Interview #109—Elizabeth Tan
by Robert Wood
Elizabeth Tan is a prose writer who teaches at Curtin University. She is interested in science fiction, social reality, and cultural anxieties.
We are both writers with connections to Asia yet our practice is located in Perth. But perhaps writing is also a place where one can belong. So let me start by asking, what practices do you have that help you feel engaged and productive and what are the writing rituals you keep?
One of the best rituals I’ve started this year is creating a spreadsheet to keep track of my reading, which I owe to Elizabeth Flux’s contribution to Meanjin’s ‘What I’m Reading’ column. I’ve kept the criteria for what I’m allowed to enter into the spreadsheet quite broad: most of the entries are short stories and essays, rather than books. Every now and again I feel this paralysing shame at how few books I read, and how slowly I get through them – I feel like I’m not a good literary citizen. But, since starting the spreadsheet it’s a little easier for me to counter that shame with some actual data: I’m constantly reading, even if I’m not reading full-length books.
As for writing itself, my best hours are in the morning, right after I’ve woken up, when my brain is still murky and forgiving – I’ll create a little nest of pillows and blankets and curl up with my laptop. I know it’s not healthy to work in the same space that you sleep, but for the longest time it has been the best space for a lot of the work that I do – not just writing, but editing, marking assignments, answering emails – tasks that benefit from being my softest, most curious self. These days, because of teaching, writing doesn’t always get my best hours, but I’ve become better lately at getting up and moving to a different space when I’m doing teaching prep or marking assignments, so that my bed is a little more of a protected creative space.
A lot of literature is created in bed from George Orwell to Arundhati Roy. When and where do you feel like you came into a writer’s consciousness? Was that an identity that came easily? Is it one you are still getting used to?
I think I am still coming into a writer’s consciousness, and it seems to lack a precise beginning. I’ve previously characterised my writing life as following breadcrumbs – I will do the work in front of me, and someone will offer me encouragement, so I’ll do the next task, and so on. It’s how it’s always been: high school, university, Honours, PhD; this assignment, that assignment; this publication, that publication; just pick up the next breadcrumb. A big part of what motivates me to write is when others respond or react to what I’ve written, which might sound dreadful – like I need praise or validation in order to write – but there’s no getting around it, unfortunately: when someone finds value in what I have written, I feel less alone in the world.
In some ways a writer’s identity has come ‘easily’ because I’ve just been looking around and doing the next task in front of me. But, in other ways I find my writing identity deeply uneasy, and my absolute uneasiest thing is inhabiting the public, social persona of ‘a writer’ – appearing on panels, mixing with people at festivals, sitting at signing tables, teaching a class or a workshop – where there’s no going back and editing, where I have to commit to whatever ridiculous thing comes out of my mouth first. I find it all quite exhausting and embarrassing and I am still trying to figure out how to be okay in those situations.
Despite my wish to connect with others through writing, I still find it really scary when my work leaves my safe little circle and travels to strangers. I think I’m getting better at letting go of a work once it’s published, and not beating myself up for the things I could have done differently. Janelle Monáe says it well: ‘The beauty of art is that it reveals itself over time, even to the artists who create it.’
I think I am still coming into a writer’s consciousness, and it seems to lack a precise beginning.
That process of revelation is linked to safety as well. And about inhabiting the public sphere too, which takes courage and time. In that way, I think being Asian Australian or being Asian in Australia or being Asian and Australian on Whadjuk Noongar boodja is often about developing an idea of the self that builds from a strong culture and yet not one that dominates or erases or forgets. We are often in between as well as marginalised. Can you talk about yourself and your story in this place, and, how your Asian identity permeates your writing life. I remember how eloquently you spoke about this on a panel for Asian Australian Studies Research Network. I want to hear more!
There is an invisible pressure to do well, to be seen as good and cooperative, carving out a small corner of acceptance at the expense of other ethnic minorities and First Nations people.
‘Invisible’ and ‘permeate’ are very apt words here. It seems to evade articulation. Like the children in Never Let Me Go, we’ve been ‘told and not told’ our place. I remember having the distinct feeling as a child that the cosy idea of ‘you can grow up to become whatever you want’ wasn’t true for me in the way it was for my white peers.
I sense that I’m flinching from talking too deeply about my own life so far in answering this question because my story in this place is still one that is wrapped up in grief (as I explore in my essay ‘A Life, Passing’).
My parents migrated to Australia from Singapore in the eighties. All of us kids – my older brother, older sister, and me – were born here. My sister and I were sent to Saturday Chinese school when we were pre-teens, but I’m very much monolingual. My parents’ mother tongue is Hokkien, but we spoke English at home. My brother has Down syndrome, so a lot of my parents’ care was oriented around his needs as we were growing up. I don’t resent my parents for this at all, and I don’t mean to suggest that I was completely bereft of care as a child, but I think this aspect of my upbringing has permeated my life just as much as being the child of migrants – a sense of, ‘Keep working; don’t mess about; you need to be good.’ A sense that you can’t expect to be a priority.
This sense of priority and of how identity categories interact with lived reality makes it a complex issue that is somehow beyond politics. Where do you stand on the ideology of the hegemonic literary industry? Is it something you counter through humour, through writing itself, through other acts of random kindness and resistance?
Given my breadcrumb-by-breadcrumb approach to work, and my uneasiness with the public persona of a writer, I tend to shrink away from the literary scene, and don’t fight particularly hard to be a part of it. I am grateful to people who keep pulling me in, like Caroline Wood from the Centre for Stories; writers like Shu-Ling Chua, Janelle Koh, Yen-Rong Wong, and Leah Jing McIntosh; and my editor and publisher, Alice Grundy. I could list so many names here, of people who have ever extended me a hand – Jennifer Mills, Michelle Cahill. My long-time mentor at university, Deborah Hunn. I wouldn’t still be writing without people like this, who continually call others into the fold.
Consequently, I think the best thing I can do is just be receptive – believe the people who critique the shortcomings of the literary community, and honour the efforts of those who are trying to make it better.
In my teaching life, I don’t always have the luxury of withdrawing from difficult conversations. I am conscious that my students contribute (or will go on to contribute) to Australian literary culture. I can agonise for a really long time over how to respond to a hostile discussion board post, or an assignment that pushes a toxic ideology. My sister tried to comfort me once by saying that I don’t have to change people’s minds – I just need to issue a contradiction. I’ve felt that this might be a helpful way for me to move forward not just in my teaching life, but in conversations with friends and acquaintances. Just issue a gentle challenge.
I think the best thing I can do is just be receptive – believe the people who critique the shortcomings of the literary community, and honour the efforts of those who are trying to make it better.
That sense of a gentle challenge is a contradiction in and of itself, and, it might be something to aspire to and to find in others as well. I guess departing from that, who are your contemporary heroes? People who write well from anywhere in the world, or, perhaps the exciting works by Asian Australians that you want to share?
I’ve named some of my heroes above – people in the literary world who labour to create opportunities for others, and who don’t hesitate to reach out and connect people—and I should add to that list writers like Jane Rawson, Annabel Smith, and Brooke Davis, who are not only amazing at their craft but are so good at pulling up writers after them.
I still remember that precarious, nervous, excited feeling that rang through me as I was reading Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing several years ago, particularly when I got to the final chapter and so much bizarre stuff goes down – the kind of writing that makes you think to yourself, how is he going to get away with this? And he gets away with it. I get that feeling from Julie Koh’s work as well, and Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, and Jordan Peele’s recent cinematic work—the kinds of plots that make you go :D and D: at the same time. I think that’s where I want to be brave enough to write.
To have that bravery, to have that discipline to write is important; so, what are you working on now? And, can you share a sample of your own work that speaks to these concerns?
I’m working on a collection of short stories, provisionally titled Smart Ovens For Lonely People. I’ve noticed I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bodies, singlehood, and belonging. You can find my short story ‘Washing Day’ in Mascara Literary Review and ‘Our Sleeping Lungs Opened to the Cold’ in Catapult.
I’m also finishing off my stint as co-editor (with Jon Gresham) of In This Desert, There Were Seeds, an anthology of short fiction from West Australian and Singaporean writers. It is a collaboration between Margaret River Press and Ethos Books.
That is about published and future work, but also, since you mentioned students, this conversation makes me think about tomorrow. As a generation, we have lots to deal with and we have to work hard for the people that come after us. Your work is able to combine wry observation about the state of the world with a subtle call to action. It does not harangue, but it probes and observes and proposes new ways of seeing often making me smile as I read. What is the role for writers in creating a better future?
Thank you for your kind words. I think you hit upon a good point earlier when you mentioned a culture that does not dominate, erase or forget. I feel like we can trust that the broad strokes of history will always be there. It’s then the task of writers to document the emotional, personal truths of those broad strokes, and to document the stories and truths that contradict the broad strokes.
I think our other task as writers is to understand, and treat seriously, the feedback loop of stories and reality – that stories and reality propagate one another, and that writing is a responsibility. Structures of oppression are upheld and maintained through story.
I think our other task as writers is to understand, and treat seriously, the feedback loop of stories and reality
That is a really acute observation and such a beautiful way to put it. Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Be prepared to be foolish sometimes; learn when to be quiet and listen and not get defensive. Be realistic about how it is that you have arrived where you have; be grateful, find ways to pay those opportunities forward. Be prepared to emerge and emerge and emerge into the next-size-up nesting doll of insecurity and self-doubt, ever-increasing, never reaching your final shell.
Who are you inspired by?
As well as the folks I have already mentioned, I’m inspired by my friends. They make me want to be a kinder, more generous person. I’m part of a small creative circle called The Tugboats, comprised of friends I’ve made through university: illustrator Mel Pearce and writers Erin Pearce, Eva Bujalka, and Rebecca Higgie (who won the inaugural Fogarty Literary Award). They just continue to create, create, create, through lean financial times, through poor mental and physical health, through weddings and heartbreaks, through rejection after rejection, and they still make time to support and encourage the other Tugboats.
What are you currently listening to?
I sing in a community indie-pop choir called Menagerie, and I’m listening to our rendition of Regina Spektor’s ‘Us’ (arranged by our leader Sal Banyard – another inspiring human) from our Perth Fringe Festival show earlier this year. It’s not often that we’re recorded this well, and I’m normally positioned at the choir’s outskirts in the soprano section where it’s hard to get a sense of how we really sound, so I’m really savouring this recording.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve recently finished Catch A Falling Star by Meg McKinlay, which made me cry a little bit. I’m about to start Through the Arc of the Rain Forest by Karen Tei Yamashita, following a recommendation by someone at an Asian Australian Studies Research Network event.
How do you practice self-care?
I like to take a shower or brush my teeth. Blankets also make me feel pretty happy and safe. I own several blankets and scarves which are big enough to be blankets, and I am always acquiring more. I am Lou Bega in ‘Mambo No. 5’, except the women are blankets.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It lives in those quiet glances of solidarity, when the question, ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘Where is your family from?’ is not invasive or interrogative. A silent understanding that wherever you sit on the hyphen between Asian and Australian—or if those labels mean nothing to you at all—there’s no need to feel ashamed or apologetic for the things that you don’t know, for the words your mouth can’t make. It’s understanding and owning the ways in which you do fit in and wield privilege—the ways in which your Australianness and right-to-be-here isn’t questioned—sitting with that discomfort, and figuring out how to move forward. It’s the sweet little realisation that, despite all that has been lost between one generation and the next, you still draw squares and rectangles according to the order of strokes prescribed in Chinese school.