Book review: The White Cockatoo Flowers: Stories, Ouyang Yu

'The White Cockatoo Flowers; Stories' is the first collection of stories published by Chinese-Australian author Ouyang Yu in English.
The White Cockatoo Flowers Stories. Image on left is a headshot of a man of Chinese appearance, with head turned towards the camera. On the right is a book cover, which is black with an illustration of a white sulphur crested cockatoo sitting on a branch of a pomegranate tree with a couple of the fruits above it.

The White Cockatoo Flowers: Stories by Ouyang Yu presents a somewhat cynical, deeply nuanced, yet personal and tender exploration of the immigrant experience, set against the backdrops of both China and Australia.   

In this debut collection of stories, Yu’s narrative voice is strikingly candid, offering readers a glimpse into the inner workings of an author’s brain, the complexities of the immigrant journey and the creative output that writing serves as a means of navigating life’s challenges. The episodic nature of the book lends itself to a spontaneous, memory-like quality, reflecting the author’s personal recollections of his lived experience and therefore producing an autobiographical tone.  

Throughout, Yu grapples with the themes of assimilation, racism and the clash of cultures. The multitude of characters serve as reflections of the author’s own journey: highlighting the challenges of adapting to a new culture while maintaining a sense of identity.  

The stories are infused with a fascination for Australia and its people, yet also confront the harsh realities of prejudice and discrimination faced by immigrants. Yu’s commentary on the pressure to conform to the “Australian way of life” underscores the complexities of finding a sense of belonging in a new country.  

However, the short story format does not allow sufficient time for a reader to connect with each character, so some sections feel rather disjointed.  

While the episodic structure allows for a diverse range of experiences to be explored, it disrupts any sense of a narrative flow and leaves readers craving continuity. However, in its disjointedness, the overall theme is incredibly resonant throughout. There lies a deeper relationship with the unpredictability and uncertainty that accompany the realities of conforming to a new lifestyle, mirroring the fragmented nature of identity in belonging to a new land.  

Yu’s exploration of the immigrant psyche remains poignant. As one character reflects, ‘If he began as a migrant years ago, he had now become a bird, a bird with a temporary nest in a bush whose inhabitants were predominantly native.’ This sentiment encapsulates the complex interaction between identity and cultural assimilation that permeates the book.  

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Through his adept use of language, with prose that is rich and evocative, Yu elevates The White Cockatoo Flowers: Stories beyond a mere collection of tales, crafting a work that is both a literary delight and a profound exploration of the human condition.  

The White Cockatoo Flowers: Stories, Ouyang Yu
Publisher: Transit Lounge
ISBN: 9781923023086

Hardback: 272pp 
RRP: $32.99
Published: 1 April 2024

Hayley Thomas is an Adelaide born performing artist, arts writer and talent relations manager. She holds a Bachelor of Music Theatre from the University of Adelaide and a Graduate Certificate in Arts (Screen Studies) from the University of Melbourne. She has a love for research-based film analysis, exploring the nuances of the human psyche. Her other interests include running, Pilates, dogs and pasta. Hayley is based in Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. Instagram: @hayleyerynn