Rebecca Allen reviews One Hundred Letters Home by Adam Aitken
by Adam Aitken
Reviewed by REBECCA ALLEN
“Doctor, Where is the healing in writing? Is it simply re-telling the past, or are we re-making it? Is it a story that becomes a promise – a redeeming moment?”
In his memoir A Hundred Letters Home, Adam Aitken looks back into his family’s past, and specifically, that of his enigmatic parents. Today a poet and academic, Aitken was born in London in the 1960s to an Anglo-Australian father and a Thai mother. His early childhood was spent in South-East Asia before the family moved to Sydney in 1968 where his parents later separated. Aitken examines their complex relationship and probes his own sense of cultural and filial ties, using life writing as a means to grapple with his distinct cultural hybridity.
The text itself is hybrid, drawing on family photographs, his father’s letters and conversations with his parents and doctor. It includes some of Aitken’s poems as well as other intertextual references, and gaps are filled with recounted memories and speculation. The memoir jumps between multiple timelines, retelling Aitken’s trip to Thailand as a young man in the early 80s, reaching back to 1950s Bangkok, when his hard-working, hard-partying ad-man father fell in love with his mother, then forward to the separation of his parents and back again to his early childhood in South-East Asia. What seems at first a fragmented, non-linear text gradually develops, as anecdotes overlap and chronologies intersect, into an intricate, richly layered narrative.
Drawing the memoir together is a persistent vacillation between feelings of closeness and distance, of connection and estrangement. This tension is particularly striking in the representation of Aitken’s relationship with his father. His ambiguous attitude towards the man who was so often absent during his childhood shapes the way Aitken relates to the rest of his family, his Thai heritage and ultimately how he views and judges himself.
Aitken remembers with bitterness the interminable summer he spent with his mother and brother in Perth, “like refugees in a detention camp”, while his father arranged a house on the other side of the continent in Sydney. As Aitken becomes aware of his difference for the first time, (to the school bullies “We were ‘Ching-chong Chinamen conceived in a pot’”), his father becomes more and more of a “stranger to us, a man who embodied Australia itself but who was not around to affirm it.” The gulf between them only widens when the family move to Sydney: his father misses sailing lessons and music practice, too caught up with his bohemian friends, left-wing parties and success as an advertising executive. He transforms into something abstract, made concrete only by Aitken’s habit of collecting symbolic tokens, (golf balls, a cigarette lighter, his fountain pen), replacing “a real father with images.” Even today an oppressive “Web of Silence” remains between them. True feelings are only communicated through the most cryptic of clues, his father preferring to hold forth on his latest obsession – “kitchen taps and Sabatier knives” – rather than discuss his depression: “After years of silence (the watching-TV-after-a-hard-day-at-the-office silence) I have become irritated that now he makes me the compulsory listener”.
Aitken even admits he became “willing to believe my father hadn’t been my real father.” After finding a photograph of his mother as a young woman with another man, Aitken almost convinces himself that Robert, a handsome Swiss his mother had met in the ‘50s while his father was posted in Hong Kong, is in fact his biological father: “My father always said I looked just like my mother, but I like to think I have Robert’s looks.” He wonders if Robert could “have been the better father, the one I never had… In my dreams, I imagine myself the child of this man: an adventurer, someone rich, a man I knew nothing about”. In recurring scenes, Aitken uses this photograph as “archival evidence” to obsessively quiz his mother about her past. However he soon discovers she won’t easily cooperate, refusing to remember certain details and purposely misremembering others, claiming “‘He was a travel agent, that’s who he was.’ Then she changes her story and he becomes a banker.” Though she dismisses the idea of an affair, “‘Not really my type’”, Aitken later discovers that letters from Robert continued to arrive, including one with a photograph of the pair of them dressed casually, sitting close and laughing – captured in the moment of a punch-line or funny memory, his mother looking positively “alive again”.
As much as Aitken attempts to reject his father – even replace him – his thwarted attempts to uncover more of his mother’s past in fact parallel is father’s own experience. She keeps both husband and son at an emotional distance with her expertly conjured “smokescreens” and her impassive “Buddha mask” face. We catch glimpses of her personal narrative throughout the memoir – her origins in a small border town and her university career, her jobs as a forklift driver and police interpreter in Sydney, her life in Cairns after the divorce – but not enough to gain a sense of her true subjectivity. (A level of emotional bias on Aitken’s part is clearly at play here, as her obscuration leads the reader towards an objectified view of her, perhaps not far from the problematic stereotype of the Asian seductress.)
Examining the photographs his father took of his mother in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Aitken symbolically steps into his shoes, viewing his parents’ relationship through his father’s camera lens and thus his eyes. He concludes his father found her similarly inscrutable during their marriage. In the early photographs, his mother appears joyous and carefree, encapsulating the initial excitement of their courtship in Bangkok with her hair “long, untied, and cascad[ing] down her back”, “sometimes striking an erotically glamorous pose, straddling a veranda balustrade”. The contrast with the photographs taken after their marriage in London is apparent: the passion has waned and the light-hearted laughter is replaced by a reserve masquerading as sophistication. These London photographs are certainly aesthetically appealing – carefully composed, beautifully shot – and yet there is no sense of connection between cameraman and subject, husband and wife. In one, Aitken’s mother stands smoking on a street corner, looking resolutely away: “though my father is probably taking a series of photos, she’s not there in essence or spirit. She’s flown.” The reality of his mother’s aloofness manifests itself in these photographs, as Aitken sadly sees that “every photo my father took of my mother was insufficient to redeem the living self of her soul, that essence he craved so much, and of which she denied him possession.”
This distance both father and son feel from the mother is mirrored on a larger scale by their shared disconnection from Thai culture. Although Aitken’s trip to Bangkok in his early twenties is intended as a “project in identity reversal”, an attempt to “excrete every last bit of Australia out of [my] system” – and by extension, every last bit of his father – he ultimately realises he cannot shed the feeling of the outsider, the farang. Despite the warm welcome of his mother’s relatives, despite the new hair cut they insist upon, their efforts to teach him Thai and their encouragement to find a Thai girlfriend, something intangible eludes him: “Everything you have imagined to be the truth of your origins begins to seem like an illusion… Something is always secret, and you know, so deeply, when it’s time to leave.” The chapter is appropriately titled “(Un)becoming Thai”, as Aitken’s stay with his relatives is, in effect, his father’s “return to them through me. I reminded my relatives of the man they last met in 1958, the man I never thought I had come to resemble or invoke in others. At that moment of their recognition of him in me, I felt a surge of love for him, a connection.” His experience in Thailand parallels that of his father, as “together, Father and Son, you and I, dream of that pure understanding”; the desire to be part of a culture which will be forever unfathomable. This blurring between father and son is encapsulated in an earlier, deeply emotive poem evocative of an old sepia photograph. It describes two outsiders separated from the world yet sharing a view through time:
I am standing alone in the northeast monsoon
Your view perhaps, in ’56,
above the throng
All your past, my past
lost in letters.
As a reader, we have the impression Aitken is at times reluctant to accept this connection with his father. When he comments “‘Son, you’re becoming so much like me in your old age’”, Aitken adds bitterly, “There you go – everything refers back to him (he believes this book is all about him).’” However, the process of life writing, of revising their shared pasts, clearly highlights the unexpected truth that Aitken is, after all, much closer than he expected to his father. Despite the failures of family, Aitken ultimately accepts that his father is in fact “some other version of myself”.
REBECCA ALLEN completed her Honours degree in French language and literature while also editing Hermes, the University of Sydney Student Union’s literary journal. She has volunteered for Contrappasso Magazine, a journal for international writing, and has interned as part of Mascara’s prose fiction editorial team. She works at Penguin Random House Australia and is a regular review contributor for Mascara.