Tuesday 7 February 2017
A Chinese affair brings a new, exciting voice to the Australian literary landscape and is one of the few works of literary fiction in English to explore the experience of Chinese migration.
In sixteen exquisite stories, Isabelle Li explores recent Chinese migration to Australia and elsewhere. Some are explicitly connected, through common characters or incidents; in others, the threads are both allusive and elusive – intergenerational and interracial relationships, the weight of history and indebtedness, the search for meaning, and the muteness peculiar to cultural dislocation and the inexpressibility of self in a second language.
The stories explore what it means to leave behind one’s familiar environment and establish a new life, the struggle to survive and thrive, the triumph and compromise, love and heartache, failure and resilience.
Isabelle Li grew up in China, worked in Singapore and migrated to Australia in 1999. Her short stories have appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, including The best Australian stories and Southerly. Her story ‘Go Troppo’ was commended in the Ethel Webb Bundell Literary Awards 2014. She was a recipient of the 2014 Varuna Fellowship. She received her Master of Arts and Master of Creative Arts from University of Technology Sydney, and is currently studying her Doctor of Creative Arts at Western Sydney University and working on a novel.
Praise for A Chinese affair:
‘These sixteen stories present characters who share much, yet are all unique. As if in a kaleidoscope, they continue to be revealed and reinterpreted in different lights and from different angles. Isabelle Li’s prose is powerful, exquisite and finely tuned, and each story draws us deeper into the complex emotional and cultural dilemmas of characters who are solitary, sensitive, perceptive… sometimes all at once.’
—Debra Adelaide, author of The household guide to dying
‘Isabelle Li’s stories surprise us with the secrets they reveal, the sensations they convey and the depth of feeling they release. Finely crafted, bittersweet, boldly coloured, they mark the arrival of an important presence in the creative flow between China and Australia.’
—Nicholas Jose, author of Black sheep: journey to Borroloola
‘A Chinese affair, a debut short-story collection from Isabelle Li, presents a suite of interconnected tales of Chinese migration to Australia and beyond. The volume offers glimpses of strong women – every one of whom subverts orientalist cliché in some way – through sensual and compressed prose. Li draws a range of characters, though some, like the tough and unpredictable young interpreter Crystal, winningly recur, as do thematic concerns: interracial relationships, the break and the bond with the past migration inspires, and the ambivalences of navigating two languages. Li writes at her best when she strives for brevity. Some of the longer stories can feel overwritten – the flip side, perhaps, of the exquisite density and power Li can bring to bear on her craft.’
—The Sydney morning herald
‘A collection of beautifully crafted short stories, each one a powerful insight into the cultural and emotional experience of Chinese immigrants in Australia.’
—Sunday Life Magazine, Sun herald and Sunday age
‘Isabelle Li’s experiences as a Chinese migrant in Australia have been distilled into a compelling short story cycle. Li reflects on her life in Australia and the lives of other Chinese immigrants in her first book, A Chinese affair, a collection of stories and fascinating window to the world of newcomers to this country, although Li doesn’t claim to speak for them.
Li has a unique writing style and that might be down to her influences. While she cites authors such as W. Somerset Maugham, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekhov, her style is also informed by poetic Chinese classical literature.
Li points out that poetry is an important part of Chinese culture, and Chinese poetry infuses this collection and her prose. The opening lines of the story Further south exemplify her anything but prosaic style…’
—QWeekend, The courier mail
‘Li, who grew up in China and worked in Singapore before migrating to Australia, admits there is a large element of autobiography in these sixteen stories, which together form a rich exploration of Chinese culture and language and the dissonances and mistranslations that result through migration and other forms of cross-cultural encounters… Li’s prose throughout is both sensuous and spare, and if one sometimes longs for a much longer sentence to unfurl itself slowly like a scroll or a ribbon, there are exquisite mosaics… which more than compensate with their fragrant, imagistic clarity…’
—The West Australian
‘Isabelle Li’s debut collection A Chinese affair is a strange beast – a genre mashup that showcases the Chinese-Australian experience by mixing short story and memoir. The Australian short-story narrative is currently in a strong place, with authors such as Maxine Beneba Clarke, Benjamin Law and Christos Tsiolkas all contributing to a vibrant kaleidoscope of Australian contemporary society. Li is a welcome new voice in this group, especially for readers who prefer an unusual structure and gentle tone.’
—The Australian bookseller + publisher
‘Moody and slow-burning with moments of startling revelation…
Secrets – always a delicious theme – abound and most of the stories touch on secret liaisons or longings. One of the most satisfying elements of the book is the way Li’s female characters recognise, and frustrate, orientalist stereotypes; these are women of erotic originality, independence and humour. Her characters are often solitary and are exceptionally attuned to their surroundings and to sensation. This makes for a brooding, contemplative tone and a collection that is heavy on imagery and introspection… often it is haunting.
Li crafts some exquisite, sometimes shocking scenes (often of cruelty or loss), then allows dramatic tension to sag in-between with long passages of meandering description.
Crystal is a strange and unpredictable character and her narratives tend to touch on both the thrills, and the frustrations, of self-expression across two languages. Wherever she appears, Li’s stories sing.’
—The Saturday paper