Book of the Week: The Last Immigrant by Lau Siew Mei
The Last Immigrant is the latest novel from Lau Siew Mei, who was born and raised in Singapore before moving to Australia.
She is the author of the critically acclaimed Playing Madame Mao, a story about an actress who finds her life unravelling after her husband is arrested and detained without trial. Time magazine called it “one of the best novels ever written about Singapore”.
Siew Mei has also written another novel, The Dispeller of Worries, as well as several short stories and a children’s book, Yin’s Magic Dragon.
Okay, so what’s this book about? It’s about 280 pages long! Just joking. The story follows the life of an immigrant Ismael, who moves from Singapore to Australia. There, he gets a job at the immigration department that gives the okay for asylum seekers coming to Australia. And no, the irony is not lost on him.
What is lost is a sense of normalcy when Ismael’s neighbour commits suicide, his wife dies of cancer, his daughter leaves him … and his cat goes missing.
What follows is a series of events that sees Ismael facing the biggest trial of his life, as fingers start pointing and tongues start wagging. Just how will he get through this?
Hang on, she moved to Australia. Ismael moved to Australia. Is Ismael based on a real person? Well, according to Siew Mei, Ismael was initially based on someone she knew in Brisbane. He is Muslim with an Iranian heritage. “He was quite a special person and I enjoyed talking to him,” she said, adding: “I’ve lost touch with him and suspect he may have passed on. Ismael in the novel, however, has developed into his own character!”
Is there a lesson to be learnt here? Well, the author said one thing she hoped readers would get from the book is that “the pain of rejection in whatever form can be transformative”.
“Being "different" or "other" or "unwanted by others" isn’t going to destroy you,” she said. “The only thing that destroys you is when you start internalising it and reject yourself.”