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Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei — the fruits of labour

Author: Eileen Battersby
Newspaper: Financial Times
Date: Dec 15 2018

An admirable tale about the hardships and challenges of the immigrant experience manages to be engaging yet determinedly unsentimental

Admittedly, it is not the most inspiring of titles. The jacket image is also somewhat bewildering. Superficial observations aside, this astute debut from Osaka-born Iwaki Kei, who settled in Australia more than 20 years ago, deserves the awards it has won to date, and much more. Set in present-day Australia, the narrative, which has been translated from Japanese, is centred in a small town where racism remains very much alive. Salimah, a young African woman, has returned from her early morning shift. It is soul-destroying labour, cutting up meat and fish before packaging in the local grocery store. Standing in the shower, anxious to wash away the clinging smells of blood and raw flesh, she cries. She often weeps in the shower. Her life is tough, and she is yet to experience the welcome promised by the immigration office staff. Having fled her unspecified African country with her husband in the hope of a future, she is now trapped. Dismissing her as stupid, he had resented his lowly job and abandoned her and their two small sons. She battles on, doing the work he had rejected. It is a powerful opening sequence and Iwaki conveys the injustice of it all without sliding into polemic. As an African, Salimah is a novelty to be stared at in this narrow backwater, while her boys are bullied at school. “And then there was the pressing problem of language.” Salimah struggles to learn English, her children mock her efforts. The only comfort she has is the sunrise, “the one colour that was no different from her old home.” In this young African woman, Iwaki has created a stoic, sympathetic character who immediately convinces; she is not an idealised paragon. Then the viewpoint shifts to a direct first-person voice. The deliberate, self-assured and even younger Sayuri is Japanese. Already a mother, she is a university graduate whose personal expectations are currently overshadowed by her research lecturer husband’s blossoming career. Translator Meredith McKinney effectively sustains the contrasts between the panicked, eager-to-survive warmth of Salimah, and the rather more austere rage underlying Sayuri’s detailed letters to her now retired teacher. Not only is Sayuri educated and able to converse in intellectual ideas, she is interested in writing fiction. Her head is throbbing with various frustrations, most pressingly at her husband’s insensitivity to her constraints when dealing with their baby. These very different women meet at an English-language class in which the teacher is attempting to balance students of varying levels of linguistic proficiency. Anyone who has experienced learning second and third languages, and encountered the initial gulf between being able to understand and being able to communicate, will sigh in recognition. For Salimah, a reward for her hours of homework comes one evening when she notices the words “Method and Cooking” on a packet of spaghetti and realises that “she had read and understood them”. Little is revealed about the previous lives of either woman. The novel highlights their daily struggles. Through her diligence at work Salimah is selected as an outstanding employee and is promoted. Her confidence begins to flourish. For Sayuri, intent on returning to university life, her plans are destroyed by an unexpected tragedy that leaves her paralysed by guilt. Various characters move in and out of the action. Iwaki never loses sight of Salimah, the heart of this engaging and determinedly unsentimental novel. Sayuri is rigid and stiff and she knows it. In this young African woman, Iwaki has created a sympathetic character who immediately convinces Though never approaching the limpid eloquence of Japanese writer Tsushima Yuko — as seen in Territory of Light (1978-1979), posthumously published in Geraldine Harcourt’s translation this year — Iwaki’s less obviously stylistically sophisticated narrative does convey the sense of women attempting to contend with social, cultural, class, and — in this book — additional linguistic obstacles. There are several instances involving emotional truths of heartbreaking intensity. When Salimah’s husband reappears to claim the boys, it seems they too will leave her. Resigned to further hurt, she watches the three prepare to board the train. The younger son stops and walks back to her. Elsewhere an elderly Italian woman, long married to an Australian, struggles to accept her adult children having lives of their own. Her simple desire is to be needed. For Sayuri, who suffers a huge loss, comes a second chance. It is harrowing. Even so, the most moving moment is when Salimah, who had lost both her parents in the violence back home, is asked to describe her life to her son’s class at school. She tells them how she had written “letters in the sand with my fingers. They soon disappeared with the wind.” The simplicity of her beautiful account of the world she knew in Africa teaches Sayuri another powerful lesson about life. Stories teach us. In this unexpectedly riveting work, as spare as it is detailed, with its emphasis on learning at differing levels, Iwaki proves how the most important lesson concerns empathy. Farewell, My Orange, by Iwaki Kei, translated by Meredith McKinney, Europa, RRP£11.99, 135 pages Eileen Battersby is the author of ‘Teethmarks on My Tongue’ (Head of Zeus)