Book review: ‘Banana girl’ by Michele Lee

 
'Banana girl' by Michele Lee
‘Banana girl’ by Michele Lee

Michele Lee dates white guys. She’s tried dating non-white guys before—one Aussie-born Malaysian and one Jew—but neither got past the first date. She wonders if she is racist. But racism is contrary to her three-month flirtation with socialism. Plus she’s also Hmong, ‘indisputably non-white’, ‘too focused on…[her] outsiderness to be avoiding Jewish men.’ But ‘It’s a taste thing,’ she decides. ‘Based on skin colour.’

Such is much of the comings and goings in Banana Girl, Lee’s memoir. Punctuated with letters to her teenage self, Banana Girl is a diary of a ‘subversive and ironic’ twenty-something-year-old living in the hipster boroughs of Melbourne. There is the sharehouse squabbles on Albert Street, free tickets to the MTC, free booze at the art exhibition launches, and treatises on Brunswick girls.

In contrast are the reflections on being Hmong. Lee grew up as one of the thirty Hmong people in Canberra with nearly a third of those being part of her immediate family. Her memoir explains the persecution of her people during the Secret War and documents her visits to relatives in America and Laos. However, like her visits, these moments are brief and few. This reduced engagement with her ethnic heritage differentiates Lee from first-generation Asian Australian writers such as Anh Do and Li Cunxin and even second-generation writers like Alice Pung. Unlike her contemporaries, Lee does not connect with her own ethnicity and even curses herself about it: ‘Michele f…ing Lee. Fake Hmong gun. Fake Hmong spurs. Fake Hmong horse.’

Instead, Lee writes what she knows; at the age of thirty, what she knows most intimately about is sex with men. Chapter after chapter feature Lee’s exploits with Husband, Guy-normous, Tiger, and others. Her depictions switch from smutty to tender, from witty to neurotic.

While writing about sex is not exactly novel, basing an Asian Australian memoir primarily on sex is. In many Asian cultures, discussing sex in public is a social taboo. Even young, married Asian Australian women do not talk about sex if they can help it. Mochi Magazine writer Tiffany Ayuda tries to explain why:

It partly comes down to how you can almost bet that your parents disapprove of premarital sex. This belief is so widespread that it’s essentially become taboo to talk about any aspect of sex, not to mention sexual health, in fear that discussing it would encourage you to become sexually active (via ‘An Asian American Perspective: How to Address the Stigma Surrounding Sex’).

Lee’s sexual frankness is not only brave, it reveals exactly how much of a banana she really is, ‘modern and golden, slipped loose from the rest of the bunch.’ In a way, she is not only a ‘minority of a minority’ because she is Hmong, she is also one in a minority of Asian Australians who are comfortable admitting to having sex and enjoying it. This is perhaps the most delicious irony that exists in Banana Girl: a new Australian who has assimilated into her adopted community at the expense of her own.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Author: Thuy Linh Nguyen

Thuy Linh Nguyen reads and writes when she can. Her work has been published in The Big Issue, Killings, The Lifted Brow, as well as Peril. For more on her literary adventures, visit thuylinhnguyen.wordpress.com.

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