Phnom Penh Advisor, Oct 11, 2012
"Oh, no one has any idea what's going on here. It's one of the attractions of the place," and so Emily Maguire manages to neatly sum up expat life in Asia in the start of her new book, Fishing for Tigers.
Maguire is one of Australia's most-celebrated young authors, and her first three novels have all been set in Sydney. In Fishing for Tigers, Maguire departs from Australia and tackles the chaotic and confusing expat scene in Hanoi. The novel is a coming-of-age story of sorts, both for 35-year-old Mischa who arrived in Hanoi six years ago after escaping an abusive relationship and 18-year-old Vietnamese Australian, Cal, who is seeing his ancestral homeland for the first time. Their romantic involvement upends both of their lives, and challenges the reader to question their assumptions about the power dynamics of relationships, race, and what makes a place home.
For an expat, reading Fishing for Tigers can be slightly unsettling--Maguire's observations of the dissipation of foreigners living in Asia are sharp and insightful, capturing their decadence, promiscuity and calculated nonchalance. At one point, Cal turns to Mischa and says, "You haven't learnt the language, you don't have Vietnamese friends. You treat your neighbours like they're extras in the movie of your reinvention. You say you love it, but you're not even really in it."
"Maybe that's what I love," Mischa replies.
Fishing for Tigers is a must-read for expats, at least ones who don't mind feeling the sting of recognition. I caught up with Emily Maguire at the Melbourne Writers Festival recently and talked to her about Hanoi, older women with younger men and messed-up expatriates.
Many expats in Cambodia can relate to the idea of falling in love with a foreign city. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you discovered and fell in love with Hanoi?
In 2008, I went to Hanoi on a three month literature residency and I fell passionately in love with the place. I've travelled a fair bit but had never experienced that kind of intense feeling for a place. And I've certainly never experienced it in Australia. I've tried quite hard to understand why, but I really don't know. Falling in love with a place is like falling in love with a person, I think. You can list things you like, but that doesn't really get at the mystery of why this person or this place. Anyway, I long for Hanoi, but because of various responsibilities and ties here in Sydney the best I can do is try to get back for a month or so every year.
The expats in your book are a group of fucked up, sort of-sexual predators. Mischa acknowledges that other types of expats live in Hanoi, but none are depicted. Is there a reason you didn't include the "other" expats?
Yes: because messy, messed-up people are much more fun to write about! Actually, all of my novels are about fringe-dwellers and fuck-ups; I find them much more interesting. But also with this novel in particular, Mischa is someone who has left a violent, controlling relationship. In her new life, she actively avoids any kind of relationship where she feels she needs to answer to someone or justify her actions. It makes sense that she would gravitate to the careless and carefree, rather than the concerned and careful.
The female Vietnamese characters in the novel, Mai and Thuan, are strong, smart women. As an expat writer did you feel the need to exhibit particular sensitivity (and not fall prey to stereotypes) when writing about the locals?
I was very aware of how Vietnamese women have been portrayed in western literature throughout the last couple of centuries, and also, of course, how some Westerners continue to speak about them as accessories to their own adventures. Of course I didn't want to replicate such stereotypes, but not because of 'sensitivity' in terms of worrying about offence, but because it's lazy, bad writing. Why go to the trouble to create a believable world and then people it with caricatures?
The relationship between 18-year-Cal and 35-year-old Mischa is morally ambiguous, as are many of the relationships and experiences in the lives of the group of expats you write about. Do you think there's something about the expat lifestyle that particularly allows for this sort of ambiguity?
I think there can be a freedom in living far from where you grew up, far from the people you grew up with. There's a freedom that comes with having no hope of fitting in, so you don't bother trying. I think that freedom can be a wonderful, wonderful thing, but it also makes it easy to let yourself get away with stuff that your friends or family back home would pull you up on. There's also the fact that expat communities tend to be constantly in flux--new people arriving, old-timers leaving--so there can be a sense of impermanence to relationships, even if you, personally, intend on sticking around for a while.
In your first book, you wrote about a teenage girl who has a relationship with a much-older male teacher. In a way, Fishing for Tigers was a return to the same subject matter but from a different perspective. Why were you drawn to write about this subject again?
It's weird; I had no intention of revisiting that dynamic, and I still feel I haven't, although the two-sentence description of each novel makes it sound like I have! The relationship in my first novel, Taming the Beast, is far less ambiguous. We're talking, in the beginning at least, about a 14 year old girl and a man who is, in addition to being much older, also in an official position of power over her. In Fishing for Tigers, the power imbalance and the ethical questions are more slippery. I was more interested in exploring how the specific life experiences of these two individuals have created particular vulnerabilities and how those vulnerabilities were going to be exposed when the two of them get together. I wanted that collision of Mischa's disconnection from the place she claims to love and Cal's inherited dislike of the country of his mother's birth. But because of Mischa's background, it seemed necessary for the lover who shakes her up to be 'safe' in a way that a man of her own age wouldn't have been. So, Cal's young because Mischa needs him to be, rather than because I wanted to write another May-December relationship.
Men have been sleeping with much younger women forever, but in the past decade, the idea of older women with younger men has become much more mainstream. That said, it seems that women are often judged more harshly when they do it -- the term 'cougar' is loaded with negative implications. Do you think Mischa would have been treated the same way had she been a man?
Generally speaking women are still judged much more harshly than men for sleeping with someone much younger. I think in Mischa's case, the 'sin' is compounded by the fact that Cal is the son of her friend. I would expect a man sleeping with his mate's 18-year old daughter would be judged harshly as well. Still, regardless of the age of a lover I think women are expected to behave 'better', to control their sexual appetites or be less obvious about indulging them. I think the idea of a woman lusting after a young man (never mind actually sleeping with him) is considered unseemly whereas men lusting after young women is considered quite natural.
Fishing for Tigers, by Emily Maguire, is available now at bookworld.com.au and panmacmillan.com.au.