Snappy, bold and visceral’. A debut novel about migrants and racism

Funny Ethnicities
Shirley Le
Confirm Press, $29.99

The precious round marble dining table in Sylvia Nguyen’s childhood home sets the stage for her biggest betrayal yet: her decision to drop out of law school and become a writer. The reactions are both immediate and physical – their ba exclaims, “Do you know why no Vietnamese are becoming artists? Because we’re not idiots!” and shortly afterwards a large blood vessel bursts, probably from the stress.

Her long-suffering cousin Anh Cuong, who became a doctor instead of pursuing his dream of becoming a professional chess player, goes even further: “Our community doesn’t need artists as much as we don’t need drug dealers. We need lawyers, we need doctors, we need a little respect, Sylvia.”

Shirley Le deals with the tensions between a religion like Buddhism and the demands of capitalism.

Shirley Le deals with the tensions between a religion like Buddhism and the demands of capitalism.Credit:

The Vietnamese refugee Nam Le won the Australian Prime Minister’s Literature Prize, which is worth $100,000 The boat made little impression in the small suburb of Yagoona in south-west Sydney, “a place where art and culture die”.

From that moment in the prologue of Funny Ethnicities When Sylvia drops her bombshell announcement, the book catapults back in time – tracing her coming of age through a flush-and-repeat school routine of “class, exams, home, tutoring.”

In the past, time still doesn’t flow linearly – Shirley Le bounces back and forth between memories while Sylvia relives her most humiliating moments (breakups, the numerous ways her body lets her down). Meanwhile, Sylvia lives under the overarching specter of her parents’ unspoken past, occasionally conjured up by her self to impress upon her the greatness of her victim, and almost never by her ba.

The mid-to-late 2000s in a social milieu that morphed from Yagoona, “where bits of blue sky had shrunk between the high-rise apartments housing yups who had been priced out of the Inner West,” to Bankstown and Cabramatta extends, is grounded in the smallest details. It’s the era of Hilary Duff, Mean Girls, bodycon dresses, Peter Pan collars and LimeWire.



Le writes bitingly, boldly and viscerally. Vietnamese words are consistently inserted into the text, with only occasional translations. The humiliations of the teenage years are evoked by Sylvia’s first period, announced on orientation night on her white cargo pants, her brown PE shorts rubbing against her thighs and her shiny stretch marks turning “red like open wounds”.

Sylvia has a “model minority voice” to turn on, but she’s far from a model minority. Despite threading her way into one of Sydney’s select high schools, Sylvia spends most of her teenage years skipping classes with her best friend Tammy and walking around in a fug-like state due to her dysfunctional relationship with food and her body. Snappy, bold and visceral’. A debut novel about migrants and racism

Jaclyn Diaz

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