A Conversation with Yen-Rong Wong
Interview by Baya Ou Yang
Yen-Rong Wong is a Brisbane-based writer and founding editor of Pencilled In. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Lifted Brow, Overland, The Quo, and more. She is currently working on a nonfiction manuscript that explores the impact of growing up Chinese and Christian on her attitudes towards sex, music and drugs.
We speak to Yen-Rong about writing memoir, the intersections of art & science, and creating Pencilled In magazine.
What made you want to pursue writing?
I’d wanted to be a scientist from the age of six, but after completing some mini research projects in a few labs, I figured out that a career in science wasn’t for me. So I changed degrees and studied English Literature alongside the rest of my science courses.
For a while I wanted to be an English literature academic—and it's still a goal of mine. But I didn't even know if I could be a writer, in the way that people who write novels and short story collections are writers. I'd written since I was young, but I didn't think I was any good. It didn't help that I lived in Brisbane either, because many of the initiatives for young writers are based in Melbourne. It wasn’t until after I interned for Brisbane Writers Festival in 2015 that I became inspired to give writing a real shot. I started a blog and reached out to some of the friends I'd made during the festival, and it blossomed from there. My big aha moment was when I wrote about the Shriver incident, and people were actually reading my work and responding to it positively. It was at that point where I started to think: Huh. Maybe I'm not half bad at this writing stuff.
If I push my imposter syndrome aside, I’d say that I do now consider myself a writer. An editor too! I'm still getting used to the label of ‘publisher’. I'd like to think that I'm always aspiring to be a better writer than I am now. There are plenty of other things I may aspire to be or do, but right now I don't have a concrete goal in mind. I'm trying to take it as it comes, to be open to new experiences and ideas. I suppose I'm always aspiring to be a better version of myself and you can't really ask more of someone than that.
How do you navigate your time, energy and interest between science and arts?
I'm still finding a way to balance it out. I got my job in a STEM graduate program because of my science degree and I'm using the money I earn from that to support my writing career and Pencilled In. When I get home from work, I have to switch modes. It can be stressful, but it's no different than working and studying full-time, which I've done for the past three years.
As a rule, I don’t like to think of the sciences and the arts as separate entities, and because I don’t think of them in that way, they’re able to work together in my life—I’m able to be analytical and creative depending on the circumstances I’m in and what a given situation calls for. I’ve started to see STEM fields increasingly embrace creativity, and vice-versa, which is encouraging. Even so, I think that if you’re interested in both fields, you shouldn’t confine yourself to one. Doing so is extremely limiting and potentially harmful.
Personally, I've always seen science and arts as fundamentally driven by patterns—identifying them, analysing them or subverting them to create something new. I love that no matter which field I’m involved in, I’m always learning something new about myself— whether it be about my place in the universe, how I approach and interact with language, or the ways in which my cells manage to execute their particular roles.
You’ve written, 'Being a writer of Asian descent in Australia is not ‘hard’, but it comes with different and added obstacles.' Can you elaborate on the obstacles you have faced which make the experience of being an Asian-Australian writer both hard and not hard?
A lot of the obstacles I’ve faced haven’t necessarily made being an Asian-Australian writer any ‘harder’. It’s just made it different. There are thoughts that always run through my head when one of my pitches is accepted, or when I’m invited to speak at an event—I often wonder whether I’ve been asked to do this because I’ll bring ‘diversity’ to the table, and sometimes this means making professional decisions more complex. I’m happy to contribute if the organisation aligns with my values, but I do sometimes have to wonder if I’m being used as a way of saying: “Hey look, we have a non-white person too!” There’s also the concern that people will take what I write or say out of context, and use it as a basis to blame or judge ‘Asians’, or ‘migrant children’, or whatever category they want to lump me into.
It can also be very demoralising to know that “Asian people are doctors and lawyers, not artists” is still a prevailing stereotype. I think this mindset is starting to change, but the first thing many people tend to ask me when talking about careers is: “Oh, did you study medicine?” I mean, my parents did want me to study medicine, and weren’t keen on me doing an Arts degree, but that’s really not anyone else’s business.
In saying that, though, there’s societal disapproval foisted upon embarking on a career in the arts in general. The difference in a family like mine is that the concept of filial piety runs deep. It’s an intangible, almost unexplainable sense of duty that makes letting down your family seems worse than doing what you think or know is right for yourself.
You have written about these personal themes of your upbringing and your relationship with your parents—in particular, how recognising your mental illness and seeking your own independence has impacted your familial relationships. Have you achieved the independence you were looking for?
Like all relationships, it's a work in progress. Physical distance has helped, and so has time. I’ve accepted that my parents won’t ever accept that I have depression, so there’s no point in continually dwelling on it. I’m definitely happy with the level of independence I have now. I live on my own (with my cat), and I get to go where I want, when I want. It sounds silly, but I wouldn’t have that kind of freedom if I still lived with my parents. I’m working on re-bridging the distance I had to put between us, but moving out and becoming independent on my own terms was the best thing I could have ever done for myself.
What was the catalyst for creating Pencilled In?
I had been frustrated for a while that there wasn't anything like Express Media up here in Brisbane for young writers, and I had always been toying with the idea of creating some sort of collective. In my last semester of my undergraduate degree, I was doing a self-guided research project as part of my English literature degree and decided I wanted to do it on a novel by an Asian-Australian author. So I went and did a whole bunch of research, got some names, marched into Dymocks – and was shocked to find that none of the authors I’d found had books on their shelves.
I thought to myself: Surely it shouldn’t be this hard to find work by Asian-Australians. I know a lot of young Asian-Australian writers and artists—wouldn’t it be cool to do something together, to get a community going? I sat back on this idea while I finished my Honours year—but the first thing I did after submitting my thesis was buying the domain name for Pencilled In.
What can we look forward to from Pencilled In this year?
We’re currently preparing to release Issue #2, themed The Suburbs. I wanted this edition to be a snapshot of life in Australia written by Asian-Australians, without diminishing it to 'this is the Asian-Australian experience'. We've got a bit more nonfiction this issue but that's to be expected considering the theme. We have visual art from Max Nie, poetry from Sumudu Samarawickrama and Jessica Yu, fiction from JZ Ting, nonfiction from Stephanie Lai and Ann Dinh, and much more. We're having a launch in Adelaide as part of OzAsia Festival, as well as one in Brisbane.
It's frightening that there's not much of the year left. I want more people engaging with the work we are doing, and to reach Asian-Australian writers and artists that haven’t heard of us before. I've been thinking about starting a book club, but I'm still trying to figure out the logistics of doing it nationwide. There’s also #ReadAsianOz, a ‘books on the train’ program focused on promoting books by Asian-Australian authors, which I want to focus on a little more as well. It’s all about supporting emerging and established Asian-Australian artists, and creating a vibrant sense of community. I hope I can play a role in making that happen.
What other projects are you currently working on?
I’ve started working on a nonfiction manuscript—I don’t know if it’s going to be memoir or creative nonfiction, or maybe a combination of the two. I’ve put it aside for the moment because I’ve just started a new job and I’ve been spending a lot of time making sure the next issue of Pencilled In is released on time.
The idea for the manuscript came about because I kept thinking my life was really boring. I’ve never done recreational drugs and I don’t intend to, I don’t go out drinking very often, I often listen to classical music of my own volition, and my ideal night is a good meal at a nice restaurant on my own or at home.
But I also came to realise that the reasons behind all of my ‘quirks’ and my attitudes towards drugs, sex and music have been strongly influenced by a combination of my Chinese and Christian upbringing. Sure, there is an overlap between the two, but I feel like the narrative of Christianity in Australia is dominated by white people. I want to delve deeper into the intersection of Chineseness and Christianity, within both myself and the wider community. I’d like to talk about the ways in which being brought up Christian (as opposed to having found the faith on my own terms) has affected the way I saw the world as a child and the way in which I still live my life, even though I now consider myself agnostic. Finally, I’d also like to explore and highlight the bigotry that exists in these communities—bigotry I’ve seen firsthand.
I’ve also got a couple of projects coming up in various writers’ festivals around Australia. For Brisbane Writers Festival, I'm on a panel with Julie Koh and Melanie Cheng, hosted by Benjamin Law. I’m also doing National Young Writers Festival and OzAsia Festival. It’s my first time attending either of these two festivals, so I’m really excited. I hadn’t heard of OzAsia until earlier this year and now I can’t believe I didn’t know about it earlier! Along with an Issue #2 launch party, Rachel Ang and I are talking to Julie Koh on a panel about what it's currently like to be Asian in Australia, ten years on from Growing Up Asian in Australia.
What would you like to say to the writers coming to your panels?
I hope the writers who come to these panels see that all of us creatives are in the same boat—but I want white people in the creative industries (and especially white men) to see and understand that it is harder for people who are not them. For young or emerging Asian-Australian writers, I want them to learn that it’s tough out there but it’s doable—and that there are plenty of amazing people who will have their backs. It can be discouraging to go to writers’ festivals because the audiences tend to be mainly white, middle-aged, and middle-class, but I’m glad the tide is changing (albeit slowly).
Do you ever feel pressured to write or talk about your racial or cultural identity? How do you navigate the line between writing about your own experiences and becoming a spokesperson for collective experience?
The first time I was explicitly asked to write about my experiences as an Asian-Australian writer, I freaked out because I thought I was going to be pigeonholed into writing about that forever. I rush-emailed Benjamin Law my concerns and he told me that I was going to be pigeonholed anyway, so I may as well choose what I want to be pigeonholed into. It's advice I've been trying to take on board. I'm also trying to be less afraid of everything—of failure, of being misrepresented, of getting abused on social media by people who haven’t read my work properly. I'm not doing anyone any good by being paralysed with fear, least of all myself.
A lot of my recent work has been memoir-based, so it would be easy for people to extrapolate my experiences and apply them with a broad brush. I don't claim to speak for all Asian people, all Asian-Australian people or all Asian people of the diaspora—I can't. I am always very cognisant that I am only one voice out of many when it comes to the Asian-Australian experience, and I try to make that as clear as possible. I know that East Asians are overrepresented when it comes to discussions of Asian-Australianness, so it’s about using my position to help amplify other voices. It feels weird to be in this position of relative power, so I’m still trying to figure out how best to navigate it all.
In an article for Catalogue Magazine, you state: 'I am Australian through and through'. What does this statement mean to you and your understanding of the Australian identity?
In the article I was discussing the repercussions of the changes to citizenship, and in that very factual sense I am Australian through and through. I have an Australian birth certificate, an Australian passport. That’s what I have in mind when whenever I state: I'm Australian.
For me, there's a difference between being Australian and feeling Australian. I am Australian because all of my paperwork says so. But sometimes I don't feel Australian because I get racially vilified by someone I don't know, or people try to tell me I can't speak English. The Australian identity, in my opinion, is deeply troubled. It's troubled by our inability to properly reconcile the atrocities we have committed (and continue to commit) against our Indigenous peoples, and to those we see as different. It would be easy for me to thrust off that label of ‘Australian’ and claim that I don’t have any relation to it, but the fact that I’m able to live and learn on this land means that I too am complicit in everything that has happened here in the past. I think that’s more important than a national food, or Don Bradman’s batting score, or trying to figure out that makes ‘Australian values’ different from those of common human decency.
I spent a good chunk of last year researching the effects of nationalism. I can see why a sense of national identity is helpful, but there always seems to come a point where that national identity is weaponised. This has become increasingly clear in Australia, because we can’t actually pinpoint what constitutes the Australian identity, other than the fact that we don’t like anyone we consider to be ‘Other’.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
I always feel weird giving advice because I don't feel as if I'm qualified! So I'm going to approach this question by providing the advice I would give to my younger self:
Read. Read outside your comfort zone, read writers you've never heard of, read translated books. Find like-minded people and make friends within the writing circle. They will be invaluable. I wouldn't be where I am today without the incredible women (and the occasional man) who have helped me along the way. And don't be scared. Put yourself out there because you never know what might come your way.
Who are you inspired by?
What are you currently listening to?
Richard Fidler's Conversations podcast, Passenger's new album The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and my classical music playlist, which includes Tchaikovsky, Telemann, Schubert, Borodin, Bach, Smetana, Grieg, and Vaughan Williams.
What are you currently reading?
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, and Life From Elsewhere: Journeys through World Literature—a collection of translated stories from writers around the world, introduced by Amit Chaudhuri.
How do you practice self-care?
I'm still pretty bad at self-care, but a lot of it involves allowing myself to step back from wanting to do 500 things at once and reminding myself that the world won't fall apart around me if I don't say yes to every opportunity I come across. This often means I end up watching a lot of TV or British comedy-news-panel-quiz shows on YouTube even though I've seen them at least four or five times already.
I also try to make time for self-reflection—to stop and just be still for a couple of minutes. I'm always so busy looking ahead to the next event or deadline, it's difficult for me to stop and see how far I've come and how much I've achieved. And letting myself do that without feeling self-conscious or being self-deprecating.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means champagne on New Year’s Day and red envelopes on Chinese New Year; peanut butter and kaya sandwiches; switching between Mandarin and English while on the phone to my parents; eating congee with Vegemite when I'm sick. It means qipaos next to Cue dresses in my wardrobe—and seeing qipaos at vintage shops and wanting to rescue them from being victims of cultural appropriation. It means hybridity, in the best and worst possible ways. It means learning to adapt to and twist around stereotypes.
Most of all, it means grappling with the hyphen in ‘Asian-Australian’—if it is necessary, what it means and whether it enhances or minimises our identities as both Asian and Australian. It means taking that confusion and discomfort, and turning it into something useful and productive.