Mail order brides: Reading Note 25

This post is one that has been sitting in my drafts for a couple of years.

Reading Note 25: Mail Order Brides. There is something striking about taking a romance fiction trope and juxtaposing it against real life narratives of the same trope (can real life be a trope???). Earlier in the year, I concurrently read Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test at the same time as I read Dr Panayota Nazou’s Promised Brides: experiences and testimonies of Greek women in Australia (1950-1975).

You would be hard pressed to find a Sydney-based tertiary-educated Greek-Australian who does not know Dr Nazou who taught Modern Greek at the University of Sydney for four decades. I also know Panayota personally as it was she who convinced me to not drop out of university back in 1989, spending the best part of Christmas Day talking to me while I cried in my bedroom. To say that I have a high regard for her is an understatement. Her Brides research has been ongoing for many years. I originally read her Greek publication, I have attended the exhibitions on the brides that were interviewed and now the English translation of her book brings another level of depth to the experiences of women who married men they did not know. Dr Nazou undertook interviews with Greek mail order brides from the 1950s – 1970s. Her interviews bring out the anxieties of poverty stricken women whose parents or relatives arranged marriages for them in a country at the opposite end of the world. Where in romance fiction, communication blocks are broken down to emerge to a happy ending, these promised brides, only one of them has a happy marriage. Of nearly thirty stories, underlying even the relatively acceptable relationships is a sense of loss of their agency. So many women who married strangers because they knew it was the only way out of poverty for their families.

Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test is an “arranged” marriage for a green card trope – a Vietnamese bride is travelling to California to meet the USian-born groom who is the son of a woman she met in Vietnam. I liked the highlighting of cultural differences between people of the same heritage but with the difference that being part of a diaspora brings. This especially struck me in the opening chapters, where the main character Mỹ chooses an American name for herself, Esme. This annoyed me throughout the book and I was so pleased at the end of the book that she rejected this prevalent custom of Anglicising one’s name. It takes a lot to push back on this expectation (hey! I know because I have been pushing back on this all my life) and she reverts to her own name. Interestingly, the American born (Vietnamese heritage) hero comfortably carries his Vietnamese name.The Bride Test has all the elements of a good romance – the tension build, the world build around the characters, issues of trust and understanding how people relate to one another as well as how they shift their expectations to make way for one another. I really enjoyed it.

Reading The Bride Test alongside Panayota Nazou’s Promised Brides meant that I couldn’t hide in the fictitious world of happy outcomes. The reality is often another terrible story of the way migrant women can be left without the security of a family tied to someone they would never have chosen through their own free will. I am left saddened by both books.

Added today: I realise that I hadn’t posted this back in early 2019 because I wanted to write at length, especially about Nazou’s book. I haven’t had the chance to return to it and I really wish I had taken more notes upon my first reading of it. Perhaps I will repost on it when I get a chance to reread it (once I get it back from whoever borrowed it from me!).