Funny Ethnics, the debut novel of Sydney writer Shirley Le
19 February 2023
Yagoona is a suburb in the southwest of Sydney, located about twenty kilometres from the city’s CBD. An Aboriginal word meaning “now” or “today”, Yagoona was accorded a unique claim to fame in 1971, when it became host to the first McDonald’s hamburger restaurant in Australia.
At this stage I could not tell you whether said hamburger restaurant features in any way in Funny Ethnics (published by Affirm Press in February 2023), the debut novel of Sydney based Australian author Shirley Le, which is also set in Yagoona.
It is possible though, as the story follows the fortunes, and misfortunes, of Sylvia Nguyen, a second generation Vietnamese-Australian, from childhood through to adulthood. Surely it is not unreasonable to assume Sylvia would have hung out at her local Macca’s with friends after school, as was a rite of passage for many Australian teenagers.
But even if Sylvia spent all her school days in the Yagoona McDonald’s, it seems doubtful she would have had much interest in the restaurant’s significance in Australian fast food history. That’s because Sylvia had lofty goals. She aspired to move out of her childhood home, leave Yagoona and Western Sydney behind, and move into a share house, in a world far removed in Sydney’s inner west.
But hardships run in tandem with the dreams. The city is not always welcoming of immigrants. Racism is rife. Sylvia struggles to balance her Vietnamese heritage with her Australian identity.
Whether Sylvia’s experiences mirror Le’s, also a second generation Vietnamese-Australian, is another matter though. The question of how much of her life goes into her writing is something Le says she is often asked. Speaking to Stephen Pham of Liminal magazine in 2018 however, Le said she considered herself a writer of literary fiction rather than autobiography. And in Funny Ethnics, Le seems more interested in taking the ordinary, the apparent hum-drum of day-to-day life, and transforming it into something extraordinary.
While Funny Ethnics is Le’s first novel, her name will be familiar to anyone with an interest in Australian literature. A member of Western Sydney literacy movement Sweatshop, Le’s short stories and essays have been published locally in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, SBS Voices, and The Lifted Brow, among others. Le was also the inaugural recipient of the Affirm Press Mentorship for Sweatshop Writers, together with Arab-Australian human rights activist Sara Saleh.