Lonely Asian Woman by Sharon Lam (Lawrence and Gibson, 2019) 183 pp., $29
When you read a book published by Lawrence and Gibson, you know you’re going to get something a little different. After all, on their website under 9 Fun Facts About Us, they describe themselves as ‘a collective that publishes literary fiction skewered towards the morose, satirical, verbose and thoughtful’; and each of the other facts is amusingly off-kilter.
I read the blurb on the back cover of Sharon Lam’s debut novel. The protagonist, Paula, is a young Asian woman. But Paula bucks the stereotype of the industrious, responsible and super-achieving Asian young person. She’s lazy and ‘mired in a rut’, and this ‘is not the story of a young woman coming to her responsibilities in the world’.
Or is it?
I remember a conversation from a very long time ago, when I, my cousin and another Chinese teenager were all going to sit for our first high school qualification. The other teenager suddenly announced with deep pathos that she would be the only Chinese in New Zealand to fail School Certificate. Such was and is the expectation of the achieving Asian New Zealander.
Lam’s protagonist, Paula, is not unable to achieve – she already has a degree – but she’s adrift. Jobless, bored, unmotivated. After her boyfriend leaves to go overseas, apart from the occasional get-together with friends or acquaintances, Paula spends most of her time sleeping and daydreaming, streaming TV, checking social feeds, surfing the net and figuring out what can be done with the dwindling contents of her fridge/freezer. She struggles to find anything purposeful to do with her days.
Her mind drifted to the wish for some near-death but ultimately harmless experience, so that her exact purpose would spill out with a split-second release … Perhaps getting stuck in a lift for an hour would do, or being half-heartedly mugged, assailant running away [sic] after realising that Paula knew their mum.
You’d think that a story where nothing much happens to a bored young protagonist would be … boring. Yet Paula’s musings and Lam’s writing are both so charmingly bizarre and imaginative that the novel is genuinely funny. What other novel begins with:
Her vagina smelt bad and her microwave smelt bad. Paula’s basic but scientifically sound understanding of the world told her there was no reason for the two to be linked. But the scientifically sound only accounted for a small portion of everything that happened, and an even smaller portion of everything that was felt.
Peppered with lists, tables, multi-choice exercises, imaginary TED talks, excerpts from the plots of Tom Hanks movies, DIY guides and instructions for passing time, Lam’s writing includes lovely telling details, insights that ring true, and original descriptions:
Paula couldn’t sleep. Usually she slept like a log. A log made out of hard cement as some conceptual art piece, pleasantly gathering dust in the storage warehouse of an underperforming art gallery. Paula, 1993. Cement and human hair. Please do not touch.
I empathise with Paula (who does not naturally rise before lunchtime), when she sets her alarm for 8am, 8.15am, 8.20am and 8.30am, gets up, and is dressed and caffeinated for a tradie who doesn’t come. And Lam’s talent for effortlessly combining comedy with complex issues is revealed as Paula takes a reluctant walk with dumb blonde Willow in this hilarious and inventive twist on the ni hao encounter:
The ‘ni hao’ came from a man seated on the bottom of a construction scaffolding tower behind them. Each time she was ni hao-ed Paula made a note to think of a good comeback for next time, but she never did. She only ever ended up flustered, frozen out by surprise, and by the time she collected herself she’d be halfway across town.
‘Excuse me?’ said Willow. ‘What did you just say?’
‘I said hi,’ the man said.
‘Hi? I don’t think you did!’
Paula was mortified. Of all the ways she would have wanted to handle this, a screeching Willow was not one of the ideal scenarios. The more Willow talked the more Paula got annoyed. Annoyed at herself for not speaking back herself, and annoyed at Willow’s apparent annoyance. The man had obviously not directed the ni hao at her long blonde hair and green eyes, and it made little sense for her to have her hands on her hips, looking angrily at the man in front of her. There was no way that she would understand that the ni hao was different to a catcall, that every ni hao added to a steaming pile of ni haos and konichiwas that festered into something else. The man himself had brown skin. Chinese girl, white girl, brown man. Racism, sexism. Intersectionality. Identity politics! Identity politics? She was pretty sure this situation was an example of why identity politics was bad? She couldn’t just add up the privilege points of everyone and decide to side with the one with fewer points. But there was still something in the fact that in this group, and in many groups, she would end up with the least points? Unless the man or Willow was disabled in some way? Did their parents go to university? What were their sexual orientations?
Willow was still berating the man.
‘You cannot just catcall women in the street!’
‘Listen, ma’am, I’m sorry.’
‘No – I’m sorry,’ said Paula. Oh shit. She’d spoken! She’d spoken instead of walking away! Even though she’d apologised for some reason. In her head she continued – I’m sorry that you felt the need to yell at this man, when he clearly wasn’t directing that ni hao at you. I don’t really get why you’re so angry? And you – well you just shouldn’t be saying that. I can’t speak Mandarin and even if I did, you weren’t saying hi, you were saying ‘you look Asian’.
Willow and the man were both staring at Paula, waiting for her to say something. Willow had that Where’s My Certificate expression on again.
‘Ni hao,’ said Paula.
Willow looked horrified.
‘Ah! Ni hao ma,’ said the man.
The novel is set in a compact, unnamed city where you can walk around to have a progressive dinner of the best roti, char kway teow, then kuih at three different Malaysian restaurants. Paula thinks the city is ‘slightly too small’ while her boyfriend thinks it’s ‘just big enough’. Paula replies, ‘You only think that because you don’t have any enemies. Or understand the critical mass of a population needed to ensure quality xiao long bao.’ It’s a ‘slightly-too-small city in its definitely-too-small country’. It feels like Wellington. What other city has weather that
could best be described as inconsiderate. It was often cold, but never cold enough to snow. Trees were mostly evergreen, so autumn, like snowless winter, held no eye candy. The two seasons simply become one long, visually indistinguishable slog of cold to very cold. On a good year there were perhaps two days in summer when it was warm enough to swim at the beach … On the morning of a mid-‘winter’ Thursday a storm hit the city. It too was inconsiderate. Its offerings of endless rain, 102-kilometre-per-hour winds and horizontal sheets of sleet flooded streets and closed highways.
Not unlike the mid-summer’s day when I got married in Wellington. This feels exactly like Wellington with a storm so fierce that Paula, who normally has a four-kilometre walking radius, is holed up in her apartment for days unable to get groceries, instead contemplating ‘eight different types of dried pasta dressed with one of seven types of vinegar’.
Lonely Asian Woman comprises two parts bisected by the storm. When I first read the novel, I hadn’t seen the publisher’s media release, hadn’t been forewarned about ‘a series of increasingly surreal and absurd moments’.
As I read the second part, the story became more and more implausible. The increasingly surreal elements were unlike Paula’s gross and annoying alter ego, Paulab, who had first appeared at the beginning of the novel. I had no difficulty with Paulab. After all, stories of childhood imaginary friends and doubles are not uncommon. Apart from Paulab, the story had appeared to be a more-or-less straight, though quirky, comedy/drama. No other eccentricities to indicate magic realism, supernatural or Chinese mythologies. I was puzzled. I posited and discarded several possibilities, and it was only upon a second reading that I noticed the clues and understood what was happening.
This is a clever novel by a talented young writer. The target audience is probably more Gen Y and Z than my own demographic. I’ve got to admit, ultimately, I felt a little tricked, though Menninger psychiatrist David Morrison’s words, ‘Fantasy, not reality, will determine what you and I do,’ reassure me for Paula’s future, and the promise of this novel makes me look forward with expectation to Lam’s future writing.
Early on, Paula muses: ‘Consideration was an underrated virtue. Always bravery this, courage that. Not everyone had the opportunity or desire to sever the heads of Cerberus.’ Lam portrays a different kind of young Asian character: a quiet, directionless underachiever just trying to do her best. While Paula the character might be a drifter who realises, as she surfs the net, that she too is ‘a lonely Asian woman looking for fun’, Lam the author uses her own considerable ability to have both sharp-eyed fun with the writing and unexpected fun with the reader.
ALISON WONG’s novel As the Earth Turns Silver won the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Her poetry collection Cup was shortlisted for the Jessie Mackay Best First Book for Poetry at the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and Alison was a poetry judge for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She lives in Geelong, Australia, and returns to New Zealand regularly.