Given a set of rules it can sometimes be hard to review a book – and ironically when you have just read a collection of 14 stories – all of them brilliant, challenging, really speaking to a reader and often with wry humour – this is just the case. Chiew’s The Heartsick Diaspora was a wonderful read throughout and is here definitely recommended.
The title speaks for itself: Diaspora – of the Chinese communities from China to Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere in the Far East to both the US and Britain. With family memory the tales spread from before the Second World War to the present – a very different type of world (urban, multicultural, mobile and high-tech led). Immigration brings its own challenges with families (who might have generational differences of their own anyway) dispersed, living apart and meeting rarely. Immigration means adapting to host communities – communities that might have distinct expectations (often distorted) of the Chinese immigrants. And of course with Chinese dispersal for many hundreds of years “Chinese” background has come to mean many different things.
Chiew is able to address all these issues in her fiction form. She portrays a broad range of people of all ages with assurance and total believability. Her approach is largely sympathetic while not hiding difficulties of character or behaviour and when the situation is not all her characters might want wry humour often surfaces. It should be said that in this collection she quietly inserts two stories about the writer’s experience: “Confessions of An Irresolute Ethnic Writer” and the title story “The Heartsick Diaspora”. External expectations of “Chinese” are pinpointed in “The Chinese Nanny” and “Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur”; both challenge the scale of silliness immigrants of any nation might be expected to deal with. Of course, when the challenges of life are possibly already hard – extra difficulties and nonsense are really not needed.
But behind these themes and more too – and often less than savoury realities – are people; easily recognised people who might well be our neighbours. People calling on their deep resilience, trying to get on with their lives, make a living, maintain friendships and relationships and cope with family expectations that are often still firmly bedded in increasingly foreign tradition and often “face”.
To carry all the history, the changes, the diversity of location, people and families and do it faultlessly through a series of stories with barely a flicker of fault in any is a major achievement. Each story is a dense little gem in itself, a meaty little tale packed with so much information, hinting at so much more. As a collection – building the foundations of the others even deeper – they are outstanding. I will be seeking out anything else Chiew is writing – she is a very, very, good writer.
Hilary White 5/5
The Heartsick Diaspora by Elaine Chiew
Myriad Editions 9781912408368 pbk Jan 2020