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Posted on 29 Feb 2024 in Fiction |

AYESHA INOON Untethered. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Winner of the the ASA/HQ Fiction Prize, Ayesha Inoon’s debut novel explores the experience of moving from Sri Lanka to Australia.

It was the silence that she noticed first. As they drove, Canberra unfolded in a series of stunning panoramas …

The streets were empty, rows of brick houses flanked by trees in the bright summer sunlight. The only signs of life were the flutter of clothes on a line, a child’s toys in one of the yards.

It was beautiful and devastatingly quiet.

Zia, with her small daughter, has just flown into Australia from Colombo in Sri Lanka. She is used to being surrounded by family and friends, by ‘the chatter of people’, neighbours’ TVs and radios, traffic noise, church bells, prayer calls from the mosques, and peddlers calling their wares: ‘the soundtrack of the life she knew looped in her head’.

For many Asians arriving in Australia, even big cities like Sydney and Melbourne seem very quiet compared to what they are used to, especially at night, and especially in the suburbs, where the streets are often deserted after 9 p.m. Canberra, so spacious and carefully planned, hardly seems like a city at all.

When Zia’s husband first spoke of moving to another country, Zia dreamed of ‘the luxuries and freedoms’ that life in ‘the First World promised’. Moving to Canberra, however, was a permanent move away from the instability in Sri Lanka, where the effects of the Tamil war against the government still lingered and where, more recently, there was a growing wave of ‘anti-Muslim rhetoric’. ‘Hardline Buddhist groups’ were spreading rumours against Muslims. There had been ‘talk of a riot on the outskirts of the city’ and ‘a group of men on motorbikes had thrown rocks at a Muslim owned shop’.

Rashid was worried, too, about the dengue spreading again in the city. The papers were full of advertisements trying to attract people with his qualifications, skills and experience to Western countries and ‘a new life’; and many of their friends who were young professionals had emigrated and now had Facebook profiles in which ‘everything looked brighter and fresher’ than it did in Colombo.

The first half of Untethered, ‘Leaving’, immerses the reader in Zia’s life in Sri Lanka. It begins by describing her first meeting with Rashid and his parents and sister as they consider an arranged marriage organised by their chosen matchmaker. Zia has only recently left school and, to please her loving parents, has reluctantly turned down a place at university so that she would ‘meet these criteria’ of Muslim families ‘looking for a wife for their sons’. ‘All the marriage proposal ads in the newspapers stated that prospective bridegrooms preferred a ‘fair, slim, pretty girl’, who (as Rashid’s parents also require) is respectable and ‘educated but not too educated’. Zia fits these criteria, except that she is not ‘fair’. As her prospective mother-in-law tells her son – ‘People will laugh if you marry her – when you could have any girl in Colombo’ – and she keeps reminding him of other girls who are ‘fairer’, ‘prettier’ and ‘with bigger dowries’.

Rashid, however, is fed up with ‘doing the rounds’ to choose a wife, and after spending two years in a post-graduate scholarship at an American university and learning something of feminist thinking from his girlfriend there, he questions this ‘male privilege’. ‘I really liked her,’ he tells his mother after this first meeting and, firmly, ‘It feels right … She’s the one.’

After the wedding, as is usual in their culture, Rashid moves into Zia’s family home and, as they get to know each other, Zia learns of the occasional dark moods that sometimes possess him and seem to cut her off from him. With Rashid at work and her family’s routines going on as usual around her, Zia finds that being a wife is not ‘the full time job’ she had imagined. Only when she becomes pregnant does she seem to find a purpose in life, and because Rashid is doing so well at work, he rents an apartment in a brand-new complex, employs a maid to do the cooking and cleaning, and they move away from Zia’s family home. Rashid becomes more relaxed, but when a neighbour’s five-year-old son dies of dengue fever, and the newspapers report that Buddhist mobs are becoming more dangerous, Zia, ‘even in their bubble of wealth and safety’ is anxious and they think seriously about emigrating.

After baby Farah is born, and after watching a TV program about Australia, Rashid decides:

‘Their skilled migration program is the most accessible right now. I think I’d get a visa quite easily … And the healthcare and education would be world-class. Farah would have the benefit of all that. So will other children we’ll have. It’ll be a new life for us, for our family.

‘Australia, Zia. That’s where we’ll go.’

Part 2 of the book, ‘Settling in’, presents a very different picture. Rashid has been in Canberra for months before Zia and Farah get there. Both he and Zia had been through an extensive vetting program to prove that they are ‘skilled, qualified, healthy’ and would not, as the immigration forms described, be ‘a burden to the Australian taxpayer’, yet Rashid has not been able to find suitable work and has taken a job ‘working shifts as a cleaner both day and night’.

Zia, at home alone with Farah in the little townhouse Rashid has rented, is desperately lonely, homesick, and shocked that Rashid has to do this work. As he tells her:

Almost all the jobs that were a fit for his skills were in the public service which required you to be an Australian citizen. He would probably have a better chance in Sydney or Melbourne but the condition of their permanent residency was that they would stay in Canberra for at least two years.

Rashid has become distant and moody, too, and Zia can feel his dark mood ‘penetrating the very rooms they were in until she could hardy breathe’. She begins to wait for some sign of his mood when he gets home from work before approaching him. In Sri Lanka, she would turn to her family – only now, ‘there was nowhere to retreat except within herself’.

In spite of the information Zia has been given about playgroups, clubs and migrant support groups, she is too nervous to talk to the Australians who respond to her phone calls, and feels ‘defeated’ by the thought of having to take two or three buses to get to any nearby suburb. Only when Farah starts preschool and makes a friend whose mother, Jenny, introduces herself, does she begin to relax.

Jenny’s life as a single parent amazes Zia:

 – how had Jenny managed to raise Amy on her own? Wasn’t it hard? Had she struggled?…

It was a life so far removed from her own experience and one that in the world she was from would be viewed as a calamity, inviting judgement and pity, a belief that this was a woman with questionable morals who had brought such hardship on herself. And yet, looking at Jenny as she walked beside her, so easy and free, so comfortable in her own skin, Zia felt only a mild stirring of envy …

Still looking for a suitable job, Rashid sees a recruiter. She recommends that he take his masters degree off his C.V. so he can try for an ‘Admin. Role’ rather than the sort of managerial role he had in Sri Lanka, and that he drop ‘Ahmed’ from his name and adopt one that sounds ‘a bit more Anglo’. Rashid angrily understands that ‘the more foreign he seemed, the less likely employers were to hire him’.

Meanwhile, Jenny reads one of the fairy stories Zia has been writing for Farah and suggests that Zia could ‘think of becoming a writer’.

Ayesha Inoon writes beautifully and knowledgably about the experience of leaving, as Zia does, ‘everything and everybody they had known and loved all their lives to begin a new life in a different country’. Both Zia and Rashid struggle through the process of adapting to an unfamiliar culture, to different values and expectations, and eventually, to new opportunities and a new way of living. Zia, in particular, learns independence and the strength to make hard decisions, yet this is a book full of warmth, life and love. It reflects, too, some of the best characteristics of Australians and Australian culture, but it also offers a thought-provoking view of government policies related to skilled migration. As Rashid concludes after seeing the recruiter:

Immigration, it seemed was the great equaliser – no matter where you came from or how you came to Australia, no matter who you were before, you had to let it all go and reinvent yourself.

He’d gone home filled with despair. He was never going to get the kind of job he wanted [or was qualified to do], he was never going to return to the kind of role he was used to. Moving to Australia had been fatal to his career.

Even if he changed his name to Richard.

Ayesha Inoon Untethered HQ Fiction 2023 PB 320pp $32.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Untethered from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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