A version of this article was originally published in The Big Issue no. 415.
Somewhere around the six-week mark of Emily Maguire’s 2008 visit to Hanoi, she realised she was in love: ‘Actual love—the kind where you wake up smiling in anticipation, and you fall asleep deeply, deeply happy every night,’ she says.
Maguire was working in the English translation department of a Vietnamese publishing house as part of a residency through the cross-cultural institution Asialink, and says falling for the city took her entirely by surprise.
‘I’ve travelled quite a bit and I can find something to appreciate or enjoy about almost everywhere I’ve been, but I’ve never had the experience of loving a place like that’. Hanoi became the setting for Fishing for Tigers, the acclaimed author and journalist’s latest novel.
It’s the story of thirty-something Mischa, who has been living in Hanoi for six years, bearing the scars of an abusive relationship. She is satisfied, living day-to-day, in Vietnam. Then an ex-pat friend introduces her to his 18-year-old Vietnamese-Australian son. Cal is attractive, idealistic and kind. Mischa and Cal explore the city, exchanging ideas. They also begin to explore each other.
‘Mischa is not in Vietnam during a time of war, but she is, like Thomas Fowler [of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American], resistant to the idea that anything going on around her is her business,’ Maguire explains. ‘She thinks of herself as outside of Vietnam’s social and political history and present circumstances. She thinks of herself as a disinterested observer, but Cal forces her to face up to her own complicity.’
Cal causes an awakening in Mischa, as do the stories of the Vietnamese women Mischa encounters through her work. ‘Vietnamese history—ancient and recent—is full of stories about incredible female warriors and Mischa admires them even as she recognises that the on-paper veneration of powerful women does not carry over to their lived experience,’ Maguire says. ‘The truly impressive thing about Vietnamese women warriors is that they sacrificed themselves for the good of their people. Mischa has been, necessarily, very self-centred for years… But [her] intensifying relationship with Cal forces her to think about herself again as someone whose actions and words affect others.’
This is compounded when Mischa’s sister back in Sydney becomes very ill. For Mischa, Maguire says, ‘that tension between self-protection/fulfilment and care for others becomes kind of unbearable.’
In Fishing for Tigers, Mischa and Cal’s relationship is treated with maturity, as are the other complex, charged bonds between characters in Maguire’s novels Taming the Beast (2004), The Gospel According to Luke (2006) and Smoke in the Room (2009). It’s plausible that the characters are drawn together, and their age difference is not sensationalised. Concepts of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ are explored as being both separate, and fluid. Maguire herself feels ‘powerfully tempted’ to stay in Vietnam whenever she is there, but says she also misses her family back in Sydney. ‘If I’m away, I’m missing them painfully and if I’m home, I’m yearning to be gone. Still, it’s a nice tension—being pulled between love and wonder and back again.’
In the character of Mischa, Maguire is investigating a more extreme and disorienting form of tension between competing ideas of home. Mischa has come to Vietnam to remove herself from a damaging situation. ‘Home has been kind of a horror for her,’ Maguire explains. ‘But even as she comes to love Hanoi, she doesn’t “belong” there in any real sense of the word. She doesn’t speak the language or have more than a shallow understanding of the culture,’ Maguire continues. ‘And yet, in terms of feeling a sense of rightness with where she is… then that’s Hanoi. It doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t be true and yet it is. She feels right being there and that’s that.’
Cal’s background provides contrasting ideas of belonging. He is overwhelmed by many aspects of Vietnam, including what he perceives as commercialisation and Westernisation. In the scene where Mischa and Cal visit the Cu Chi tunnels, an underground network that once served as a base for Viet Cong guerrillas, Cal, disturbed, asks: ‘What kind of country turns this kind of shit into a goddamn tourist park?’ Mischa’s reply is: ‘Every kind.’
But there’s an awareness that grows in Cal, especially once he visits the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (which most of the characters still call ‘Saigon’): ‘He doesn’t want to think of Vietnam’s history as his, but it absolutely is,’ Maguire says. ‘His life is what it is, because his grandparents chose to take their kids and become part of the diaspora.’
As with Maguire’s other works, both fiction and nonfiction, the style is natural and elegant but the essence is deep. There are questions here of not just where but how and with whom (if anyone) a person can belong. And there are even bigger questions regarding one’s place in existence. The characters are memorable and the descriptions of place have the ability to stir longing in the reader.
Maguire has been back to Vietnam for at least a month every year since 2008. She’s seen significant changes in even this short time and, as her relationship with the city deepens and her experiences gain context, she begins to notice more, or see the same things differently. Now, the very familiarity of the place works on her: ‘[When] I arrive now I have this whole physiological reaction as soon as I hear and smell and breathe Hanoi. I feel lighter and happier and ultra-alert,’ she reflects. ‘I head out on long walks without a map and I feel alive and alert and weirdly, impossibly, home.’
This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.