Journalist Mimi Kwa knew her father was a larger than life character. One of 32 children, he grew up in Hong Kong, the descendant of silk traders, before moving to Australia where Mimi was raised. What she never expected was that her father would sue her over the estate of her late Aunty Theresa. In her new memoir, House of Kwa, Kwa unpacks four generations of her family history, which led her to ultimately forgive her father.
"I am so grateful for everything Dad has done. I'm happy he sued me."
My dear friend Alesha looked at me horrified as the words tumbled from my mouth between my shovelling-in of brie and moscatos and gulps of champagne. "Mim, I don't know how on earth you can forgive him!" Clearly incensed, to hide how protective she was feeling, Alesha slid from her chair and cleared our plates to the sink.
It was a girls' weekend. She, Zarnia and I, with leave passes from our husbands and -- collectively -- eight kids, in a small cosy cabin at Woodend in regional Victoria. The fire blazed dashing light up the walls and Alesha stood with her back to me. "But your hair turned grey overnight. Mim, I don't know how you can forgive him let alone be grateful."
The stress was intense, and I felt my entire world collapse. My footing in reality flailed to the point other close relationships faltered, not just the one with Dad
It's true, when my dad sued me in the Supreme Court over the estate of his late sister, my dear Aunt Theresa, I did go grey almost instantly. The stress was intense, and I felt my entire world collapse. My footing in reality flailed to the point other close relationships faltered, not just the one with Dad. The past flooded back: my mum's mental illness, shocks and trauma long buried from my youth, and ugly questions reared their heads - namely: 'are you worthy of this normal life you've built?' And ugly answers replied - 'no you're not'. So, how did it come to this undoing when family and career was doing purple patch well?
The only explanation is that my foundation had always been vulnerable, although I'd hidden it expertly. I didn't have unbridled confidence in who I was; I hadn't dealt with my past so as soon as a crack in my polished exterior emerged with the jolt my dad was suing me, that past simply poured through.
What a privilege to have an education and opportunity enough to write - full stop - let alone write a memoir. It would unfurl into the deepest variety of therapy and the most uplifting connective experience of my life. I peeled back caked-on layers of pain and imagined the multifaceted trials and discomforts my own parents must have endured. Ostracism for racial difference, ostracism for acting crazy. The time Dad walked the streets of Hong Kong as a little boy scrounging for food scraps.
I peeled back caked-on layers of pain and imagined the multifaceted trials and discomforts my own parents must have endured
They would never themselves cast their nets of vulnerability over me to see the twisted threads and knots, ropes cut short and frayed in their own stories. So I followed snippets and recollections of anecdotes I gathered in childhood to cobble together a smattering of colourful pigment on a weathered canvas; this was necessary to behold the life trajectories of those nearest, before mine, and those of our Chinese Kwa ancestors.
Leash was going through her own father daughter estrangement and it seemed unfathomable to her that our lifelong bond of understanding and recent parallel journeys of inter-generational dispute could be severed just like that, with my declaration of gratitude for my patriarch.
As my friends and I unwrapped gifts from one another for our birthdays missed all year, I pulled a T2 flask from a cardboard cylinder. "I found forgiveness when I realised their suffering," I said recalling the sudden epiphany I had while writing my book, followed by guilt and the realisation I had been so selfish all my life.
I never hesitated to heap my empathy on others but for my parents, seeds of blame had been sprouting unabated for years, stems thickening into immovable trunks. Zarn stoked the fire. Leash nibbled on some chocolate. "But then after I read somewhere that no one is inferior nor superior and the act of forgiveness is simply our ego attachment to 'being right', I realised the only way to bypass being wronged was to be grateful."
"Top up?" Zarn tilted the sparkling.
"Once I felt true gratitude, it felt amazing. It feels amazing! I am so happy."
"Grateful for what exactly?" Leash nodded to Zarn to pour.
I had to think about that. The misguided well-meaning yet damaging gestures that dappled my childhood skies did weld to the point of Leash's question. My friends well knew the pain of my past. My parents fought over me during a bitter divorce often forgetting I was there, leaving me prey to the outside world and very often frighteningly alone.
"No, I'm also thankful my mum and dad did the best they knew how so that I could turn out okay in the end."
Writing my story, House of Kwa, brought home the speck in the infinite diaspora of my family of Kwa that has shaped who I am; my personal mortal experience both mirroring and also paling in the shadow of the much more extreme circumstances those of my blood tribe have faced.
In that knowing of my place in all Kwa stories I could not only forgive the past, and my parents - though no forgiveness is necessary for no crime committed - but in me blossomed a gratitude for them placing me here and with their hope and dreams for me, doing all they could to keep their own heads above water.
House of Kwa (Harper Collins) is available now.