Interview #112— Camha Pham
by Robert Wood
Camha Pham is an editor who has worked with UWA Press, Fremantle Press, and Westerly Magazine in addition to several educational publishers.
She has also written for The Huffington Post, SBS, Frankie, Broadsheet, Buzzfeed and elsewhere.
Liminal caught up with her to talk about the space in between, fool’s errands, and re-structuring how we think.
Speaking Asian to Asian, and as West Coast to East Coast, let me start by asking, where do you feel like you belong? What kind of place is home for you? And, what is your role there?
Belonging and home are abstract notions that everyone struggles to comprehend, but particularly those of us who find themselves across and between more than one culture. There are so many interpretations of the word ‘home’. Is it where we were born? Is it where we grew up? Is it where we currently reside? Is it where our parents are from? What if you constantly yearn to be elsewhere?
I was born in Brisbane to Vietnamese refugees and now live in Perth, but I call Melbourne my home. It is the place where I grew up and spent my formative years. When I left Melbourne four years ago, I felt flat, uninspired and smothered by the blanket of familiarity and monotony that had enveloped me gradually and unwittingly, and I blamed the city for my feelings of inadequacy. I thought I could find a better version of myself somewhere else, which I now recognise as a fool’s errand, as becoming ‘better’ has little to do with where we place ourselves and more to do with who we surround ourselves with and what we choose to do with our time. However, having recently had a baby, I have had to reconsider the concept of home and what that offers, and ultimately it is family that pulls me back. Home isn’t always where you need to be at any given time, but it’s a place you can return to time and time again.
Our compulsion to tie our sense of belonging to something concrete is linked to our innate desire to be accepted or to be perceived in a certain way. Yet, assigning labels and categories can be limiting and exhausting, and suggests that we are fixed entities, without the propensity for growth. In one sense, we belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
You mentioned before that you left your home city four years ago. Talk to us about moving to Perth. It is a different world from where you grew up in Melbourne, but what did the move mean for thinking about Asia, location and proximity, and for thinking about Australia? Here, I am wondering about your identity and your family growing up, but also coming here.
My parents fled Vietnam by boat and ended up in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, before being sponsored by an aunt to come to Australia in 1983. After spending my early years in Queensland, not far from where Pauline Hanson had her fish and chip shop, we moved to Melbourne’s western suburbs, along with the rest of the Vietnamese diaspora it seemed. Growing up, there was already this strong sense of my being part of dual cultures: the kids would play cricket in the backyard while the women congregated in the kitchen and the men played tiến lên and drank VB, aka Vietnamese Beer; weekends were spent at Footscray market, helping mum push the shopping cart around to the various fishmongers and butchers. I look back on my childhood fondly.
When I moved to Perth as an adult, I was ready for a change, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, it was the sanctuary that I was seeking—a place to recalibrate and re-evaluate. Perth is fascinating in that it is more sprawling suburbia than large urban city, and the feeling of isolation is real—peaceful pockets can be found in the CBD, even on a busy Friday night. The city is often unfairly branded as being boring or there being nothing to do, but these are misconceptions that are conceived on a superficial level. There are things to truly value about living here: being close to nature and the beach, the simple lifestyle, the lack of posturing, having an opportunity to pause and smell the proverbial roses. If there is one thing that Perth excels at, it’s providing space—both physically and metaphorically—so much so that I almost feel claustrophobic when I’m back in Melbourne. Yet, in Perth, I am an outsider to the Vietnamese community because I don't have established roots here and my parents aren’t around to act as conduits for these relationships to be cultivated. Being here without my family has made me realise that I need to actively nurture my Vietnamese identity in order for it to remain an integral part of who I am.
Our compulsion to tie our sense of belonging to something concrete is linked to our innate desire to be accepted or to be perceived in a certain way.
I can certainly relate to that sentiment, in terms of family and a city’s identity. But, I also think being Asian Australian is often about making sense of our role in the nation. There are a number of prominent leaders from Penny Wong to Kylie Kwong, and I am interested in the ability to have a foot in each place, and often more than two! For you, this includes Vietnam, where you have spent time - can you talk about where your feet are and whether this comes through in the work you do?
My world is viewed through the dual lens of my being the Australian-born daughter of Vietnamese migrants. I won’t ever fully belong in either category: not wholly Vietnamese because of my mangled Vietnamese-speaking skills and Australian accent, and not wholly Australian because of my Asian features and hard-to-pronounce name. It’s a tenuous space that many occupy, and when I was growing up it seemed like a choice had to be made to be one or the other—you couldn’t be both. I remember feeling that I didn't want to be seen as an ‘Asian Asian’, whatever that means, because that label came attached with a whole bunch of assumptions. At the time, I wasn't aware that this was a by-product of the politics of white privilege and racism—I only wanted to be accepted.
As I get older, however, I identify more with my Vietnamese roots, and there is no bigger regret I have than not becoming fluent in the Vietnamese language. I was very well versed in the canon of the Western pre-teen girl in absorbing all of the Sweet Valley High, Baby-Sitters Club and Nancy Drew books that my local library stocked, but I threw a tantrum every week when I was forced to go on Vietnamese school on Saturdays because I didn't see the value of learning to speak a foreign language in white Australia. This sentiment is evoked beautifully by Stephen Pham who says, ‘It is as if every word of English I’ve learnt was at the expense of a Vietnamese one.’ This has been weighing on my mind lately as I think about how I can continue and preserve a culture that I, myself, am not fully versed in. The responsibility that comes with straddling two cultures is immense but also a privilege. Ultimately, culture is subject to our willingness to embrace, or even reject, it.
I am only too aware that being an editor with a foreign-sounding name comes with a different set of challenges that editors with Anglicised names don't have to endure. We’ve all heard of the research that states that job candidates with ethnic-sounding names are less likely to be interviewed, and I have no doubt that I have had to work harder to create opportunities and to prove myself in my editing practice. Yet, formally changing my name is not a consideration, as it would be akin to losing part of my Vietnamese identity. I now see the value in honouring my heritage through my name.
At the moment, you work as a freelance editor, and, help people bring their books to the public. This is often in an Australian setting, which brings with it certain demographics, and though there are safe places within that, there can also be hostility to new and diverse practitioners. Can you speak now of the raced expectations of publishers and of how we might come to think through what makes a good book in a more progressive, inclusive, and open way?
Diversity has been a buzz word in publishing for some time now, and while the increased interest in publishing diverse voices is undoubtedly a positive step forward, there is also the risk of publishers feeling compelled to tick a box rather than adequately addressing the entrenched structural forces that serve as the backbone to the industry. The few statistics cited in relation to the publication of diverse writers are sobering, although unsurprising. However, to date these statistics have come out of the US or UK, and there is now a push to collect concrete Australian data. Having access to this data is important because we’ll then be able to ascertain whether Australian publishers have committed to building a more inclusive reading list that is a reflection of our multicultural society, or merely been paying lip service. These statistics will let us know how much further we need to go.
While the discourse around this matter tends to focus on writers, the publishing industry itself and those acting as the gatekeepers in deciding whose voices are published remain primarily white. What ensues is the risk of publishing a certain type of voice that fits inside a specific, and perhaps more familiar or comfortable, mould—the most obvious being that of the happy migrant. I am conscious of this bias when reading manuscript submissions as an editorial board member of Margaret River Press. Am I rejecting work because it doesn't fit into the ingrained Westernised notion of what quality literature is? We need to see more diverse people in the publishing industry to further broaden the scope of voices that are being given a public platform. This extends to editorial boards, judging panels of literary awards and programming coordinators for literary festivals.
I remember feeling that I didn't want to be seen as an ‘Asian Asian’, whatever that means, because that label came attached with a whole bunch of assumptions.
On that, what is the way to respond to the lack of opportunity, the barriers that are placed in front of us, and the structures that try to keep people down? Do we keep telling the same story about being happy migrants and all our good Asian food, or is there something else to say?
It is essential to recognise how incredibly privileged the publishing industry is. It is a notoriously underpaid field and more or less relies on unpaid interns to prop it up, particularly in the case of the indies. These deep-rooted structural forces deny people of colour and those who are underprivileged the same opportunities as someone from an affluent background who can afford to work one or more unpaid internships to get their foot in the door. While I don’t agree with free labour, having worked at an independent press, I understand that limited budgets are the norm rather than an exception. Often projects are fuelled solely by passion and are dependent on additional funding. The core of the problem begins with the capitalist mentality in how the public perceives the value of books. Why pay the full recommended retail price when Amazon will sell it at a fraction of the price? Never mind the fact that their selling model is able to make up the losses made on books through the plethora of other items that it sells on the site. We need to increase the value placed on books but to do so we need to completely overcome an entrenched capitalist mindset. Where do we even begin to tackle this? It can seem a futile task, especially in light of recent political events where it has become apparent that Australian society as a whole has professed itself as largely self-serving. However, we must continue to ask these questions and put pressure on the status quo.
While there is a danger of diverse practitioners telling a certain type of story, I still believe that these stories are important as it can be cathartic to reflect on the migrant experience; however, there are stories beyond the lens of the happy migrant that can and should be told. We are more than our migrant selves, but at the same time our race and culture inform our sense of self, so there is a complex relationship here to be navigated. That being said, I’m all for stories about good Asian food.
Starting from that place, can you speak about some of the books that have spoken to you recently? Hybrid works, or works that cross borders and boundaries, and not only across race. This might not only be by Asian Australian authors, but people you think understand our contemporary moment from identity to aesthetics to themes that matter for who we are. What is the literary work that might matter in the Asian century?
Growing up, there were very few Asian names that I saw splashed across the covers of books, or even Asian characters in the books that I read. Alice Pung, The Joy Luck Club and Claudia from The Baby-Sitters Club series were my bookish references. It is now incredibly satisfying to see Asian names on bookshelves and to recognise myself in stories, beyond that of the tokenistic representation of an Asian character. We are beginning to see more works with Asian characters being written without their nationality being the prime focus, and existing outside of the stereotypes commonly portrayed. Current female Asian Australian writers—such as Elizabeth Tan, Julie Koh and Melanie Cheng, among others—are exploring different spaces for these characters and insisting that they are more than their being Asian.
I think this is why I love the libraries we have in Perth where books engage with their community. And, being Asian Australian in that is about people identifying with their heritage and society, and expressing it in a new way that feels right. That is about building a community of people working together. How do you feel about the city as a place of community, and as a place for books and editing and storytelling?
The WA literary scene exists on a smaller plane relative to its east coast counterparts, and as a result it often gets pushed out of the national literary conversation, or otherwise deemed ‘lesser than’. In spite of this, there is a strong sense of community that exists in Perth, across all creative industries, with practitioners banding together to be recognised and to create opportunities for themselves. Yet, there is limited support for the cultivation of literary talent and stories that are abundant in this beautiful state at a higher level, which has resulted in many migrating to the eastern states to chase other prospects. I find this incredibly frustrating and a terrible shame as it prevents possibilities for growth and change from fostering and taking shape.
Speaking of growth and change, you recently became a mum, and, perhaps it has focused your vision of the future, which means thinking and working for people who come after us (including our own children). As a generation, we have responsibilities to hand it over to the next ones, and the ones all the way on if we are lucky enough. What do you see as the important values you have learnt from editing that matter for an ethics of parenthood?
Over the years, I have learned that editing requires a degree of humility in recognising that you might not necessarily have all of the answers all of the time, as well as a sense of curiosity in asking the right questions when necessary. Assuming that you know everything can only be detrimental to your growth. Motherhood has also been an incredibly humbling experience in that my world has been turned upside down and inside out, and I have had to accept that I don't have, and won’t ever have, the answers to everything. Nothing quite prepares you for the selflessness that is required when taking on the responsibility of raising a little human being, and what I once deemed as important has been completely altered. I don’t mean to trivialise my life before becoming a mother, but certainly a sense of perspective is gained when your priorities change and are no longer self-centric—the number of hours I’ve worried over the placement of commas when now I have to keep a little human alive!
We live in a time where conscious decisions need to be made so that future generations can thrive and prosper, and I have certainly been made more aware of the urgency to act today to ensure the flourishing of a better tomorrow. What I choose to focus on, how I spend my time, is now seen through a different framework. My inaction will only be at the expense of my son and his generation and the generations that follow him.
It is essential to recognise how incredibly privileged the publishing industry is.
Do you have any advice for emerging editors?
Keep learning—you don’t know everything and you won’t ever know everything. Language is in a constant state of flux, so there is a flexibility that is required of editors, rather than an insistence in imposing rigid and archaic rules. Don’t treat your knowledge of language and grammar as a form of elitism—language is meant to bring people together, not build additional barriers. Also, know your worth. This advice relates to anyone working in the arts, really. Editing is not merely conducting a spell check—there is a craft and methodology that takes time to hone and finesse, and so should be compensated accordingly.
Who are you inspired by?
Women of colour kicking butt.
What are you currently listening to?
My music taste probably peaked in the 90s, so I will forever cherish 90s boy bands and RnB, which, let’s face it, make the best karaoke songs. Nowadays, I am catching up on podcasts, which I put on in the background while rocking my little one to sleep. Currently on my eclectic playlist are Ideas at the House, Invisibilia, Code Switch and the Sweet Valley High Podcast.
What are you currently reading?
Since giving birth to my son, I’ve had little time and energy to devour a book, with the last being My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh—probably wishful thinking on my part! I’ve started Jamie Marina Lau’s Pink Mountain on Locust Island, and I’m already captivated by the prose despite being only a few pages in.
How do you practice self-care?
We, as a society, have this unhealthy obsession with constantly being ‘busy’, wearing our crammed schedules as a badge of honour and pushing ourselves to the point of burnout. This mentality assumes that productivity is an indication of worth, yet this often comes at the expense of our mental health.
Although not always successful, I have become more conscious of saying ‘no’, whether for work or social situations; however, this has taken on a whole new meaning with motherhood. Gone are the days of having ‘me’ time whenever I wanted, so it has become particularly important to carve out time for myself when possible—much of my ‘me’ time now takes place in the shower.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means recognising the privilege of being in the middle of two intersecting cultures and figuring out how to preserve or adapt these interconnecting values so that they can be carried forward in future. This has become especially pertinent since becoming a mother. What aspects of these dual cultures will my son inherit from me? How will he perceive his roots to Vietnam, if at all, given both his parents were born and grew up in Australia? I am curious to see how it plays out.