My Dad’s Latest Art Project Is My Boyfriend
An excerpt from PINK MOUNTAIN ON LOCUST ISLAND by Jamie Marina Lau, recommended by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Introduction by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
In Jamie Marina Lau’s gorgeous, hallucinatory novel Pink Mountain on Locust Island, we are listening—at first to language that feels like it’s either overheard, or fragmented in dreams. But then increasingly, the language coheres to produce a whole characterization of the novel’s fifteen-year-old protagonist, Monk, and of the defiantly-alive world she inhabits and observes.
Winner of the Melbourne Prize Reading Residency Award and shortlisted for the Stella Prize in Australia (when Lau was only 20 years old), Pink Mountain on Locust Island is about Monk, her inert father, and her “love interest” Santa Coy. When Monk’s father becomes obsessed with Santa Coy’s artwork, the dynamics of all three relationships shift and complicate. The novel is daringly musical in ways that are reminiscent in the best possible way of Jessica Hagedorn in Dogeaters. The prose is propulsive, creating original renderings of life in Melbourne’s Chinatown. There are also meditations on food (like yum cha, a meal of dim sum and tea I consumed on cold mornings when visiting Melbourne years ago, when actively seeking out its non-white neighborhoods with other Asian-descent Australians, who were at once blasé and quietly proud of “diaspora.”) And most explosively, as you will see in this tantalizing excerpt, there are trenchant descriptions of Santa Coy, a recent 12th grade graduate who goes by “SantaCoyhotsauce” and earns the name. Drug sprees, intimacies, and coping with abandonment by different mothers in the book follow. The mood is transfixing but melancholy, like no amount of energy and wit can necessarily change the circumstances of class, race and mother loss.
Enjoy this excerpt, then the whole book, and join me in waiting for what’s next from this preternaturally gifted writer and artist.
– Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Author of White Dancing Elephants
My Dad’s Latest Art Project Is My Boyfriend
Jamie Marina Lau
“Pink Mountain on Locust Island” by Jamie Marina Lau
Santa Coy is Chinatown’s most glamorous little prince. We’re sitting outside this yum cha place and a man in a short chef’s hat is pouring sappy oil in the gutter. He turns around, looks at us for a while. When Santa Coy and me stare back the man winks at Santa Coy. Santa Coy raises his eyebrows and says good gracious. Should I go flirt with him? he asks.
I roll my eyes. Santa Coy thinks he’s an edgy prince.
He offers me a cigarette. It’s in close range to his body so that he seems reluctant about it. I take it and smoke it like the world is closing in on us. When I’m with Santa Coy we never talk about my dad. So I ask him if he likes my dad and Santa Coy says that he’s nice. I tell him that Dad put on an entire exhibition for him, that of course he’s nice. Santa Coy pulls his mouth to his nose.
He says, cool it dinky.
I stamp the cigarette a few times.
Alright, alright, says Santa Coy. It’s out.
He takes a huge, long drag.
It’s a blue and pink light paradise in Chinatown tonight. Laundry from windows and signs with writing about a fish heads sale. I want to get a job here, I tell Santa Coy. I’m grown up now, I need a job here. He asks if I mean here in Chinatown. I tell him exactly, right here, where it smells like dried-up fish and people are eating sea life. There are more ramen joints here than there are hot and sour soup joints, even though this is Chinatown. There’s always the sounds of Chinese opera no matter which laneway you walk. Of course here, in Chinatown. He is not any kind of prince.
Santa Coy tells me he doesn’t believe in jobs. I tell him this is 100 per cent because he’s got people helping him out. When you’ve got no one helping you out, you need a job. He doesn’t say anything and offers me another cigarette instead, reaching right out to pass it to me. The chef from the yum cha comes out into the laneway again with the plastic rubbish of udon packets. He winks at Santa Coy again and Santa Coy yells, piss off!
Santa Coy gets his thick marker out and starts drawing hieroglyphics on the wall of the yum cha. We’re trying to show that rubbish man that we’re better than his wink.
We buy wine from the grocery store and the man asks where Santa Coy got his big long coat from. Santa Coy says from the Philistines. The grocery man nods quickly, out of politeness, he asks: where is that?
We drink wine leaning against shutters of a store which sells fabric imports from Hong Kong. We are a sort of Holmes-Watson situation. A considerable biography happening of one of us, I don’t know who—but Santa Coy thinks it’s of him. The sound of the pots and pans drummer a block away is just phantom.
Is not one of us the other’s apostle, one of us the other’s messiah.
A woman gets into a cab with a man wearing sunglasses. They’ve come up from the mahjong club underground. I look down inside and see a table of four women. They’re queens, but they scowl at each other.
Outlaw Star is playing on the television in my neighbor’s apartment. An intergalactic space shuttle of the 1970s.
In the corridor Santa Coy jumps back and forth between narrowly spaced walls.
Once we’re inside I run hot water from the kitchen sink to rinse mugs left with color stains from Santa Coy’s brushes. This is a tomb. I am washing the dead artist’s loin cloths. Santa Coy claims his work is about death, even though he has never died. And maybe he’s being ironic. He brings me more mugs to wash.
He says, thanks dinky.
They keep playing No Wave while I’m trying to play some damn bebop in my room.
It’s a Dizzy spell.
I smack the door against its frame ten times in a row and nobody hears. Santa Coy bumps into me in the skinny hallway holding a charcoal stick on the edge of his fingers. He’s got yeasty breath. I ask him to turn the music down or off. He jabs his hands into his pockets.
He says, ask your dad to. Then shrugs. Santa Coy is now playing a clarinet and the windows are open and the slight wind outside whips the plastic jungle plant in the corner of the lounge room. When it stops Santa Coy will stop. He is playing along with the wind, or he is controlling it.
If you stay in a swimming pool too long your fingers will prune. But if you stay out of a swimming pool too long they forget the sweetness of chlorine.
The swimming pool is a late night hub for people with firm abdominals. It opens ’til 11pm and Yuya has been coming here with her dad for the last two weeks. Her dad swims laps in the medium lane and Yuya swims laps in the fast lane. I swim in the slow lane because Yuya has told me that’s where she started. Breaststroke is a meditation but then Yuya tells me that it’s only for old ladies.
We’re sitting on the edge of the pool, drinking out of recyclable mini water bottles that Yuya’s dad bought us from the supermarket.
Yuya tells me: never drink while eating, I saw you can actually get cancer from it.
We swim another three laps and Yuya’s dad is sill going when we finish. She tells me that he is just showing off to me. She’s chewing on the spout of her bottle. She says that her ma doesn’t give any more love to him since she started her new healing business.
Our ankles are being kissed with little pecks by the water.
In Yuya’s car I ask if I can sleep over please? I tell them, my dad keeps playing these idiotic songs too loud.
Yuya’s dad says as long as it’s okay with my parents. I correct him and tell him it’s just my dad and that he’s pretty much okay with anything.
Their house is the smell of steamed rice. Honey is in the kitchen bowing her head a bunch of times, pecking it against the kitchen countertops. We ignore her and sit at the circle table. She bows for another twelve minutes, then gives us little cups of white rice and some sauces in shallow trays. We pray between clasped hands, all four of us.
I tell everyone that my aunty Linda took me to church last weekend. Yuya and her dad and Honey look at me all together. Yuya clears her throat. She says that I have to respect the food in front of me. I tell her that I am, I’m very thankful for it. I know that not everybody gets food. I don’t know why I get food and other people don’t. That the hungry are kind, and the full are guilty. Yuya clears her throat again and tells me I have to respect the food by not talking. I ask if God doesn’t want us to talk. Nobody says anything.
When we are in Yuya’s bedroom she apologizes that we can’t talk around the dinner table. I ask again if God asks them not to talk. Yuya still doesn’t answer. She’s already got her second chocolate bar open and anointed around her chin and almost up one nostril.
In here it’s a greasy intergalactic mission. The walls are white with nothing on them, and Yuya is holding up side-by-side two photographs from runway catalogues. She asks me without looking up which one I prefer. I point to the one with the big red flare pants. I tap her on the shoulder and whisper if God asked her personally not to talk.
Yuya holds up the next two photographs. I point to the one with the white jumpsuit and a big yellow headpiece. The model is from Spain. I ask Yuya again if God asked her not to talk. This time she presses her palm against my mouth. It tastes like salt. She tells me okay, and she tells me to shut up. She holds me against her bed frame, leans in close, says that I can’t tell anyone. I nod quickly. Yuya breathes in deep and says okay, and sighs, and tells me that her ma has powers to talk to the Spirit. She’s whispering. Her words trip over themselves.
You can’t tell anyone.
She takes her palm off my mouth. Her eyes are glossy black coils. She wipes chocolate away from around her mouth using the inside of her wrist.
Honey rehearses in the living room the next morning, screaming at the television: “It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” “It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” “It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” “It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” “It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” “It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” “It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” Her face is pressed against the screen.
A country pop star on the early morning show with a guitar, next to him a barista with a fedora slapping a tambourine, making the tambourine palpitate.
An hour later, Yuya and me eating rice for breakfast in front of the television watching CatDog. Honey is wrapping a wholegrain sandwich for the father’s lunch. When she isn’t screeching she has a voice like plump cushions. She asks Yuya’s father if he wants seed mustard or normal mustard. When Yuya’s father leaves for work and Yuya’s in the shower, I am quiet at the circle table. Honey is spitting out cherry pips into a tissue, red pulp between her front two teeth.
I whisper to Honey across the table: Honey, excuse me, could I ask you something?
Yuya’s shower is on full blast.
All during Yuya’s twenty-minute shower, I devise a recipe to consider. Honey listens as I tell her about Santa Coy throwing paints in the living room and Dad asking me to get the washcloth and telling me hurry up, to stop standing around—that there’s art to be made, that this is a no-standing area. You can never tell what’s on Honey’s brain because when she’s not screaming, her only expression is a stiff smile. You can tell she was beautiful once but her face has lopsided a little in various slumps. She sits and thinks for a long time and then looks at me funny. She tells me she might be able to figure something out, to do something to help my situation. She puts a long red fingernail to her lips and says that it’s not that simple.
I tell her, I know how you have powers; special gifts.
She tells me then about how someone named Reverend Bugsy took her gifts away because of his jealousy. She says that if I help her out, then she might help me out, and to call her on her business number if I decide we should help each other.
A cold sun today. I’m wearing yesterday’s clothes and one of Yuya’s beanies. She fixed it on my head and told me I can come by anytime, but that I must remember not to talk during dinner.
Our lounge room is Santa Coy, a slimy fish across one brown couch, and Dad, a grumpy strap of leather on the other. There is no more politeness about smoking in here, or television etiquettes. The TV plays only infomercials. I change it to the jazz station and it’s pan flute and orchestration.
I sit on the floor with a box of cornflakes and watch the radio station logo rebounding off the screen’s edges. No one’s listening but still I ask: when was the last time you considered the fact that you are not kings of the world?
I’m here on this website about the most popular Italian dishes for dinner parties in autumn. I’ve asked my dad if I can cook when his art colleagues come over. They’re visiting because he’s now becoming successful. It’s good, this is working—something I heard him say to Santa Coy.
He’s asked my sister to cook instead. But I’m a chef and no one can stop me.
My big sister is wearing an apron when I open the front door. She tells me: I think it’s good Dad’s seeing his friends again. Her husband is a red fluster behind her, carrying a slow cooker and the slow cooker recipe book on top.
I’ve spent the last nine hours memorizing an Italian recipe so that I can tell her that I don’t need a recipe book. I tell her that it’s all in here like a real chef. I point to my brain.
My big sister sets up her slow cooker, an aluminum mammoth, where the toaster’s supposed to go. I tell her a real chef doesn’t need a slow cooker.
My sister’s best friend is this slow cooker.
She wipes it down before beginning. I sit on top of the bench until Dad comes out from his shower, his greying beard half shaved off. My sister tells him that he looks great. He ignores her and points at me, swiping his finger in downwards motions.
Sitting on the bench is dangerous, get off, he orders.
At five o’clock my sister is on her phone, waiting for the slow cooker to do all the work.