Farewell, My Orange
By Iwaki Kei
Europa Editions, 2018
135 pages, $15.00
Farewell, My Orange is a gem of a novella that should be required reading of, well, everyone. Set in a tiny town on the Australian coast, it tells the story of two recent immigrants: Salimah, who fled Nigeria, and Sayuri, who has accompanied her husband from Japan while he completes his graduate studies. Salimah’s husband has abandoned her and their two young sons in a country where she knows no one, can barely speak the language, and is in a state of culture shock. Sayuri has postponed her own graduate studies and spends her days caring for her baby daughter.
The two young women meet in an English as a Second Language class attended by students from several countries, with widely varying English skills. Over time, Sayuri begins to help Salimah with her English work. Despite their completely different life experiences, they share a shy but tenacious nature, and one of the many pleasures of Farewell, My Orange is watching them develop a friendship through a second language neither is comfortable with.
Salimah has taken a job as a butcher at the local supermarket, a position that requires hard work and makes few demands on her to communicate. The work routine gives shape and order to her life and helps her maintain her sanity when she feels as if she might break down at any time from struggling to cope with the many challenges she is facing alone.
The story alternates between a close third-person narrative following Salimah and letters written by Sayuri to her professor. (We assume they are written in Japanese, but translated for us, of course.) Salimah’s story gives us an intimate view of the immigrant experience, focusing on the key role language plays in adapting to a new country and culture. Naturally, Salimah feels like an outsider in the very white country town because she is African, but even more so because it’s hard for her to understand the people around her and even more difficult to communicate with them. So her English class offers her a lifeline to her new home as well as the opportunity to make some friends.
Sayuri’s letters are both personal and observational, giving us an almost journalistic view of her experience. When she tries to find employment by sending off her resume, she receives no responses. When she changes the name on her resume to Elizabeth McKenzie, she is inundated with calls. But she soon realizes that not just race, but a foreign name along with limited language skills and her accent are obstacles that limit her opportunities in Australia.
In one letter to her professor, she writes, “English is so powerful today that any language that belongs to a land without economic or political clout must bow at the feet of this vast monster . . . . But it seems to me that this second language can actually give birth to new values and ways of expressing oneself. . . . For someone like Nakichi [her name for Salimah], whose native land has been taken from her, a second language is a second chance. When I see how zealously Nakichi has committed herself to seizing it, I find myself praying for the possibility of the pure power of language.”
Slowly, these two women, often gritting their teeth, find their way into the English language and the Australian culture. Farewell, My Orange allows the reader to experience their struggles to build a new life with a new language. And the conclusion offers a few surprises that explain some quirks of the narrative.
Iwaki Kei went to Australia 20 years ago to study English after graduating from college in Japan. She never left. Her experiences and those of other immigrants eventually led to this fast, powerful read that will give you insight into a key aspect of the immigrant experience that we don’t hear much about. You’ll see why this debut won both the Dazai Osamu Prize and the Oe Kenzaburo Prize.