Interview #22 — Elizabeth Flux

interview By Adolfo Aranjuez

Elizabeth Flux is a freelance writer and editor based in Melbourne. She is the editor-in-chief of Writers Bloc, a past editor of Voiceworks, and has overseen shorter-term projects including the Summer in the City of Literature series for Melbourne’s City of Literature office. Her nonfiction work has been widely published and includes essays on film, pop culture and identity as well as interviews and feature articles. She was the winner of the inaugural Feminartsy Fiction Prize and one of her short stories features in the anthology The Legend of Monga Khan.

 We spoke to Elizabeth about Hong Kong, being biracial and pursuing an authentic career.

 I first met you in 2013, when I edited a piece of yours for Voiceworks; since then, you’d become editor of Voiceworks and, now, head honcho at Writers Bloc. How did you get to this point?

This is probably the daggiest thing you’ll ever hear me say, but honestly: by letting go of trying to be what I thought other people wanted me to be, and leaning into what I actually wanted for myself. I spent a lot of time quashing my enthusiasm for writing and editing, telling myself I could fit those things around the edges of a ‘real job’. After a year of balancing medical school and editing my university magazine, I decided to defer my studies, move to Melbourne, and see if I could make writing work as a career and not just a hobby. It’s a bit masochistic, realistically—flinging yourself in the deep end, so your options are to either succeed or fail hard.

I mean, this was actually the topic of that momentous Voiceworks piece: before becoming a literary bigwig, you were studying to be a doctor. How serious was this aspiration?

Very. I completed four years before deciding to give my creative aspirations a proper go. I think the problem in the end, however, was that to be a good doctor—and, by that, I mean not merely a competent doctor—you need to love what you’re doing. It is a huge commitment and it takes over nearly every aspect of your life, so if your attention is split you’ll never really be happy with that as your career.

Was your choice to go to med school motivated by pressures placed on you by your parents?

No, it was entirely expectations I put on myself. My parents have always been great in telling me I am capable of accomplishing things if I commit the time and effort, and I think it’s kind of a thing that we tell schoolkids: that they need to aim high rather than aim true, Hallmark as that sounds. So, if you can get a high score at school, you should go for the most competitive course, the most highly regarded career, etc. It’s not healthy, but pretty much all of us buy into it. Medicine is an important field—it just wasn’t right for me. That being said, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything—the course gave me a lot of unique experiences, not least practising cannulations on other medical students.

And now you freelance full-time! What’s that like?

Working from home is a weird challenge because you have to be your own disciplinarian. There’s no-one to tell you that you should be getting up earlier, or getting more done in a day, besides yourself—or, in my case, my cat, who most days wakes me up by shoving his nose in my face, then staring judgmentally until I blearily make my way out of bed and to my laptop. It’s pretty great, though: it means that I’m not locked into one thing, and that I can cobble all my interests into a weird hybrid SuperJob—editing Writers Bloc, writing about film, experimenting with weird side projects that don’t fit neatly anywhere else.

Could you regale us with some highlights from this SuperJob?

Last year, I received a grant from Melbourne’s City of Literature office to attend the Hong Kong International Film Festival, which was amazing. I’ve also had the chance to interview a lot of people I admire, like Angie Hart, Bob Morley, Jane Espenson, Julian Dennison, Lawrence Leung and Rob Thomas (the Veronica Mars one, not the Matchbox 20 one). Once, I did a twenty-minute phone interview with Sacha Baron Cohen while he was in character, pretending—I hope—to be drunk. Another time, I watched Jason Momoa eat a salad. I still can’t believe that, somehow, this is my job? And I’ve just started my Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship to work on a book of essays. It’s ten weeks, and I’ve got ten essays to write, so … maths and optimism.

What is your Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship book of essays about? Can you give us a teaser?

It’s about grief and death generally, and my personal experience with it more specifically. I’ve always worried that my response to situations has been incorrect—sometimes your reaction to a loss doesn’t match up to what you’re seeing around you, and it makes you feel bad. Bad for not feeling sad enough. Or for feeling more upset than you think is ‘right’ for the relationship you had. It’s a whole weird thing. So I’m making the resource I wish I’d had a few years ago, and using myself as a case study to explore the spectrum of emotional responses, drawing on cultural dichotomies and, I guess, situational quirks. The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship has been amazing—it goes for ten weeks so, by the end of it, I should have a first draft complete.

How do you balance your editing duties with your own writing practice? What’s unique about each role?

I find that one really helps inform the other—having insights into the less visible side of each makes it easier to understand the other people in your working relationships. As a writer, I hate the long silences that come with sending off work and pitches, but as an editor, I’ve seen exactly why those gaps are sometimes unavoidable.

Flipping it around, too, I feel that, as an editor-who-is-also-a-writer, I know more intimately what is and isn’t helpful feedback on work, and what is reasonable to ask of someone. Being an editor is also an immense privilege—writers get to see their own process in how work evolves, but editors get both a broad and a rare insight into how other people knock their work into shape, from idea to finished product.

These days, we’ve got a pretty good ‘professional friends’ relationship via Metro magazine—topics you’ve covered for me include Leung’s Sucker and Maximum Choppage, Johnnie To’s Blind Detective and the state of the Hong Kong film industry post-Handover. What are your thoughts on Asian screen representation?

Honestly, it’s a bit depressing. We have a really long way to go. In Australian film and television, whiteness still seems to be the default—being any other race is seen as a novelty, and is often the defining trait of a character. I am really tired of the ‘Asian nerd’ trope. The IT geek. The sidekick. In an article I wrote for Kill Your Darlings, I talked about how, among the friends I bingewatch shows with, we take bets on how long (if ever) it will take for the Asian character to get a love interest. Usually, if at all, it’s at least three seasons.

Speaking of Hong Kong, you were actually born there. How did that move affect you, and your conception of yourself as ‘Australian’?

My family moved here just before I turned three, and it was weird going from a Hong Kong kindergarten to an Australian one. In Hong Kong, we had more structure and were assessed on our work and behaviour—we had diaries we took home to allow the teachers to communicate with our parents, and there was a stamp system to show how well we were doing: ‘rabbit’ for good, ‘turtle’ for bad. Then we moved over here and it was all playtime and naps. Not that that’s a bad thing! Some of my best friends are playtimes and naps.

There does seem to be a different pace between the two places, almost like an attitudinal reflection of space: Australia is big and more relaxed, whereas Hong Kong is very densely packed and every moment is filled. Kids are mean and early nineties Adelaide was pretty white; children waste no time telling you all the ways you don’t fit in. For as long as I can remember, on Saturdays I’d go to ‘Chinese School’ to learn Mandarin and it was one of the most stressful parts of my week. At regular school, they’d be just easing us into the concept of homework, while at Chinese School we’d need to have memorised a poem and have learned a set of characters for a dictation, the results of which would be written in our diaries and sent home. It did make me irritatingly blasé about things when they finally introduced tests at regular school, though.

It’s interesting because you obviously still feel some connection to Hong Kong, despite the immense amount of time between now and when you left it.

I’ve still got a lot of family there, and we used to go back and visit quite often when I was young. It’s so different from Australia: in look, in attitude, in pace—in a lot of ways, it feels like each place complements the other. Hong Kong is what is missing from my life in Australia and vice versa. I went back last year for the first time in years, and I was surprised at how quickly I adapted. By the end of three weeks, I was all across the metro system, had fine-tuned my Cantonese, and was far too emotionally invested in at least three different soap operas.

Would you say that being biracial has impacted on your life?

It’s weird because you feel like you have a foot in each camp but don’t really belong in either. In Hong Kong, it’s strange being able to speak and understand Cantonese but look as if you don’t; you pick up on weird bits of conversation that you otherwise might not get to hear. Sometimes it’s about you—people calling you a gwai moi, or ‘ghost girl’. Sometimes it’s overhearing salacious gossip about a friend of a friend’s daughter—‘She keeps going out to parties. Chi seen! Crazy!’ Other times it’s super mundane but personal conversations, like the couple at Uniqlo having a serious conversation about what underpants to buy. In Australia, it’s the opposite: having people feel comfortable making racist comments around me because they think I’m white, like the Uber driver who wanted to tell me all about ‘Asians and casinos’. It is also a strange space to occupy, because my lived experience is different from that of my mother. People—specifically white Australians, I guess—don’t look at me and attribute all the assumptions they have tethered to ‘Asian’ in their mind. They don’t talk slower to me, or instinctively treat me as a visitor to what they see as ‘their’ country.

There also never seems to be a good time to, I don’t know, tell people my heritage. It seems a strange, awkward thing to point out. Even when it comes up naturally in conversation, sometimes it steers the conversation to a weird place—‘Oh,’ said a girl at school when I told her. ‘I thought you didn’t look quite right.’ Being Eurasian is like being both and neither. It doesn’t feel good being able to claim the best elements of a culture without having to take the bad. ‘Passing privilege’ is gross like that: you get all the nice aspects while having a front-row seat to the grossness your loved ones are subjected to. I don’t know what is and isn’t mine to comment on, and I’m always conscious of whether my voice will add value to a topic or not.

For you, what does the current literary sector look like? What can be done to help increase the representation of POC in the industry, and within the arts more broadly?

This is such a huge question, and one I probably couldn’t do proper justice to even with 10,000 words and three months to answer. I think, in literature, as in film, there is still a persistent ‘whiteness default’: presenting the world as though being white is the norm and anyone else is simply there as ‘flavouring’ to advance plot or feed into a stereotype. It’s weird because it’s really not reflective of reality—but, since it’s what we see and read, we keep writing it.

When I first started writing seriously, I sketched out a screenplay for a TV series. I dug it up recently and there was one female character and I had imagined everyone as white. Why? I’m someone with a multicultural background and strong feminist roots. The work I produced neither reflected me nor the people around me, yet it seemed perfectly normal to me at the time. It seems that growing up surrounded by whiteness-default narratives seeps in deeply—it’s something we really need to challenge.

I don’t think there is a clear-cut solution, or surely we would be doing it already. In terms of practical advances, there was recently an anonymous donation to Writers Victoria to support two women of colour to produce work for The Victorian Writer magazine, which I think is a great initiative.

Another thing we can do straightaway is to read more broadly. If we keep buying work by the same voices, then we’ll keep hearing the same voices. Audiences have more power than we think—and, if we show that there is a demand for a diversity of voices and stories, then this will start to be heard and maybe slowly—and, unfortunately, it is going to be slowly—things will start to change. 

In a piece for Kill Your Darlings, fellow Adelaidean Jonno Revanche criticised the insularity of Melbourne as the ‘hub’ of Australian literary culture. Has being from Adelaide influenced your approach to writing and editing?

It’s difficult to say. My motivation for moving away from Adelaide was to uproot myself from my safety net and create a sink-or-swim situation for myself. Most of my professional life since then has been in Melbourne. The idea of hubs is a complicated one: there will always be clusters where people with similar interests try to find each other, for support, for solidarity, or even just for social reasons. It’s not unique to writing. Adelaide has a really great arts scene, and what I’ve been seeing—sadly, from afar—is that it seems to be strengthening from year to year. Adelaide does, however, get skipped over a lot. For concerts. For events. All kinds of things. And I don’t really know why. So, in that sense, I appreciate the access to things that living in Melbourne gives me.

One of those things is the Melbourne International Film Festival, which is a special time of year for us. Do you have any recommendations from this year’s program?

I have already booked into twelve films begrudgingly whittled down from a ‘shortlist’ of over twenty. I’m really looking forward to Free and Easy, a dark comedy that seems like it’s going to be everything I love about Hong Kong cinema in one film. My Friend Dahmer is another one I’m really keen for—it’s based on a graphic novel by a man who went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer, which I just finished reading. I’ve been having nightmares ever since. Oh, and Brigsby Bear looks like weird fun.

On Twitter, you are well known as the Queen of Puns (or, said no-one ever, we enjoy being PunQ’d by you). What would you say is your best pun ever?

I forget exactly what brought it about, but it was to do with making something up about that actress who looks like Keira Knightley and I called it a ‘Natalie Portmanteau’.

Do you have any advice for emerging writers?

I think the big thing is knowing the value of your work—and not working for free unless there’s a really good reason. I do work for free on passion projects, and on things that I think are important. Exposure, however, isn’t enough. One of the best pieces of advice I was given on this front was that, if someone is making money from your work, so should you. The other thing is to not take rejection personally, because you can never fully know what is happening behind the scenes of decision-making.

Who are you inspired by?

My parents. My mum uprooted her life in Hong Kong and put herself through university in a foreign country. My dad went straight into the workforce after school, and ended up studying for his accountancy exams during his three-hour commutes (each way!) to work. They are both so hardworking; I would feel like a huge success if I could accomplish even half of what each of them has done.

What are you currently listening to?

The Best of Andrew Lloyd Webber CD.

What are you currently reading?

I can’t ever commit to just one book, so right now it’s both Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu.

How do you practise self-care?

Sleep, gardening and realistic ‘to-do’ lists.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you? 

To me, it means being part of something bigger than the constraints of country borders; I feel fortunate to have a history and culture that stretches far beyond myself.

Interview, 1Leah McIntosh