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.

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