Hilary McPhee reviews 'Eat First, Talk Later' by Beth Yahp

Hilary McPhee reviews 'Eat First, Talk Later' by Beth Yahp

Eat first, talk later: a memoir of food, family and home

by Beth Yahp

Vintage, $34.99 pb, 350 pp, 9780857986863

Beth Yahp's beautifully crafted memoir of her ancestors, her parents, and herself is shaped around journeys criss-crossing the Malay Peninsula where her Siamese-speaking Eurasian mother and her Hakka Chinese father met and married in 1961. A photograph seems to have triggered the project – perhaps the lovely sepia cover shot of her parents on their honeymoon, sitting on a wall somewhere in Malaya before Independence. Yahp persuades her ageing parents to return home to Kuala Lumpur from Honolulu for a road trip around their country so that she can begin to decode their lives and, along the way, bring her own into focus. She illuminates a world where Malaysian politics are increasingly corrupt, where censorship is rife and activism dangerous. Most people keep their heads down, much as they do back home in Yahp's Sydney, where both sides of politics are ruthlessly turning back boats and controlling borders.

The Yahp family mantra, Eat First, Talk Later, acts as a kind of buffer for a more conservative generation preferring privacy and security to the unfamiliar literary excavations and exposés of contemporary memoir-making. Her mother, Mara, glares when her daughter keeps prodding her to tell her stories.

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Published in November 2015, no. 376

Hilary McPhee

Hilary McPhee is a publisher, editor and writer. She was Chair of the Australia Council and the Major Organizations Board 1994–97. Her books include Other Peoples' Words (2001), Wordlines (2010), and Memoirs of a Young Bastard, the Diaries of Tim Burstall (2012). She is now writing stories and a follow up to Other People's Words.

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