5 Questions with Michele Lee
by Leah Jing
Michele Lee is an Asian-Australian playwright and theatre-maker working across stage and audio. Previous works include Going Down (STC and Malthouse Theatre), Rice (Queensland Theatre, Griffin Theatre Company), Off Centre (STC), The Naked Self (FOLA, Arts House) and Talon Salon (Next Wave Festival, You Are Here Festival, Darwin Festival).
What drew you to create Going Down?
The boring answer is that I was in a writing group at the Malthouse, and we were told to bring a concept to develop. The even more boring answer is that I can’t entirely remember! It was so many years ago.
Thinking back, I was really interested in Asian Australian identity then, this is going back five to ten years really. I was having that awakening that I think many people of colour have, at different times in their lives. Instead of running away from and resisting my sense of otherness, of not belonging, I was suddenly fascinated and intrigued by it, and the creative possibilities of it.
At the time, my book (which is revived as the memoir of Natalie in Going down) was somewhat a fresh memory. I had such a good time writing it – well, I lie. Editing and proofing your own manuscript is very boring! But I do recall that I had a real fire, a real burning to say something or do something different through the book. And then the sort of ‘meh’ response to it made me feel all sorts of things. One of them being “Why do people want me to talk about my family?” “Why don’t I get to be multi-faceted?” “Arghhhhhh!”
One of the premises for Going Down is a rivalry with 'an award-winning author of clichéd migrant stories', and a concern with ‘contradictions of Melburnian multiculturalism’.
Yup, Natalie is incensed that she gets sidelined in favour for narratives about good Asian children. I think that there is a spectrum of stories out there, and you can’t really weight them against each other. But the point of Natalie is to explore that rage, that anger of being boxed in, and when you don’t fit that box, where do you go?
Someone asked me recently about the changing face of diversity. Well, actually, I get asked about that a lot! Anyway, this particular question was around The Bachelorette, and why there aren’t Asian men on it. Because in our imagination, we’re still adjusting to Asian men being fuckable. Asian men can be visible and palatable and popular; they can win cooking shows but they don’t rate a mention on dating shows. That’s just one example on the contradictions. Yes it’s changing, yes people can pick out exceptions but for the most part there are still these narrow categories that people of colour perform within, and we don’t have authority over these categories. They’re constructed within a framework of whiteness.
What has been your favourite part of creating Going Down?
I love the collaborative nature of theatre. The creative team are fantastic, and the play is where it’s at because of the exceptional brains trust involved.
What have been some challenges along the way?
I had a lot of threads in the play to start with. It was a hot mess. I think there was great energy about that early material, and a lot of really compelling stuff (a scene with Natalie in a misty gay sauna at a hetero swingers’ night). It was challenging at times to wade around the big ocean of ideas and see what would stick. I generate a lot of content and I quickly become the non-expert on it.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It’s something that is different now than when I first began to work on Going down. I had a kid last year and my partner is a whitey. So I am now looking at my son, who looks pretty white, and wondering about how he’ll navigate the world.