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Letter: What does it mean to be an Asian writer?

How do you write about your own culture with authenticity, respect and power?

Photo of alice pung with her quote "“I have chosen to write from the perspective of an Asian protagonist because I know that voice well, and I like it, and I understand it; not because I need to represent this idea or that person"

As a part of the 2019 Boundless Festival, I wrote a letter to Alice Pung, an award winning Australian writer. After a few days, she wrote back.

Dear Alice,

I read your Unpolished Gem when I was in Year 9 for English. Before it, we had just studied To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet, so you can imagine that, as a class of fourteen year olds right at the peak of hormonal rebellion, we were suspicious and wary of our teacher’s assurances that we were going to “enjoy” this book. Attending a majority Asian-Australian selective school in Sydney, they English faculty probably saw in Unpolished Gem a golden opportunity to engage us with stories we could see ourselves in. Nonetheless, when we heard our teacher say we were going to enjoy your book, some of us (myself included), took it as a challenge to not enjoy it, as if going out of our way to inflict misery upon ourselves was a valid expression of youthful defiance. 

But despite my best efforts, I found myself immediately drawn to the story, as did most of my classmates. For the next hour or so, we sheepishly sunk into our chairs, quietly reading your stories of your family’s journey to Australia, of growing up in Australia while Chinese, of navigating two different worlds that often feel diametrically opposed, all while marvelling at how similar some of our experiences were. And instead of my usual after-school routine of watching TV, I continued reading, reading until I realised I had reached the epilogue a little while after sunset. 

Is that it? I remember thinking to myself, a little taken aback by the fact that the book had finished. Like an accelerating car suddenly brought to a stop, I probably felt a little jolted — I had, after all, never finished reading a book in one sitting. But more than that, I think what confused me was this lack of a clear, happy ending. The simmering familial tensions, and the poignant feelings of diasporic loss and guilt which pervaded the book didn’t seem to have been resolved by the last page as they would have in, for example, a Hollywood film (you know, with a wedding banquet and emotional heartfelt speeches where everyone acknowledges past hardships but agree they’re all better off for it as they face the future brimming with hope cue the credits). Instead, they seem to have faded into something I couldn’t put to words at the time, but now know to be acceptance. 

I remember feeling a bit hollow. In many ways, in the hours I spent reading, I came to expect your book to be like a deck of tarot cards for me, portending my own future with each chapter, marking my destiny with each word. And I guess I wanted to read, from someone who’s “been there before,” that things would all end up okay, that the mutual sacrifices made between parent and child would ultimately result in everlasting happiness. Our popular culture conditions us to expect immigration to be this magical happily-ever-after for all parties involved, but the reality is a lot more complex, and Unpolished Gem was what pushed me to critically explore my own family’s migration story. 

Fast forward to today and I am now 21, in my fourth year of university, and like you, I am studying a law degree. Walking into a Dymocks earlier this year, I saw another one of your books — Her Father’s Daughter. Intrigued by seeing your name as the author, I bought it and, once again, finished it very quickly. How interesting it was to see familiar characters and stories told from a different perspective — quite literally as well. I was fascinated by how chapters alternated between your own point of view and that of your father’s. What was it like to write from his perspective? And what did you father think of it?

I ask because I recently realised that I’ve been writing a lot about my parents. Maybe too much. From their experiences in Communist China, to their reactions to a film we watched together, it seems like they’ve become my fountain of creativity (much to their amusement). I think unconsciously I’ve put their experiences on a pedestal, treating it as some sacred truth that cannot be questioned. Looking at my writing, I notice some of it follows the exact same story arc, starting off with my parents have differing views on something, followed by them explaining their perspective, and ending with me growing more sympathetic to their opinions while unsteadily maintaining my own. That or I take some liberty in annotating their views, almost romanticising them by attaching causes to why they think the way they do in what is perhaps an artificial manner not at all grounded in reality. For me, writing about my parents has almost become an act of filial piety, as if bringing their experiences to the page is akin to honouring them. But at the same time, I have recently started to feel like I’m using them as mere plot devices to convey wider humans concerns which I fear I just don’t have the ability to express on my own. When the doubt really gets to me, it feels like I’m stealing their experiences and then rewriting them as my own to piece an extra layer of, wait for it, authenticity to my writing. Have you ever felt the same? If so, how do you overcome it?

I guess this is all part of a broader problem I’m facing where I feel so inspired and invigorated by my cultural heritage and my identity as an Asian-Australian, but simultaneously feel somewhat confined by it. Almost everything I have written invariably relates back to my ethnic identity, and while I am so proud of who I am, sometimes, the bonds that connect me to who I am feel a bit more like chains. 

I didn’t always feel like this. I’ve always felt that, given how scarce Asian voices are in the Western world, if I don’t record down these experiences then no one will. But there is now a wave of diasporic Asian literature (yours being a shining example) that I’m starting to wonder how exactly my voice contributes to it all. I’ve also seen some Asian celebrities, especially in film and comedy, warning against falling into the trap of being “too” focused on your own Asianness, saying that you begin limit the universality of your ideas to a non-Asian audience. I think it just got to me, and I started to doubt whether anyone except myself actually enjoyed reading anything I wrote. So I gave myself a challenge to write something not in first person that had nothing to do with my Asianness (I ended up writing something about the architectural merits of a building on campus). It was strange but enjoyable to write, but it also felt so contrived, as if the whole piece was actually about me trying to prove a point that I was more than just “Asian” as opposed to the subject matter itself. Have you ever struggled with something similar? Is the “trap” of being “too” Asian in your writing really a thing? You’ve brought such powerful stories about your own experiences to the page, but did you ever feel any pressure to write something grounded in something completely removed from yourself? Or have you felt a profound obligation to write your own experiences down? And when you did, how did you know it was a story that needed to be told? 

I apologise for the sudden flurry of questions, but they have been weighing down on my mind every time I try to write. For all my worries about not being seen as an “Asian” writer, I realise that it’s become the main focus of this letter! I recognise that these are difficult questions which probably don’t have a definite answer, but I look forward to reading your insight and I deeply appreciate you taking the time to respond to them. 

Best Regards

Baopu


* * *

Dear Baopu,

Apologies for my late reply. Your letter ‘interview’ was very special. You are an outstanding writer. I reckon your letter should be published – not for what it asks about me, but what it says about you, and your life, and your fears and concerns as a writer, which are both different and similar to the ones I had over one and a half decades ago when I was first starting out. But your voice is entirely your own, so unique and eloquent. So it’s an honour to receive such a missive, from someone who has read my work so closely. 

Because you spent such thought and time into it, I had to make sure I had time to give you the considered and thoughtful response it deserves. Of course, some of our concerns are similar and still remain so: how do we write about our families? How do we represent ourselves and our culture? How do we ensure we are not tokenised? Back in my day we called it ‘ethnicity’, and bookstores had separate sections for ‘ethnic literature’. This is not the case any more, to everyone’s relief! But the underlying issue behind your questions is what does it mean to be an Asian writer

When I was growing up, to be a published Asian writer in the West was to be:

a) a woman 

b) who had suffered grave injustices for being Asian and a woman, and 

c) who was able to poetically, or at least narratively, describe these immense sufferings to a Western audience. 

I read books like Wild Swans, and Falling Leaves, and Ten Thousand Sorrows and Chinese Cinderella. A white guy named Arthur Golding even wrote an enthralling book (well, enthralling to my 16 year- old self) called Memoirs of a Geisha. 

I also discovered Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan – Asian-Americans, whose voices seemed closer to my experience than anything else I’d ever read. They were inventive, funny, and shared similar embarrassments about their families not assimilating into the mainstream Western culture. 

Unfortunately, there seemed to be no Australian equivalent of such books, with the exception of Looking for Alibrandi about an Italian girl. Or didactic books about Vietnamese refugees that featured protagonists who were a bit ‘too’ perfect – their only flaws were that they were poor and too hardworking at school (because these books were not written by Vietnamese people). 

I wouldn’t say I wrote Unpolished Gem purely to redress these imbalances. I don’t think I had such a big coherent perspective then. Maybe I just wanted to rant about my family! But perhaps subconsciously, these questions also played in my mind when I was writing my first book.

Wedged between those awesome classics Shakespeare and Harper Lee, of course I understood how much your class would have felt compelled to hate this little tiny upstart blip in the miniscule literary landscape that was Australian ‘diverse’ publishing. Of course, you would have felt punished! I probably would have felt the same, thinking, ‘oh no here is another well-intentioned teacher force-feeding us Oriental culture just coz we’re Asian.’

But I am grateful to your teacher for putting this book on the curriculum, because when my book was launched, my father asked all his friends to come along. Most of these were people who never went to university, who worked in factories or had small businesses. They bought my book for their kids, which was about two hours of wages back then. And their kids reluctantly posed for photos with me. And I could feel, if not see, their eyeballs roll. Because on the back of Unpolished Gem, the blurb describes me as a writer and lawyer. So these parents were probably thinking this book was a manual on ‘how to make it’ for their kids, how to achieve the Great Australian Migrant Success Story. But as you know, the last third of the book details my mother’s depression, my nervous breakdown before my Year 12 exams, the death of my grandmother and the failure of my first relationship. The lack of a ‘clear, happy ending’ was deliberate, as was starting the book with the sentence ‘This story does not begin on a boat.’ Because I didn’t begin on a boat, and I wasn’t going to tell a story of success to justify being worthy of being Australian. 

Like my friend Randa Abdel-Fattah, who just wanted to first start writing a story about a girl who goes to school and who just happens to be Muslim Egyptian, I wanted to write about a girl growing up in the Western suburbs of Melbourne who just happens to be Chinese-Cambodian. Of course, no one just ‘happens’ to be a particular culture. Over the years, I’ve met many interesting Chinese from all over the world – Brazilian Chinese, American Chinese, South African Chinese, and adopted children who were from China but are now raised Jewish or Italian or in rural Iowa. I understand how culture shapes you as a person, and how it makes you interesting to outsiders. But the beauty of being inside your own skin is that each morning you go about living your life, not ‘performing’ Asianness. And the only times you perform Asianness are the times when you are up against people who don’t understand you, or who oppose you, or who fetishize you. So I sought to explore this in Unpolished Gem, and then also my first novel, Laurinda.

When I came to edit Growing Up Asian in Australia, I also wanted to approach it from the perspective of picking stories based on two considerations Amy Tan taught me when I first saw her at Melbourne Writers’ Festival almost 20 years ago. What is Story? And What is Voice? A piece, no matter how beautifully written, that is all just about ‘culture’ – for example, how a family goes out to yum cha during Chinese New Year and what ‘exotic’ dishes they order – is more instructive than story. You’re performing or teaching an audience that doesn’t know or understand about your culture. But in such a scene, what I’m most interested in is why everyone doesn’t eat until Grand Pa does; why no one is talking to Eldest Aunt, who is missing two fingers; why your mother is so snarky with cousin Melanie. That kind of writing has a heartbeat. A book I read recently, Pachinko, by Min JIn Lee, about a family of Christian Koreans in Japan, did this beautifully. 

You asked a very important question about being worried that your writing might be veering towards being ‘too Asian.’ I don’t think there is such a thing. What I do believe you are asking, though, is how do you ensure that your writing is not so culturally specific that it would be uninteresting or unintelligible or unrelatable to people outside of your own culture? I guess it depends if the story has a voice, and a heartbeat to it. For example, I read a book by Rohinton Mistry called A Fine Balance, about four disparate characters surviving the Emergency in India, and by the end of it, felt transformed. I often quote my friend Professor Cording, who is a Professor and poet, and who says this about poetry:

“I always tell my students that the first question they must answer when they write is: Why is the speaker of the poem speaking? If a poem is to be convincing, then the speaker of the poem must be convincing. The reader must feel that he/she is making contact with a real human being, not simply with arguments and opinions. If the poems feels like it has sifted and arranged received ideas, then it will fail. The poem has to feel, I think, as if there is a real person struggling with real experiences that will not yield some handy lesson, but nevertheless are not entirely without meaning. The voice that convinces will always be the voice of an individual who the reader experiences as an individual and not as a spokesperson for this or that idea.”

It is the same with prose, I think. I am writing to you about the technicalities of writing, Baopu, and not the political considerations, which is altogether a different matter. For a piece of writing to really work, and move, and transform, I think it has to transcend the ego, it has to transcend even culture or class or gender or religion. It can’t all be about capital ‘I’ issues. It must be about a true struggle, and true struggles do not often easily resolve themselves. 

This brings me to answer your question about what it was like to write Her Father’s Daughter, which was my most difficult book to write. It didn’t have the same voice as my first book, and I was attempting something more ambitious with it. I wrote it in third person because it was about my father and I didn’t want to write first person from his perspective because I didn’t presume that in my late twenties I had the voice of experience and wisdom as a man who was approaching sixty. But then because my dad was in third person, I couldn’t put myself in first person as the book would then read like my story, or a sequel to Unpolished Gem. I wanted both voices to have equal weight, and for the book to read like an unspoken dialogue between a father and a daughter. I had a Greek father come up to me shortly after the book came out, to tell me how much it meant that I understood his ‘crazy overprotectiveness’. That was when I knew I’d done something right. 

Your parents probably understand that you write in your own voice, Baopu, and so I don’t think they would feel you were ‘stealing’ their stories. I have two sons now, and I don’t think they could ever ‘steal’ anything from me because they are my children and everything I have is theirs anyway. But in the paraphrased words of Kahlil Gibran, my children are of me but they are not me. And the Torah says that we do not see things as they are, we see things as we are. My father knew that the character of him in my book was not the man he saw himself as, but the father I saw him as. Good on you for trying to understand your parents through your writing, and for trying to see from their perspective. You may never really reach what you are searching for, but you find other things along the way. Along the way, you may meet a stranger you’ll know as your future self. 

I am glad that you also write about the aesthetic merits of university architecture! And like another writer who I much admire, Nam Le, who also was the editor of his university magazine, Farrago, you will go on to write about so many, many things that are unrelated to your race or culture. After all, you don’t think about it 24/7. But when you do, it means you have something to work out, or something of interest to say about it. 

Don’t think about the great Hokusai Wave of Diasporic Asian Literature drowning out your voice! There is no great wave. It only appears that way because at last there is a lot more diverse representation of Asian-Western voices in popular culture/Arts/Media etc. Micheline Lee writes about disability, Jenny Han writes about love, Jenny Zhang writes about class disintegration, Alexander Chee writes about everything. And then there’s Mirandi Riwoe and Roanna Gonsalves and Merlinda Bobis, Ben and Michelle Law, Hoa Pham, Tom Cho and Rebecca Lim and Leanne Hall – so many great voices covering every genre imaginable. But perhaps that’s still not enough, if young writers still feel intimidated and worried that they are too Asian/not Asian enough. 

I am not sure this answers your questions but I’ll end on a personal note. In my published books, I have chosen to write from the perspective of an Asian protagonist because I know that voice well, and I like it, and I understand it; not because I need to represent this idea or that person, but because it’s a voice that’s the most complete and three-dimensional voice I can muster. It gives my characters their heartbeat. 

All my very best wishes,

Alice