Interview #110— Chris Lin

by Robert Wood


 
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Christopher Lin works at the University of Western Australia, where he gained a doctorate in English and Cultural Studies. He has interviewed for festivals including Perth Writers Week and the Australian Short Story Festival.

We caught up with Chris to talk about the motherland, good curry, staying positive, the KGB triangle, and why school matters.


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I want us to talk about your work as an intellectual, about being Asian Australian, and our society as a whole. If our daily lives are anything to go by, there are all kinds of Asian influences in Australia today. You and I speak about coming from the suburbs, which are different from one to another, but we also have motherlands that are distant from here. Where is your place in the world? And how does this relate to Burma? Where do you feel connected to?
For me, place is as much about geography as it is about the people and relationships that occupy it. This means that my place in the world is anchored relative to that of my family and friends, the relations that are meaningful to me. At its core, this place is Perth’s northern suburbs where I’ve grown up and now live. You and I’ve spoken about the gravity of the suburbs in our sense of self and home. The northern suburbs will always hold this resonance for me as a place where I was schooled, where my parents work, where a myriad of other relatives live in a 20-minute radius of each other.

 It’s also about the familiar and accrued rituals: of shopping for groceries at the local Vietnamese grocers; of eating at our favourite Hong Kong barbeque house; the proximity of a leisurely drive to the beach; and the comfort of being able to drop by un-announced at my grandparents’ home on Friday evenings.

Burma is an intimate part of this sense of place too, partly, because the diaspora of Burmese immigrants to Perth has meant that its ethnic, culinary, and linguistic influences are embedded in the communities here. Because of this, it’s easy for me to feel a bit of Burma resides in Perth. But there’s also another Burma that is rooted in memory and nostalgia, in the specific time and place of my childhood, that I identify with very strongly when I think of my ‘place’. This Burma revolves around my memory of growing up in my grandparents’ home in Sitkwin. It’s fixed in time and only accessed through familial memory, and altogether distinct from the actual place that I know and visit today.

Talk to us now about growing up here then. We grew up in a similar era, where multiculturalism was accepted in Australia, but where ‘being ethnic’ could be a struggle too. What do you remember from growing up in terms of personal identity? And, what role did your family play in giving you a sense of yourself?
What I remember most from growing up in Perth as an immigrant is the feeling of being ensconced within a community of other Burmese immigrants. My family and I moved here in 1994 and we were fortunate to have moved as a collective unit: my immediate family, grandparents, aunts, and uncles all settled in Perth within the space of 2 years. We were sponsored by my grand-uncle without whose generosity we would not be here.

Beyond my circle of relatives, Perth already had a strong community of Burmese immigrants who had moved to Australia in the 70s and 80s. Many of my own relatives, who are of Karen ethnicity, moved here in the 90s to escape the political persecution of ethnic minors in Burma.

I have vivid memories of family gatherings every weekend – the Burmese songs, the raucous strumming of guitars, steel vats of Burmese curries, the drinking, and running around with my cousins and siblings. There was always someone’s birthday, wedding, or First Communion to attend.  

This family network allowed for a sense of security and rootedness among a new place and language. I was lucky to have this strong base around me which meant that I rarely experienced the ‘ethnic struggle’ you refer to – the isolation, the dislocation from your home country, and anxiety for those left behind – that are prevalent in the stories of other immigrants. I was also fortunate to have moved during childhood where adaptation is easier than if I had moved as an adult, with a fully formed social identity and associations. Having this Burmese community softened the feelings of homesickness because we were able to distil those elements of Burma – the culture, food, songs, language – into our little communities here in Perth. In this way, my family and relatives are intrinsic to my sense of self, as someone rooted in a Burmese-Karen heritage.

Place is as much about geography as it is about the people and relationships that occupy it.

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That is an interesting perspective, that one brings home with one, that one grows up with and in a community. This is also wrapped up with being in Perth and an understanding of suburbia. What about your place here?
In the 25 years I’ve lived in Perth, the northern suburbs have acquired as strong a sense of ‘home’ as I’ll ever have. I grew up in the northern suburbs, was schooled there, lived in the family home while completing my university studies, so there is an accumulative affection for these neighbourhoods.

My family lived in Balga during my schooling and I recall that kids who lived in the northern trident of Koondoola, Girrawheen, and Balga (the infamous ‘KGB’) used to get teased. This was an ongoing joke because the ‘KGB’ are among Perth’s lowest socioeconomic areas, with a high concentration of state housing, and many immigrant families live in the area. Growing up, I admit I used to feel a faint embarrassment at being associated with the ‘KGB’!

 Looking back, that feeling has become a badge of pride in my adulthood and, along with other friends who grew up in the area, I feel a strong affection for Perth’s north. So much of this is due to its diversity. There is a litany of Vietnamese grocer’s, bakeries, pho noodle houses in a 10-minute radius of my place. There is a Burmese café in Girrawheen – Mum’s House – which my wife and I frequent on Saturday mornings. On Sunday afternoons, the district parks are full of social soccer games, where I’ve met people from a mishmash of backgrounds: Vietnamese, German, Serbian, Polish, Malaysian, and Sudanese. These spaces of local interaction and community-building, the culinary and social exchanges, form the pulse of Perth’s suburban life.

 In addition to this suburban backdrop, ‘home’ also acquires a domestic dimension for me, particularly when I think of my parents’ place. In the first instance, it’s linguistic. When I enter my parents’ home, I automatically slip into speaking Burmese. There are turns of phrase, certain patterns of speech and sounds that are ingrained into the soundscape of my parents’ living room and kitchen. Tapping into these rhythms, and into the routine of my parents’ weekly curry nights, into shared conversations around the dinner table feel like ‘home’.

 I think being Asian Australian is about roots that matter as well as being flexible enough to know that foundations that shift and change. Your own work in the university and the writing community involves thinking about all of this. This is about pastoral care, about international connection, about supporting others. Can you talk about connecting people and how good teaching, good storytelling, and good literature can bring people together from different places?
For me, good literature is not only a means of connecting to the ideas, places, and characters of the text, but also of responding to the people that you share this literature with. Part of the enjoyment of reading is the capacity to discuss, analyse, and unpack the narratives with others. In a way, this is at the heart of what we as literary students/scholars/teachers do.  

Your point about literature’s capacity to bring people together, as a connective tissue, is spot on. I’ve made some of my closest friends during undergraduate classes arguing about the tenets of postmodern theory (it sounds like a cliché), or discussing the novels of Don DeLillo or Haruki Murakami at the university café. When I think back to my undergraduate studies, I can think of several books that were a catalyst for some of my most enduring friendships: Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, or Maryse Condé’s Moi, Tituba Sorcière Noire de Salem.

 And it’s not just the books that allowed this connection but also the way in which these books were taught, the space for robust and erudite discussions that the lecturers and teachers created.  In this way, perhaps one dimension of good teaching is community building, creating an environment to knit people and ideas together in ways that these relationships and conversations wander beyond the classroom.

That is a good news story, and, for all the aunties out there reading, we know that staying in school is really important. Chris and I both have doctorates, and have spent a lot of time at university, so we understand this. But, we also know it can be difficult to do well in these systems because they can often be hostile, or at the very least are foreign for many Asian Australians.

So, I want to ask about prejudice, not only in overcoming it, but sharing from your own life. What words of advice do you have for people out there when it comes to education?

I want to be cautious about this answer because, in my view, I don’t believe I’ve experienced overt forms of race- or culture-based prejudice in my schooling, university education, or work environment. This is not to say that I haven’t experienced incidents of racism and prejudice, but to point out that such incidents have tended to occur outside my professional sphere and have not posed a significant challenge in my formal education and work.

This is largely due to my parents whose hard work and the value they placed on a quality education ensured that any disadvantages I may have faced on socioeconomic and linguistic grounds did not limit my opportunities and access to a university education. I was also fortunate to come through a private school system with a broad racial demographic and where the academic, leadership, and extracurricular achievements of Asian-Australian students were embraced as prominently as those of non-Asian students.

That said, there are also social, linguistic, and financial barriers that people from a lower socioeconomic background face in succeeding at school and accessing higher education. I’ve seen this in the Burmese community but these barriers also exist in many other immigrant communities.

In response to your latter question – speaking from the perspective of someone who left a country where the basic access to school education is limited, where poverty requires children to leave school prematurely and work to support their families, where access to university education and subsequent career success is largely determined by wealth and not primarily ability, where the standard of education lacks critical thinking and creative enquiry, my basic message to young people (and I mean this in a positive way) is to make the most of the opportunities that exist in our education system in Australia, despite the flaws that may exist.

 

I can think of several books that were a catalyst for some of my most enduring friendships…

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That is a really good way to frame it. I am wondering if you could share with us some of the things that keep you engaged and earnest and positive. This can be in culture, in art, in music, in food, but also sport where I know you are very engaged and interested. What do we need to get on board with that is essential for a good life?
Being immersed in Perth’s literary community is one way that keeps me engaged and balanced. A large part of my professional life involves working in bureaucracy so carving out time to attend and facilitate discussions about books, to float in the realm of ideas, is like oxygen. In this respect, the Centre for Stories has been a really good platform for me to get involved in literary events. They’ve exposed me to new writers and voices. More than this, the Centre has managed to cultivate a feeling of an intimate, inclusive literary community, allowing people to connect with individuals and stories that make up a type of palimpsest that underlies Perth and the narratives of those who live and move through this city. 

So much of my day-to-day life involves rushing around, calibrated by the “nine-to-five”. I’m sure you know the feeling, the need to slow down time to readdress that balance. I think this is essential for a good life. To reclaim simple rituals … like taking a book to my favourite café (currently, Bodhi Tree in Mount Hawthorne), ordering a coffee, and spending a quiet Saturday reading. The percolating aroma of coffee, the ambient chatter and percussion of teaspoons and mugs, the words unfurling on a page, make this a favourite routine on weekends.

This conversation makes me think about the future that academics, teachers, critics and others are calling into being. What do you hope to see more of in Perth, in the university, and in our intellectual and writing community?
I hope to see more encouragement of diversity – of writers, performers, artists, and other artistic voices – within and beyond Perth. To see aspiring writers and artists of racially and culturally diverse backgrounds be provided a forum to tell their stories and to have the opportunities to access the required facilities, funding avenues, and mentorship to explore these aspirations.

 As someone who’s worked as a University lecturer and tutor, and in student support roles, I would like to see greater support and a concerted strategy to ensure students from a low socioeconomic background can access higher education. This is a collective responsibility of both the Australian government and universities. On a broad level, this means rectifying the cuts to government funding of universities and increasing investment in tertiary education and research. I think I share the concern of many that these funding cuts, coupled with higher course fees, are making it harder for those from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds to attend university.

 It also means raising student income support to give students the best possible chance to succeed at university when they get there, so that they can afford the cost of living and studying. This is especially important for those students who are not financially supported by parents or family.  Universities also have a role to play, particularly in resourcing and prioritising student services that support the academic transition and ongoing welfare of students. It’s vital that university education does not become the primary terrain of the privileged and elite few.

 Do you have any advice for emerging intellectuals?
Perhaps more encouragement than advice: work on the things that you love and that are meaningful to you. This is the only way you’ll sustain the curiosity, energy, and interest needed for your work to flourish.  

Carving out time to attend and facilitate discussions about books, to float in the realm of ideas, is like oxygen.

Who are you inspired by?
I find myself inspired by the courageous acts of writers and journalists who are willing to write/tell/publish a particular story even if it comes at a cost to their safety or to the safety of their families, and who are conscious of the symbolic import of writing and language as an agent for advocating social justice.

 I think of the ‘Spotlight on Burma’ event hosted PEN Perth at Perth Writers Week and the way that the event drew attention to the persecution of two Burmese Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. They were imprisoned for publishing an article on human rights abuses committed by the Burmese military against the ethnic Rohingya. Thankfully, they have been released since. I was watching some international press coverage of their release and one of the two journalists was asked what he most looked forward to now that he was free. Beaming at the camera, he happily declared that he was looking forward to seeing his family and excited about getting back to work in the pressroom. Imagine that!

The conviction and steadfastness that these journalists continue to show in the face of a brutal and violent threat is so far out of my own frame of reference. There are, of course, many more examples of these types of resilience and courage from so many writers across the world.

 
What are you currently listening to?
Graham Hunter’s The Big Interview podcast series, which features interviews with football journalists on matches, history, tactics. He is a Scottish journalist based in Spain and his podcasts focus on the European leagues. I’m a huge football fan so listening to these quality podcasts – with intelligent, irreverent sports journalism – is a treat.

What are you currently reading?
I’m currently loving Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, a science fiction novel which starts off during China’s Cultural Revolution and leads to a mysterious virtual game centered around three suns that perhaps holds the key to the future of humanity. A really engrossing read.

 How do you practice self-care?
I love cooking in my spare time. For me, cooking is a holistic ritual that starts when I go pick out the groceries, often at the Vietnamese supermarket in the northern suburbs. The explosion of colour walking down the aisles is palpable: a palette of chillis, aubergine, bitter melon and watercress, galangal and ginger. The noise and smells from the butcher’s is a shock where, among the more conventional offerings, you’re likely to see slivers of ox tongue, liver, and tripe. The whole experience is a sensory assault, but a pleasant one, and it connects me back to vivid memories of my childhood shopping with my mum. From the supermarket, I’ll drive home, turn on some music or a football podcast, and get to work, marinating the meat (which is an imperative in Burmese cooking), pestling the spices, soaking the greens. This is pure pleasure.  

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
Being Asian Australian means inhabiting a hybrid space between two racial, cultural, and linguistic strands of heritage and values. Being Asian Australian means I balance on the one hand, my Burmese-Karen linguistic and cultural heritage, of which I am immensely proud, and the cultural values and relationships I have inherited in growing up in Australia. Having come from a country like Burma during an authoritarian regime, I am extremely grateful of the liberal-minded, democratic, socially progressive values that I identify with contemporary Australia … or a contemporary Australia I would like to imagine, one that is a site of contest rather than taken for granted. This notion of ‘Australian-ness’ is one permeated by an open and progressive attitude towards racial and gender diversity, social responsiveness, freedom of expression (but one that heeds the responsibility that comes with this freedom). It is also one that situates Australia’s Indigenous people and heritage at the forefront of national consciousness and identity, and one that genuinely celebrates the plurality of Australia’s racial and cultural heritage as a core condition of this identity. 

Having come from a country like Burma during an authoritarian regime, I am extremely grateful of the liberal-minded, democratic, socially progressive values that I identify with contemporary Australia … or a contemporary Australia I would like to imagine, one that is a site of contest rather than taken for granted.

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Interview by Robert Wood
Photographs by Leah Jing

2, InterviewLeah McIntosh