A Conversation with Jay Anderson
By Robert Wood
Boundless caught up to talk to Jay about grandparents, racism, the hope of writing, lifelong friends, and Grindr.
We know each other as writers and we connect through that, sending each other work, talking at events together, and keeping in touch at The Centre for Stories. Both of us come from white-Asian households, and, I think there is some affinity to how we look at the world because of our mixed heritage. So let me start by asking about your parents. Who are they and where have they come from to end up here?
My mother was born in Germany, while my Anglo-Australian grandmother and English grandfather were living in Heidelberg – she would be the first of three that Dian and Barry would raise after they returned to Australia six months later. My father was born here, in Perth – the third of six children for Syvlia and Regla, who emigrated from Myanmar. I mention my grandparents because that’s, in part, where my parents came from—literally and otherwise. Each of them had a lot to overcome in their own right. Barry left Birmingham, and a problematic relationship with his own father—from what I’ve been able to gather. Dian’s mother died when she was a girl, and when she was in her 20s she travelled to America on her own to meet Barry—every now and again she will slip one of her memories from her many adventures into the conversation.
Once when I mentioned the coming new year she told me of the year she was in New York watching the Ball Drop in Times Square; on another occasion she told me of her trip to the Swiss Alps to ski. Of course, Sylvia and Regla faced an array of challenges as emigrants in Australia—none of which they have ever mentioned, only their gratitude for the opportunities that they and their children were afforded in this country. There’s much more, but this is what has floated to the surface. My parents gained a great deal from their parents—as I have, in turn, from them.
Raised in Catholic households, each of my parents attended St Norbert College—which is where they met and became friends. It wasn’t until a few years after graduating that they got together, after my mum called off a previous engagement. But, their here is Kalgoorlie, a mining town in the Goldfields east of Perth. When I was seven they decided to move our family there. This was to give my four siblings and I a better life. Now that I’m capable of reflecting on what this meant, I am deeply grateful for this. Children will never comprehend the sacrifices that their parents have made for them, but it’s important that they try to.
If that is a little bit about where you have come from, talk to us about your own childhood. This was in Kalgoorlie where there is a real mix of people but with a mining culture and a dominant white hegemony. What do you remember from growing up?
I remember spending a lot of time outdoors, attending mass at Church, studying, working, partying – nothing un-ordinary or extraordinary. But when I reflect on my childhood and adolescence there, I distinctly recall the specific challenges of being mixed, coming to understand my sexuality, as well as the friendships I made there. This is probably best illustrated through specific experiences.
When I was in primary school, I remember telling my friends why I had darker skin than them and, after that, they constantly made associations through my Asian-ness. That’s why you’re good at maths, that’s why you’re so quiet. Things that they had never noticed before, suddenly occurred to them—yes, a see a slant in your eyes, but, if you’re Asian, why can’t you use chopsticks? '
Over the years there it became apparent that the LGBTI+ community was tolerated at best, and at worst, actively discriminated against. During my Catholic schooling I was taught that gay men were an affront to God, while gay slurs were employed against me and other effeminate boys by my peers. So I learnt to hate myself before I knew myself and developed suicidal ideations – like many LGBTI+ youth in Australia (lesbian, gay, and bisexual people aged 16 and over are six times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts compared to the general population, while transgender people 18 and over are 18 times more likely, and people aged 16 and over with an intersex variation are five times more likely).
I overcame that, but shortly after I came out I heard about two boys I’d gone to high school with who had been seen together at a pub, followed out as they left, and bashed as they walked home. I also distinctly remember coming out to my friends. To Shelby, James, Savannah and Josie – the first handful. Each of them, in their own way, were a part of ensuring that I could be here today, and I am still friends with all of them.
Each of them, in their own way, were a part of ensuring that I could be here today,
That is definitely an aspect of the social structure that needs to become safer, but it also speaks to how identity is multifaceted too; that a person is never one thing or alone; that we are complex and social. I think being mixed race is often about developing the ability to think of two things at once. This includes being proud of being Burmese, perhaps, but also about learning from both those cultures to become your own person who can speak across languages, who can translate for other people. Can you talk about being a bridge and how writing can bring people together from different places?
Certainly, but being a bridge is wrought with difficulties because before you can be or start to be, you have to learn to be proud of your mixed heritage—learn to think of two things of once, of being two things at once. So first of all, I am indebted to my dad who instilled a sense of pride in me for where he and I came from—from my grandparents. Kids at school said “currymuncher” like it could make someone small but there was nothing small about my dad’s smile when he said it. This is where being a bridge, for me, started—at home, and gathered around my grandparents’ huge dining table with my siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But that pride is an ongoing process when white hegemony continuously attempts to erode it.
It also involved the privilege of education – a secondary and tertiary education that a lot of culturally linguistically and diverse people in this country didn’t, or don’t, have access to. For example, when I downloaded Grindr as a teenager – a location-based app for men who want to have sex with men – I was confronted with profiles that listed “no spice, no rice, no chocolate” (which means no Indians, no Asians, no brown or black men). Although my grandfather is primarily Burmese, he’s also Indian (and Portuguese, with a pinch of Scottish – which is how our family became Andersons so and so years ago), so when I got on Grindr I realised that other men who looked at my profile would see me as one or all of these and taught that white men were more valuable, which in turn led me to want to only be seen for my whiteness. But it wasn’t until I was at university that I was able to recognise this. So understanding how white hegemony is produced and maintained, how I play a role in it, and how I can challenge that, is an ongoing process as well.
As for being a bridge in practice, I suppose I try to do so in two ways: in the intimacy of the everyday and through my writing. In conversation with family and friends and strangers, and through the work I do professionally, academically and creatively. Put simply: I think writing, like all storytelling, can connect people from different places because of empathy. Grief, loneliness, love, fear, anger, joy – and all of the other conditions of our human existence – they can be so big that they have the potential to make our differences seem small.
Being a bridge is wrought with difficulties because before you can be or start to be, you have to learn to be proud of your mixed heritage – learn to think of two things of once, of being two things at once.
Do you find that writing is a different kind of home than the world, or, do they overlap with each other?
It is a different kind of home, but yes, they overlap. They’re wrapped together in a sense, touching at points, but separated at others. When I’m writing I get to create that other home, but I can never fully escape this world.
For example: I write about coming to understand my sexuality in Kalgoorlie, about the highs and lows of telling people about this. I am writing about this world, but it is warped in the act of doing so. I select, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, what parts of this world and how I’ve experienced it to share. In that, writing becomes a different kind of home.
Another example: I attempt to quit smoking in this world using the QuitBuddy app on my phone. It tracks how my body is recovering, the cents accumulating into dollars that I’m saving, and sends me messages congratulating me. I relapse, and when my QuitBuddy asks me if I’m still cigarette-free I press my finger to “yes”. When I write about this I warp the experience into a nightmare until it is fiction – my QuitBuddy gets updated, becomes suspicious, starts sending me threatening messages, and gives me an electric shock through my phone when it senses I’m smoking. I leave my phone inside when I smoke and start to wonder if my QuitBuddy can smell stale cigarettes on my body. Eventually I stop smoking. In writing this I am in a different kind of home, where my imagination takes my guilt and fear and moves it beyond this world – but it originated here.
But I hope that one day writing is a different kind of home – one in which my imagination takes me beyond the one I occupy.
If writing is a reflective side of the story that is hopeful, how has discrimination in this reality played a role in your own life? I guess one of the inflections on this is that living here in Perth, in a city like this, offers something different than a regional centre. Where are you now in terms of growth and practice?
Well those experiences I’ve mentioned—the discrimination I’ve faced for being gay, for being a person of colour—has given me a lot to write about. Which might sound masochistic, but it’s true. When I was growing up, I feel like I couldn’t find, or didn’t have access to, the representation I wanted or needed. So I suppose it’s driven me to become a writer, so that I can be a part of changing that. In a broad sense that discrimination certainly disquieted me, and perhaps continues to. It makes you doubt yourself and your abilities – it arrests your confidence. This is likely true for anyone from a marginalised community, because if you’re different this world makes you hurt. But it can also be a tool for acknowledging that and moving beyond it—a form of catharsis.
Perth has been astounding for my growth—both personally and professionally. Going to Curtin University, finding their Queer Department, meeting more and more LGBTI+ people and allies, and finding my way into the literary and arts community and meeting other culturally and linguistically diverse practitioners has been life changing. I am most indebted to the Centre for Stories—a wonderful organisation that I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of being involved with since the third year of my undergrad in 2017.
As for where I am now: I’m still searching for the ground beneath my feet. More specifically I’ve just had the honour of joining Centre for Stories Board, I’m working two days a week at Margaret River Press, and I’m completing my Masters by Research at Curtin University in creative writing.
I am writing about this world, but it is warped in the act of doing so.
Building on from that, I am wondering if you could share with us some of the people you like to read now. Who are your contemporaries? What is the stack of books on the bedside table as it were? I am not only thinking of Asian Australians, or mixed race people, or local people, but also those who are doing good writing no matter their identity. And, does this interact with your study as well?
The stack of books on my bedside table is quite large at the moment because I’ve been interviewing debut authors for a Centre for Stories serial, which has been a joy. So the last three books I read were: Real Differences by S. L. Lim, Slice Girls by Joan Arakkal, and Kindred by Kirli Saunders. These books were about classism, racism, sexism, among other things, and all of the complex emotions we can experience in life. All the big stuff! I recently started reading Quinn Eades—and I am very grateful for that a friend of mine convinced me to do so. Otherwise I enjoy reading my friends’ and friends of friends’ work—Maddie Godfrey, Kai Schweizer, Josephine Newman, Rachelle Erzay. I could go on and on—I’ve had the privilege of meeting groovy and talented writers at my university. All of this interacts with my studies, because I’m interested in how some are privileged at the expense of others, and how we might begin to think about that and change it.
And finally, can you speak to us about the future you would like to create in writing, on Whadjuk Noongar Boodja and as a mixed race person?
Yes, but not without difficulty. It’s hard to imagine the future—by which I mean, five, 10, or 20 years from now—when you’re preoccupied with the here and now. So let me split this in two.
Here and now I want to take steps to support other writers – of colour, LGBTI+ or otherwise – and to develop my own writing, to find my own confidence, to feel comfortable taking up space.
In the future-future: I would like for the writing community to be more inclusive across every level. We’re certainly moving towards that but I often fail to see the diversity of our country reflected in our literary community. At writing festivals and on panels at other events, in writing competitions and publishing, on the boards that fund the arts sector – it has become more and more obvious that the representation that marginalised communities need isn’t there. Further, I was chatting to my friend the other day and she told me that she often felt insecure about herself as a writer because she fears that, as a Wongatha woman, she simply ticks a box – that she isn’t appreciated for her abilities or anything beyond her identity. Which is something I’ve experienced as a gay man – I’ve wondered whether or not people think there is any merit in my work, or if they simply think it’s work that they should or have to care about. So what I want is for writers from marginalised communities not to feel like that anymore.