Mirandi Riwoe flips the world to examine the lives of strangers


Mirandi Riwoe

UQP, $32.99

According to Tolstoy, there are only two possible stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Riwoe gives us both. The burnished sun – its title taken from The merchant of Venice (“Love me not for my complexion, / The shaded livery of the burnished sun”) – collects the author’s novella and new short fiction. The lives of strangers giving meaning to unfamiliar surroundings is a recurring theme.

The burnished sunCredit:

Book ended with two short stories – Annah the Javanese and The fish girl – I was struck by the way the first, in particular, imagines the life of its eponymous narrator: the maid, model and lover of Paul Gauguin, a “man bear who crackles and spits like a forest fire” . Told from Annah’s point of view, Riwoe offers us several inversions, starting with Gauguin’s name: here it becomes Pol, derived from Annah’s hesitant pronunciation. Exploring the interplay between image and reality – the way things are represented, the existence they might have outside of that representation – the story’s setting, Paris, testifies to both romanticism and of decrepitude:[t]The cold air is still, and the pungent, syrupy smells of human offal—garbage, excreta, feces—combat the comforting aroma of the bakery on the next corner.” Annah is out of place, but remains sensitive to reminders of her absent homeland, even as she assimilates the form of a short story: “She wonders if she will still see Pol’s colors in the world,” writes Riwoe, “a reminder constant of that time, withdrawing it – immediately, unprompted – just as a flavor or scent might.

This manipulation of binaries – at home and elsewhere, colonizer and colonized, object and subject – fascinates Riwoe. She also revels in their ironies: at one point, Annah is out shopping and detects the scent of a spice she recognizes from Tahiti, only to have the bag held away from her by the saleswoman (“C “is a very valuable spice. Too expensive for you”).

Mirandi Riwoe.

Mirandi Riwoe.

Here we feel the fragility – and the moral bankruptcy – of power. Riwoe alludes to Gauguin’s relative lack of success during his lifetime; the man featured here is less a famous artist than a boor and a child, prone mostly to pushy gossip and berates Annah. When he remarks – in connection with a painting he composed of a Tahitian woman – that “[t]The motif of my painting is wild and quite childlike”, there is no doubt that something of these qualities could be attributed to it.

Riwoe focuses on people who find themselves marginalized from their cultures and communities. Rather than stories of assimilation or syncretism, however, she is interested in gaps, in loss. This loss often manifests in the form of divided loyalties, especially to a missing country or family. Riwoe asks us, how far should they extend? To whom and at what cost?

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