Funny Ethnics

Shirley Le

Funny Ethnics
Affirm Press
28 February 2023

Funny Ethnics

Shirley Le

Shortlisted for The Readings New Australian Fiction Prize 2023

I looked at the streets of Yagoona through eyes stinging with melted Maybelline liquid liner. Yagoona looked back at me, the wannabe hipster who dreamed of moving to a share house in the inner west, and cackled.

Funny Ethnics catapults readers into the sprawling city-within-a-city that is Western Sydney and the world of Sylvia Nguyen: only child of Vietnamese refugee parents, unexceptional student, exceptional self-doubter. It's a place where migrants from across the world converge, and identity is a slippery, ever-shifting beast.

Jumping through snapshots of Sylvia's life - from childhood to something resembling adulthood - this novel is about square pegs and round holes, those who belong and those on the fringes. It's a funhouse mirror held up to modern Australia revealing suburban fortune tellers, train-carriage preachers, crumbling friendships and bad stand-up comedy.

In Funny Ethnics, Shirley Le uses a coming-of-age tale to reveal a side of Australia so ordinary that it's entirely bizarre.


Western Sydney writer Shirley Le’s debut novel opens on a scene that feels familiar: a young 20-something sits in nervous anticipation, about to tell her parents she’s dropping her Law degree to pursue creative writing. You’d be forgiven for thinking you know what comes next: a book about a studious overachiever, perhaps, who discovers the power of Art. You’d be wrong.

Funny Ethnics eschews politeness and feel-good narrative expectations. With a bold, satirical wit, Le focuses her lens on a world rarely seen in Australian literature: one of suburban carpark bust-ups and hallucinatory fortune- tellers, where bubble tea is the drink of choice and Free Shit Day is a key calendar event.

In the middle of it all is Sylvia Nguyen, the only child of her Ba and Me. Growing up in the Western Sydney suburb of Yagoona, surrounded by other Vietnamese-Australian families whose children are being primed to ‘single-handedly airlift the next generations ... into upper-middle-class Australia’, Sylvia is an outlier. She’s not particularly academically motivated and isn’t quite sure where she fits in the world. As she grows up, we witness her doubts and failings as well as her tentative steps towards a self-defined success.

It’s difficult to characterise Funny Ethnics as just one thing: a millennial coming of age, a hilarious suburban comedy, a moving family story. Like all richly told stories, it reflects different qualities to different readers. Le’s prose is forthright and unsentimental, carrying the story along with a propulsive velocity; I was so engrossed in my reading that I forgot I had congee cooking on the stove and burnt my rice.

More than anything, this is a book that excites me for how resolutely it refuses to give into the homogeneity of Australian literary fiction. In its unapologetic honesty about the way people truly live, talk and move through the world, Funny Ethnics feels like a jolt of something electric and new.

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