Leila Yusaf Chung, Chasing Shadows (Vintage Books Australia, 2014)
In August 2001, John w Howard kept the press away from the asylum seekers who had been rescued by captain Arne Rinnan of the Norwegian ship Tampa. It was crucial to Howard’s strategy of depicting the would-be refugees as ‘illegals’ and ‘queue-jumpers’ that Australians not see them as individual men, women and children. His famous utterance, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,’ could not have sounded like a defiant assertion of sovereignty if its hearers knew the wretched terror and misery – not to mention courage and determination – of those who were being ‘decided’ against.
Short of meeting asylum seekers in person, and so far I haven’t bestirred myself to do that, fiction has to be a good way of engaging imaginatively with this class of people who are still being relentlessly disparaged and dehumanised in our media. I bought a copy of Leila Yusaf Chung’s novel with those considerations in mind after hearing her speak, beautifully, at the Sydney Writers Festival about the importance of women in refugee communities.
I’m happy to report that the book filled the brief I had given it. Set mainly in Israel and Lebanon from the 1940s to the 1980s, it has real people who suffer real losses, confront real mysteries, and make their ways through the violence and indifference they meet at every turn. The form of the book mirrors the complexity of Middle Eastern politics, to the extent that plot summaries either misrepresent the book or are close to impossible to unravel. A character who seems to be the main driver of the plot becomes marginal to the point that when he dies we hardly notice; sympathetic characters do terrible things, and a shift in perspective reveals what looked like – and was – abuse to be an act of love; an early scene narrated from an uncomprehending child’s point of view turns out to contain a mystery that is central to the story; there are many false starts, many shifts of location and allegiance.
The book has a Zelig quality – characters find themselves on the spot just in time to be on the wrong side of a disastrous event: a Polish Jew living in Israel converts to Islam just before the naqba, so that he and his new family are among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven from their homes by the Israeli army into apparently permanent exile; a young Palestinian woman is persuaded to marry an Iranian official, only to arrive in Tehran the day of the 1979 revolution and be gaoled along with hundreds of women who don’t meet the requirements of Ayatollah Khomeini’s new regime; characters are caught up in the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Identity is fluid, and sometimes a pragmatic choice: the Jew Lavi becomes the Muslim Abu Fadi in order to marry a young Muslim woman; his Arab daughter poses as a Christian Armenian to give her infant daughter a safe environment to grow up in; another daughter finds a source of strength in strict Islam. Nothing is simple.
I recommend the book. If you read it I’d love to hear your response in the comments.
Chasing Shadows is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.