THE YELLOW PAPERS
Authors: Dominique Wilson
Transit Lounge RRP $29.95
Review: Monique Mulligan
The Yellow Papers is one of those books that forces the reader to look at concepts, such as cultures, philosophies and relationships, from different perspectives, leaving the reader the richer for it. In particular, it examines the challenges of being a Chinese immigrant in Australia, an aspect later contrasted with the challenges a white Australian experiences in Asia, both during and post-war.
Chen Mu discovers two things when he is sent to America to study in 1872 – an enduring love of education and the lingering pain of racism. The former burns into his mind, is temporarily set aside when survival instincts rule, and is later restored; the latter follows him from America to outback Australia, until he finds work on a rich pastoralist’s property, and feels a sense of acceptance and belonging.
Years later, he befriends the young son of his boss, Edward, and instils in him a love of Chinese antiquities and wisdom; this education and interest follows Edward through his life, into Shanghai and the arms of a beautiful married woman, into war zones that scar and torment, and into a new period of Chinese politics that seems to go against the essence of all Edward has come to love. Edward’s wartime experiences lead him to reject Chen Mu’s friendship, despite knowing that it is hardly fair to blame Chen Mu for the atrocities committed against him. In his tormented mind, Chen Mu is, like him, a victim of war, rational or not.
Themes of friendship, love, redemption and values are underscored by deeper themes of racism, propaganda, politics and war in this multi-layered and insightful novel. Different characters, including Ming Li’s troubled grandson Huang Ho, highlight these themes, varying in intensity. The three main characters – Chen Mu, Edward and Huang Ho – each experience forms of racism and the impact is, particularly for the latter two, immense and profound. Each one also emerges from political or war environments bearing different scars, and greater or lesser mental strength. For example, Edward returns from Asia with post-traumatic stress; the flashbacks and hyper vigilance blur his capacity to differentiate between friend and foe, and at this point, all Asians, even his lifelong friend and mentor Chen Mu are to be avoided, feared and hated. Huang Ho, indoctrinated in Mao Tse Tsung’s beliefs, turns on his grandmother, believing her to be a “bad element. Chen Mu carries guilt all his life. Interestingly, the female viewpoints are mostly silent on these matters (Ming Li’s voice offers some insight), and generally take on supporting roles.
The Yellow Papers is not flawless (some parts seem rushed and sometimes the writing was a little dry), but the research is impeccable and the overall writing solid. What stood out for me, and still does a week after reading it, is the way Wilson conveys the pain of war and racism – it’s honest, emotive, vivid and at times, raw. A recommended read for anyone who likes historical fiction and has a tendency to think over the issues raised for some time afterwards. A big thumbs up from me.
Bookish treat: I started reading this around Chinese New Year. I really wanted to make some pineapple jam biscuits, but couldn’t get any pineapple jam in my local Asian grocery store, so I settled for a brownie instead.