Riffing on the collisions between tradition and modernity, Elaine Chiew’s winsome, playful, and sometimes wistful short story collection The Heartsick Diaspora hopscotches across continents and time periods, focusing on Malaysians at home and abroad.
Testy relations between parents and expatriate children get a comedic workout in “Run of the Molars,” in which a Singapore woman ignites a fracas with her three London-based daughters when she opts for toast over her offspring’s cooking, and also reveals a stunning secret. Cultural appropriation is mined for ironic humor in “Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur,” when a Malaysian American chef has her homemade recipe stolen by a diffident colleague. “Face” is a more somber take on racial issues, as an elderly Malaysian woman gets harassed during a ride on the London Underground.
Other stories cast a bemused eye on the absurdity of bourgeois life. In “Rap of the Tiger Mother,” a mother fights to maintain her kid’s confidence, and her own sanity, among other backstabbing moms at a hoity-toity preschool. The impoverished immigrant of “The Chinese Nanny” takes on a caregiving assignment with an upper-crust English family, resulting in uncomfortable realizations and a life-changing tragedy.
Chiew throws in a few changes of pace with a trio of tales set in Malaysia’s past (covering World War II as well as Singapore’s rise in the intervening decades), as human connections are gained and lost and memories linger like aftershocks. For good measure, she goes metafictional in the amusing title story, in which it is revealed that several stories in the collection are the brainchild of a dysfunctional writers group mired in romantic entanglements and jealousy.
Leavened with well-observed humor, and peppered with moments of pathos and poignant reflections on cultural difference, The Heartsick Diaspora is a stimulating and varied collection.
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