In Conversation with Tracey Lien

“Asian Australians (and other racial minorities, for that matter), are then fed the idea that if we’re model citizens—if we’re successful, well-behaved, and grateful, then we’ll get to belong. But that’s not true, either.”

Australian-born Tracey Lien’s debut crime novel All That’s Left Unsaid chronicles a heartbreaking and compelling tale of grief, loss, intergenerational trauma, and the struggles of belonging as a racial minority within Australia. Following the horrific murder of her younger brother Denny, this transportive novel commences with journalist Ky returning home to Cabramatta in the 1990s, as she is confronted with Australia’s myths of fairness, amidst the challenges of gang violence, the heroin epidemic, and an all-white police force. 

Throughout the novel, Lien dispels the belief that every Australian is given equal opportunities, and exposes the false narratives given to racial minorities about their belonging in Australia. Lien’s honest depictions of flawed characters in complex familial relationships provide an introspective analysis into differing obligations of community. She maintains a gripping balance between conversations surrounding racial violence and intergenerational trauma— Lien’s novel is a page-turning read, which challenges audiences to question all they believe to know about Australian multiculturalism. I had the pleasure of speaking with Lien, prior to her appearances at the upcoming Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Maya Mathialagan: How has this novel dived into the emotional complexities behind the myth of the ‘model minority’?

Tracey Lien: The first step was making the case that it is truly a myth. Growing up in Australia, we’re all told from a young age that we’re Aussie, that we belong, that Australia values multiculturalism. But it doesn’t take long for people of colour to realise that this isn’t quite true, and that it doesn’t apply to us. Asian Australians (and other racial minorities, for that matter), are then fed the idea that if we’re model citizens — if we’re successful, well-behaved, and grateful, then we’ll get to belong. But that’s not true, either. The attitudes of the majority can turn on a dime, and that’s what the characters in All That’s Left Unsaid experience — they’ve done everything “right,” they’ve worked hard, they’ve tried to pose as little a threat as possible to those around them, and it’s still not enough. And so, in addition to solving a murder, these characters also attempt to reconcile what they’ve been taught with what they’ve come to understand about their place in Australia.

MM: The novel explores conditional citizenship and mentalities that may be forced upon immigrants regarding upstanding behaviour and gratitude. How has Denny’s characterisation reflected the immigrant struggle of belonging amidst Australian multiculturalism?

TL: The thing is, it’s not an immigrant struggle. It’s a being-not-white-in-Australia struggle. The character Denny Tran is born and raised in Australia. Sydney is the only home he has ever known, is the only home he wants to know. And still, when he is murdered at a Cabramatta restaurant, there’s indifference from the all-white police force who are ready to chalk his death to drug use and gang affiliation. The character Lulu Woo is born and raised in Australia — she’s never set foot outside the country — and still, her bullies at school latch onto her race as a reason for why she doesn’t belong. Characters like Denny, Lulu, Ky, and Minnie reflect not an immigrant struggle, but a struggle to belong in a country that exports a very narrow image of itself. 

MM: Following Ky’s return home in the aftermath of this horrific tragedy, what was essential to you in crafting a strong sense of family and community throughout this novel?

TL: When a community is rarely depicted in media, it can be tempting to craft characters belonging to that community who are “perfect”. You can probably imagine the kind I’m talking about — hardworking, self-sacrificing, honest, and harmless. But not only is that a lot of pressure to put on anyone, it’s unrealistic. The truth is that every community is just like every other community — we all live alongside people who can be generous and petty and thoughtful and stubborn and smart and funny and hardworking and lazy and awful. It was important to me that I showed that the people of Cabramatta are just like everyone else. We’re capable of the full spectrum of human complexity.

MM: How did your upbringing and cultural background help you craft the strong sense of setting in this novel?

TL: Research played a huge role in the writing of this novel. I grew up in the Cabramatta area, but I was only a kid in 1996, when the novel is set. I had no insight into the conditions that led to the heroin epidemic, had no first-hand experience with the violence or familial circumstances depicted in the book. I relied heavily on news clippings, interviews, and research papers authored by anthropologists and epidemiologists who’d focused on Cabramatta in the 1990s. I think it’s impossible for one book to fully capture a place, and inevitably there will be readers who don’t see their Cabramatta reflected in the novel. But that’s okay! There is so much room for many, many more stories from this part of Australia. 

MM: Through the notable use of code-switching, how did you maintain a balance between commentaries surrounding racial violence and intergenerational trauma in the form of page-turning entertainment?

TL: There’s a quote from author Viet Thanh Nguyen that I refer to a lot, which goes (and I’m paraphrasing here): a lot of books that are politically or historically concerned tend to be long on mood and commitment but short on entertainment, so why not draw on the power of genre to pull readers in? The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize, tackles colonialism and American imperialism and the war in Vietnam, and it’s a spy novel. Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek is about motherhood and disability and the immigrant experience in the United States, and it’s a legal mystery. I took Viet Thanh Nguyen’s comment to heart and tried to learn from novelists whose books are propulsive authors of mystery novels, crime thrillers, whodunnits, and whydunnits.

MM: Which authors and novels inspired you during this creative writing process? 

TL: As a first-time novelist, I looked (and continue to look) to others to see what’s possible. Besides the authors I’ve already mentioned, I learned a ton about structure from authors like Julia Phillips and Liz Moore. I learned about compelling hooks and mysteries from Jane Harper and Gillian Flynn. I learned about leaning into the places you know and depicting them with love and honesty from Trent Dalton and Cote Smith. 

MM: You have a professional background in journalism as a reporter for the L.A. Times. How have your journalism skills aided in your research and creative writing processes?

TL: One of the things I learned from my career in journalism is that discipline is more dependable than inspiration. As a reporter, if I only wrote when I felt inspired, I would have missed a lot of deadlines. Similarly, if I only worked on my novel when inspiration struck, I don’t know if All That’s Left Unsaid would be out in the world right now. Beyond discipline, my background in journalism made research and interviewing a lot easier, and it helped me receive critical feedback during the drafting process without taking it personally. 


MM: What was the most challenging aspect of the artistic process? What advice do you have for students who want to pursue fiction writing?

TL: Early in any project, I am usually unsure if what I’m working on is even worth working on. There’s a lot of, “Is this a thing? I don’t want to waste time if it’s not a thing…should I keep going?” And I’ve found that the only way for me to know if something is worth working on is to work on it. At some point, it will either gain steam or fizzle out, and then I’ll know. So, if anyone is feeling stuck because they don’t know if their idea is any good or if they can pull off what they have in mind, I’d encourage them to just start. And if it doesn’t work out? Well, now you know! On to the next thing!  

Tracey will be speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Carriageworks in Eveleigh. She will be in panel at Beginnings: Generations, at 12pm on Thursday 25 May; in conversation at Your Favourites’ Favourites, at 1pm on Thursday 25 May; and in panel at State of the Art, at 6pm on Saturday 27 May. She will also be speaking in the Untold Vietnamese Stories panel at Cabramatta’s Whitlam Library, at 11:30am on Sunday 28 May.