A Conversation with Cher Tan
Interview by Leah Jing McIntosh
Cher Tan is a writer of Singaporean-Chinese descent in Kaurna Country (Adelaide). Writing mostly on tech, food, culture, identity and politics, she is particularly interested in the spaces between and how they operate within capitalist hyperrealities. Her work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Right Now, Roads and Kingdoms, VICE, Catapult, and Overland Literary Journal, amongst others.
We talked to Cher about the violence of labels, accessibility of the arts, and prioritising impact over intention.
Read Cher's short story, 'Number Fourteen'.
Can you tell us about your journey as a writer?
This may be a cliché, but I've been writing for as long as I can remember. As a child, I would fill my notebooks with fantastical stories about imaginary lands, and my adolescence involved multiple blogs, zines, and long, obnoxious diatribes on niche message boards. In 2007, a friend asked me to write music reviews and op-eds for their (now-defunct) street press magazine, which subsequently landed me a gig writing travel pieces about Singapore—where I lived at the time—for a related start-up.
I consider my piece 'On the Exceptionalism of the 'Good' Refugee', published in Overland literary magazine, to be when I really started to take writing seriously—I wasn't just churning out fluff pieces anymore. Overland gave me a shot despite me having zero cred and for that I am grateful. My favourite piece that I’ve written so far is 'Reading Underwater: Reckoning with Myself as a Woman of Colour Amid a White Literary World'. It's about me consciously making an effort to minimize reading writing by white men (pretty much my reading diet for a large part of my life), and arriving at self-actualization through reading writers of colour. I tend to steer away from the personal essay format as I find it hard to shine a spotlight on myself, but I found writing that felt crucial and very fulfilling.
As a writer, what are some challenges you have been presented with?
Writing, particularly freelance writing, can be a tricky terrain to navigate—for instance, how do you motivate yourself? How do you know when to switch off? How do you stay true to a professional self (i.e. producing substance over merely generating content) while struggling to be somewhat financially afloat? How do you juggle a day job and other life commitments while maintaining a steady amount of output? How do you continue to stay relevant in a hugely competitive, oversaturated digital writing field and also understand when to take a step back? The whole 'do what you love' ethos sounds fantastic on paper but it also comes with so much baggage that very few of us talk about. Pursuing your ‘passion’ and trying to make a mark within the creative fields is so contingent on the structures one is able to access; this is mediated on the various axes of one’s identity—class, race, ability, gender and so on. This is also compounded by the fact that having a sustainable career in the arts often revolves around a “winner takes all” economy—you're either making a ton of money or not much at all.
Your writing slides between genres and themes; from a review of Durga Chew-Bose’s debut essay collection, to a personal polemic on the limits of mental health services, to a non-fiction essay exploring privilege in Singapore, to journalistic reportage on police raids in Indonesia. How do you navigate these different modes of writing?
I spend a lot of time thinking about the politics of culture and identity, and how they intersect vis-à-vis our model of late-stage capitalism. I’m interested in how this guides popular opinion and forms our social ideas. For example, my article on yoshoku was also about questioning assumptions associated with notions of “authenticity” when it comes to food. Which is really interesting when you think about how food evolves through centuries of migration, assimilation, globalization…
I don’t see these genres as disparate from one another; in my mind they all end up relating to one another in some broad way. Ultimately, the threads that bind most of my work together comes down to notions of the self, society, queerness, movement, and how our relationships with contemporary technology work with these to inform possible futures.
In ‘Seeking Welcome While Australian’, you write: to centre oneself in a movement that aims to speak for all can be misguided, however well-intentioned its origins might be. When it comes to speaking for marginalized groups, speaking with is better advised. Do you have advice on how allies can make sure they speak with and not for? How can allies make space?
I think the word 'ally' comes with its own issues. Coming as someone who has the potential to both oppress and be oppressed, I find it’s difficult to frame 'ally' without referring to dichotomies where impulses surrounding power and purity come into play. Who can really call themselves an ally and not have that transmogrify into some sort of twisted, farcical performance? And when does this performance become a pissing contest? Am I a better ally than someone else?
But I always think that, in terms of a wider social justice praxis, impact should be prioritised over intention. Good intentions are useless if the end result ends up hurting someone. Seriously listen; the act is severely underrated. Amplify necessary voices even if it means having to be silent, share power and resources. And until we live in a truly equitable world, accept that we will all fuck up, and own up if you do. Learn to apologise and be accountable.
Can you speak to your experience moving to Australia? How have you found living in Adelaide, as a woman of colour?
So, I moved to Australia in 2012 to be with my partner. I won’t pretend that WOC experiences in both Adelaide and Australia are universal across the board, because they aren’t. But, speaking for myself here, existing in Adelaide as someone who looks visibly Southeast/East Asian—like in most major cities in Australia—can be simultaneously a non-event and also extremely exhausting. On one hand, it’s a non-event because I'm starting to see more and more people ‘like myself’, whether in creative spaces or in general everyday spaces, so I feel my presence is less and less of an anomaly or worth noting. But it’s exhausting because Adelaide is still so very behind in race relations compared to, say, Melbourne or Sydney (not to say that these cities are shining beacons of example, mind you). Educating on, holding space for, and rebuking whiteness can be terribly draining, particularly when you’re one of not very many who are doing so. I hope we can all meet in the middle one day and soon; somewhere between “colour-blindness” and absolute racism, and then work out the kinks from there.
I’m really interested in how you conceptualise or view the concept of ‘Australian culture’ as someone who is born overseas.
Well... I reckon it's the fuckin' best in the world ey! Yeah, nah. There's this deep sense of nationalism that pervades a lot of ‘Australian culture’—from your garden-variety right-wing patriot to the progressive liberal-values hipster who ironically riffs off bogan culture and only consumes local—the old fit in or fuck off mentality is strong in both overt and subtle ways. There's an impulse of loyalty that comes from being a huge island continent which doesn’t share any borders, and consequently that creates a kind of exceptionalism, but all of this rests very heavily on the White Australia imaginary and the ahistorical denial that largely precludes questions surrounding how 'we' got here and why. There's hardly any room for these kinds of interrogation in the great 'Australian culture' convo and it's disturbing.
How do you navigate being a freelance writer with your profession as a chef?
I like to joke that these professions are most suited to me because they operate within a surly solitude, and both require being both methodical and haphazard in the pursuit of a finished product. Jokes aside, I’m not very high-functioning due to mental illness, so I’ve only really managed to devote more time to writing consistently after quitting full-time chef work near the end of last year. Since then, I’ve been working in a less demanding kitchen on a casual basis, and this has been a great boon to my creative process. In terms of finance, I am poorer (and I say this as someone who freelances with no safety nets, so a sense of precarity is always looming in the background), but then my sense of self feels stronger.
To be completely honest, I haven’t found a clear way to navigate the two without viewing them as separate and distinct from one another. Both roles nourish and sustain me in different ways and they will probably never be fully reconciled—not to mention the distinct class systems both professions delicately straddle—but I think together they provide me with opportunities to constantly reassess my selfhood in relation to the world, which opens up a deep well of creative force and ammunition.
You also play in a band — how have you found the Adelaide music scene?
For a small city, Adelaide's music scene can be very segregated in terms of genre. It also often operates on its own, somewhat disconnected from the other major cities in the eastern states, which can lead to some very interesting results. Furthermore, the Adelaide music scene is very white; I can't keep track of the number of times I've been at a gig and have been one out of maybe a handful of POC in the space (and I'm being very generous here). This can sometimes result in a what are you doing here vibe, or people kind of over-enthusiastically trying to be your friend. Which obviously ends up becoming this sick ouroboros because how many self-respecting POC want to be subject to that? There's a space you inhabit as a POC within white-dominated subcultures that makes you both invisible and hyper-visible at the same time.
From 2014 to mid-2016 I fronted this punky black metal band Grimalkin which in itself was my way of trying to subvert that. I ended up developing a pissed off, malevolent persona which felt very cathartic: unloading a kind of anger normally only associated with and/or expected of white dudes (within heavy music at least) but never with Southeast/East Asian femmes. The fact that some white people think this is funny or entertaining tells you a lot about how Asian folk in general are seen, especially within the spheres of punk, metal, and rock. I’m currently in the process of starting a new band, which is three-quarters POC. We will begin to play shows later in the year.
Are there any Aussie POC bands we should be listening to?
I'm speaking strictly within the limits of punk, metal and rock here. High Tension, The Hard-Ons, Arafura, Offensive Behemoth, Divide and Dissolve, and Obat Batuk are some of my personal favs.
You’re our first interviewee from Adelaide. Where should we visit?
One of my favourite places in Adelaide is the linear trail that winds around the River Torrens from the back of the city through the western suburbs eventually arriving at the beach. The entire way is filled with beautiful gum trees and lends a certain tranquility, whether you're walking, cycling or running. I also like the Botanical Gardens (both in the city and high up near Mt. Lofty), Port Adelaide, and gallivanting around in the east end of town.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Read voraciously. Ideas and inspiration are sometimes where you least expect them to be. Writing is a muscle you can only keep flexing. Seek to be edited, not published; more visibility doesn't immediately equate to good work. Find and grow a support network of people who will lovingly criticise your writing, whether online or off. Don't take up space if it's not your story to tell, elevate someone else more suited instead. Aim high, then go through the process of elimination—you only owe it to yourself.
What are you inspired by?
Writing that touches on the complexities of existence, more specifically writing that delves into the liminal space between multi-latitudinal selves. As such, writers like Teju Cole, Durga Chew-Bose, Aria Dean, Jackie Wang, Hannah Black, Xen Nhà, Tony Tulathimutte, Rob Horning, and Helen Oyeyemi (to name a few) inspire me greatly.
What are you currently listening to?
The entire Twin Peaks soundtrack. Rough cuts of songs from my new band.
What are you currently reading?
How do you practice self-care?
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
These labels, singularly and together, feel so fraught with conflict for me. On one hand, the concept of ‘Asian-Australia’ so often puts people of East Asian descent front and centre, which ends up forming a backdrop for assimilation and “recognition”. This is especially significant as China's power becomes more apparent in the world, combined with the many ties it has forged, and is forging, with Australia. On the other hand, as Stephen Pham recently wrote, 'Asian-Australian' as an identity predicated on cultural practices and consumption doesn't necessarily translate from the politicised identity framework of 'Asian-American'. Borrowing from Asian-American experience is difficult because Asian America is 'inherently radical, developed alongside black liberation struggles.'
As someone who is a settler in both their home countries (Singapore has an overwhelming Chinese majority which has historically sought—and continue to seek—to displace and disenfranchise indigenous Malays and other non-Chinese, while colluding with western powers to maintain its prestige and wealth), these labels can't help but connote so much violence for me.
I find it difficult to claim them and not feel their weight.