There’s a scene in the opening story of Nam Le’s 2008 debut fiction collection The Boat that’s as funny as it is horrifying. In it, an Asian-Australian narrator is fighting writer’s block in his final year at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At a bar one night, he finds himself neck-deep in the kind of conversation you suspect people might be having behind your back — only this time no one bothers to wait until you’re gone. “Ethnic literature's hot. And important, too,” says one writing instructor. “I’m sick of ethnic lit,” a fellow student retorts, “It’s full of descriptions of exotic food.” Another adds: “You can't tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn't have the vocab.”
Le’s trolls might be fictional — but the sentiment strikes a chord. In a world where the works of non-white writers still seem to be flattened as a ‘genre’, it’s not much of a stretch to see how — in a deep (and slightly embarrassed) corner of every reader’s mind — that there’s a temptation to cast writers of colour aside with a casual, “Read one, read them all”.
But a new generation of millennial writers is making Asian-Australian voices harder to ignore.
We speak with three up-and-coming writers who tell frank, unapologetic stories about sex, class, queerness and the subversive side of being a misfit — and are killing it in the literary scene. Each arrived at the writing path differently — but are all breaking new grounds by challenging the way we think about Australian literature. Playwright Michelle Law won universal acclaim with her debut play Single Asian Female (set to tour in Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre in 2018), author Julie Koh was recently named SMH Best Young Novelist for her smart, satirical story collection Portable Curiosities, while essayist Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen found her voice with a powerfully honest story in Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie Magazine and continues to pen intimate, viral essays as a widely-read columnist. We talk about each writer’s influence, the strangeness of ‘default’ Australian voices and what it’s like to work as a writer of colour in a mostly-white publishing world.
How do you guys feel about being referred to as Asian-Australian writers? Is the hyphen annoying? And in a sense does it imply that white voices are still the default Australian voice? (Imagine a writing panel being introduced as emerging White-Australian voices...)
ML: I don’t love it (!) but it works in two ways. I dislike it in Australia because that label is still othering and makes you feel as if you’re about to step on stage at the token diversity panel at a writers festival, but I wear it like a badge of pride in Asia and amongst Asian communities because it makes me feel included.
JK: No one is born hyphenated. Growing up, I would have described myself as Australian. Now, in the literary world, I say I’m Asian-Australian because it helps other people categorise me (which is clearly everything I ever wanted from life). Earlier this year at Perth Writers Festival, Ken Liu said that he prefers to be described as American, not Asian-American. He and Michelle are right: it’s othering. I’ve been touring [my book] Portable Curiosities for a year and a half now, and I can’t tell you how tired I am of doing diversity-focused panels. I long to be a “default” Australian voice.
GAN: I’m proud of it. Especially in the mainstream media, there still aren’t that many Asian faces or voices…The ideal is that we arrive at a point where we’re just considered writers, not Asian writers, and are no longer asked to appear on panels about diversity or race or whatever, but the reality is that we’re not there yet, so for now I’m happy to be a part of this movement that I feel is bigger than me – and hope that it takes us to the right place.
You each deal frankly with topics like sex, gender, mental illness, queerness, and alopecia. How much is the subversive nature of your writing intentional? And to what extent does it just emerge from the internal logic of your work?
ML: I don’t think I try to be subversive; I try to stay truthful to the worlds and communities and lives I know, and because those worlds and people are so rarely given a platform my work is regarded as subversive. If a show/play/podcast/lineup features an all white team I immediately switch off – not out of protest, but because I’m f—king bored! I’m so bored out of my mind consuming the same, white bread and mayo stuff. I want to learn and be challenged.
JK: I’m generally subversive in my life and fiction. It comes with the territory of having been born into this body, and into a world in which the systems and institutions we have created do not necessarily produce just outcomes. When I sit down to write a short story, the subversiveness is sometimes intentional and sometimes incidental.
I long to be a “default” Australian voice
GAN: I write what I wish I’d been able to read when I was younger. I grew up in a very strict, traditional family, and my views on sex and relationships in particular were really stifled and unhealthy for a long time. Writing about these things is a way for me to reach out to other young people from conservative backgrounds, but also a way for me to sort through my own feelings and work things out for myself. I only came out as queer a year ago due to my upbringing, and though my family is very supportive, it took a long time to get there. I do strongly believe that me being so outspoken about these private aspects of my life through my writing helped both myself and my parents come to terms with them more easily. I don’t see it as subversive as much as I see it as a telling of truth.
How white do you find the Australian publishing sector and grants committees? And how do you think that impacts on whose work gets commissioned, promoted or published?
ML: Generally speaking (when you’re not including things like Asian-Australian writing platforms like Peril) I know of a handful of POC agents, publishers and editors combined. So I’d surmise the vast majority of them are white, and that’s concerning because that means they can’t actually discern what is authentic, and in the case of editors – they’re shaping a book from a white perspective. Which, you know, we’re so severely lacking.
JK: I don’t know much about the world of literary grants, but I do think Australian publishing is very white. It can influence whose work gets attention. I don’t come across many publishers and editors of colour, and I think this needs to change. I was really lucky to have worked with an Asian-Australian editor, Ian See, on Portable Curiosities. He showed my short stories to UQP, which is how I got my book deal. He’s an incredible editor and completely on my wavelength – we’re very close.
GAN: It is pretty damn white. I often wonder if I get approached for things because of the diversity aspect. There are a lot of great POC writers in Australia gaining prominence, which I’m so happy to see, but when the industry itself is still largely white it does make me wonder. Like Julie, I’ve also worked with Ian See – he edited an essay I wrote for the 2016 anthology Doing It, and was an absolute delight to work with. Another amazing Asian editor in Australia is Adolfo Aranjuez, who edits Metro and Archer – he’s an absolute powerhouse.
For beginning writers, finding steady footing in the writing world while trying not to “feel like a fraud” can be hard. How do you find community in the arts circle for emotional support?
ML: Cast your net far and wide, whether that means studying creative writing at uni so you’re already lumped with a cohort of like minded people, going to writers festivals, doing writing workshops, or joining a writers group. Meet heaps of people and then choose a handful of those people to be your people. By which I mean: Do you trust them? Do you respect their work? Are they a true artist? (By which I mean, they’re competitive with themselves and are invested in contributing to the world, rather than tearing down other people in the industry.) Can you comfortably sit in silence with them over beers?
JK: I agree with Michelle. Turn up to literary events now and then. But if you feel you don’t fit there, move on. It can take a while to find your tribe, if you even have one!
GAN: I’m really lucky in that I have a super supportive network of writer friends. Going to events like National Young Writers Festival helped me connect with other writers, and get over (at least a bit) the imposter syndrome that I’d had for a long time. There are some fantastic Facebook groups for writers, which I’ve found really helpful as a resource and also as a place to vent about writer things that my non-writer friends wouldn’t understand.
I often wonder if I get approached for things because of the diversity aspect
What are you currently working on? What projects can we look forward to see from you in 2018?
ML: My web series Homecoming Queens will be out on SBS, and my play Single Asian Female will be on at Belvoir St Theatre in Feb/Mar!
JK: I’m writing the libretto for a satirical opera, Chop Chef. It’s about a reality TV cooking competition in which each eliminated contestant dies in a manner appropriate to their culinary specialty. We’ll release snippets from the opera in 2018, and hope to stage the whole shebang in 2019. You’ll also see more hilarity from Kanganoulipo. We’re totally legit now because one of our members, Ryan O’Neill, has just won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction.
GAN: I’m slowly (so, so slowly) working on a memoir project about my parents’ journey to Australia as Vietnamese refugees. It’s been really emotionally gruelling to interview them (especially my dad about his experiences as a soldier) so I’ve been taking my time, but I hope to make more progress in 2018 and, with any luck, have a complete manuscript by the end of the year.
If you have a bunch of money for an advance, or a grant to give away today, which Asian-Australian writer's work would you commission and why?
ML: I’d use the money to set up a scholarship for a young Asian Australian writer in high school hoping to study it at uni.
JK: I’d let the cash rain down on Tom Cho, author of Look Who’s Morphing. His work is brilliant and I’m hungry for more of it.
GAN: I like Michelle’s idea!
Dear book nerds...
Want to read more? Look out for these indie journals and rising literary stars in 2018, who also happen to be Asian-Australian.
Poetry and fiction
Jessica Zhan Mei Yu, writer and poet, named Melbourne Writers Festival’s 30 under 30