What disappoints me currently is that the notions of human decency, compassion, empathy, have all been worded in a way to be associated with a political extreme left wing position. I think it’s astounding that we currently accept that to be generous is to be extremely left wing. That’s absurd.
— Minh Phan, told to ABC reporter Ashlynne McGhee (from Recipes & Refuge)
When I meet with Chris Nguyen I’m irritable because I didn’t bring a pen and even the trees are shivering and fed up with the havoc Melbourne is playing with the seasons.
In other words, placid life problems.
But the excitement of a freshly published author is enough to drown out even the most selfish of banalities, and bubbly Chris is one of these.
Recipes & Refuge was launched in November 2013 by non-profit publishing house The Rag & Bone Man Press. It’s a good fat book, telling the astonishing, heart-breaking and empowering stories of Australian refugees and immigrants through words and (excitingly) food.
Like all good stories, this one began with a good deal of tension.
A bit of a newbie to Melbourne, Chris moved away from Perth three years ago, putting a fair amount of air miles between herself and her mother, Jolie, who fled post-war Vietnam by boat in 1979 to set up one of Perth’s first Vietnamese coffee houses, where Australian-born Chris grew up.
Since the move to Melbourne, Chris began to find that the more she flew home, the more urgent became her mother’s need to share a story previously too painful to tell.
“All of her stories from the past would bubble up to the surface and would come out in this illogical order,” says Chris over the busting of coffee beans and the hum of Nick Drake. “I came back from these Perth trips just exhausted and not really knowing what was going on, and what she needed to talk about.”
One of Jolie’s biggest concerns was the fear that the recipes from her restaurant days, many of which were unrecorded, would be lost.
After Chris returned exhausted from another turbulent trip home, a fortuitous lunch with Rag & Bone Man publisher Keira de Hoog was enough for the two friends to formulate a plan to get Jolie talking. Chris says the idea of telling the story over food was “a softer way” to bring out her mother’s past.
Fortunately, Chris’s mum ended up enthusiastic about the project and, over a series of emotionally rich interviews and countless editorial toing and froing, a book was born.
And Jolie’s story is an incredible one. Her description of the boat trip from Vietnam is something to make your heart drop: 180 people squashed into an 18 by 4.5 metre boat constantly pursued by pirates and at risk of capsising. Jolie describes months spent in a Malaysian refugee camp after the voyage, surviving on crops she grew out of desperation and fear of starving.
“It’s a survival instinct,” writes Jolie. “You do anything you can do to survive. Green thumbs, yellow thumbs or no thumbs, you do whatever you can. I had never grown anything in my life. I am a city girl – through and through […] You do whatever it takes.”
Now, Jolie is immensely proud of her Perth garden.
“Even now, sometimes you go to the shops and they don’t have what you want. In this garden I’ve got everything that I need.”
While an inspiring story to anyone, especially those continuing to live their cushy city lives, Chris and Keira knew Jolie’s story of hardship and survival was not an isolated one in Australia.
“The incredible thing I find is that these people don’t think that their stories are incredible,” says Chris. “They’re so humble about it and they’re all so matter of fact. Human resilience – it just blows my mind.”
Recipes & Refuge interweaves Jolie and Chris’s story with tales of loss, war, suffering, hope and love from everyday people who have made their way to Australia: whether by boat, after hiding for three years in a pigeon coop in occupied France, after living in Thai camps after the horror of Pol Pot, or after spending four years in an Australian detention centre.
“You do anything you can do to survive. Green thumbs, yellow thumbs or no thumbs, you do whatever you can.”
And these stories are all served up alongside glorious-sounding dishes like Hungarian goulash, gheimeh bademjan (Iranian split peas with eggplant and lamb) and pierogi (Polish dumplings) and Vietnamese braised pork trotters, which Chris assures me are delicious with such conviction I have to believe her. Then there are smatterings of heart-breaking dishes like flour soup, which saw one family survive post-war Berlin.
“It’s probably the most eclectic collection of recipes you’ll ever find in the one book,” says Chris. “It’s really like a global snapshot.”
It’s been a busy and immensely exciting year for Chris, embarking on her first foray into professional writing with Recipes around the same time as setting up a new not-for-profit educational resource, DevelopEd, with her partner Dennis Worrall and buddy Mark Brown.
Chris says starting up an NGO was just one way to return a little of what she’d been given from her parents.
“I suppose in some stupid way I suppose it’s trying to give back and make them proud and make them feel that it was all worth it.”
As our interview draws to a close, I’m two coffees in and already beginning to regret the morning’s caffeine intake. But it doesn’t take much to realise that Recipes & Refuge is an important book. Through something so innately human as food, Recipes gives faces and names to so many people you might never have the opportunity to meet. Most importantly at all, it depoliticises the simple act of seeking refuge.
“It’s just being human,” says Chris. “I don’t understand the whole politicising of the [asylum seeker] situation. And I think back to my family when they come over, and they were pretty much welcomed with open arms and helped wherever they could be helped.”
Chris says that Recipes & Refuge is a vehicle for immigrants to Australia to tell and share their stories, and enrich the lives of all of us.
“I think the more we share our lives and the more we talk about our lives the more connected [we will be]. It just makes us understand each other a little bit more.”
Recipes & Refuge is available through Rag & Bone Man Press here.
Megan Anderson is Going Down Swinging’s online editor.