A Conversation with Jessica Yu
Interview by Leah Jing.
Jessica Yu is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. She was selected as one of Melbourne Writers Festival’s 30 under 30 in 2015. Her writing has been published in The Best Australian Poems, Overland, Cordite, The Saturday Paper and more. She has received a ROSL Arts Scholarship to present her writings with Edinburgh Art Festival 2017. She is writing her first novel.
Leah talked to Jessica about faith and doubt, reclaiming one's racial identity, and her novel in progress.
When did you first start writing? How has it led to your current writing practice?
Around the age of eight years old, I began the spiritual practice of closely reading bible passages in my bedroom, using my Bible Study Fellowship 'homework' as structure. I was reading the gospel of Matthew alongside the other children in my class and discussing it with my mum and dad at the dinner table. Around this same time, I had began to write poetry and one day I typed out a poem instinctually at the family computer. The poem was a four stanza poem with an easy rhyming scheme about different aspects of who God was to me as Shepherd, Father, Saviour and Friend. I remember attending church a few weeks later and was surprised and embarrassed to see my poem included in the church bulletin amongst the notices and sermon titles. The following week I received my first letter in the mail: it was a card with a message enclosed from an elderly lady named Elaine. She wrote that she had enjoyed my poem. Her name and address was printed onto a gold sticker which covered the corner of the envelope flap. I liked Elaine with her warm hands, fat pearl necklace and yearly Christmas pudding wrapped in cloth cut with pinking shears. While I don’t often write explicitly about my faith in my fiction, the question of what it means to have integrity, purpose and honesty and also playfulness, irreverence, rigorousness as a fiction writer of faith persist.
What does your creative practice entail?
Recently, I’ve found that I have my best ideas while I’m at my desk. For example, I really love swimming as a way of stretching out my body which is so often strained by sitting at my desk or hunched over a pile of books. When I swim in the sea or in the local pool, I always feel the beauty and interestingness of small things around me: a bobby pin rusting on the floor of the pool, the way the light forms concentric rings on the water, bright green moss on the rocks. I tend to come away from swimming, with some new lines of poetry and a solution to the problem in my thesis to boot. It’s the same with other things like walking in the park, watching a movie, doing groceries at Footscray market or getting a good night’s sleep. So my creative practice begins with doing things that don’t initially seem very creative at all.
As a writer, what are some challenges you have been presented with?
I think most writers are crippled by doubt. Rebecca Solnit says that this same doubt can lead to self-reflection and the ability to check yourself but it can also lead to paralysis. Often this doubt leads to a kind of stuckness and an inability to problem solve. I’ve lately found that when I’ve had trouble writing my novel, reading some really good fiction and enjoying it but also tracing the ways they’ve solved the same problems I’m facing helps me. And it’s the same with my academic work: essays and really creative academic writing leads me to new possibilities and solutions.
One of your previous projects, Betanarratives, was an interactive site made specifically for online consumption. Can you explain this project to us—how did you come up with the concept?
I felt that e-books were a way of telling stories by blending an old technology (books) with a new one (devices). It occurred to me that the way e-books adhere to traditional book formats using a relatively new technology was in some ways, wasteful. An e-book lacks the sensory experience of smelling book pages and seeing food stains and bookmarks on a borrowed book but it doesn’t add anything that a book doesn’t have. I thought of Betanarratives as a way of continuing to tell stories whilst fully utilizing a new technology: internet, screens etc. The way I saw it, if Betanarratives didn’t have the tactile experience of holding a book, it had some things that a book didn’t: film, gameplay, music, animation and illustration... I was also interested in, and still am interested in the complex and interesting experiment of cross-disciplinary collaboration. It was good that as a team we had to find new ways of speaking the languages we had learnt within our own disciplines and learn new things about other disciplines.
What are you currently working on?
My novel manuscript, But the Girl is both bildungsroman and sprawling family story, focalised through the sensitive gaze of its narrator and protagonist, Mira. In this novel, we meet Mira at the age of eight and follow her story as she moves through that liminal space we call girlhood, closely watching those around her. Mira’s girlhood is made both rich and claustrophobic by her closeness to her Malaysian-Chinese family as she on one hand, struggles to forge her own identity and on the other hand, is persistently drawn back to her family and memories of her family. In a sense it’s both bildungsroman and anti-bildungsroman, a story in which growing up and self-actualisation and differentiation are both important yet flouted.
I did my first reading of an excerpt from my manuscript in Edinburgh at Rhubaba gallery for the Edinburgh Art Festival. Apart from that I haven’t published or read any other excerpts from it.
You’re currently completing a creative writing PhD at Melbourne University. What are you researching?
I’m writing a novel alongside an academic/creative dissertation about hypervisible raced bodies and invisible wounds. My areas of interest include: identity politics, postcolonial feminism, affective hermeneutics and Asian-American studies. I’m discussing the way racial encounters and racial discourse centers around the body, particularly the Asian body. I’m updating old tropes, formed using the Asian body as evidence for them and discussing tropes more common to our current climate alongside recently published novels and short fiction.
bell hooks writes in “choosing the margin” that within these violent spaces, marginalized groups are able to make creative space where we can resist in order to exist. Linda Hutcheon writes that those at the margins are able to resist even while remaining in the purvey of the centre. It’s difficult but also hopeful and that’s crucial: learning how to survive bitter things in such a way that doesn’t drain you of your creative energy and excitement.
You teach an undergraduate short story class—what constitutes a good short story? Who are your favourite short story writers?
My favourite short story writers are Marjorie Banard, Nam Le, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Jenny Zhang, Alice Munro, Julie Koh.
There are so many different approaches to writing a good short story; it’s difficult to pin down just a few. I’d say the obvious advantage of short stories is the totalitarian control you have over those few words in comparison with what Zadie Smith calls ‘the baggy novel.’
In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Zadie Smith notes that 'In an ideal world, you have a political life and an intimate life and they don’t have to be involved too much with each other. But when times are hard, there’s no separation. Everything you do in your life is political and has to be thought about in that way.' Do you find a similar interplay between your political and intimate/writing life?
Yes, I read and write political, sociological, fictional and academic material to understand the lives of other people and my own life. I do require my politics to accommodate the messiness, ambiguity and ambivalent spaces of my personal, emotional and real lived experiences. I saw Zadie Smith at Edinburgh Book Festival and she coyly described herself as 'not a political person,' saying that she thinks her fiction and mind are too ambivalent for this. I think she is a political person and what she is saying is similar to what I trying to say: politics are personal and because of this they are complicated but that in this unwieldy space, politics are most rich.
You’re also a poet. What drew you to poetry? Can you remember your first published poem?
I think my first real poem was called Excess of Elv_s _mpersonators. It won the Taronga Prize for Poetry for Victoria when I was 14-15.. The judges called up my parents while I was at school to ask if I had terrible spelling or some other mysterious reason for removing every “I” from the poem. I think the way I was playing with words in that poem seems, now, very on the nose: “take out all the “I”’s because it’s a poem about falling in love with an Elvis Impersonator!” But I think it shows what drew me to poetry, the opportunity to be playful and, for me, very natural. I always feel like poetry is the most native of all the forms to me, it traces the lines of my thoughts and breaths in a very intimate and easy way.
You were named an Asian-Australian writer to look out for in 2018 on SBS online. How do you navigate your racial identity and your writing identity?
Increasingly, I have found it impossible to not write in a way that expresses the complexities of my racial identity. Of course, the obvious danger of this is that racism operates to condition people to see me through the flat lens of ‘Asian’ and the lazy, contradictory tropes associated with this: nerd, lame, automaton, career woman, oversexed, fragile, frigid, cold, emotionless, serious etc. etc. However, I think counteracting this dehumanising thinking with deeply tender, rigorous, humanising fiction and essayistic writing is the best way to reclaim my racial identity from the white gaze.
Which Australian poets should we be reading?
Omar Sakr, Kevin Brophy, Bella Li.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Cultivate self-awareness of your strong and weaker points as a writer by having your work read by people whose judgement can be trusted. Pitch and submit to publications which you like reading even if you think these editors will have no interest whatsoever in you or your work.
Who are you inspired by?
My parents. They taught me to not give up, worry or be too easy on myself. I’m still working on those things but those kinds of basic life lessons were modeled for me and spoken over me from a young age. It was the greatest privilege possible to be born into a loving, honest and family of strong people
What are you currently listening to?
I’m ambivalent about Taylor Swift since her new album but I really like her early albums and PR image; the whole control freak vs. girl next door narrative is fascinating to me. I think she’s a really amazing lyricist of teenage experiences, though. I’ve become really interested in watching early YouTube videos of Justin Bieber singing ‘Baby,’ what a simulation of adolescent sincerity? I basically like any music that captivates thirteen year-old girls. I also like bands that I think less about like LANY, Bleachers and The Raveonettes.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Private Citizens by Tony Tulathymutte. I’m reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose at the moment and it’s really very good.
How do you practice self-care?
Spritiual practices like prayer and biblical exegesis are really very important to me. I also feel really happy when I’m with friends and church community and playing Take 2 with my husband.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
I’m interested in decolonization of the self and making myself aware of the ways in which dominant cultural norms (i.e. White culture norms) are sort of invisible and accepted. I find it important to be interlocked in a tussle to maintain Chinese identity. So it’s being engaged in a fight you’d prefer not to have to think about. For me, it’s important to undo the internalization of racism and to find flexible strategies for engaging in a dominant culture that does see you as less than human. Adapting familial and cultural traditions and patterns to my life are an important aspect of this for me.
Liminal is a proud recipient of the Victorian Government’s 2017 VicArts grants program.
This interview was supported by Creative Victoria.