Rare Asian family study
TOYO: A MEMOIR
By Lily Chan. Black Inc. 265pp. $29.95.
Reviewer: ALISON BROINOWSKI
Toyo by Lily Chan.
''For a large segment of our population,'' US author Francine Prose wrote recently, ''immigration is not a singular event but a way of life involving travel to and from the homeland, journeys with the power to awaken all the anticipation and terror of the initial departure.'' She was considering Dominican Americans in particular, and the way Junot Diaz writes about them.
Since the 1990s, similar journeys have been a way of life of many Asian Australians, too, and accounts of the same anticipation and terror recur. Their stories often span several generations, cities and nations, and involve multiple perspectives, peaks of joy and pits of despair.
As they ceaselessly travel, these writers struggle to remain loyal to their abandoned selves and deserted cultures. So loss is often their shared theme.
How to break the mould of diasporic fiction and offer readers something unique is the challenge Lily Chan faces in her first book. Toyo, her grandmother, is the central subject of this memoir, which goes back two generations and forward two generations, beginning in Japanese-occupied China and ending in Western Australia.
It's the blending of Japanese and Chinese members of the Takahashi/Zhang (later changed to Chan) family, and the long sweep of their history - from the early 20th century to the 21st - that is unexpected: a phenomenon that must have been common but is rarely written about.
Chan, who now lives in Melbourne, distinguishes herself as a diaspora writer who can describe in detail all the places her relatives lived in, the seasonal flowers and plants there, the clothes they wore, and the food they prepared, ate and sold. As well, she has the sensitivity to enter the dreams and intimate emotions of Toyo and her family and use them as a running commentary. Poverty and hard work were the lot of the ancestors; homelessness caused by fire, betrayal and war beset Toyo and her single mother; and, gradually, prosperity reached Toyo, her children and grandchildren - not that wealth brings them unalloyed happiness. For the older generations, education was erratic or unaffordable, several of the girls married young, and one woman after another died of cancer. They all sought opportunities to make money any way they could, while Japanese discrimination against them as part-Chinese was a persistent, stalking presence.
The special intimacy of Chan's memoir is also its limitation. Although you wouldn't know it from the book, Toyo's mother lived through tumultuous times, when leaders were assassinated in Japan, food riots occurred, and Chinese and Koreans were attacked after the great Kanto earthquake. During the Pacific War, Chan vividly recounts Toyo's experience of being evacuated with other children to a lice-ridden Buddhist temple. But by describing the period through young Toyo's eyes, Chan blots out its defining events, reducing the impact of the war to some briefly-mentioned bombing raids, post-war shortages, and Toyo's encounter with some randy US servicemen. It's as if Chan herself has adopted the family's reluctance to confront the system, their self-imposed ignorance about the war, and their determination to stay out of trouble. Or is she imitating the Japanese historians who prefer barely to mention the events of the late 1930s and early 1940s?
Chan charmingly inserts familiar children's verses in Japanese and English here and there in the text, and some nostalgic nature poetry, but if others in the family read anything of significance in either Japanese or English, she doesn't mention it. Toyo's son, having done well out of the Japanese postwar ''miracle'', suddenly decides - resentful after being fined for not carrying his Chinese identity papers - to migrate with his wife and children to Australia. Toyo goes with them, leaving her daughter Toyomi behind. They change countries without consideration of what it means to be Australian, Japanese, or Chinese. When Toyo revisits Toyomi in Osaka, she finds she prefers to live in Australia, despite her grandchildren growing up ''boorish and uncouth'' in a country that has no history. Seeking to fill this spiritual void, her son gets hooked on the teachings of one Sai Baba, and the family travels to India in search of enlightenment, then back to Perth.
At the end of Toyo's unsettled life, as Alzheimer's takes over her mind, her achievements amount to having survived much hardship and produced two children, while maintaining proper manners, language, appearance, and taste in food. The social defences with which she was brought up by her resourceful mother became the template for her existence.
Most memoirs are of people who in some way were public figures or agents of change. Toyo is neither. Instead, Chan passes a selective magnifying glass over the intimacies of a family swept along by historical events they survived but had no capacity to influence.
Dr Alison Broinowski researches and reviews Asian-Australian fiction