Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Stranger Country documents a 30,000-kilometre, solo road trip around Australia in 2016. The author, Monica Tan, born in Australia to Chinese Malaysian parents, was working in Sydney as a reporter and cultural editor for the Guardian. Although well-educated and well-travelled she was faced with the dilemma of whether it was worse to be a Chinese Australian blind to the evidence of human life in China when she visited there, or to be blind to the real human life experience in Australia. It seemed that no matter where she went, she felt alienated and a stranger from the land.
To try to rectify this problem she gave up her job in Sydney, packed up her Rav 4 and set forth on a six-month Odyssey. The book, documenting her travels, is broken into seven chapters and focusses on her experiences in these different broad areas across Australia. There is also an extensive bibliography and 8 pages of glossy colour photos. To help in her quest she is drawn to the First Nation people in each of these areas as she believes that they have a greater connection to the country. This belief had been reinforced when overhearing a German man say that Australia was a wonderful place but it had no culture. This statement engendered in her the realisation that indeed Australia did not have ‘a distinct language through which to identify ourselves, (was) without shared long-standing traditions to create stability, (was) without history to provide a framework, and (was) without culture to draw strength from’ yet ‘we occupy lands whose caretakers form the oldest continuous civilisation on Earth with an unparalleled connection to Country’ (xvi),
Her journey takes her from Sydney to Mungo National Park then down the Murray to the Coorong where she planned to visit the home town of David Unaipon, the Aboriginal polymath preacher, writer, inventor and musician, whose portrait is depicted on our $50 note. From here she turned north to Alice Springs then west to the Kimberley and Pilbara areas. She embarked on a 72-kilometre hike over nine days on the Lurujarri Heritage Trail. This time-out with nature, she believed, ‘gave her the opportunity to physically dissolve into the processes of the land’ and ‘become a child of this country’(166). She headed to the Top End, Arnhem Land and then to the impenetrable tropical rainforest -the Daintree, a living museum of flora and fauna, before making her way back to Sydney.
She describes herself at the beginning of the trip as ‘a fast-talking intellectual trendoid’ and believed she was ‘the worst manifestation of cut-and-paste, mindlessly collecting all the shiny objects from other people’s cultures (mainly American) ’(271). By the end of the trip she had realised many things – that the ocean had a different personality in different parts of the country; that with every lesson she learnt and every step she took, she was, being ‘nourished and loved, completely by the land’ (175); that it had been one thing to read in a history book that the Chinese had been in Australia since the gold rush, but seeing the physical evidence seemed to fortify her place in Australia. She had also learned that ‘while digital environments bred extremism, face-to-face conversations fostered natural empathy’ (277), and that silence truly was deafening.
Her text covers a multitude of issues that have faced Australia over the years from the gold-rush years to illegal boat people and the so-called cultural wars of the 1990s. She does not hold back on some of her opinions, although these are usually backed up by evidence, so some readers may find her book somewhat confronting. I found through my journey that my perception of a quiet demure Chinese girl was somewhat tested. However, her writing is full of facts – her experiences as well as the history and geography, flora and fauna of the places through which she travelled. There is much that a reader can learn from this work which may warrant several readings.
I enjoyed her writing style and the wonderful imagery she created for the reader. When speaking of the ranger who took them through Mungo National Park she says ‘He gave a small smile that made his moustache crinkle like a furry caterpillar’ (19). Her description of the Park was ‘that the westerly winds lift the lake’s shroud to reveal treasures and long-dead things, and that there were ‘pools of fresh, soft golden sand where the ghostly wind had left a rippled imprint’ (22). When driving towards Alice Springs she describes the environment as an ‘otherworldly landscape’ and ‘the spurts of voluminous white cloud suspended in the blue sky’ made her feel as if she ‘were driving along the cold and dark bottom of the ocean, looking up at a school of jellyfish’ (56).
As she says herself, this trip had changed her. She ‘had left Sydney wearing the haunted look of so many overworked, sun-deprived journalists…(and) one giant loop around the nation later, had returned with (her) soul heavy as a wet sponge with feelings and (her) spirit rejuvenated’ (300), and with many new skills. She now had the ability to forage for lunch, build a fire, change a tyre, get bogged and then get un-stuck, tell a kite from a kestrel, catch a barra, (although that seemed to be more from accident than skill) and recognise emu tracks.
She now realises that being Australian does not preclude blood or ancestral membership or even cultural knowledge. She now feels closer to her country of birth having faced its past. She believes that she has a role to play in reconciling our country with the land and its First People. That ours is a country uniquely united in its diversity. To this end she has taken up what she says is a dream job as a teacher at Western Sydney University teaching Australian studies, where most of her students have a non-English speaking background. She considers it a privilege to ‘show them that even though the Australia of our popular imagination has so often failed to demonstrate its cultural diversity, in fact it has been a defining characteristic almost from the beginning of colonial Australia’ (305).
Stranger Country by Monica Tan has shown me a very courageous young woman who has a powerful way of sharing her experiences and opinions with others. Her book, to be officially launched, in March 2019, by federal senator Mehreen Faruqi, will be followed by a panel discussion on what it means to be Australian in 2019.
By Monica Tan