What I'm Reading, by Shu-Ling Chua


I spent the first three months of 2017 reading fiction for a change, in the hope it would teach me how to write short stories or at least, how to approach memoir differently. Here are some of the stories that helped.

Artwork by  Shauna O'Meara

Artwork by Shauna O'Meara

Written in deliberately bad English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo is the cleverest, most original love story I have read. It is about two lovers who don’t speak each other’s language. Z’s observations of English language and Western culture are hilarious but also heartbreaking. At one point, she lashes out in her diary:


[I have become so small, so tiny, while the English culture surrounding me becomes enormous. It swallows me, and it rapes me. I am dominated by it.]

It was comforting to find I could understand some characters. Not understanding all, however, placed me in Z’s shoes. The world shrunk as my comprehension did.

China-born but based in London and Berlin, Guo perfectly expresses this sense of ‘living-in-between-ness’ here and in other work, 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth and Lovers in the Age of Indifference.

The concept of ‘private self’ vs. ‘public self’ is also explored in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The story of three musicians who struggle through China’s Cultural Revolution, it unspools like an intricate symphony:

His music made her turn away from the never-possible and the almost-here, away from an unmade, untested future. The present, Sparrow seemed to say, is all we have, yet it is the one thing we will never learn to hold in our hands.

There are things buried within this book, things I will not fully appreciate until older.

Another book I will be re-reading is The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, a collection of short stories about female desire and sexuality, beauty, and power. I love its Gothic fairy-tale imagery, lush yet threatening. Having written about guilt and consent for years, it is refreshing to read about the oft-brutal transition from girl to woman in a sensual but still critical way:

And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me… for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.

Closer to home, stories about real Canberra (read: not political autobiographies or crime) inspire me to keep writing about this city. Here Come The Dogs by Omar Musa is poetic despite, or perhaps because of, its viciousness. Part verse, part prose, it crackles with energy, life and instantly recognisable references to ‘the Town’ and ‘the City’:

Here, in the City, it’s public servant land, where people get paid big bucks for doing fuck all, where a sign pointing to a national institution can be found next to a sign for plastic surgery.

Importantly, it features characters underrepresented in Australian literature: Solomon, his half-brother Jimmy and their friend Aleks, ‘three disaffected, hedonistic, aspirational and sometimes violent young men on the edge’, looking for a way in. In contrast, Frank Moorhouse’s depiction of 1950s Canberra in Cold Light and (occasionally insufferable) protagonist Edith Campbell Berry seem worlds away. Despite being decades younger than Edith, I identify with her ambition to do good in the world and the disillusionment that can follow: She cried because she did not know if she was being foolish or courageous.

Finally, my favourite online reads are Make Nice interviews with female-identifying creatives, Liminal interviews with Asian-Australians, and Lindsay, for words and photos celebrating place and culture.

SHU-LING CHUA is a Canberra-based writer. Her work has appeared in FeminartsyWriters BlocPeril Magazine, Seizure and other publications. She was producer at Noted Writers Festival 2016 and Voiceworks nonfiction subeditor, and selected for the 2015 HARDCOPY manuscript development program. She tweets @hellopollyanna while living the memoir she hopes to finish one day.