When Salimah, the African refugee at the center of Iwaki Kei’s Farewell, My Orange, arrives in small-town Australia with spouse and sons, her situation is dire. She can hardly speak English and her options for gainful work are few.
What follows is the story of her forays into making a living, keeping her family together and acquiring the language skills that will help shape her future. Life Downunder is so disorientating that one of her few comforts is seeing that Australia’s orange sun is the same star that dictated night and day in her African home.
Chapters on Salimah’s attempts at success, narrated in the third person, alternate with letters written by a Japanese woman, Sayuri, to a former teacher, who’s agreed to read and edit her fictional short stories. In her letters Sayuri complains about the minutiae of life in a new country, where she has followed her linguistics-professor husband, an often absent man who’s working on a thesis at the university.
As the women’s stories start to cohere, it becomes evident that language—especially its ability to unite people—is central to every character in this slim book, originally written in Japanese by Osaka-born Kei, who’s lived in Australia for about two decades.
Sayuri writes of a brains-for-brawn bargain she makes with an illiterate neighbor. She’ll read to him as long as he promises to force a nearby musician to stop drumming. The end result of this literary exchange is that her daughter sleeps soundly and Sayuri, a young, slight woman, discovers that her tattooed, ex-convict neighbor isn’t what she expected. Charlotte’s Web, at least in her rendition, makes the big man weep.
At a language school, Salimah meets an Italian woman, Olive, and a younger Asian woman called Echidna, whose biography, the reader gradually discovers, is similar to Sayuri’s. The trio become closer and closer friends as they struggle with the foreign language and, later, as they each encounter tragedy. English—even though none of them speak it natively—is their common ground.
All that budding camaraderie, however, doesn’t prevent Salimah from comparing her life to theirs, and finding it wanting. Olive has the huge benefit of a local husband, while Echidna, who has been in Australia for years, is fluent in English. These things have opened the door of Australian life for them, Salimah thinks.
Salimah initially sees her only access to society as much less exalted—her job cutting and packaging meat a local supermarket, where during the nightshift she can catch the orange sunrise if she’s lucky. It’s the same employment her husband, also a refugee, quits because he finds the work beneath him (but, notably, not beneath her). He eventually quits the family, too.
At work, though, she’s quickly awarded “Employee of the Year” and further draws the admiration of her Australian supervisor when she asks why she received the prize. He says no one has ever asked that questions before, implying that the others have felt entitled. When he later tells her, “You’re different. And that’s good,” she rightly takes it as the highest of compliments.
The writing in Farewell, My Orange, in Meredith McKinney’s translation, is often vivid, especially the chapters narrated in the third person, and surprising for such a short book, the most descriptive prose rarely slows down the pace of this ultimately touching story.
When Salimah contemplates her job “removing bone, sinew, skin, organs, and transforming a lump of meat into supermarket cuts in a matter of minutes with a single knife,” she compares it to the task of becoming a part of Australian life as a refugee:
Even if the way in was firmly locked, she’d would twist the door open with that knife.
It’s not a stretch to say Salimah and the other characters also use language to much the same ends.