Daniel Young interviewed Issue Four contributor Cher Chidzey to celebrate the release of her latest novel, Ken’s Quest (Threekookaburras).
This interview can be found in Issue Eighteen of the journal alongside a chapter from Ken’s Quest. Please consider buying a copy to help support our work.
DY: Thanks for being part of our interview series and congratulations on the publication of your latest novel Ken’s Quest. Could you start by telling us a bit about your background and how you came to writing?
CC: I am the youngest of nineteen children, twelve girls and seven boys. My father Huat was born at the end of the Qing dynasty in Shantou, a fishing village.
Father and his three wives, four sons and eight daughters migrated to Singapore when the Japanese invaded China. I was born in a household of over thirty people, in a house built on stilts. Father relocated shortly after with my mother and her two sons and six daughters to a simpler dwelling in Serangoon Gardens, the stomping grounds of Australian and British military personnel.
I studied in a convent school run by Irish nuns. Growing up in a household of siblings schooled in the Chinese language I learnt to appreciate Chinese poetry, Teochew opera and calligraphy. My childhood was chaotic with the comings and goings of relatives; the stepbrothers and their families also relocated to the same neighbourhood and the sense of the clan was very strong. The tribal voice, the gossips, the bickering continued but I kept my head down and studied.
My mother told us stories, which in my mind were unsuitable for the very young Cher because they seeded mistrust. However, those stories became the material for my memoir The House of Ninety-nine Closed Doors, self-published in 2007 after ten years of tears. I had wanted to write the memoir since the age of ten. The whispers, the secrets, the victims’ laments were pleading to get out. My tribal voice reprimanded me for hanging out the dirty linen but I could not ignore the victims’ pleas. It was important for later generations to understand the complexity of such a big, dysfunctional family.
That was the beginning of my addiction to writing.
DY: Ken’s Quest tells the story of a man trying to migrate to Australia from mainland China; his family is waiting for him there while he tries to obtain permanent residency. How did the character of Ken come to you, and what made you want to tell his story?
CC: Stories of how migrants struggle against all odds to get here, to seek wealth, status and freedom have been told repeatedly, it is a well–worked over field, in the words of Professor Sneja Gunew.
But few authors had exposed the prejudices and difficulties migrants had to face in the work place. Ken’s characterisation: I gave him poor spoken English. His career profile as chief engineer in Communist China made him authoritarian. His upbringing in a wealthy family made him feel superior. These attributes create a rigid personality, one that would not adjust to a new environment easily.
Cross-cultural relationships face greater stress because of different cultural values.
Ken’s journey: his meeting Julia was an excellent set-up to expose conservative Confucian thinking. His attempt to control Julia’s freedom highlights his chauvinistic attitude. Ken’s lying shows the fear of people who lived through the Cultural Revolution. Julia was there to reveal his lies, to prod at his secrets, to point out his denials, his face-saving weakness.
His tight rein on his son Yong was exposed through arguments with Julia who had totally different expectations of the parent-child relationship.
I presented those issues for readers to reflect, to discuss and hopefully they would develop a willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from their own.
DY: We published your short story ‘Hok Diam’ in Issue Four (now available free) and it was also a story of family, in this case about the eviction of a traditional community in Singapore. Are you able to trace any parallels between your different kinds of writing, or do you have a sense of how your writing has changed over time?
CC: Prior to 2000 I had published three mathematical resources, after which there was a mix of poetry, short stories, memoir and fiction. My memoir The House of Ninety-nine Closed Doors was self-published in 2007 after which I started writing a novel Kiasu but abandoned it in 2010. Several short stories were extracted from Kiasu and published both online and in anthologies.
When writing the memoir I was in a very dark place. The characters were filled with rejection and pain and their journey was arduous. Without counselling they were stuck and continued to bemoan and lament their fate. Some freed themselves from the shackles of tradition and searched for life beyond Singapore. I migrated to Australia.
Kiasu took a different tack. The characters were suppressed by an oppressive mother and drunk of a father but there was rebellion. The memoir was set in China and Singapore amidst war and Kiasu set in Singapore in peaceful times.
Displacement was a common theme in my memoir and Ken’s Quest, except the former was forced by events of history (the Japanese occupation) while in Ken’s Quest it was a voluntary act. The styles have changed dramatically.
Historical events drove people to places in the memoir while reflection of historical events in Ken’s Quest helps readers understand issues such as racism in China and Australia.
The memoir was narrative, a report of what happened to the characters. I’ve crafted the plot in Ken’s Quest to reveal characters’ attributes, track their realisations and changes. I’ve plotted to make their journey difficult and made them face their flaws. The outpouring of energy in the memoir was at times raw, but in Ken’s Quest it was carefully instrumented.
One major difference was the use of subtext in Ken’s Quest; I was not skilled in its use before I wrote that.
I use arguments in the characters’ mind to reveal motives and secrets, in both the memoir and the novel.
DY: Ken’s Quest takes on issues of multiculturalism and cross-cultural communication (and of course miscommunication), and you’ve tackled it from multiple angles: that of local Australians, of Ken the Chinese migrant, and of other European migrants. Did this multi-faceted approach come naturally to you from your own experiences while living in multicultural Australia?
CC: There are many types of communication in Ken’s Quest.
Dialogue between Red and Ken highlights the cultural differences in a myriad of ways:
Ken’s repeated effort to direct Red on the correct path to a career was lost on him. This lack of understanding of Red’s fragmented background, lack of motivation, lack of role model in his life led to miscommunication.
I had tried helping bright students myself. I had taught in a school for very difficult students. One particular student knew how to play five musical instruments. I contemplated paying for her music lessons but she was never committed enough for me to fork out the cash. Like Ken, I did not grasp the complexity of broken families, of the damage drugs could do.
The fiercely independent Red regarded his well-being as a responsibility of the state while Ken considered it his responsibility as a friend, and was rebuffed when he tried to help. Having a set of Chinese relatives and a set of Aussie relatives, it is not difficult to observe the differences.
I showed Red’s fears of displacement by migrants through his dialogue with Ken. This opening of heart was a platform for healing and could only be possible when people trust and have excellent communication.
Ken’s own failure to communicate with his colleagues was caused by his holding onto his superior attitude. His inability to participate in small talk, to partake in the interest of local Australians led to alienation and non-communication. In the earlier years of my residency in Australia I found the workplace very difficult. I was lost in the midst of footy talks, footy bets, the tennis geniuses, the national glory of Aussie Olympians.
Ken’s conversation with Bruno highlights the differences between a newcomer and one (European) who has lived here for a while and adjusted. Bruno’s view of parent-child relationships was very different to Ken’s. Bruno’s view of racism also differed and it left Ken perplexed. I had to do a lot of reflecting myself, rejecting some of my Chinese values, and suppressing my fear of mother nature—that dangerous surf, those scary, steep ski slopes, to accommodate my Aussie children’s love for adventure.
Rose was many years younger than Ken, born in an era different from that of the Cultural Revolution. So we could say they were worlds apart in terms of exposure, despite being from the same culture. The dialogue between Rose and Ken was full of subtext. Ken was a master of mind games. Both were wanting a marriage of convenience and were fishing for information and speaking half-truths. Having grown up with eighteen siblings and their families and two step-mothers and a commanding aunt, I understand subtext very well.
DY: Ken’s outlook changes through the course of the novel as his quite traditional mainland Chinese mindset is challenged in a variety of ways. The novel is about his ‘quest’ for residency, but can you reflect on the true nature of his journey?
CC: Ken’s original quest was permanent residency, wealth and status, but his plans fell apart because his qualification was not recognised and without it his hope of permanent residency was dashed.
He was about to implement Plan B and come on a working holiday visa when he discovered he was too old. That forced him to use his cousin’s identity and have a fake passport.
While he was outwardly chasing his permanent residency Ken was subconsciously trying to rescue Red, a belligerent but intelligent apprentice. Red was brought up by his single mother and had lived with several step-fathers at different places in Australia. Ken was puzzled by his own persistence to help Red, to change Red despite the insults and mockery. He thought it was sympathy for him or attraction to Red’s masculinity, which his own son lacked, but he gathered they were not strong enough reasons.
Red was a mystery that Ken had to solve. Rescuing Red was Ken’s subconscious quest.
Red confronted Ken’s pursuit of material wealth and his fixation on status and he seeded doubts in his endeavours. Ken glimpsed the possibility of gaining pleasure from bonding with nature when Red showed him the pristine beaches, the surfers, the divers. His quest, his goal post was shifted furtively.
He met Julia, who showed him the joy of simple pleasures, of cooking together, of sipping red wine and listening to classical music, of discussing literature and history, of riding a bicycle in the countryside.
Ken’s tribal voice egged him on to lie, to tell half-truths to save face. He was bogged down and was unable to pull himself out of the quagmire until Julia and Red came along. He learnt of the joy of speaking honestly, of confessing to Julia his secrets.
Ken’s life long quest was wei-yan. He wanted to emulate his mother’s awe-inspiring demeanour, which he thought he had accomplished in Shanghai at the ammunition factory. His cousin Meng had insisted that the workers had feared and not respected him. That he denied until he witnessed Julia’s awe-inspiring demeanour at Queen Victoria market.
As chief engineer in his company in China, Ken was able to wield power over his co-workers. The highly-stratified power structure meant workers had to pretend to respect him to get by. That behaviour was misinterpreted as wei-yan. Ken required a different place, a different context to realise that.
DY: You’ve mentioned that food is an important aspect of cultural differences, and exploring different kinds of food is often seen as a success of multiculturalism and a ‘way in’ for people to begin coming together. Having said that, I’ve witnessed that this can sometimes be quite shallow, as if people are happy to enjoy a certain culture’s food but they are either unable, unwilling, or unsure how to engage beyond that. Does this novel hold lessons for all of us in how to establish more meaningful cross-cultural connections?
CC: Enjoying each other’s food is definitely a way of bonding. Eating foreign foods could be a hurdle and if not handled properly it could escalate to awkward scenes.
Several years ago my sisters and I visited Beijing. The born-in-Beijing sister pulled out a jar of stinky tofu and tried to make us, the-born-in-Singapore sisters eat it. We fought her throughout breakfast and unsurprisingly none of us bowed to her wishes. So here we have Chinese rejecting Chinese food.
Should we feel so bad about somebody rejecting our favourite food?
Placing too much importance on our favourite cuisine could lead us to feel rejected and even discriminated against. People do have the freedom to say they can’t eat some types of food but it depends on how it is said.
Now cultural diversity in food has been heavily promoted, so is music and art. It is excellent but could more be done to promote cross-cultural connections? Do I dare say I don’t like this food? Can I say shall we agree to disagree?
Ken doesn’t say much but he’s always judging. Is this less damaging than Red blurting out racist remarks?
Unspoken criticism creates undercurrents. Body language tells the story, but sometimes the wrong story because it is open to interpretation, and often the wrong interpretation because each culture has a different interpretation of a body gesture. For example, many years ago I told my counsellor I was upset because he frowned at me. In my culture frowning means disapproval. He laughed and said, “I’m only thinking deeply.”
Meaningful cross-cultural connections to me is open, honest dialogue. To be able to do that one needs to trust and that’s the tricky part.
DY: Ken’s Quest also covers themes of homosexuality and transgender issues and we can see prejudice at work in various ways, with regard to more than just race and/or culture. What prompted you to use this other lens for exploring the novel’s themes?
CC: I’ve a soft spot for marginalised people. Being one of nineteen children, I have witnessed how some family members were marginalised and bullied. That was why I wrote my memoir The House of 99 Closed Doors, to give the victims a voice, to record their journey.
I’ve included Cuifen, the transsexual to highlight the fact that many Chinese people still reject transsexuals, to bring up the fact that the Chinese Government locks up such people.
Cuifen’s return to Julia makes the plot in Ken’s Quest much more complex and rich. She reopens old wounds and strains her tolerance to the limit. Cuifen or previously Chew disappeared for ten years on her twenty-first birthday.
Some readers said I’m punishing Ken, placing him in such a precarious position. I wanted to show the power of the tribal voice and Ken’s struggle between that voice and his rationale. He had done research on homosexuality and found no opposition to it before the Christians missionaries and Muslims came to China.
Emperor Ai (or Liu Xin), who reigned from 6 BC to 2 BC was the most effusive homosexual emperor of the Han Dynasty. His relationship with his homosexual lover Dong Xian was called ‘the passion of the cut sleeve’. The emperor, unwilling to awaken his male lover Dong Xian who had fallen asleep on his robes, cut off his sleeves instead. According to the ‘Historical Record’ almost all emperors of the Western Han Dynasty had same sex lovers.
DY: Who are your biggest writing influences?
CC: Khaled Hosseini’s courage and honesty in The Kite Runner, his graphic descriptions of extreme cruelty and violence, including homosexual rape, murder and beatings spurred me on, to be honest. He tackled brilliantly issues about religion and prejudice. Above all, he wrote about forgiveness and the nature of goodness. Regardless of the discomfort, the shame as in the case of my memoir, I wrote on.
Hanif Kureishi, in his novel The Buddha of Suburbia confronted uncomfortable home truths about British attitudes towards foreigners. It encouraged me to write about interracial tension but go further to show that migration is a two-way street, to make a timely plea for the acceptance of migrants, but also remind newcomers to work at being welcomed wherever they go.
Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things is a gem, a treasure to hold.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is a novel I could read time and again and it enriches me each time.
The Chinese classics have all had a profound influence on my story-telling:
Cao Xueqin: The Dream of the Red chamber;
Wu Cheng’en: Journey to the West;
Shi Nai’an: The Water Margin;
Ba Jin’s trilogy: The family, Spring and Autumn.
Cher Chidzey migrated to Australia thirty-eight years ago and has published poetry, short stories, a memoir called The House of 99 Closed Doors and most recently the novel Ken’s Quest. Her stories have been read on Southern FM, 3CR, Radio Adelaide, and she was interviewed by R. Aedy on Radio National for the Life Matters program.