What does it mean to live in a place but never to fully belong to it? How does our capacity for intimacy alter when we are in exile? How do we forge an identity among haphazard collisions of cultures and histories?
These are the questions that Melanie Cheng has limned with potent and eloquent effect in her acclaimed short story collection Australia Day (2017), which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2016 as well as the Prize for Fiction in 2018. The stories in Australia Day chart the baffling cultural and psychic dislocations of a diverse ensemble of characters: people out of place and searching for connection. There is damage and disaffection in these stories, but also unexpected consolations and new configurations of identity. The accretion of experiences in Australia Day gives the collection a powerful cumulative intelligence; read together the stories present a richly tessellated pattern of alienation and connection, of containment and release.
Room for a Stranger explores similar terrain. A young Chinese man is forced to participate in an unusual homeshare program that places students in the homes of the elderly in exchange for companionship and household help. Andy Chan has moved to Melbourne from Hong Kong to study biomedicine; the failure of his family’s cleaning business necessitates his move to the spare bedroom of Meg Hughes’s suburban home. ‘Andy would save money on rent and Meg would sleep more soundly,’ Cheng tells us. ‘It was a win-win situation.’