This Korean Woman Reads: Review Of “Stranger Country” By Monica Tan

Written By Guest Contributor “This Korean Woman Reads” – Anna Song

“This Korean Woman Reads” is a book review series by Anna Song, who will be writing for the site reviewing books written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Australia and from other parts of the world.

Headlines: If Sex and the City is a love letter to New York, Stranger Country is an ode to Indigenous Australia. Winner of the 2020 Northern Territory Chief Minister’s Book Awards, Monica Tan’s solo travel across the Outback will let you go (spiritually, politically and physically) to where you have not been and where you have not dared.

Mood: Ocker Aussie and legit Asian

Pair with: Not a drink but an Akubra hat! 

I was chopping up vegetables for dinner listening to the Wheeler Centre podcast when I first heard about Stranger Country. Monica Tan, the author of this non-fiction book, came on: a thirty-something Asian-Australian female who abandoned a coveted job in journalism to explore Australia on a six month road trip. Because she knew less about Australia, the country of her birth, than China, the country of her heritage. I paused my chopping and listened intently. Holding my kitchen knife mid-air, I became instantly jealous of Tan: free spirited and brave while being respectful and honest about her relationship with Indigenous Australia, I wished I were more like her. 

Then she did a reading:

“I was fascinated to see my Chinese stepmother on Aboriginal-controlled land…Despite the thirty-degree weather, Mary was dressed in long pants and a cream Burberry-style trench coat to protect her pale skin from the sun and mosquitos.” 

I laughed heartily. Mary sounded like my mother and Monica had both guts and humour to entertain this vintage of Asian woman out in ‘the bush’. I was convinced: I had to buy and read this book, pronto.

But setting my eyes on Tan’s opening sentences gave me quite a shock. From the podcast, I had imagined Tan to be a ‘different kind’ of Asian female – fearless and unconventional, a warrior type whose kit is full of camping gear rather than make up. Yet her feelings on Day 1 mirrored my own. The same vulnerability and fears of an Asian woman driving 30,000 kms in Australia. By. Her. Self. “I was afraid of breaking down in the middle of nowhere. Afraid of getting bitten by a snake. Afraid of getting raped. Afraid of dying”. But unlike me who is too frightened to even take her mini SUV off the highway on a ‘real’ roadtrip, Tan’s fears didn’t stop her from seeing ‘country’. And for that I am glad. Thanks to her book, I was taken on an incredible journey in the comfort of my own couch with my fingers wrapped around a warm cup of tea.

The stories in Stranger Country are epic. She sees a cassowary (for reals!), catches a barramundi and survives a stand-off with a snake. She visits the hometown of David Unaipon, the best kept secret on our $50 note. She finds shadows of her ancestors in Darwin, with the Chinese Australian community there spanning generations. She finds romance in the great outdoors, getting carried away in moments of passion until the fraught relationship finds no common ground.

But what I treasured more as a reader were the quieter moments in Monica Tan’s solo adventure; moments which left me with gratitude and self reflection. Had I been brave enough to confront my own ignorance and indifference? Had I been honest to myself about my place in this colonised country (or as Tan puts it, ‘am I the colonised or the coloniser’)? After finishing the book, it became clear to me that, without taking my own journey into Aboriginal Australia, especially in the void of truth and reconciliation, my spirit would remain adrift, lacking the confidence as a migrant to lay down her roots on this ancient land.

Buy this book as a gift to: a) anyone keen to read about the ‘real outback’; b) any Asians in Australia who have not been ‘smoked’ – a.k.a properly welcomed – by the traditional elders of the land they are on; and c) any dreamer who wonders what colour the Australian Prime Minister might be today had the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 never been enacted over a century ago (historical speculative fiction anyone?).

Here’s to happy reading,

This Korean Woman Reads

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