The characters in Melanie Cheng’s stories feel so real and familiar, despite being fictional. ‘It’s a bit ironic that by making things up, we can actually be more truthful.’
The doctor and author’s collection of short stories, Australia Day, won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript and went on to win the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for fiction. The fourteen stories explore the experiences of racially and culturally diverse characters.
‘When a reader comes to a work of fiction, they come with an openness that they don’t normally bring to non-fiction. When you do that, you can have greater empathy for the characters - it’s greater immersion. It’s that very openness we often lack when approaching facts and politics and other non-fiction pieces.’
When beginning a story, Melanie won’t outline the plot or plan extensively - this is part of the enjoyment for her, particularly as a juxtaposition to her work as a GP. ‘In other areas of my life I’m very organised, but in this one domain I allow myself some freedom! For me, that’s where the magic is.’
For Radio Reimagined, the final story of the Australia Day collection will be read aloud. A Good and Pleasant Things follows Mrs Chan as she attempts to forge a new life for herself in Australia. Mrs Chan is loosely based on her own Chinese grandmother.
There had been a time where half of Melanie’s family were in Australia, and her grandparents were still in Hong Kong, but there were talks of plans for the rest of the family to come join them. ‘My grandmother didn’t speak any English at all. Her middle name is my name, and I always felt this connection with her even though we could never really communicate effectively… it was often in gestures, or looks.’
Melanie’s grandmother did not end up moving to Australia, but the possibility is what inspired A Good and Pleasant Thing, as the author wondered what that would have been like. ‘In the media so often there is talk about the migrants who don’t speak English, or who don’t ‘assimilate’ - these people are so voiceless. They never get to explain why they are here, or talk about the difficulties they face.’ The work reminds us to pause, and be less quick to judge.
For Radio Reimagined, listeners are able to put themselves in Mrs Chan’s situation, and importantly - imagine. ‘As we get older we tend to not take these imaginative journeys. My children constantly use their imagination - I can’t keep up with their role-play games! I think if we do that more often, we live a richer internal life, and we all benefit from that.’