Interview #65 — André Dao
Interview by Robert Wood
André talked to Robert about writing, the impossibility of apoliticism, Australia's history of dispossession, and creating Behind the Wire, an oral history project documenting people’s experience of immigration detention.
"A friend once described a mutual acquaintance as a brilliant writer who had nothing to say. Of course I care about craft, but it has to be in service of something else."
Your essay in Cordite, 'A Book Which is No Longer Discussed Today', considers your grandfather’s prized copy of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Can you speak to us about reading growing up? Both within your family and outside it?
Like a lot of migrant families, our bookshelves were filled with practical things: English phrasebooks, a full set of Home Study Video’s lessons on VHS (Maths Made Easy, Grammar Made Easy etc.), Australian Women’s Weekly cookbooks. And they were all practical in a double sense—reading these books promised not only the acquisition of new knowledge, but also a new, Australian, identity. The children’s books were the same – they were all educational, all in English—how to count, the names of animals, how things worked. I remember in particular a children’s encyclopaedia called Childcraft, which it now seems was uniquely and ubiquitously found in the homes of my immigrant friends.
There were narratives smuggled within all that education, though. The first volume in the Childcraft series was actually dedicated to poetry and folk tales, and my illustrated Children’s Bible was full of stories about war and love. Thinking about it now, I’m left with an impression of having had to search—more or less furtively—after stories. The frivolousness of fiction always made it a little suspect. It meant that I felt as if I had discovered for myself books, like the Narnia series, only to find out later they were universally loved classics. Which is characteristic of my childhood, in some ways—that feeling that everyone else knew things I did not, like which books to read, or how to mix cordial, and that they knew those things not by reading about them, as I was forced to do, but by some kind of osmosis.
In that way, it connects to themes of the literature we inherit and how that matters for who we are. Why and when did you decide to become a writer?
I’m inclined to differentiate here between deciding to write and deciding to be a writer. The former has been a more or less constant impulse since the latter years of high school, when I started writing short stories full of suburban angst. The latter is an ambition that waxes and wanes, in part in response to my proximity to the writing industry. So when I was working with the Emerging Writers Festival, or taking up writing residencies, it seemed obvious to me that being a writer was what I wanted, and that I should make choices with a mind towards achieving that goal. Which generally meant writing things I wasn’t particularly excited about, and thinking far too much about the advice I’d been given by editors and publishers about how I could change my writing to find a wider audience.
But as I moved away from the writing world—the writers I speak to now are friends rather than colleagues or competitors—that ambition to be a writer, independent of what I was writing, seems more and more wrongheaded. A friend once described a mutual acquaintance as a brilliant writer who had nothing to say. Of course I care about craft, but it has to be in service of something else.
"Australia has never fully reckoned with its history of dispossession..."
Your writing often references different locations and I am thinking here of reflecting on Vietnam and on Muckaty Station, which you wrote about for The Monthly. How do you think about place and belonging, about moving between one location and another, of being settled and of belonging?
Something I think about a bit—but haven’t quite figured out how to write about—are the questions of place and belonging for non-Indigenous, non-white Australians. Australia has never fully reckoned with its history of dispossession—it’s striking to me that truth-telling about the history of Australia played such a prominent part in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. But sometimes it seems as if many migrants don’t include themselves, or get included in, this conversation. I felt a bit like that when I was younger—that truth-telling about Australian history for me meant writing about refugee stories, migrant stories. But that’s as much a cop-out as the white Australians who complain that they weren’t even there when Australia was colonised.
I’ve also been thinking about place and belonging because last year my partner Catherine and I had our first child, a daughter, now a toddler. She’ll grow up with white Australian grandparents whose ancestry includes Scottish migrants and convict settlers. She’ll also grow up with Vietnamese Australian grandparents who will speak to her in Vietnamese. So Léa will be something quite different from either her mother or her father, she’ll have a very different relationship to Australia and to Melbourne.
There is, of course, another strain to your work and that is about politics. You often speak of human rights here and it matters for thinking through our contemporary moment and global issues. What is the role of the writer when they think through and of politics?
I don’t think it’s possible to be apolitical—you can be uncritical about the political dimensions of your writing, but disavowal of politics doesn’t diminish your complicity in the things that are going on. That’s not to say that writing shouldn’t be joyful or funny or silly. There’s a lot of writing out there at the moment that adopts a flat, affectless detachment that I think is too often a way of deflecting political questions. Or else there’s explicitly political writing that descends into didacticism. In contrast, I think lively, passionate writing – writing that takes risks – will almost always be political in more nuanced and engaging ways.
If your writing has been concerned with family, history, place, belonging, politics, your podcasts have a similar focus in terms of theme. And yet, they have a very different register, most obviously in the medium itself. Can you speak to us about the distinction between the page and the sound file?
There’s something very intimate about listening to a podcast, especially a podcast like The Messenger. You carry those voices with you as you go about your daily business, whether that’s commuting to work or doing the dishes or going for a walk. Reading tends to be a much more sedentary activity, one in which your own mind plays a much stronger mediating role. I also think that we remember sound differently to the way we remember text. There’s a vividness to the way I can recall Aziz’s voice from The Messenger, his elation at winning a court case, his despair as he describes another day in detention.
Running in parallel to this is your work as an editor, a judge’s associate and a community member. For five years, between 2009 and 2014, you edited for Right Now and you worked with the Emerging Writers Festival in the past. I know a lot of Liminal readers are creative practitioners themselves and I was wondering if you could speak to the question of balance, namely how one manages to maintain a creative practice while also contributing to the community as an editor, a judge’s associate, an assessor. How do you find time to accommodate all these demands?
Before we had our daughter I guess I just spent all my time on different projects. That involved working with a number of talented and hard-working collaborators—especially Michael Green, with whom I’ve collaborated closely for a few years now—which might well be the real secret to juggling lots of different things: work with good people. What made that work vaguely sustainable was that all those activities engaged me in different ways—so if I spent all day doing law, I didn’t mind doing some editing in the evenings or an interview on the weekend. But to be honest, though I learnt to manage my time to fit in all these different roles, the one thing that suffered was my creative practice—because I was accountable only to myself for that work, it was the easiest thing to put aside.
Since having a baby, I’ve had to streamline the way I work—fewer late nights, and less procrastination. If I have a half day off baby caring duties, then I have to make that time count. I’d like to think I agonise a little less over crafting the perfect email these days. But in a way—and I was surprised to find this out—having less time has also helped my creative practice. At the beginning of the year, out of concern about losing my writing time completely, I started a habit of doing my own writing—so no emails, no projects, no articles, just my own fiction—for at least ten minutes every day. Often that ten minutes becomes twenty or thirty or an hour; other times I just about squeeze it in before bed. The upshot is that despite being as busy as I’ve ever been, I don’t feel like my own writing has suffered—if anything, that kind of daily habit has encouraged me to nurture my ideas over a prolonged and sustained period, rather than dashing them out when I can.
But before I make it sound like I have it all figured out, I have to acknowledge that I’ve also benefited enormously from the unpaid labour of my partner Catherine. Not just in terms of the time and energy and thoughtfulness she puts into caring for our daughter, but also in the sacrifice she made in moving overseas with me for ten months, putting her career on hold in a way that she’s never asked me to do for her. And that’s the thing about the underlying power structures that enable and perpetuate inequality – they’re insidious because they’re invisible, because it’s so easy to fall into them. At points in the last year, and throughout our relationship, Catherine’s intellectual and social life has been subordinated to my own academic and creative pursuits. That’s not fair, and I hope that by talking publicly about it I can make it harder for myself to selfishly fall into those comfortable habits.
"At the beginning of the year, out of concern about losing my writing time completely, I started a habit of doing my own writing—so no emails, no projects, no articles, just my own fiction—for at least ten minutes every day."
Using your writing, podcasting and editing as a springboard, I want to ask you now to reflect on some broader issues that matter for us here at Liminal. We are, of course, a journal that looks at Asia-Australians, and I am wondering if you can reflect on that right now, not in personal terms, but where you see the national moment. It seems like we are living after the pivot to Asia, which was so pronounced a decade ago, but we haven’t reflected on that very deeply. Where do you see our political, literary and media engagement as being?
One of the most important things I learnt while living and writing in Asia—in particular during a residency in Hanoi, and a writing tour through Indonesia—was to start seeing Australia through the eyes of Asians, especially young creative Asians caught up in their own literary and intellectual traditions and cultures. Sometimes people talk about the ‘pivot to Asia’ as if exporting Australian culture is just a matter of publicity. It remains a very Australia-centric way of thinking about Asia. But the truth is, the young writers I met over there were barely aware of Australian books or Australian writers. How do we change that? I’m not sure. But in my own practice I’ve tried to be more open to Asian influences, reading Asian writers who are writing about Asian concerns, who don’t picture their ideal reader as European. But as Maria Tumarkin has pointed out, Australia is a long way from accepting Asian intellectual culture (amongst others) as worthy of genuine consideration.
Building from that, I know you have recently sat your exams at Cambridge. How does this metropolitan experience fit with a focus on Asia as the emergent superpower in a global relations sense and Australia in a peripheral way?
Sometimes being at Cambridge, it felt like the old imperial pathways to success were still as well travelled as they ever were. So many of my fellow students were from Commonwealth countries, I suppose because Australians, Indians, Irish, South Africans, Singaporeans, etc, all conceive of ourselves as peripheral, and we felt that we could still journey to the centre to have some of that gold dust rub off on us.
In a lot of ways the centre/periphery dichotomy hasn’t been subverted, despite what our postcolonial literatures might tell us. One of the theorists I read in Cambridge, Benedict Anderson – who happened to be a South East Asia expert – wrote in the acknowledgements to a new edition of his magnum opus, Imagined Communities, that a large part of the success of that book was due not to any genius on his part, but to its place of publication: not Jakarta or Istanbul or Melbourne, but London. Coming across that casual reference to Melbourne as a publishing backwater was sobering, and a reminder that for all that new technologies have lowered the cost of entry, cultural behemoths are still created in a few geographic centres.
"Coming across that casual reference to Melbourne as a publishing backwater was sobering, and a reminder that for all that new technologies have lowered the cost of entry, cultural behemoths are still created in a few geographic centres."
Can you tell us what you have planned for the future?
I’m currently working on a second project with Behind the Wire. This time we’ll be extending our focus from immigration detention to a wider group of people, though we haven’t fixed on a precise topic yet. We’ve also been thinking a lot about the question of form – of new ways of presenting oral history.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Only that I’ve been working on the same book for at least six years now, that my pitches are more often than not rejected when they are replied to at all, and that I have entered many prizes that I have not won.
Who are you inspired by?
Svetlana Alexievich has been a huge influence on the oral history work I’ve done with Behind the Wire. Voices from Chernobyl is like nothing else I’ve read before. The testimony in that book is quite literally overwhelming, as if the trauma revealed by Alexievich’s craft exceeds the bounds of decency. For me, her work is the high-water mark of what bearing witness to atrocity and calamity can achieve – a radical assault on our moral and ethical foundations.
What are you currently listening to? At my desk I’ve been listening a lot to Nils Frahm, the German pianist and composer. Away from my desk there’s any number of things – the audiobook of Teju Cole’s Open City, Julia Holter, podcasts about the World Cup. And Chance the Rapper - my toddler enjoys dancing to that.
I’ve also been listening to ten minute recordings made by a group of refugees on Manus Island. The recordings are being made for a work called how are you today that will be exhibited as part of the ‘Eavesdropping’ show at the Ian Potter Gallery at Melbourne Uni. The idea is that these guys, who have all been detained on Manus for five years now, make recordings of their everyday lives—cooking, watching the football, going for walks, smoking in silence—and the audience is asked to spend ten minutes in the gallery, listening. In part, it’s a question of attention. How much attention are you willing to pay to these men’s lives?
What are you currently reading?
I’m part way through The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a graphic novel by Sonny Liew. It’s presented as a retrospective of a fictitious comic artist, the titular Charlie Chan, but really it’s a potted history of Singapore. It’s also a wry commentary on making art in a political culture that preaches conformity and sees little value in creativity – something Australians should be able to relate to.
How do you practice self-care?
A little while ago I realised that my primary response to using social media was anxiety. It made me feel anxious about my writing, about my career, about my ability to be funny and interesting. It also made me resentful or cynical or judgmental about people I either didn’t know, or people I did know, and who provoked none of those feelings when we met in person. And unlike a lot of other people, I’d never managed to use it as a support network. So an effective act of self-care for me was to wean myself off social media. Actually I went cold turkey and now my twitter account has been permanently deleted—so I guess there’s no going back.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
This was another thing I thought a lot about when I was working in Asia. Even in Vietnam, where I can more or less speak the language, the Australian part of my identity was front and centre. It was immediately obvious to Vietnamese people that I wasn’t a local – funny clothes, too tall, a little too well-fed. And then I’d start speaking, trying to get my wooden tongue around those six tones. I think it’s a fairly common experience, young people from migrant families going back ‘home’ only to discover that they have become—or always were—foreigners. So I suppose as an Asian-Australian I’m doubly unsettled, not quite belonging in Australia because of the unfinished business of truth and reconciliation, and not quite belonging in Vietnam because I simply don’t know the place in the way one does when one belongs. I don’t think either state of unbelonging is permanent, but they both require work—political and literary—to overcome.
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