Monica Tan’s first novel, Stranger Country, will take you on a 30,000km journey of discovery around selected parts of Australia. Tan is Chinese Australian, but at thirty-two, felt that she didn’t know as much about Australia’s history as she did about China’s. In a bid to change that, Tan embarked on a journey around parts of the country, shining a light on stories the many Australian’s wouldn’t have a clue about. It’s also a geography lesson and a bit of an eye opener about Indigenous Australia too. As the former Deputy Culture Editor for Guardian Australia, Tan has plenty of previous knowledge to draw upon to help her with her travels (and the eventual writing of the book).
Tan’s journey gets off to a slightly stressful start, with the journalist reflecting on the many what ifs surrounding the solo stints of her travels. Though it’s clear that Tan had been preparing for this trip for a while now; and along her route she organised places to stay and people to show her around. Whether they were friends, or friends of friends, she’d at least have some company in certain places. During her travels she also had the chance to chat to locals about the history of the area she was visiting, as well as to learn more about Indigenous culture and history, and the history of those first Chinese migrants to Australia. In Stranger Country Tan documents a long, but necessary journey, that highlights the idiosyncracies and foibles of those who call this country home. For example, she meets people who assume she doesn’t speak “Australian” and brush her off. But, once they learn she’s Australian, they treat her differently.
Tan’s travels take her north from Sydney, and sees her encountering hitchhikers (one of whom she gamely gives a lift to Coober Pedy), brushing off unwanted sexual advances, and exploring the often unacknowledged history of this country. She learns on her journey, for example, that Mount Nameless in WA does in fact have a name: Jarndunmunha, leaving Tan to ponder why this can’t be its official name. It is these sorts of changes that the government can make that would show a recognition that Indigenous culture is not only important, but that it has a history that far predates that of the European settlers.
Tan reflects a lot on history, language and culture on her journey. It is clear that Tan is passionate about Indigenous culture and their sacred sites. In one section of the book, she notes that if you were to walk into a Buddhist temple you would remove your shoes and show respect, but that we often fail to show the same level of respect to Indigenous sacred sites.
Geography, history language and religion, it’s all here in Stranger Country. It’s a book full of adventure, discovery and learning. There are some interesting omissions, Uluru doesn’t get much of a mention for example. But, throughout the book Tan touches on the nature of history, and just whose stories get told, noting that the history of the Chinese in Australia is one that is rarely taught or spoken about for example. Stranger Country offers a different look at the country we call home, and will leave you pondering just what, or who, is an Australian.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Monica Tan’s Stranger Country is available March 4th from Allen & Unwin