Saturday, September 22, 2012

Review and Interview: Emily Maguire's Fishing for Tigers

Six years ago, Mischa Reese left her abusive husband and suffocating life in California and reinvented herself in steamy, chaotic Hanoi. In Vietnam, she finds satisfying work and enjoys a life of relative luxury and personal freedom. Thirty-five and single, Mischa believes that romance and passion are for teenagers; a view with which her cynical, promiscuous expat friends agree.

But then a friend introduces Mischa to his visiting eighteen-year-old son. Cal is a strikingly attractive Vietnamese-Australian boy, but he's resentful of his father, and of the nation which has stolen him away. His beauty and righteous idealism awaken something in Mischa and the two launch into an affair that threatens Mischa's friendships and reputation and challenges her sense of herself as unselfish and good.

Set among the louche world of Hanoi's expatriate community, 'Fishing for Tigers' is about a woman struggling with the morality of finding peace in a war-haunted city, personal fulfilment in the midst of poverty and sexual joy with a vulnerable youth.

You know when you're reading a book and you could swear that you were really reading a memoir? This was one of those times. Perhaps it's because Emily Maguire is a talented non-fiction writer and essayist as well as a fiction author. I came to know her work via Princesses and Pornstars, which examines the new Madonna-whore dichotomy. (Favourite chapter title: Your Vagina is Not a Car.) But Fishing for Tigers is not a memoir. It's just that good atmospherically and in its characterisation. 

I adore south east Asia. I love the heat and the humidity, perhaps because it reminds me of growing up in north western Australia. The food, the watery beer, the crazy roads. Despite some similarities with the weather up north, it's a far cry from sedate, organised Australia; the ideal place for a woman who wants to lose herself to go. There are very few expectations placed on Mischa, and as she doesn't understand much of what many people around her are saying to her, she's free to escape. 

The scenes between her and Cal are fascinating when they're talking, and delicious when they're not. But this book is so much more than it's steamy (*fans self*) passages. It's a challenging one for Australians, as you see yourself in the expat crew that makes up Mischa's rag-tag group of friends. It's a confronting book in places, but also very uplifting. Highly recommended.

Interview with Emily Maguire

Your descriptions of what it's like to be an expat in Hanoi are very detailed. How long did you spend living there? Although I've spent quite a lot of time in Hanoi, I've never actually lived there. I first visited on an Asialink literature residency for three months in 2008 and I fell seriously, deeply in love with the place and have returned for at least a month each year since then.
In Fishing for Tigers, Cam's reaction to the attitude of expats towards the locals is one of revulsion. Did you share a similar experience?
Not really. Certainly I met some deeply unpleasant characters in hotel bars, but I could say that about every place I've been to. (I should probably stop talking to drunk strangers in hotel bars. Bad habit.)
Cal's response to the expats in particular, and to Vietnam general, are very much rooted in his personal situation, which is as the child of a Vietnamese refugee who wants nothing to do with the place, and an Australian man who chooses to live there even though it means he rarely sees his son. To Cal, every expat is his selfish father and every Vietnamese person is either the communist thug of his mother's childhood or a reminder of what his own life might have been had his mother not escaped. Mischa and her friends do act appallingly sometimes, but Cal's judgement of them is not always clear-eyed or fair.
In several scenes, Mischa extracts herself and Cam from seemingly innocuous situations whilst in Hanoi, such as when she makes them leave bars when she thinks they've been overheard. There's also a scene where she doesn't let Cam interfere with a man who is brutalising his wife. Are these examples of Mischa's reticence to immerse herself in Vietnamese life, or is she right to behave so, and why?
It's complicated. Mischa spent her twenties in an abusive marriage, before escaping to Hanoi. I think once you've lived with violence in the way she has, you're always alert to danger, worried about offending someone, angering them, causing a scene. So Mischa is all about staying under the radar, avoiding conflict, keeping the peace. I think she'd be like this wherever she was living, but the complicating factor in Hanoi is that she is very much an outsider and so there's a real chance that if she did get involved in conflicts with local people that she would be blundering in some way, possibly making things worse due to a lack of understanding. So it's partly a defence mechanism and partly the sensible caution of an outsider. Whether her behaviour in any given situation is right or not is up to the reader! 
4. The "cougar" relationship has risen in prominence in recent years. What did you like best about writing an older woman-younger man relationship, and what did you like the least?
I rarely thought about in those terms. I think it's so important to not think of characters as age groups or types or whatever and so Cal was always this complicated, unique individual and so was Mischa. What interested me most about their relationship was how their unique sets of life experiences and prejudices and fears played off each other. I loved discovering the ways in which his resentment about his father and his idealism about how good people should act conflicted with Mischa's live-and-let-live, determinedly disengaged way of life. Having said that, I did have a bit of fun with the more overtly teenaged aspects of Cal's behaviour. I love how utterly relaxed and casually generous he is as a lover, and I love his righteous idealism which I remember from my own teen years and bitterly regret having lost.

One of the interesting things in talking about age (and age differences between lovers) is how much people project their own ideas about what any given age looks or acts or feels like. I was very aware while writing that although Cal is a teenager, the adults around him are, in many ways, less mature. They're certainly less honest and thoughtful. I don't think this is an exceptional situation. I remember being a teenager and thinking that adults knew what they were doing and only did things for sensible reasons which they understood and could justify. Now, of course I realise that people in their thirties and forties and beyond are just as impulsive and selfish and clueless about their own motivations as teenagers, but they get away with it because every other adult is in on the conspiracy.
5. You are well known for your articles and feminist non-fiction such as Princesses and Porn Stars (which I loved) as well as your fiction. How much fiction versus non-fiction do you see in your future?
I am very much in love with fiction at the moment - reading it, writing it, thinking and talking about it. But I also love the way that my non-fiction writing allows me to feel part of a huge, inspiring, important movement towards social justice. So the answer, I suppose, is that I hope to be writing lots and lots of both forever and ever.

Thanks for answering my questions, Emily!


  1. I have had this book on my radar since hearing Emily Maguire speak at Melbourne Writers Festival! Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. I would have loved to hear her speak, but I unfortunately didn't make it to the festival this year!