Written by Queenie Ung-Lam
Graphic by Sabrina Tse
Listening Out for Voices from across the Sea was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
Over a month ago, I finished The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham, a young Vietnamese author from Sydney’s Cabramatta. The writing was overly descriptive, and the plot was a bit lacking, and yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was more confusing is that despite not outright loving the book, whenever I thought about it, my heart felt incredibly warm.
It was puzzling. Even as I read other works of fiction and academic writing, The Coconut Children stood out even more to me. I remembered in greater clarity scenes from the book compared to works that I had more recently finished. I lingered on the dialogue between Sonny and her mum whenever my own mum and I had a fight. Hello Sonny, were you and I suffering the same reprimand? I felt the tenderness with which Sonny said the words ba mẹ, the comfort that she and Vince found in a bowl of cơm và Nước mắm, the love in their parents calling them con. Every one of these expressions and scenes were ones that I experienced in my daily. I began to see that my obsession for the book came from a need to continuously re-experience the narrative, because it was the first book in mainstream Australian fiction I had read where I could see myself and my history being reflected.
I was beginning to better understand my fixation on the book. It was all in how the Vietnamese idioms peppered throughout Pham’s work sang to me, their melody creating a sense of instant connection, the rare, I can perfectly understand you. In my years of reading, I had never heard such a call. Hearing it for the first time was magical, but it also brought up emotions of deep disappointment and frustration. How come it had taken 15 years of reading for me to finally hear a voice that resonated with my own? Where are these people in the academic papers that I study? Where are they in the works that I sell in the bookstore? Where are they in the fiction that I read in bed? Where are their voices?
I had only heard one and I was lonely waiting for the others.
Upon reflection, I can now think of many reasons that we do not hear more from individuals like Vivian Pham in mainstream media; from individuals who simply do not fit the white-Australian mould. While Australian society is a blend of cultures, the dominant norms and expectations are not always representative of this multiculturalism. A voice which strikes against the chord of white hegemony is sometimes muted, its harmony overpowered by the stronger sound of a society wishing for the status quo to remain unchallenged.
But after I felt the power of Vivian Pham’s call, its lyrical familiarity made my entire body vibrate, tugging on heart and soul strings. Listening out for it even now, weeks after I finished the book, I still felt connected to it because that one voice, belonged to a much larger choral symphony. Its power drew me in, its strength inspiring me. I wanted to be a part of this music.
I could feel my vocal chords thumping.
I’m here I’m here I’m here
They were waiting to be unleashed, slightly out of tune from disuse. The nervousness I felt from speaking up and challenging the status quo was outweighed by my gnawing hunger to contribute to the choir. The louder and stronger my mezzo-soprano, the better, because I wanted to call out to those, who, like me, were listening out.
When I first thought about which platforms I could use as a megaphone for my voice, I was surprised by how many were available for me. Bossy was one such amplifier – this piece marks the start of my journey into joining the symphony. Writing it. Talking to those around me about it. Having someone read it.
I found that in the essays that I wrote for university coursework, I could construct my arguments to challenge the white hegemony in Australia and ask my marker to do the same. In my Zoom tutorials, especially in classes where I felt my opinions were being respected, my voice found its own rhythm, excited to debate and question opinions which stuck closely to the confines of an outdated status quo. I talked to my friends, family and colleagues about the power that I felt in The Coconut Children, how that one single book had inspired me to be louder. I began to witness how such strength also lay within each of us, as we all possess the ability to call out to others to let them know that their histories and experiences contributes to an ever-growing symphony of diverse voices.
Now, I believe that each of us have the ability to speak out, to find safety and solace in this united melody. No matter any contributor’s history and present, all additions to this music piece enriches its harmony. All voices add a new depth to the piece that we present. We are with our people. Side by side, we enhance the power of our combined voices and we support each other in challenging the shouts coming from the white hegemony.
This piece started because I saw myself in the pages of Vivian Pham’s book. It was the first time. And it felt amazing.
I hope that you see a piece of yourself in this article. I hope that you’ll join me in adding to this symphony. I am ready to be deafened by our voices. With my ears straining, with my own voice soaring into the melody, I know that I can pick up a faint hum.
We’re here We’re here We’re here