Inherited trauma and violence in Cabramatta
Reviewed: Tracey Lien, All That’s Left Unsaid, HQ
‘Don’t look at them,’ my grandfather said to me. He had caught me staring at a couple who had just walked in. I must have been about ten years old, and we were having lunch at Pho 54, a restaurant in Cabramatta famous for its pho and is still there, more than 30 years later. I went back to slurping my noodles, knowing that I shouldn’t have stared. They were so striking to me then: a young man with long hair and a young woman with dyed red-blonde hair; in 1980s and 1990s Cabramatta these were often markers indicating that the people who bore them were in gangs, the most notorious of these being 5T. I couldn’t help feeling curious about the couple because while they were from the same world as me, they had moved into another world, one I knew from my family was bad and forbidden. They were what my parents were afraid would happen to their children should they ever loosen their grip, should they ever lose control and we became influenced by the ‘bad’ kids at school.
As a teenager in the 1990s I became more aware of the gangs and drugs, as Cabramatta came under attack in the mainstream media as the ‘heroin capital of Australia’ and its residents were tagged with racist stereotypes. Cabramatta was the first location my family settled in after arriving in Australia in the 1980s, a two-bedroom apartment for our family of six on McBurney Road. My grandparents and extended relatives lived on the same street further down, in another apartment block. My family lived in Cabramatta for five years before moving to government housing in Fairfield and Liverpool.
Cabramatta is the setting for Tracey Lien’s debut novel All That’s Left Unsaid. Similar to work such as Matt Huynh’s autobiographical comic Cabramatta (2019) and Vivian Pham’s novel The Coconut Children (2021), it not only shares a location but is also set in the 1990s, a tumultuous period for the area. The novel revolves around Ky Tran, a young woman from Cabramatta who has moved to Melbourne and works as a journalist. Her feelings for her hometown are ambivalent: ‘Cabramatta proved that a town could be gorgeous and sick, comforting and dangerous … wanted so badly to get away from it, all while missing it every day she was gone.’ Lien convincingly portrays the conflicted feelings you can have about a place you’ve decided to leave—as well as the attendant fear that what’s left behind is still and will always be there: ‘it’s like I didn’t shed anything at all. It’s like I’ve just flipped a switch, you know? And my old self was there all along.’
The novel opens with a funeral. Ky has to return home suddenly when her brother Denny is shockingly killed. The details of the murder are hazy—while it’s known that Denny was beaten to death in a restaurant in Cabramatta, not one of the dozens of witnesses admit to seeing anything. Ky’s family and community consider Denny’s death a ‘bad death … the kind caused by terrible luck, where children or gangs or heroin were involved’. Superstition keeps many people away from his funeral and her parents too believe it’s bad luck that has led to Denny’s death. They refuse to find out what actually happened, and instead are caught up in their own grief.
The betrayal by the community, why ‘no-one had helped … there was no explaining why a roomful of ordinary people—people who looked like Denny, people who could have been related to Denny, people who were friends with Denny—did nothing’, and the denial by her own parents propel Ky to go looking for answers even as she grapples with her own sadness and grief. Using her journalistic skills, she follows up with the police and goes in search of the witnesses, hoping to gain closure for herself and her family.
Alongside Ky’s search, the novel moves back and forth in time as Lien sketches a vivid image of Ky’s childhood and adolescence. Some chapters give us a glimpse into other characters’ interior lives, including Lulu, a child witness at the restaurant; Sharon Faulkner, a white high school teacher who was also present at Denny’s murder; and Ky’s father in the aftermath of his son’s death. There are also chapters set in the past from Ky’s former best friend Minnie’s perspective, which tell us about their childhoods in Cabramatta, where it’s also revealed how the two best friends become estranged as teenagers.
As Ky undertakes her own investigation, she is filled with doubts and fears while being forced to become an advocate for her dead brother in the face of stolid indifference from the community, and in the case of the police, passive resistance. This is indicative of the wider burden that second-generation immigrants often have to carry: of having to perform the role of mediator for their parents—from tasks such as translation, and in Ky’s case, to something as overwhelming as dealing with police bureaucracy and racism after a murder.
However, it’s not only the police or those in power who have let Ky and Denny down. The portrayal of community in Lien’s novel goes against what is often prevalent in literature about immigrant communities: caricatures that are overwhelmingly positive, supportive or even nurturing. Instead, there is abuse and neglect of children; there is alcoholism and gambling; there is fear and judgement. Much like in any other community.
The pull of gang life, of what it gives but also what it takes from those who are drawn into it, is vividly sketched through Minnie, someone who endures a neglected childhood amid a community who have endured the trauma of war and migration. Although Minnie’s character can at times feel a bit too forced when she speaks directly about colonialism and racism (she comes across as a hyper-aware child who would have become a punk rather than joining a gang), it is through her and her boyfriend Thien, as well as other secondary characters, that the novel explores the lives of migrants and children of migrants who don’t ‘make it’.
All That’s Left Unsaid skewers the model-minority myth, a myth that holds that migrants can be successful in their new country so long as they apply hard work and the right attitude, with the ‘good’ ones held up as exemplary compared to the ‘bad’ migrants. Ky and Denny are to some extent model minorities, and it is this that Ky must push against—all of the conditioning and expectations to be ‘good’ and not rock the boat—if she is to obtain any answers about Denny’s death.
• • •
When I read that Lien’s novel concerns a sister’s grief in the aftermath of a brother’s death, I braced myself for some pain. Since it’s set in Cabramatta in the 1990s, I already knew that it would feel personal to me, but this was going to cut close to the bone. My own brother died more than seven years ago. It’s still really hard to talk about him: my younger brother, who was the first in my family to be born in Australia. He was also the only boy in a family of three girls. We have a photo of him as a newborn in our Cabramatta apartment: a chubby, smiling baby lying in his bassinet surrounded by 50 stuffed toys of various sizes, all of them second-hand donations from the local church. My parents were so proud.
After my brother’s death, my father and I went through his room: clothes that he would never wear again, his endless pairs of Adidas and Nike sports shoes, his knick-knacks and computer games, photos of him and his friends. The room was a testament to who he was, the man we never knew. As I went through his papers, I found some of his old exam certificates and saw how in Year 5, he was in the top 5 per cent in the state in mathematics. In Year 6, he was in the top 5 per cent again statewide. In Year 7, top 10 per cent. There was no evidence of his achievements in Year 8, and after that nothing too. Later, he would never finish high school.
Sitting at his desk, I scrunched the core of myself to hold back tears—my dad was also in the room—as the certificates in front of me blurred. It hit me then what a talented young person he had been. But they also provided a trace of when exactly he started to be lost to us: when he stopped talking to us, when he seemed to be moving away from us into another world—when my parents were afraid that he had joined a gang. Holding his certificates in my hand, my heart broke over how he never really had a chance to grow and reach his potential. I ached for the boy who did not experience affirmation for who he was or could be, because my parents worked seven days a week for decades and did not have the time or energy to nurture him as he needed, because sometimes the cultural and generational gap between them was too wide, and because there was so much that he—and they—were up against.
Until he died, I didn’t realise that there’s a particular pain that young men can carry in our community. My brother was not a model minority. Neither were my parents, who, despite their hard work, did not become successful. Their efforts did not save them from economic precarity. What often stokes the model-minority myth are migrant success stories, but what about those who ‘fail’? What about those who do not go through the ‘refugee-to-good citizen’ trajectory? What becomes of their stories?
In All That’s Left Unsaid, Ky begins by trying to understand what happened to her brother; by the end of it, through investigating his death and coming into contact with other migrants in the wider community, she and the reader have a greater understanding not only of what happened, but also of the conditions that led up to it, all of which are much bigger than one person or gang. War, geopolitics, class, racism—these structural forces can have long-reaching effects, and the trauma they engender means that ‘success’ is never a level playing field.
• • •
There has been some discussion of late in the Australian literary community about the pressure that writers of colour face, about having to write about their race and trauma in order to get published. In a recent manifesto for diverse writers, Jumaana Abdu writes that marginalised writers face an ‘indifference to quality so long as other metrics of value—political, optic, financial—are satisfied’, thereby creating ‘a self-perpetuating reward system that snuffs out talent unaligned with pre-imagined narratives, and undermines the legitimacy of marginalised writers awarded for true brilliance’.1 Similarly, Sheila Ngọc Phạm asserts that ‘Western Sydney’ has become synonymous with ‘diversity’ and therefore a source of cultural and social capital, where ‘being a “diverse” person from the area implies you are a worthy recipient of institutional largesse, regardless of the specifics of your own biography’.2
These are all valid points that can be seen as related to a wider conversation about the limits of identity politics sparked by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s concept of ‘elite capture’—namely, the way that a deference to marginalised experience and socially situated knowledges has become a type of ‘strategic essentialism’ that has been ‘co-opted, misrepresented and misused’.3
There is no doubt that, in a publishing industry that is still overwhelmingly white, the expectation on non-white writers to write about race and trauma is real. As Elaine Castillo notes, the anglophone publishing industry has a ‘rot at its core’—that of centring ‘the perspective and comfort of its overwhelmingly white employee base and audience’, with writers of colour positioned ‘as flavours of the month, as heroic saviours, as direly important educators, as necessary interventions’.4
As legitimate as these critiques are, it doesn’t erase the fact that for some, writing about our cultural identity is exactly what we want or need to do. Some of us are still grappling with it in our writing because subjects such as trauma and race take time to work through; the after-effects of war and colonialism are complex and cast a long shadow over many generations. And with different waves of migration continually occurring in Australia, there will always be migrants trying to come to terms with their cultural identity as they attempt to seek answers around ‘home’ and ‘belonging’. The onus should be on the white publishing industry to be amenable to a wider range of stories, not on the individual writer.
There’s also a more virulent form of criticism that comes in the argument that ‘identity politics’ has taken over an evaluation of an artistic work, trumping a purely aesthetic appraisal. In an essay in Australian Book Review, critic Mindy Gill laments that:
While writers of colour can, and of course do, focus on themes of cultural identity, racism, and trauma in their work, I’m concerned by moments when these themes become the sole focus of the critic—and the writer too.5
Gill goes on to state that writing should be about ‘freedom’ and ‘literary innovation’, a familiar refrain that seems to do the rounds in literary circles every few years with almost predictable certainty. But the irony remains that in their hostility towards ‘politics’ or ‘dogma’ in literature, the proponents succumb to dogma themselves as they moralise on what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in literature. It also comes across as condescending: Yes, you can have the freedom to write about whatever you want, but not about that, please.
It’s difficult not to see it as a class issue as well. When this criticism—that writers of colour no longer need to write about race or trauma—comes from non-white writers themselves, it’s hard not to notice that they are often more established, that these writers are successful in already having some kind of platform. They may have grown up with some social, economic and racial privilege; or even if they didn’t, just by virtue of having a platform, they now do. While this desire to stop writing about race or trauma might be true for them, it may not be true for those new to writing, or indeed newly entering the country.
Luckily, literature, its functions and what it means to people are larger than what any one person or group says it is. Critics like Gill come off as provincial and insular, despite their smug assumptions of universality. It almost goes without saying that people read for many different reasons and purposes, whether that includes ‘political’ literature or not. Apart from the gatekeepers and arbiters of literary taste, the reasons why people read, and write, are multitudinous; across the globe and across time, diversity is an inherent characteristic of literature both in its uses and forms.
That is perhaps the most galling aspect about perspectives like these: in its claim that art should be free of ‘politics’, it’s being deeply disingenuous about the fact that its own argument is an intrinsically political position. Who can exist and make art outside politics and material concerns? What occurs when we make such claims? These critics write as if the human condition is not inherently a moral, ethical and political enterprise. We live in a society after all, and not in a vacuum. Who gets to decide on what makes for artistic value? How do we decide which writers have ‘true brilliance’? These arguments assume that if only we could put the bothersome politics of identity politics aside, then a natural, universal criteria of literary value could emerge.
Reading All That’s Left Unsaid reminded me of this discussion because, although it would be naive to elide the limits of representation, it still feels so powerful to read about places and people rarely seen in literature. I want to reclaim the social value of literature, which cannot be separated from its aesthetic or stylistic value—the form is the vehicle for the content. Representation politics and the way it filters into arts policy and the publishing industry is deeply problematic and we should be critiquing it. But not by taking up the mantle of a faux universality that makes incredible assumptions about literary value, the separation between ethics and aesthetics, and, most of all, the separation between politics and literature.
The truth is that I’m old enough to remember when the literary world did not even register ‘identity politics’ as an issue, when there were no programs targeting ‘diverse writers from Western Sydney’. The overwhelming whiteness of Australian literature when I was growing up made me not even consider that I could be a writer despite my love of reading and writing. As long as the ‘rot at the core’ of the white publishing industry exists, we will always need some form of ‘identity politics’ as a corrective. All That’s Left Unsaid is a profoundly political work of fiction, as well as a really absorbing read. I value Lien’s novel for the way it aims to make sense of a world that is so often bewildering but which young people must nonetheless make their way through. It’s a deeply felt attempt to understand the conditions that people like Ky Tran, her family and her community find themselves in, but at its heart it’s a story about grief—a grief that, just like violence, is always shaped by wider social structures. •
May Ngo is a Teochew Chinese Cambodian Australian who lives in Prague. She is a former academic in anthropology, and is now a freelance writer and editor as well as founder of the Prague Writers Workshop. See <mayngo.net>.
- Jumaana Abdu, ‘A Manifesto for the Diverse Writer’, Kill Your Darlings, <https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/article/a-manifesto-for-the-diverse-writer/>.
- Sheila Ngọc Phạm, ‘Western Sydney is dead, long live western Sydney!’, Sydney Review of Books, <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/western-sydney-is-dead-long-live-western-sydney/>.
- Carol Que, ‘The sea that we swim in’, Sydney Review of Books, <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/taiwo-elite-capture/>.
- Elaine Castillo, How to Read Now: Essays, Penguin Random House, 2022.
- Mindy Gill, ‘Till “real voices” wake us, and we drown: the mire of identity politics’, Australian Book Review, March 2022, <https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/current-issue/975-march-2022-no-440/8862-till-real-voices-wake-us-and-we-drown-the-mire-of-identity-politics-by-mindy-gill>.