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Heart to heart: Melanie Cheng on ‘Australia Day’

Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day (Text, July) is a ‘bittersweet, beautifully crafted collection’ about the conflicts and realisations that occur when people of different backgrounds are brought together. She spoke to reviewer Hilary Simmons. (Read her review here.)

How did it feel to win the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript? And what role did it play in securing a publishing deal?

Being shortlisted for the award was quite a shock—a wonderful one of course. To know that the judging panel, which included Jennifer Down and Maxine Beneba Clarke, enjoyed my short stories was a thrill in and of itself. Very soon after the announcement, the other shortlistees and I received emails from agents and publishers asking to read our work. After years of sending stories off to journals and getting no response, I found the sudden attention quite disorienting. In answer to your question, the award was absolutely crucial in securing a publisher for the book. I hadn’t realised just how much notice publishers take of that particular prize. I will forever be grateful to the Wheeler Centre and the judges for the role they played in getting my stories out into the world.

Did the Unpublished Manuscript Award add another layer of pressure to getting published, or did it affirm to you that your stories were engaging and important?

You only need to look at recent winners of the award to feel intimidated—Graeme Simsion, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Jane Harper have all written unique and wonderful books. I certainly feel I have big shoes to fill, but when I was working on the manuscript I tried not to think about that too much. Pressure like that can be toxic to creativity.

Of course winning the prize was validation—of my writing and the years I had devoted to it. Like most writers, I had moments along the way when I thought I was writing a pile of rubbish. Winning the prize was proof that at least three people thought my stories were worth reading. It was a great affirmation, not least because the stories reflected the Australia I knew—the diverse community I had observed while working as a GP in the western suburbs of Melbourne. These were not the type of stories I had seen featured regularly in literary journals.

What sort of insight does your work as a GP give you into multiculturalism?

For a long time, I was working in the western suburbs of Melbourne, a diverse place with well-established Maltese, Italian and Greek communities, as well as younger Vietnamese and Indian families. Now I work with university students, many of whom are from overseas, particularly China.  It is a great privilege to be a GP because people tell me their stories. These stories constantly challenge my assumptions and prejudices. I am from a mixed-race background myself, and my husband is Lebanese. He and I are often amazed at the similarities between Chinese and Lebanese cultures. All of this has made me realise that we are really much more alike than we are different. It’s my hope that people will read the book and be surprised to find themselves relating to characters who are—at least on the surface—very different to them.

Some of the characters in your stories try to suppress feelings of empathy and provide a ‘duty of care’ to others. What ‘duty of care’ do we owe to Australians experiencing disempowerment?

People who work in the emergency services and the health sector are well versed in the principles of ‘duty of care’, but I’m not sure it’s a concept the wider community is familiar with. Taking responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of people—other than family and friends—is an enormous privilege, but it can also be a burden. In that context, suppression of empathy is a common protective mechanism.

The term ‘empathy’ seems to be acquiring negative connotations these days. Online, trolls regularly attack compassionate people for being ‘bleeding hearts’. I think 24-hour news cycles and social media have led to a collective emotional fatigue. To justify our lack of empathy, we choose to believe that other people’s misfortune is a direct result of their poor choices and incompetence. This is far less confronting than acknowledging that many of us are only an illness or tragedy away from homelessness or drug addiction, and that much of our ‘success’ comes down to luck—where we were born and what family we were born into.

It may sound clichéd to say so, but I believe every Australian deserves to walk down the street without being abused because of their gender or race or sexuality, and all children—whether they be Australian-born or migrants or refugees—deserve to sleep safely in their beds at night. Ensuring this is, I believe, our shared duty of care.

What was the last book you read and loved?

At the moment I’m reading and loving The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair). He writes about people who are trying to make new lives for themselves while haunted by their pasts. He treats his deeply flawed characters and traumatic subject matter with deftness and sensitivity. As I read his stories I feel simultaneously jealous of his talent and inspired to become a better writer.


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