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Review: Fava Beans for Breakfast by Suzanne Salem

Fava Beans for Breakfast is Suzanne Salem’s first novel. Reaching shelves next month, just in time for Multicultural March, the book harmonises Australian-born and immigrant voices, contrasting and connecting their thoughts and struggles.

Set in the 1970s in regional New South Wales, in the fictional coastal town of Burraboo, the story focusses on the experiences of a migrant couple from Egypt, Nayeema and Fawzy, who move into town after leaving Sydney’s inner city.

Undeniably Australian, Salem’s story bridges the great divide between otherness and togetherness, and it makes a universal and timeless comment about the human need for connection.

In Burraboo we meet Tom, a local whose voice and experience could not be more disparate from that of our migrant couple, but who shares with them a common need to belong.

“Tom was a really dominant presence from almost the second I put pen to paper. I wanted to depict a recognisably Australian ‘blokey-bloke’ character, but one that was aware of his own emotional fragility and limitations,” Salem told The Point Magazine.

“I wanted to portray him in a way that people would feel empathy in his need for affection and for all of his insecurities, and to depict his masculinity in an alternative way, with strength and power as well as vulnerability.

“I wanted to depict the same story but through the lens of someone who represents successful colonial establishment versus this very strong immigrant voice.”

Salem successfully draws out themes of both casual and overt racism, and her book challenges stereotypes. Nayeema’s personal struggle to fit in and her confusion when faced with Australian idioms and language will surely ring true for many readers who have migrated to Australia, while for Australian-born readers, Salem provides a subtle, humanised introduction to some of the everyday barriers faced by new migrants.

Looking to her own heritage for inspiration, Salem provides captivating insights into ancient Egyptian mythology and modern Egyptian food and language.

“I hope that people who read this book have their stereotypes about migrants challenged. I was born in this Egyptian/Australian household. My parents are Egyptian but I was born in Australia,” Salem explained.

“I was inspired by the childhood meals and I drew on this sensual food theme because Nayeema’s cooking keeps her connected to her heritage and it helps her to connect with other people.

“I had never intended to write so much food into this story but it just kept insisting itself upon me, just as it has on Nayeema.”

The food Nayeema cooks pushes her to reinvent herself. She experiences a new sense of independence in selling her own food to the rural town, discovering a new way to belong.

Though at times overdone, the food references serve a purpose in starting the conversation about how to connect across cultures. As an extra feature, Salem provides traditional Egyptian recipes at the end of the book to further compel cross-cultural engagement.

Salem first conceived Fava Beans for Breakfast almost a decade ago, when she began her Masters in Creative Writing.

“I was living in London and although I really loved living there, I was surprised at how displaced I felt. It came as a big surprise to me because England and Australia are so culturally similar,” she said.

“Even so, it challenged my sense of home and it made me think a lot about my connectedness to place. Being away from home in that period was a good catalyst for me to think about culture and how I felt about my own identity.

Having had that stint in England, I came to the same realisation as Nayeema and Fawzy, no matter where I land, where I travel, whatever I do, there is that sense of heritage that is embedded in me and it can’t be stamped out.”

This space between is a tension that can be seen employed throughout the novel, with juxtaposing positions frequently mentioned.

All three characters, Nayeema, Fawzy and Tom are aware of their own strangeness and their struggle to find their place in the world.

Fawzy is quick to dismantle his cultural traditions in his hunger to assimilate but his belief in the Australian ‘fair go’ is shattered into myth when a young girl from Burraboo goes missing.

The townspeople decide he is to blame for the missing girl without evidence, and proceed to treat him as guilty and isolate him.

This mythology of a ‘fair go’ is connected to a disregard of truth that Nayeema references in her discussions with Tom.

“The mythical story Nayeema shares with Tom about Aker, the Double-lion god, is a metaphor for the struggles between remembering and forgetting, and yesterday and today,” Salem explained.

“I wanted to connect that loosely with the history of Australia, which is also riddled with forgetting and creating stories that are more comfortable than the truth.”

“How histories and stories had the power to carry on through time, however true, however fabricated they were.”

Tom, held down by his own perception of self and past, realises his own ability to change predestination. His relationship with Nayeema bridges this gap in which he is held.

“The borders between darkness and light, remembering and forgetting, today and tomorrow, they followed him, hunted him. He was trapped in the spaces between things.”

Nayeema, by contrast, wants to hold on to her past and culture, so much so that she clings to cultural superstition and ancient Egyptian mythology, creating stories that are easier to digest than the truth.

New opportunities, however, lead her to question her once fixed dreams. Ultimately, Nayeema releases more of her past in her bid for connection.

“For the strange stain was surely a marking of the lost ones, of those who wander and never belong in any place until, if they are lucky, they find the place that connects their own body’s heat with the earth’s blood and bone. She’d spent so much energy resisting the wind, instead of moving with it.” 

The Point

Reaching shelves next month, just in time for Multicultural March, the book harmonises Australian-born and immigrant voices, contrasting and connecting their thoughts and struggles.

References

Image: Jennifer Woodward Madera

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