"As James Baldwin suggests, home is not just a physical space. It is also the people who inhabit that space, and the memories that persist long after the physical space has gone. Home is where we believe we belong—even if we don’t always feel safe there, or others don’t share our belief that we belong there. "
Each year, Sydney Writers' Festival is enriched with the input of guest curators who bring their unique creative vision to the program. In 2019, writer and general practitioner Melanie Cheng (Room for a Stranger) explores issues of identity and belonging, drawing on her Chinese-Australian heritage and the many places she calls home. We sat down with Melanie to discuss the themes and ideas in the three sessions she curated.
The sessions you’ve curated for Sydney Writers’ Festival contemplate the idea of reflections – of where we derive our sense of self. In Smoke and Mirrors, you’ll consider some of the external forces that shape the ways we perceive ourselves with Eleanor Gordon-Smith, Lee Kofman and Olivia Sudjic. What are some of these influences that you’ll be dissecting?
The world is in the midst of an identity crisis. Countries with a history of colonisation are reckoning with their violent and unjust pasts, while others are attempting to reshape their national identities after decades of globalisation and migration. But such crises of identity are not only happening on a national scale. At an individual level, we are negotiating a world in which we can very easily alter our appearance – whether it be through photo-shopping the images we upload to the internet, or through more extreme measures like cosmetic surgery. Social media demands that in addition to a public and a private persona, we have a digital persona too. More often than not, it is our digital persona that strangers encounter first, and on which we are first judged.
I’m interested in what this fragmentation and relentless reinvention does to our sense of self. Is it a significant contributing factor to the high levels of anxiety in our society today? These three phenomenal authors have all tackled such issues in their books – albeit from wildly different angles – and I very much look forward to picking their brains in what promises to be a fascinating conversation.
In your new novel, Room for a Stranger, two characters from very different backgrounds – one a 19-year-old medical student from Hong Kong, one an elderly woman living in the house she grew up in – struggle to reconcile different points of view. This is something we seem to find challenging as a society, particularly at a point in time when we’re being exposed to more viewpoints than ever before. What are some of the lessons we can learn from characters in your book?
On the surface, Meg and Andy couldn’t be more different — there is a huge age gap between them, they are different genders and while Meg has lived in Australia her entire life, Andy is a newcomer. When they meet for the first time they bring some prejudices to the relationship, but really—due to the small circles they’ve moved in—they haven’t given much thought to each others’ communities before now. Initially they don’t understand each other, and they obsess about their differences. But as life throws obstacles their way, they end up having to rely on one another, and in the process, a unique friendship develops.
As Eleanor Gordon-Smith explains so eloquently in her book Stop Being Reasonable, rarely do people change their minds as a result of arguments on social media, or opinion pieces in the mainstream media. Change happens slowly and often in response to life events that shake the very foundations of what – up until that point – we have always accepted to be true.
Another theme you’ll be dissecting in the session An Irrevocable Condition with Moreno Giovannoni and Ling Ma, is whether it’s possible to sever ties with one’s birthplace, or whether it follows us like a shadow wherever we go. This implies that perhaps home is not a place, but a state of mind. How do you think our sense of home continues to influence us after we have moved on?
As James Baldwin suggests, home is not just a physical space. It is also the people who inhabit that space, and the memories that persist long after the physical space has gone. Home is where we believe we belong — even if we don’t always feel safe there, or others don’t share our belief that we belong there. Ling Ma and Moreno Giovannoni have written fabulous books that follow migrants attempting to forge new lives for themselves in new lands, but who long for familiarity and acceptance, and are haunted by their pasts. In both books, while the protagonists have physically left their 'homes', they find it difficult to extricate themselves emotionally. Home is not static of course, it can change with time — something I’ve experienced first-hand — but often the shift happens so gradually, you aren’t aware of it until it’s over.