The Heartsick Diaspora, and other stories

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Set in different cities around the world—Hong Kong, Florida, New York, London, Ipoh and Singapore—Elaine Chiew’s award-winning stories travel into the heart of the Singaporean-Malaysian diaspora, and ask what it means to be ‘Chinese’ or ‘Asian’ within the context of dual, or hyphenated, identities.

Acutely observed, wry and playful, her debut collection celebrates people who are torn between cultures and juggling a fragmented sense of self.

In the title story, which was runner-up in the 2018 Bridport Prize, four Asian writers are flummoxed by the sexual shenanigans that start when a handsome young Asian writer joins their support group. In other stories, three Singaporean daughters welcome their mother on a first visit to London and quarrel over steamboat; a Chinese woman raps about being a Tiger Mother; an elderly Chinese woman finds that it isn’t race that estranges, but the inability to tell the truth; and an ethnic writer takes on Eastern mythology in a metaphoric quest to understand the anxiety of Western literary influence.

Elaine Chiew drills below the surface of her characters’ circumstances with exemplary narrative skill and subtlety. Her stories are as varied, worldly and emotionally resonant as the characters themselves. This is a fabulous debut collection and heralds an exciting new literary talent.

Charles Lambert

12 December 2018

The Heartsick Diaspora is thoughtful, complex, emotionally resonant, both aware of the need to establish its own truth and of the danger that need involves, of the ‘wildness’ of truth, as Chiew says in one story, ‘like a foraging animal’. Like the lives they present, these stories are multi-layered, with a knowing intertwining of reference, as much a ‘hodgepodge’ as the people in them, a perceptive fusion of ‘bricoleur and collage’. The stories are as deeply felt as they are, on occasion, playful; there’s a kind of impertinence of tone, a lightness to them, belied by the seriousness of the material they handle and the respect that’s given, a creative intelligence that lets Chiew get up skin-close and yet maintain a distance that allows her, and us, to see the larger picture. A picture as heartfelt as it is heartsick.

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