5 Questions with Belinda Hermawan
Belinda Hermawan’s short fiction has been published by Pigeon Pages NYC, Flock, and Split Lip Magazine.
She is an alumnus of the Centre for Stories’ Indian Ocean Mentoring Project, Winter Tangerine’s ‘Sing That Love Dovesong’ workshop, and Parsons School of Design Summer School. Belinda runs Write Night and was formerly at Writing WA.
How did you become interested in writing?
Originally I figured it was purely a form of escapism, a fun way to be in a universe of my own where I could place characters in entertaining situations. It certainly beat the dryness of all the reading I was supposed to do for my Law degree. To be honest, my craft skills were lacking when I was at uni; I only ever took one creative writing unit as part of my Arts degree, under the incomparable Brenda Walker. While I had ideas and a sense of how to make the reader laugh, I wasn’t exactly writing breathtaking prose. Over time, I realised that writing was also a way of processing events or experiences that had happened in real life. I could redefine disappointments, explore the complexity of conflict, or try out a different pathway to my own. My short fiction is often driven by fury over disempowerment; a response to pain and discomfort, however temporary or permanent. My longer form projects – novels that are still being shopped around – primarily aim to entertain, but the skills to pull this off have been fostered by trying to master the short story. Writing is an essential part of my being now, and all my friends, family and colleagues have been very supportive.
Can you explain some highlights from your writing to date?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have had success with the short story quite quickly. Once I started sending out my short fiction in 2017, I notched up acceptances from Westerly and Going Down Swinging. After taking a short break to gain admission as a lawyer, I racked up another four acceptances from the United States in journals I really enjoyed reading. I’m not very good at stopping and reflecting because I’m so intent on reaching the next goal. When I think about it, being published by Split Lip Magazine led to some excellent connections, including meeting the right editors who understood my vision. ‘Bound’ was subsequently chosen as one of Entropy’s Best of 2018: Favorite Online Fiction & Short Stories alongside stories from Granta and The New Yorker. I was accepted in Winter Tangerine’s 2018 online summer workshop for writers of colour, which made me more comfortable in handling race and ethnicity in fiction. Being mentored by Laurie Steed in the last quarter of 2018, was instrumental in my growth. While I am yet to place many of these new stories, I was long-listed for Fremantle Press’s inaugural Fogarty Literary Award, so they can’t be too bad!
My short fiction is often driven by fury over disempowerment; a response to pain and discomfort, however temporary or permanent.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have around ten short stories that I need to refine and find homes for, whether in Australia or overseas. The process of submitting and waiting can be a hard slog. In moving the goal posts and aiming for higher tier journals overseas, I have too many rejections to count this year. But I can’t be a hypocrite: In April, I had an essay on the revision process published in Carve – that’s me, in print in the United States, detailing how I didn’t give up on the short story eventually published in Flock. So much of being a writer involves dealing with rejection and persisting to better the work. I write what I want to whilst also being realistic about the markets most suited to the work. I won’t apologise for writing stories set in America or the U.K., nor for trying to get published overseas. I can want that success and want my Australian stories – including my ‘Asian-Australian’ stories if I even need to define that subset – to be published as well. And perhaps I shouldn’t even isolate opportunity by nation, because if themes are universal enough, the story will resonate anyway. The long form is a slow burn in many ways process-wise. Querying American agents for my novel(s) has been an encouraging process over the last few years, even if the pace of the industry remains glacial. Perhaps the real answer to this question is that I’m working on my patience!
How does your writing think from Asian Australian perspectives?
I think there’s a consciousness in being ‘the other’, which can inform narration in interesting ways, regardless of the protagonist’s cultural background or the plot of the story. Seeing the status quo from an outsider’s perspective, or at least in the sense of being one step removed, allows you to interrogate a situation with an eye to picking up difference, hypocrisy, absurdity and so forth. Often it is these tensions or variances, and the incidents they incite, that make for compelling stories. I also seem to be preoccupied with language in many of my stories, whether English, Chinese or others. Verbal and written communication forms so much of human interaction and is in itself very nuanced: the construction of words and sentences, what is lost in translation, the names we give and take, the formalities and hierarchies we prescribe to, etc. This is fascinating especially in contrast, where characters navigate through different ‘worlds’ or at least face those who do. Conversely, silence and the absence of messaging, including not being able to say what you want to, in itself says a lot. I like the word ‘perspectives’ in this question: an editor shouldn’t think ‘I need an Asian story for this issue’ simply for the sake of it, but rather see the value in considering stories that highlight a different perspective. I’m against tokenism – it’ll only lead to ghettos in the literary landscape.
What do you hope you will achieve with your current writing project?
Through either the short or the longer form, I want to help people rediscover the joy of reading. I’m not claiming to be a trailblazer or anything, but I do want my projects to be something you’ll pick up, enjoy and hopefully remember afterward. We are in the time of streaming television; even I sometimes struggle to pick up a book or journal. Short stories don’t require too much commitment – they can take you somewhere in fifteen minutes. Reading a novel is the original ‘binge’. Stories can be well written, entertaining and teach you something about the world – these are not mutually exclusive attributes, but they’re often considered to be. Why? Probably because all too often what’s in bookstores or in journals is either ‘beautiful literary prose but nothing happens’ or ‘exciting plot but a Year 6 can write better than this’ (no offence to Year 6s!). It’s no wonder people say there are more aspiring writers than actual readers in Australia. The fact is, if we don’t embrace difference, we’ll end up with the same inputs into the same formulas, producing the same results. How interminably boring. The publishing industry at home seems increasingly risk adverse; way to double down on mediocrity. Is that too much of a hot take? Sorry, better some spice than none at all. But, humour is an essential element to my stories. I enjoy making people laugh, even in dark stories where the situation is not really funny at all. My recent work explores how even the most educated of people lack the ability to navigate their way out of a confronting situation – these characters need street smarts, not book smarts. Thematically I’m probably enjoying this far too much. It’s basically just like saying ‘Straight As and a fancy degree won’t always save you’ – try putting that on a bumper sticker for Asian-Australian parents!*
*I accept no liability for any vandalism to your parents’ Honda Odyssey or Toyota Tarago. Respect your elders. Polish that 888 numberplate until your ancestors can see their reflections in it.
I write what I want to whilst also being realistic about the markets most suited to the work.