Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Dark Wet - Jess Huon

This book of connected short stories takes place in the most seemingly impossible combination of places: the suburbs of Melbourne and the steamy holy city of Varanasi. But Jess Huon somehow manages to make the two places seem like twin cities, filled as they are with the dark heat of longing and the furious frustrations of identities unformed, and passions unresolved.

Jess Huon is a new voice, and judging by this beautifully intense little book I think she is one we will come to know more and more. The twin passions of sex and religion are here in their starkness; the androgynous and sexually confused Australian teenager balanced by the twirling, chanting and genderless devotees of Krishna at a dusty Indian temple. And Isabelle, the heroine of the stories, with her own struggles with gender and identity, is torn between the outlaw freedom of a sexual rebel and the conformist comforts of footy boys and scholastic success. She finds her escape in yoga, in Buddhism and in the not-so-sublimated sexual longing for a guru, taking a brief respite at a Christian ashram in the Indian jungle. It is here that The Leopard Story, by far the masterpiece of the collection, is set. Huon manages to capture with elegant simplicty the perverse ironies of warring religious loyalties, the farce of Asian Christians at odds with Western converts to Eastern religions, each side warring with fierce conviction and contempt for the familiar realities of an unloved home. And sex is still there too, lingering in the shadows like the story's eponymous leopard, in the shape of longing for a dangerous and glamorous young pastor, himself a refugee from Western excess.

Jess Huon's India was, to me, a more intriguing place than her Melbourne. In describing Melbourne the stories have a literary familiarity, an obsession with suburban Australian space that is obsessively charted in Australian fiction. But in India Huon, like her character Isabelle, and like a thousand young Western backpackers, is thrust into the unknown, and in her case the result is luminous. And it is honest - Alex has no great understanding of the place she is in. It serves as an exotic and necessarily removed backdrop to her own psycho-sexual obsession and, for a moment, her physical failings.

And finally, but so importantly , there is religion, a thing rarely encountered in modern Australian fiction. Isabelle is dazzled by a world of temples and smells, of flowers offered and crushed, and of Hindu and Buddhist deities subtly but powerfully different. At times Huon is a travel writer as much as a writer of fiction, and I was thrilled by her ability to describe the places her characters inhabit, or at least drift through:

"Men, in the most beautiful silk saris, dancing, praying, reciting poetry within the temple grounds, faces glowing like the mangoes the women sold outside, along with garlands of flowers."

So many of us have visited India, or long to visit. The Dark Wet is one of the most sophisticated and thoughtful engagements with that country that I have read in a very long time, and Jess Huon's elegant writing is filled with promise. I will be watching for her with interest.

The Dark Wet by Jess Huon is published by Giramondo.

Once upon a time in Cabramatta, SBS, Starts 8th January 2012

It's not every day that one's partner is featured in a major documentary series on national television!

Thang Ngo and Joey - both featured in the upcoming documentary

We know Cabramatta now as the exciting, vibrant foodie destination. It wasn’t always like that. Once upon a time, it was more well known for the ‘junkie express’ and as the heroin capital of Australia. SBS explores the amazing transformation in this landmark, 3 part documentary on SBS One, from 8th January 2012.

The Vietnamese Goddess Thanh Mau outside the temple dedicated to her in Cabramatta

Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta is the untold story of how the Vietnamese community overcame the odds and found their place in multicultural Australia. From Prime Minister Fraser’s landmark decision to open Australia’s doors to thousands of refugees at the end of the Vietnam War, this three part series follows the Vietnamese people of Cabramatta as they struggle to find their place in a foreign land. The 80s and 90s see the arrival of street gangs, a heroin epidemic and the first political assassination in Australia’s history. The Vietnamese people are vilified and demonised and it seems Cabramatta represents all that is wrong with Asian immigration. But as the century draws to a close there is a remarkable turnaround and the Vietnamese people finally find their voice – speaking up to claim their rightful place in their adopted home. Cabramatta becomes a community transformed. Australia, a continent changed forever.” SBS publicity.

See the video sneak peek for a taste of what’s to come.

Friday, December 9, 2011

5 Best Books About Cambodia

My next book is about Cambodia. It is not a Cambodia guide book, rather a collection of stories and observations, an evocation of contemporary Cambodian life. Whenever I have a spare moment I do some reading and research about that amazing place. But this is not just a recent interest. I have tried to read most of the new books about Cambodia since my first visit there in 1996, and so have managed to cover quite a lot of literary space in that time.
As more and more Australians visit Cambodia, there is a growing interest in Cambodian history and culture. These tourists want to learn about Cambodia, and prepare themselves for their trips by reading some relevant books. I was most privileged to have a prominent Australian publisher ask me to recommend my favourite books on Cambodia, as he was going there soon on a holiday and wanted to learn more.
So I thought I'd share my list with you, in case you were planning your own trip to Phnom Penh and teh temples of Angkor, or simply wanted to know more about one of the world's most beautiful places:

5 Best Books About Cambodia

1. Cambodia's Curse by Joel Brinkley - This one is up-to-the-minute, it's a terrific read, and he does know Cambodia well. Just a few months old, you should be able to get it easily in Sydney bookstores. It's a Cambodia book that doesn't pull any punches in discussing some of the cotemprary social malaises that the country still faces.

2. The Gate by Francois Bizot - An absolutely amazing book, you couldn't read a better account of the fall of Phnom Penh and the early days of the Pol Pot era. Bizot is a French academic (a world expert in Cambodian Buddhism) and was trapped in Phnom Penh when Pol Pot entered - his survival is a miracle. I can't overstate what an incredible book this is.

3. To Cambodia With Love by Andy Brouwer - Just came out this year, it's quite a lovely little book. Collections of observations and stories about different places/experiences in Cambodia written by different people. Packed full of information about Cambodia presented in a personal, but ultimately useful, way. Well worth reading.

4. Phnom Penh: A Cultural History by Milton Osborne - Osborne is an Australian and one of the world's leading experts on Cambodia. Travel in Cambodia will almost certainly involve a stint in its capital city, and Osborne's book is the final word in Phnom Penh's history and travails. You will find this fascinating. Should be easy to get in Sydney bookshops.

Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice by Ian Harris - It's quite readable and utterly fascinating. Info about Buddhism in Cambodia is very hard to find, which makes this book all the more precious. Points out how unique Cambodian Theravada Buddhism is, and how different from the Thai forms most Westerners would be familiar with.

Plus two extras:

- The Gods Drink Whiskey by Stephen T. Asma - Not just about Cambodia, this travel book is still filled with excellent information about Cambodia, and is a great read to boot.

First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung - There are any number of books about the despair of the Pol Pot times. I have read dozens of them, but this is by far the best. Ung describes the destruction of Phnom Penh and the horrible years of oppression under Pol Pot.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Vinh Nghiem Temple at Night

If you travel to Vietnam your itinerary will almost certainly include a visit to Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, still Ho Chi Minh City's largest Buddhist temple (though probably not for much longer, as there are some mammoth building projects going on at various temples around the city).

Travelling in Vietnam, you will soon realise that Buddhism is still the dominant religion, and on the nights of the Buddhist sabbath (Ram in Vietnamese), people come in their hundreds to visit the temples.

This means that places like Vinh Nghiem fairly throng with families, office workers and romantic couples offering incense, making prayers and vows to the Buddha, and striking the big temple bell in the courtyard for good luck. For really authentic travel experiences, it is great to witness the lived religious lives of the people of Vietnam.

The best time to visit temples in Vietnam is on these sabbath days (the 1st and 15th of the lunar month - find out these dates and make sure you schedule temple visits then). Most holidays to Vietnam will incorporate at least one of these holy days - try to work out which day it will be, and plan accordingly. One of the downsides is that beggars and panhandlers are also aware that the temples are pumping on these days, so they come out in force.

The forecourt of Vinh Nghiem on a Ram evening was quite busy with beggars, lottery ticket sellers and people selling books of fortune-telling and astrological almanacs. Tour operators almost always include Vinh Nghiem Pagoda on their Ho Chi Minh City schedule, but they will rarely take you there at night. It really isn't far from downtown Saigon, so sneak away there in a taxi, if you can, and spend a half-hour or so wandering around and taking in the atmosphere.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hot Boy Noi Loan

Update: I have discovered that this movie is now doing the festival circuit in Europe, and its title in English is "Lost in Paradise." Keep an eye out for it!

Wow - on so many levels. Last night I went to the Megastar cinema at CT Plaza, HCMC, which is conveniently situated right near my place and shows movies late into the night - Saigon is becoming a very civilized place to live.
I went with some friends to see Vietnam's newest and most notorious gay-themed movie Hot Boy Noi Loan. The Megastar cineplex is quite glam - surprisingly so. It is much more comfortable and beautiful than any cinema in Sydney! And the film was really very, very good. Sophisticated, elegant and beautifully shot around Ho Chi Minh City, this is a truly unique Saigon story that deserves to be seen all over the world. It is also a surprise to many Vietnamese who come to see the film, realising for the first time that Ho Chi Minh City possesses a vibrant gay culture.
For me it was the performances that were really outstanding. And I'm not just talking about the beefcake, though there was plenty of that (and Linh Son, troi oi!). But I am noticing a performance culture emerging in Vietnam that is truly impressive - I think some of the best actors in the world are coming out of Vietnam, and directors and writers here are being inspired by this. Most exciting for me was the performance of 90s Vietnamese pop legend Phuong Thanh as a past-it street hooker. This woman is incredible, and totally magnetic - she always was. Her absolute lack of vanity in playing this less than glamorous role speaks to her own professionalism and love of the craft. May she be in many more movies!

Try and see Hot Boy Noi Loan any way you can - it deserves to be a cult hit.

Hot Boy Noi Loan was released in Vietnam on the 14th Oct. 2011
It is released with full English subtitles (which are actually very good). There is no DVD release yet.
The film is directed by Vu Ngoc Dang
Stars: Luong Manh Hai, Ho Vinh Khoa, Phuong Thanh, Hieu Hien, Linh Son and La Quoc Hung.

Promotional flier for Hot Boy Noi Loan given out at Saigon cinemas.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

So You Want to Visit Ireland?

Well, the perfect opportunity has arrived to learn about a special part of that fascinating place.
Rosamund Burton is the author of the recently released Castles, Follies and Four-Leaf Clovers, a beautiful journey along St. Declan's way in rural Ireland.

Rosamund will be giving an illustrated talk about her book at Leichhardt Library on Tuesday 8 November.

The talk will include a Powerpoint presentation, so there’ll be lots of photographs of Ireland looking beautiful.

Her perspective is truly unique, and I have learned so much about Ireland both from reading her book and hearing her speak. So do go along and hear her and see some of the wonderful photographs that show the journey behind the book.


Piazza Level, Italian Forum
23 Norton Street, Leichhardt NSW
6.30-8pm, Tues 8 Nov

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Monk in Mis-Matched Robes

Here is a photograph of a young monk in Quy Nhon. The monk's robe is mismatched. If you know anything about Buddhism in Vietnam, his outfit is a bit of an enigma, and I wrote about him in Destination Saigon:

"At this point a very short young novice shuffled past the Abbott’s office. He was wearing the usual brown pyjamas that represent the everyday uniform of monks everywhere in Vietnam. But across his shoulders he’d thrown a saffron robe of the type and colour usually associated with Theravadin monks. He was wearing it in the manner of a shawl or scarf, and seemed quite confident in this sartorially peculiar combination. Thay Quang, the new arrival, nearly choked on his sweet green tea, and called out for the young monk to come back to the office this second. Thay Chau, the Abbott in charge, merely beamed happily at his young charge.

“What on earth do you have on, monk?” Thay Quang demanded. “You look like a Theravadin! You’re not meant to have that on! Take it off right now.”

The young monk, not at all concerned, tossed one of the ends of the robe across his throat and marched off, completely disregarding his senior. Thay Quang’s eyes bugged out, and he turned to the Abbott. “What in God’s name is he wearing that for?”

Thay Chau chuckled and said, “Oh, he’s back from a holiday in Thailand and it’s just a little thing he’s picked up.”

“But a monk just can’t wear whatever he likes! What will the lay people say?”

“Oh, they like it – they say it looks handsome.”

“Handsome!” snorted Thay Quang. “What a disobedient child he is. You really should try to control these young monks more.”

“Oh, no harm done. He’s quite charming, really. It doesn’t matter if he wants to dress his habit up a little.”"

Friday, October 14, 2011

Spirit Shrines

The spirit is ever-present in Vietnam – even on street corners in sophisticated downtown Saigon you will come across these small shrines dedicated to the wandering ghosts and the spirits of place.

These shrines are actively tended by people in the community who offer fruit and incense every day.

This is a humble example from Tan Binh District in suburban Ho Chi Minh City. In the countryside, especially in central Vietnam, the spirit houses become larger, more colourful and elaborate.

This speaks to an ancient animist tradition that still holds great sway in Vietnam.

Streets and suburbs are possessed of their own protective spirits, but even more so are mountains, old trees and waterfalls.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Quy Hoa Leper Hospital

Perhaps one of Vietnam's more peculiar tourist destinations is the Quy Hoa leper hospital in Binh Dinh province.

This is a large and quiet pleasant place situated on a beautiful beachfront just outside of Quy Nhon City. It is open to visitors (there is a small cover charge) and along the beach are cafes and restaurants that cater to visitors.
There is also a fascinating sculpture walk which has a series of busts of all of the great pioneers of medicine.

It's well worth a visit if you find yourself in Quy Nhon, one of Vietnam's best-kept secrets. People who travel to Vietnam rarely take the time to visit Binh Dinh province, which is a shame because it is a really lovely part of the country, and has a rich and fascinating history.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre, Canberra

Di Lac Phat (Maitreya Buddha), Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre, Lyneham, Canberra

I was in Canberra last week and dropped by the Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre, Canberra's largest Buddhist temple (and getting bigger). The abbott there is the Venerable Thich Quang Ba, one of Australia's senior Buddhist monastics, and a revered figure in the overseas Vietnamese community. Thich Quang Ba hails from Binh Dinh province in Central Vietnam, a place I write about a lot in my book about Vietnam, Destination Saigon.

If you ever travel to Vietnam, Binh Dinh is well worth visiting - well off the usual tourist track, it is a beautiful little spot, and filled with a rich religious history.

Quan The Am (Bodhisattva of Compassion), Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre, Canberra

Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre was established in Canberra in the early 80s, and at the moment is undergoing extensive renovation and re-building. When it's all finished it will look amazing. But just at the moment it is a building site and that's about it.

Model of Chua Mot Cot (One Pillar Pagoda), Kwan Yin Pond, Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Walter Mason to Speak on the Mysteries of Angkor Wat, Monday 24 October 2011

Angkor Wat: The Beauty and Spiritual Significance of Cambodia's Great Forgotten City

At the Southern Cross Academy of Light
Monday, 24th October 2011
St John’s Uniting Church Hall, cnr of Yeo Street and Barry Street, Neutral Bay. Enter off Barry Street. Session starts 7:30pm. Entry Fee: $15, concession $10.

Forgotten for centuries in the jungles of Cambodia, Angkor Wat was once the world's greatest and most sophisticated city. Re-discovered by French explorers in the nineteenth century, this massive stone structure was both a political and a religious centre, built to illustrate the creation myths of Hinduism, and later accommodating many of the schools of Buddhism. In this fascinating talk Walter will take us through the stories, history and meanings of the great temple of Angkor Wat.

Walter Mason is a travel writer whose book on Vietnam, Destination Saigon, was named by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of the 10 best travel books of 2010.
Walter is currently at work on his next book, a spiritual journey through Cambodia. He is also in the final stages of writing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Western Sydney's Writing & Society Research Group, where he is writing a history of self-help literature in Australia."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Book Busking at Pages & Pages

Yesterday I spent the most wonderful morning at Pages & Pages Booksellers in Mosman.

They were hosting a book busking marathon, and I was privileged to open proceedings with 15 minutes reading the funniest pieces from Nancy Mitford's comic masterpiece The Pursuit of Love, one of my all-time favourite books.
It was all in aid of Indigenous Literacy Day, a fundraising effort to help raise literacy rates among indigenous communities in Australia.
What a star-studded lineup it was. I also caught crime novelist P. M. Newton reading a fascinating series of letters by Aboriginal leaders from Australia's past, radio personality Robbie Buck doing a very spirited reading from Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish, and novelist Charlotte Wood reading a passage from Kim Scott's award-winning That Deadman Dance and, excitingly, a tantalising snippet from her soon-to-be-released novel Animal People!

Jon Page, the owner of Pages & Pages, is to be thanked for his energy and enthusiasm throughout the day, and for so consietently supporting such a good cause.

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