I’m about two-thirds of the way through. I’m enjoying the book but it’s got me thinking a lot about the diversity question. The main character is Van Uoc Phan – a second generation Vietnamese- Australian who lives in housing commission flats in Richmond.
I don’t know a lot about Fiona Wood but judging by the author pic this is a far cry from her own upbringing. And this gives me a slightly ‘icky’ feeling while reading which makes me wonder about how much an author’s identity impinges on the reading experience. On the one hand, surely a literary work should stand on its own merits, but on the other a book by Alice Pung say has that feeling of authenticity and lived experience which makes for a more immersive and possibly enjoyable reading experience.
This is something we’re going to be studying in my editing class at RMIT. Someone is doing a presentation Whose story to tell? How do we tell diverse stories in fiction. I was talking to one of my peers in the class and she said she was gay and thought it would be ridiculous to think that heterosexual people could not put gay characters in their fiction. But it would require research and sensitivity to create ‘real’ gay characters. This made me stop and think.
Surely, there are multiple examples of people writing characters outside their own experience. I’ve never had a broken leg so does this mean I can never write about a character who has a broken leg? No.
So, it’s a thorny issue that I’m still struggling to get my head around.
But Fiona obviously did her research. Like her character Van Uoc, she volunteered as an English tutor to assist refugees and students who speak English as a second language. This provided the inspiration for Cloudwish.
There’s a wonderful interview with the author on Kids Book Review where she explains:
The story of children of refugee parents is an important one. Things had better not remain incomprehensible to us, or we’re in big trouble as a society. We need to find the empathy required to imagine another person’s story. Fiction is a wonderful route to empathy and understanding.
In creating the backstory for Vân Uóc’s parents, I read many first hand accounts of people who had fled Vietnam following the fall of Saigon, and I spoke to some generous people who made the journey and shared their memories with me. I spent time imagining what it would be like living through such horrors, risking everything in undertaking such a dangerous boat journey for the chance of a better life, and how I would cope if such courage were ever required of me. (Not well, I concluded, as Vân Uóc does, too, when she wonders about the same thing.)