I wanted my writing to be universal and palatable, and somehow I’d received the clear message that being myself wasn’t either of those things.
By
Leanne Hall

29 Jun 2018 - 9:28 AM  UPDATED 11 Jan 2019 - 2:46 PM

Iris Chen-Taylor started life as Iris Taylor.

Undoubtedly fuelled by my childhood obsession with L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, the protagonist of my children’s novel, Iris and the Tiger, initially had pale skin, green eyes and red hair.

For six early drafts, the world, the storyline and the minor players of my third novel fell smoothly into place, but Iris Taylor proved to be a stubborn twelve-year-old - she simply wouldn’t let me know who she was.

It was in the middle of this struggle that I realised something shameful. What if I still don’t think of myself, or someone like me, as the main character?

It was in the middle of this struggle that I realised something shameful. What if I still don’t think of myself, or someone like me, as the main character?

In the seventh draft I gave Iris a background similar to mine – biracial Chinese-Australian – and suddenly I knew who she was. She revealed fears, passions, dislikes and a quirky sense of humour. She referred to her own cultural background only a few times, but it was what allowed her to become three-dimensional.   

Because I write for children and teenagers, I often speak to students about my writing career. I explain how difficult it was for me to believe that I could be a writer. With the exception of Claudia Kishi from The Baby-Sitter’s Club series, there were almost no Asian characters in the books I read as a kid or teen, and there weren’t any stories being told about, or by, Asian-Australians in books, film or television.

I make a point of telling students that it’s important to see yourself reflected in the culture around you, both as the person creating, and the person represented. But as I found out with Iris, it’s easier to hold this ideal than uphold it.  

Since this experience I’ve reflected on the times I’ve whitewashed my own writing, especially in the emerging part of my career.

 If I explored what it really meant to be an Asian-Australian woman, then what uncontrollable beast would I unleash? Would my level of anger be acceptable? Would anyone else care about the stereotypes, the assumptions, the fetishisation, the insensitivities and the insults?

I cut my teeth on short stories, sending them to editors with little expectation of approval. I read acclaimed literary novels, written mostly by white men. I copied their style, their priorities and it’s no wonder that all my characters were white. I wanted my writing to be universal and palatable, and somehow I’d received the clear message that being myself wasn’t either of those things.

By the time I had the confidence to attempt my first novel, I edged closer to my own experiences. I included a main character of colour, but instead of casting her in my own identity, I cloaked her precise cultural background. I was afraid of truly confronting myself in my writing. If I explored what it really meant to be an Asian-Australian woman, then what uncontrollable beast would I unleash? Would my level of anger be acceptable? Would anyone else care about the stereotypes, the assumptions, the fetishisation, the insensitivities and the insults?

In the middle part of my career though I’ve realised that it hurts too much to hold back my self and my experiences. I remind myself that more entitled people probably don’t waste time worrying about their stories being too specific.

In the Australian book industry we’ve started talking about diversity and representation, but the conversation reeks of catchphrases and trends, and there is a disheartening lack of attention paid to the necessity of own voices.

There are no words for the deep sense of insult I feel when a white author does a shallow job of writing an Asian character. Whenever I encounter a book with Asian characters or setting, I first read the author’s bio and acknowledgements, to see if they have a connection to Asia, to see if they have thanked any Asian people, or consulted sensitivity readers.

I wonder if they recognise the political dimensions of telling someone else’s story. I wonder if they think about who has cultural dominance, and whether they are the right person to write into this space.

So many ‘tailwinds’ have given me the skills, time, resilience and social networks to pursue a writing career.  A stable family life, an extended period of education, good health, a part-time job I can subsist on. When I fill the diversity seat on a festival panel, I wonder if it should go to a writer for whom English isn’t a first language, or a writer who hasn’t had the privileges I’ve had. 

I make a point of telling students that it’s important to see yourself reflected in the culture around you, both as the person creating, and the person represented. But as I found out with Iris, it’s easier to hold this ideal than uphold it.  

As a reader I desperately want to hear from people I haven’t heard from before, storytellers who’ve had trouble gaining access to audiences and resources. Personal identity is a complex asset, with multiple intersections of race, gender, sexuality, disability, class and more, and I wish that this complexity would be embraced more enthusiastically, genuinely and rigorously by the book industry.

As for myself, in the future I plan on trying to tell subtle stories of being between places and between identities. And reminding myself that I’m not too much, and that I’m also enough.

Leanne Hall is an award-winning writer of young adult fiction and ambassador for The Next Chapter, a new writers' scheme presented by the Wheeler Centre, with the support from the Aesop Foundation. Applications close Friday 13 July, 2018. For details visit https://thenextchapter.wheelercentre.com


 

The Family Law episodes one and two air on Saturday, 12 January at 8.30pm on SBS and SBS VICELAND simultaneously. All six episodes will also be on SBS On Demand that night.

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