as the ‘host’ decides on her book.
There are no parameters given in terms of subject matter, or even the era of the chosen book.
Last month, we were all captivated by Alice Pung’s, My Father’s Daughter telling of the experience of living through the Pol Pot Regime and subsequent leaving this country of origin and resettling in Australia. (Refer to my August Book Group Blog.)
This month, it was one of Australia’s best-loved comedians, Anh Do’s memoir that we were invited to discuss.
So, here we ended up with two consecutive stories of people risking all, including life, to escape their countries of birth to find a gentler, more forgiving community to play out their stories in.
This literary subject matter, coupled with the too often ‘news’ stories of people perishing at sea in boats that are not worthy of carrying precious lives to new lands, are colliding.
What does this mean? What should I do…
There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Given all the disturbing stories we hear in the press, this month’s book title, The Happiest Refugee, seems almost oxymoronic.
I am providing you with the first section of the Prologue, as it captures an essential sentiment of the book. This sentiment becomes particularly profound after finishing the book: how does a family who have shared the experience and trauma of escaping their country of birth, risking all, get to this point of dysfunction.
Anh Do, who most would know as a comedian here in Australia, tells the story of his family’s flight from Vietnam in a comedic yet poignant way as he reveals how they nearly didn’t make it to anywhere. Their subsequent arrival and descriptions of resettling as refugees is heartwarming. Instances such as clothing allocation where Khoa (Anh’s younger brother) is dressed in girls clothes when they first arrive due to some initial confusion about gender, is told with warmth and love of this country. The description of the family’s first visit to a St Vincent dePaul store makes you laugh through your tears as 50 cent fur coats are cherished.
There are countless episodes through the book of efforts the family undertake to create a life they wanted. Talk about enterprising: there’s the duck farm, the sewing industry, the fighting fish business just to name a few. When one enterprise failed to deliver all they were hoping, a new one was created.
Anh’s Mum, is totally inspiring with her efforts to make the best opportunities for her children. You will chuckle about the gold necklace story that when sold to raise money for the family, Mrs Do told the buyer that it had ‘been through a very difficult passage’. (Think pirates, think hiding an item from ruthless people who were ready to cut off a finger to gain a gold ring). Anh’s Mum is an extremely generous woman who even when they had little for themselves, would share the limited resources with others.
Despite continual setbacks, there was never a time that any of them sat back and said ‘woe, woe is me!’ They worked together with their extended family who included characters such as Uncle Six.
But, even within this strong sense of familial duty and ties, cracks appear and individuals fall out of rhythm with the larger family mechanism. Relationships are tested and broken.
What rules in the end? Individual guilt?
There are so many inspiring and happy stories within this memoir that charts the passage of this family from Vietnam to a gentler life here in Australia.
But we started with the prologue, telling of a meeting between father and son after a period of nine years.
And here’s the thing.
Despite experiences that you would think binds all participants together, there are individual characteristics within the band of people that make this future journey together impossible.
In the end, heartbreaking for Anh.
It seems he wrote this book for his Dad to remind him of what a remarkable contribution he made to his family in assuming responsibility, not as the elder, but as Number 3 son as he brought his family, at great risk, out of a country that couldn’t satisfy their wants.
Despite the often difficult scenarios painted, this book seems a light, comedic read, but I challenge you to read between the lines to find the heartfelt plea from a son to his father to resolve issues and share again with the larger family.
If you’ve read this book, would love to know what you think.