Sabiha’s story had come out of her and been carried to me; now, after I had lived in it jealously myself for a while, I would carry it to others, and in the end would let it go and be done with it, like all the other stories I have carried.
—Alex Miller, Lovesong
I’ve just devoured Alex Miller’s book Lovesong. Even more than the love affair between John and Sabiha, I’m haunted by the narrator Ken’s dilemma—the question of whether he should follow his impulse to write a book about the couple’s extraordinary story. John tells Ken he plans to write his own memoir, but Ken has little confidence in John’s abilities as a writer, believing the English teacher to be too close to the story to channel the characters effectively.
I’m disturbed by Ken’s confidence. I’m only an aspiring writer, but as someone who has confided in friends and family, and as a doctor bound by patient confidentiality, I like to believe there are certain unspoken and ethical boundaries. To my shame I realise that, like John and Ken, I’ve completely forgotten about Sabiha.
It’s five o’clock and I’ve just arrived home from the clinic. While driving, I heard my phone buzz with a new email. The message is from the editor of Peril magazine. She loves the story I wrote about my Chinese grandmother and wants to publish it in the next online issue. It’s my first publication in a non-medical journal and it feels like a big deal. Instead of going inside the house, I sit in my car for a few minutes, holding the phone to my chest and watching the slow fade of the sun.
A few years prior to this event, my aunt spent a week with my grandmother, recording, transcribing and translating her life story. My aunt then very generously shared the result of her interviews with the rest of the family, including all seven grandchildren—the majority of whom can’t speak Cantonese and have never had a conversation with grandma.
My initial thrill at the promise of publication is quickly replaced with anxiety. What will my aunt think about me using her material? How will my grandmother feel about having her life and image uploaded to the internet? Whose story, exactly, is this to tell? Ma Ma, a smart and enthusiastic student, was pulled out of primary school when her parents could no longer afford to send her. She is literate, but in 80 years she has never felt compelled to write her story down. Unlike her grandchildren, who have never lived through a war, she doesn’t find her experiences all that remarkable—most of her friends have very similar tales to tell.
But what of my aunt, and all the other grandchildren? What of my brother? The piece I have written is a personal story about my relationship with Ma Ma—both real and imagined. It’s mine, but part of it is hers, and my brother’s and my cousins’ too. For the select group of people who will read it, my account will be the only version of my grandmother’s life. There is a responsibility here, but I’m not sure of the extent of it, or exactly whom I’m responsible to.
I’m on a panel at a writers festival with two other authors. It’s question time and it’s not long before we’re confronted with the issue of cultural appropriation. My book deals with—among other things—themes of identity and belonging. It’s not my first writers festival and the question is one I’ve become familiar with. Even so, I’m yet to finesse my answer. I jump in first. I say something about freedom of speech being distinct from freedom from criticism. I waffle on about the arbitrary rules I use to guide me, which, I admit, are more gut instinct than political. Another panellist is absolute—writers should stick to their own stories. As the author of a short-story collection with a diverse cast of characters, I shrink in my seat. Have I overstepped some line? I watch the audience. They sit up. They listen. They like certainty and absolutes. I wish I could be more certain.
I’ve enrolled in a creative-writing workshop at a conference for doctors. The educator tells us about some new work he’s been doing with general practice trainees. We all have our heart sink patients, he says, and the audience nods enthusiastically. Heart sink patients are so called because the sight of their name on a morning list is enough to make a doctor’s heart plunge through the floor. It may be because they never stop talking, it may be because they remind the doctor of their mother-in-law, it may be because they refuse to take the doctor’s advice but keep coming back for more. It’s different for different doctors depending on what personalities push their buttons.
The GP has been encouraging trainees to write a story from the perspective of their most troubling patient. The pieces are not for publication and the stories are destroyed once their educational purpose has been met. The educator admits that at this stage the numbers are small and the results are only anecdotal, but so far trainees have reported greater compassion and understanding for their heart sink patients in the weeks and months following the exercise. He encourages us to use it as a teaching tool and to consider using it on ourselves. If done with enthusiasm and an open mind, he says, it can help provide a new way through an impasse. A path to healing. A story as therapy.
I’m in my GCSE history class at an English school in Hong Kong. The classroom is on the site where the school zoo used to be. Zoo is an exaggeration—it was little more than a collection of cages. I remember a cockatoo with frightened eyes, trembling because it had plucked out all of its feathers. The school eventually found the animals homes and brought an end to the sad little venture. They didn’t tell the students why—whether it was for financial or compassionate reasons. Or simply to make way for a new classroom.
My history teacher is talking about colonisation. He’s telling us, for the umpteenth time, that the British always leave good government behind. He says this, more than anything, is the reason for the success of countries such as India and Hong Kong. It’s the best of the east and the west, he declares, beaming as if their achievements are his. Ever the teacher’s pet, I’m not one to question his authority. I want to believe him. The opium wars are summarised in a couple of matter-of-fact sentences in my textbook. But I also remember my dad telling me about how the British made Victoria Peak a no-Chinese zone, how Chinese were barred from many high-end hotels, and how Chinese-style architecture was banned in the central business district.
A few months earlier, I’d written a story for the school short-story competition. The theme was red. My family and I had recently returned from a trip to Kenya. While there we’d visited old colonial buildings with tall ceilings and wide verandahs. They’d reminded me of the Peninsula and Repulse Bay hotels in Hong Kong. During a tour, the locals had told us how the Maasai people had resisted the British invaders. These stories appealed to me. For the competition I decided to write about one of those episodes of resistance. Red was the colour of the Maasai warriors’ clothes and the speared colonialists’ blood.
I’m with my family at the pub having dinner. It’s a Friday night and the place is packed. The meals are taking longer than usual. Rather than resorting to screens, a long-forgotten game pops into my head. Let’s play Chinese whispers! My kids look up. ‘What’s that?’ my daughter asks, her interest piqued. I explain the game—I’ll whisper some words in her ear, which she will then pass on in a similar fashion to her brother. Whoever is the last person to receive the message will have to repeat the words out loud. It’s a hit. My four-year-old son in particular is great at scrambling the sounds. We giggle and forget our hunger. If anything the kids are disappointed when the meals finally arrive.
On the way home in the car my daughter asks, ‘Why is it called Chinese whispers?’ My heart jumps. Once again, she’s exposed one of my many blind spots. ‘I’m not sure,’ I reply. ‘I’ll have to look it up.’ But in the chaos that is bath time and bedtime we forget to do our research. It’s not until after they’re fast asleep that I remember my daughter’s query. Perhaps it’s for the best. Wikipedia tells me that ‘Historians trace Westerners’ use of the word “Chinese” to denote “confusion” and “incomprehensibility” to the earliest contacts between Europeans and Chinese people in the 17th century, and attribute it to Europeans’ inability to understand China’s culture and worldview.’
2007 to 2017
I arrange the phone on the desk, turn the speaker function on. I introduce the patient to the interpreter. I’ve been trained to ignore the translator and maintain eye contact with the patient, but nobody has taught the patient this—they talk directly to the phone. The interpreting service is supposed to be like a bridge spanning the cultural and language gulf between us, but it’s an imperfect solution—a rickety thing made of rope and broken bits of wood rather than something sturdy and solid.
I ask a question and the disembodied voice at the other end of the phone translates it. There is a back and forth between the voice and the patient before I receive a one-sentence summary of the exchange. As the interpreter speaks, I look at the patient, who has now stopped watching the phone to return my gaze. She wants answers—a diagnosis, some explanation for the way she is feeling. It’s a relief finally to be making eye contact, instead of communicating through a stranger’s voice at the other end of the line. It reminds me of how, for decades, I tried to connect with my grandmother.
I’m sitting in a room at my grandparents’ house, with my parents, looking at old photos of grandma. She has given us permission to select a favourite to put into one of our albums. There are quite a few, all taken from different angles. Some are blurry, others are crisp. Some show her smiling, others show her frowning. We all have our favourites but we eventually agree on just one—a studio portrait in black and white, touched up later with colour. Crimson lips. Gold earrings. Emerald leaves on her dress. She looks different from the woman sitting outside on the lounge, in her pyjamas, munching on pistachio nuts. It is my grandmother and it isn’t. A little like my story.
My uncle has died. It was a sudden, unexpected death, and it has caught us all by surprise. With his departure, my mum has lost the last remaining member of her original family. Her mother died when she was just four years old, and she lost her father and sister in her forties. In a quiet moment in the weeks that follow, she tells me how disorienting it is to know she’s the sole custodian of her childhood memories. It’s as though, she says, the stories aren’t real without someone to share them with—as if without a friend or relative to corroborate her memories, they’re all just figments of her imagination.
I’m in the last stages of editing my short-story collection. Soon the words will be locked in and I won’t be able to make further changes. Knowing this makes me nervous. I suddenly have trouble sleeping.
The prospect of taking my work to a broader audience—beyond that of close friends and readers of literary journals—is both distressing and exhilarating. I want it to resonate, but not too much. My stories are fictional but that doesn’t stop me from worrying that friends, family and patients will mistakenly see themselves in them.
In those final weeks of editing, I send my publisher multiple last-minute changes. I play around with the minor characters’ age and hair colour and gender in order to minimise the chance of readers identifying themselves in my writing. One day I bring a list of all the characters’ names to the clinic where I work. When I’ve finished consulting, I crosscheck the names with the patient database in case I’ve inadvertently created a protagonist with the same name as a patient. Thankfully I find that I haven’t. I sit back in my chair and sigh, relieved. The last thing I want is for people to think I’ve stolen their stories.
I’m facilitating a session at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. The panel comprises three debut novelists. The audience comprises emerging writers who want to know what publication feels like. They look surprised when two of the panellists describe being left with a feeling of emptiness—a void not unlike grief or depression. The authors explain that they’ve spent so many years alone with their stories, they aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves now their stories have been written.
I think of the final paragraph of Alex Miller’s Lovesong—Ken’s description of a story as something that can be carried. I wonder if a story can be transported like a bucket of water, arriving at its destination pure and unadulterated. Are storytellers like empty vessels? Are stories unaffected by their carriage? To me stories seem soft, malleable, fragile. If we hold them close, they mould to our shape, they absorb our warmth, they take on our smell.
In an earlier chapter of Lovesong, Ken says, ‘I’ve found the surest way to lose a story is to tell it.’ He means it as a warning to John, but really it could be a warning to anyone. On the eve of publication of my book, I feel a conflicted mix of anxiety and relief. I suppose I’ll have similar feelings—only more intense—when my kids grow up and leave the nest. I can’t dictate whom my children will fall in love with, just as I can’t dictate who picks up my book. I can’t control how my children’s partners will love them, just as I can’t control how people will interpret my words. Knowing this and accepting this is equal parts terrifying and liberating. Like any parent, I’ll have to have faith that if I’ve done my job well, the stories will stand up for themselves. I’ll have to exercise the greatest restraint in order to love them and let them go. •
Melanie Cheng is a writer and general practitioner based in Melbourne. Her short-story collection Australia Day won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction. Her debut novel, Room for a Stranger, was published in 2019.