A Conversation with Michelle Law
Michelle Law is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, theatre and film and TV. She is the co-author of the comedy book Sh*t Asian Mothers Say, and her writing has appeared in numerous books as well as publications including Frankie magazine, Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Life and Junkee. Her debut play Single Asian Female was staged at La Boite Theatre Company in 2017.
We talked to Michelle about daring to be seen, making sense of the world through writing, and animal-themed Korean beauty masks.
Read her piece, 'Life as a Straight White Male' here.
You're an essayist, screenwriter, and now, playwright — when did you know you wanted to pursue writing? What have some of the challenges been?
When I left school I wanted to be an actor, writer and visual artist but I chose writing because it seemed like a way to consolidate all of my interests; writing and narrative is so often the starting point for other forms of art. I thought about pursuing writing for a couple of reasons. In Year 12, I’d received a lot of encouragement from my English teacher, and right after I graduated I had my first piece published in Growing up Asian in Australia. My brother had also done a writing degree before me, so it felt like a path I could realistically follow. I think the biggest challenge has been coming to understand my own limits. I’m a perfectionist and a workaholic and that’s a problematic combination when you’re a writer because nothing is ever perfect, especially when it comes to writing, and freelance writers don’t get holidays or weekends. So I’ve had to learn to let go, learn to say no, and learn to give myself proper breaks.
Your writing is often quite personal, containing elements of memoir and autobiography; how do you navigate the act of self-disclosure in your writing?
Writing about the personal comes naturally to me because it’s a way for me to make sense of the world and my experiences. I’d be quite lost without it. Generally, if something I’ve written makes me feel uncomfortable in my gut, I know instinctively that I’m not ready to write about that yet and don’t include it in my work.
How did you come to use comedy as a tool to unpack difficult topics, such as identity, race and gender?
I think I’ve always used comedy as a way to cope with difficulties in my life. I get that from my family; we’ve all been through some incredibly hard things but we always manage to laugh about it together and bounce back. There’s a lot about the state of the world that angers me and I find comedy the most constructive and fulfilling way of addressing that anger because you’re making people laugh—so you’ve got them on your side—but you’re also making them seriously reflect on the issue you’re highlighting. In most cases, if you make someone laugh they’re more likely to listen to you than if you’re ranting at them.
You've said before that 'to be a young, Asian woman living in Australia is inherently political and that infiltrates my work'. Can you speak more to this? How does the political enter your work?
On a daily basis, I’ll often be in a room where I am the only young person, or the only woman, or most commonly, the only coloured person, and that can be quite intimidating. It takes nerve or in my case probably just blind confidence (!) to be in those spaces. Deep down, I’ve always felt I’ve had a right to a platform and I try to assert my voice for younger people of similar backgrounds so they feel like they have a place. You can’t be what you can’t see. When it comes to my work, it’s so much of who I am, or heavily influenced by my lived experience as a minority, so to be sharing those stories in a public way is inherently political because it’s someone daring to be seen—against some people’s wishes, and against all of the discrimination you internalise as a woman or someone from a non-white background in this country—and daring others to question your presence.
What was your experience of Asian-Australian representation in media when you were growing up? How have you witnessed things changing/shifting?
Not great! The key Asian-Australian figures I remember were Lee Lin Chin, Dr Cindy Pan, Quan Yeomans from Regurgitator, and maybe a handful of Asian actors in commercials. But things are definitely changing; you’ve got shows like Lawrence Leung’s Maximum Choppage, Ronny Chieng’s International Student and my brother Ben Law’s The Family Law, celebrity chefs like Poh Ling Yeow and Adam Liaw, and musicians like Dami Im, Jessica Mauboy and Guy Sebastian. In theatre, especially this year, there are many more Asian stories taking place on the mainstage. I feel like we’re on the cusp of some big shifts, especially with China’s global influence; the next several decades will be interesting.
The centering of non-white characters as protagonists—and not as token sidekicks—in Australian cultural output on screen and stage is still so rare. How do we (re)address the cultural homogeneity of the images and the stories we see in the media?
I think on a social level we need to stop regarding white/Anglo as neutral rather than a race in itself. And we need to stop regarding being white/Anglo as aspirational. I don’t have definitive answers for how those things will change, but issues of underrepresentation affect every level of a production, from who’s behind the scenes to who’s in front of the camera. Productions and companies need to constantly be considering: Who are the people in charge? Whose voices are being heard here and why? And then beyond that, when you do diversify your team, there’s no great need to draw attention to it. We’re trying to work towards a point where representation shouldn’t have to be a talking point. You shouldn’t be trying to tick boxes; just aim to tell interesting and unheard human stories.
Single Asian Female was actually inspired by a blog that I used to keep of the same name. The blog was a writing exercise for me when I finished uni because it made me accountable to deadlines. In it, I just wrote about my everyday experiences of being me, which was a single, Asian woman living in Australia. I realised the idea had legs as a play when I started considering what it means to be a single, Asian woman at different stages of your life, but I would have never thought about writing a play in the first place if it hadn’t been for Lotus. I’d always loved theatre and was interested in playwriting, but I never looked into it because there didn’t seem to be many inroads. Most options were very expensive or asked for playwriting experience as a requisite. When I heard about Lotus, I thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I remember turning up to that first day, in the very first stages of the workshop and seeing dozens of other Asian-Australian writers in the room, and we all collectively had this moment of, Where have you all been hiding?!
Theatre has the perception of being 'elitist', or for being an art form that predominantly caters to a white, middle-class audience, and there's a common perception that for non-Anglo or migrant and CALD audiences, theatre isn't 'for them'. How can we shift the stories being told on our stages, and the audiences who see them?
Theatre companies can shift the balance through their programming and through fostering the voices of emerging CALD writers. The audiences will follow. I was completely blown away by the response to Single Asian Female—we sold out most of our season—and I got to meet so many people from CALD backgrounds who had never seen theatre or rarely went to see theatre. I saw Chinese grandmothers in the audience—that never happens! People had brought their families and dragged their friends along because it was so huge for them seeing some semblance of their life represented on stage; they’d simply seen marketing for the show and were amazed that there was a story about Asian-Australians. They finally felt like there was a show about them and for them.
We're super excited for Homecoming Queens! Can you tell us anything about this new webseries?
Homecoming Queens is a seven-part web series co-created and co-written by myself and my friend Chloë Reeson. It’s semi-autobiographical and the characters and stories are based on our own lives and our experiences of being chronically ill twenty-somethings. (Chloë was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early twenties and I have an autoimmune disease called alopecia areata.) It’s about the expectations surrounding youth, i.e. being young and fun and taking risks, and how when you’re a chronically ill young person that narrative is dismantled and you are left to find your own way. There have been some exciting developments for the show so stay tuned!
I’ll be taking part in several panels, having a wander about at the networking events, and generally being a friendly face around the festival for people to approach for advice and chats. I’ll also be gushing over the other ambassadors.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Do a lot of independent reading, by which I mean, find writers whose work speaks to you without external pressures dictating what is 'significant' or 'worthy'. When I studied writing I was taught predominantly male writers—very white and serious and lofty—and so I thought that emulating that tone and voice made you literary. I was also taught mostly Western writers and Western constructions of story, so it wasn’t until I started self-educating by reading more female writers and POC writers that my world truly expanded and I found my voice.
What are you currently listening to?
A Disney hits playlist on Spotify. It’s non-stop bangers. So that, the Hamilton soundtrack, lots of noughties RnB and pop, and some Cat Power.
What are you currently reading?
How do you practice self-care?
I have a list of things I do, from exercising, to eating comfort food, to buying animal-themed Korean beauty masks. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of trashy TV and surprise gay marriage proposals on YouTube. Everyone’s so happy. It’s very cathartic.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
So many things! It can mean sharing silly and offensive private jokes with my family and friends. Or it can mean drinking my mum’s herb soups and feeling nourished afterwards. Or it’s the thrill of feeling Cantonese naturally roll off the tip of my tongue. The older I get, the more it feels like being part of a community of like-minded people whose common experiences are comforting and validating.