Portable Curiosities – Julie Koh
Themes of isolation, nationalism, prejudice, objectification, innocence, vanity, ambition, and greed permeate the surfaces of Koh’s surreal stories – a review by Tsarie Duthie.
It can be an absurd and demoralising experience to be a woman of Asian descent in Australia. No matter how well you “integrate” into society – carefully cultivating the idea that you do actually belong – this idea is vulnerable to The Look. The Look reminds you that you do look different, that you don’t really belong. The Look foreshadows the inevitable question: “Where are you from?”.
It’s alienating, unsettling, and a little ridiculous.
Julie Koh, in her collection of twelve short stories, Portable Curiosities, manages to capture these feelings of isolation and discomfort in one’s own skin with disturbing accuracy – and with an abundance of wry wit.
Koh skilfully and unrelentingly satirises the Asian-Australian experience in many of her stories. In the opening story “Sight” a young Asian girl, known only as China Doll, has a third eye on her bellybutton that sees disturbing visions and spirits. Because of her third eye, China Doll is ostracised by her mother and sister, who crave the approval of their friends and neighbours. Her only friend, Tattoo Man, also has a third eye, but China Doll’s mother forbids their friendship: “I don’t want the neighbours thinking all Asians are the same”.
In “The Fat Girl in History”, protagonist Julie feels the pressure of being both overweight and Asian “I . . . think about all the white guys I’ve met lately who have yellow fever. Even they reject me now. I’m not petite and Asian enough.”. She takes matters into her own hands in the surreal and triumphant conclusion.
The yellow man in “The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man” emerges from a three-dimensional film in which he played a one-dimensional character: Stand-offish Ninja #13. Prejudice, tokenism, and the generalisation of individuals as representatives of their entire race, weigh heavily in this story. Even Pauline Hanson makes an appearance in what is also an allegory on the refugee crisis: “Out of a fish and chip shop appeared a tight-lipped, flame-haired woman. I don’t like it, she said. We’re in danger of being swamped by yellows”.
But Portable Curiosities is not limited to an exploration of the Asian-Australian experience. Numerous aspects of Australian contemporary culture are at the mercy of Koh’s keen wit. In “Cream Reaper” – which tracks the exploits of Bartholomew G, a “self-described food futurist slash visionary educationist who has Sydney in the grip of a deluxe ice-cream pandemic” – Koh sardonically parodies the rise of reality television culture, hipsters, the Sydney housing bubble, and the “Insta-famous” phenomenon.
In “Inquiry Regarding the Recent Goings-On in the Woods”, which features a Monty Python-esque incident involving a guerrilla orchestra, Koh weaves a pointed commentary on the lack of government support for the arts.
“The Fantastic Breasts” is a masterful jab at the patriarchy, and objectification of women. A man reluctantly attends a conference filled with “…plain-looking, spotty breasts”, until he happens upon the multi-talented Fantastic Breasts – literally an exquisite pair of breasts on legs –and pursues a relationship with them.
An overworked and underpaid Rao Lin Chin suffers a nervous breakdown in “Civility Place”, the 1200-storey office building where power and profit are paramount – with a superficial, perfunctory concern for the mental well-being of white-collar workers (and outright disregard for the safety of blue-collar workers). “Civility Place” is written in the second person, which cleverly articulates the same hopeless, repressed anxiety felt by the protagonist:
The entrance to the tower comprises six revolving glass doors. Their action reminds you of hand-cranked egg beaters . . . You look up for a second at the tower looming above you. It’s so tall that you can’t see where it stops and the sky begins. You steel yourself and walk in, preparing to be served as suggested – beaten or chopped.
Portable Curiosities is Koh’s first full-length published work since abandoning her career in corporate law. Perhaps it is her background in law that informed her aptitude for clear and concise writing, allowing her to twist and compress manifold aspects of contemporary culture into a humble 226 pages. Her strong, direct prose is augmented by sharp delineations between the real and the unreal, and is as captivating as it is jarring.
Koh’s stories shift between magical realism, science-fiction, fantasy, and realism. But what makes them truly effective is the delivery of her message through surrealism. The bizarre worlds Koh creates become disturbingly plausible when her vivisection of contemporary society is laid bare. She satirises acutely; exposing the raw wounds, absurdity, and hidden pain of modern Australia with her short, sharp shocks of fiction. Her satire is funny because it is so relatable. But that is also what makes it so bleak.