Interview #106 — Jessie Tu
by Cher Tan
Jessie Tu is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. She was born in Chung Hua, Taiwan and emigrated to Australia in 1992 with her family. Her debut novel, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing (Allen & Unwin), will be published in 2020.
Jessie spoke to Cher Tan about carving out your own heroines, self-actualising on the page, and taking back power for ourselves.
How did your journey as a writer begin?
I’ve been keeping a journal every day since I was about five. I was an ESL kid, which meant I was pulled out of regular classes for a few hours each week and tasked with daily journal entries by our ESL teacher. I loved it.
In those journal entries, I wrote about things I did with my family: things like going to the beach and shopping. There were lots of shopping centre trips. Mostly, it was a way for me to articulate things I wasn’t able to describe verbally, because I was shy and always have been. Always will be. I’m much more comfortable on the page than in person, though it may not come across that way.
People are always saying to me that they can tell I’m smart after a few minutes of talking to me, and I always wonder why. Recently, I heard an interview between Jelani Cobb and Hilton Als, where Cobb said something like, when you’re a minority, you find mechanisms to be dignified, and many of us develop a “calibrated precision” with language. I found that really spoke to me. I suppose writing every day meant I was always giving myself the space to show up on the page, rather than in person.
You used to be a school teacher. In an op-ed for the Guardian, you wrote,
“At many schools I am the only Asian teacher. My first teaching placement was at James Ruse architectural high school, where up to 97% of students speak a language other than English at home. And yet, I, along with my supervisor, who was of Asian heritage, were the only teachers who racially represented the majority cohort of students.”
How have you navigated this, and how do you think this fundamental flaw in our system can be changed?
I’ve always tried to really separate my Asian advocacy with my job as a teacher. When I was teaching, I would feel a bit stifled because it seems unprofessional to assert your personal beliefs to your students. But I feel that my ethnicity—and more strongly, my feminist beliefs—is such a tremendous part of me that I struggled to compartmentalise this in schools as a teacher.
Perhaps the only way we can diversify the teaching cohort in Australia is to pay teachers more. I don’t know. Or shift the culture of how teachers are regarded in the wider society. Many researchers in the U.S can speak to this much better than I can. Over there, race is so much part of their daily lingo. And it’s within schools, during a child’s formative years, where many of our beliefs and attitudes are formed. So there’s much to say with regards to making the teaching cohort more racially diverse.
I suppose writing every day meant I was always giving myself the space to show up on the page, rather than in person.
Of late, I’ve been thinking about the various interests and/or obsessions that artists have that don’t make it into their work for whatever reason. Your writing very firmly centres gender politics, sexuality, family and the diaspora. Are there things you’re interested in that you don’t write about? And why?
Yes. I am absolutely obsessed with film. But I remain paralysed to write about it. I have many friends who are film critics and they do it professionally, and they do it so well. As a result I feel I’d be stepping into someone else’s territory if I were to start writing about film. It’s a world I enjoy, but as a viewer and not as a critic. I don’t see myself crossing over anytime soon. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean you have to do it.
I’m also really interested in architecture. It’s the most concrete manifestation of art and storytelling. It’s a world I’m easing into with trepidation, but my interest in it is entirely joyful and built on curiosity more than anything else. I am most fascinated by the language of architecture. I would love to go back to university one day and study it just for its infinite complexities.
What do you do to attain buoyancy in your practice?
I read. I’m a huge reader of essay collections. Essays are where people sit down and take you through their thought process around a certain issue or question; it’s mesmerising and completely interesting. I’m obsessed with the annual Best American Essays collections. I re-read each edition about five times.
I am absolutely obsessed with film. But I remain paralysed to write about it.
You recently sold your debut literary novel, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, to Allen and Unwin. What is it about, what themes do you explore in the book?
I was trying to answer some very hard and concrete questions. And it’s grounded by the issue of sex, particularly from an Asian woman’s perspective. I find that these narratives have historically been hijacked by dominant male culture—the power has always been stripped from us.
I’m not really interested in love or sex as a concept, because it’s an overused method of determining or defining women. I wanted to write a character who repudiates her attachments and desires, and then transforms her immanence to a form of transcendence. Basically, I wanted to write an Asian woman who is simply trying to pursue basic liberty. Even today, it still feels fresh and new for an Asian woman—or any woman, for that matter—to be able to do that, because as Jia Tolentino writes in her book Trick Mirror, “our culture has configured women’s liberty as corrosion”, and we’ve mostly seen women who “entrust their sense of self to (the male’s) gratification.”
Our literary traditions have always been shaped by male power. And I want to change all that. To “access an original source of authority,” as Tolentino says. I find that really sexy and exciting.
Further, she goes on to write that, “In the introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes that the “drama of woman” lies in the conflict between the individual experience of the self and the collective experience of womanhood.” And I think this was what I want to explore in my book. This idea that, to myself, I am “inherently central and essential”; but to the society around me, I remain “inessential, secondary”. This is what angers me the most, that my personhood is shaped by the relationships I have with men. This is even more pronounced for an Asian woman..
Finally, I wanted to subvert the narrative that a woman needs to have plenty of sex to feel empowered. It’s also a book that explores female friendship, mother-daughter relationships, and the quandaries faced by people in the arts, especially if you’re perceived as a prodigy.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Anyone who was ever made an impact within the annals of history knew what they were doing was important. You really need to just convince yourself that what you have is worthy, regardless of what other people might say.
I think I get a lot of power and strength from reading history, women’s history in particular. Once you read enough of it, you’ll quickly see a pattern emerge. And this pattern is usually one where the man has given himself the authority, space and permission to do what he believes to be valuable and important without having to fight as hard as women.
So decide that you have something to say, even if it feels like you don’t. Decide, and then do.
Who are you inspired by?
Jia Tolentino, Rebecca Solnit, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning. Women who came before me, and women who are writing now. Women doing stuff and being unapologetic about it. Women who are furiously carving out a path that’s not been taken before. I like revolutionary women. It’s such a lonely place to be, doing your own thing. That’s why I find these women to be tremendously inspiring. Most people would do anything to avoid feeling lonely.
It’s such a lonely place to be, doing your own thing.
What are you currently listening to?
Dinah Washington. Art Blakey. Chet Baker. I think the jazz world is notoriously sexist and generally a total boy’s club, especially in Sydney, but I only listen to jazz. There are some exceptions, like William Wild and Boy and Bear. But mostly jazz.
I can’t help how my constitution and body responds. Physiologically, my body gels with jazz—it’s something sub-primal I can’t really explain. Jazz is sexy and I like sexy things. And when I say sexy, what I mean is something that’s laid-back, unapologetic, and utterly, utterly original. It’s got nothing to do with sex at all.
What are you currently reading?
Books for work (I’m a journalist at Women’s Agenda). So, non-fiction books written by Australian women on STEM subjects. As for personal reading, I’m almost through with Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women. I’m also re-reading Sharp by Michelle Dean. As I said, women who came before me, women artists—they really are the fuel for my drive.
How do you practice self-care?
I need to be able to spend a lot of time by myself. I’m very, very strict about this. I didn’t used to be—in the past, I would measure my self-worth based on the number of friends I had, how many nights I was out. But I’m now in my 30s, and I feel that those things no longer nurture me. I’m much more intentional about how I spend my time, and I make sure to carve out time for myself. This can be so hard for some women: we’re still rewarded for how well we serve others.
Also, I try not to rush when I’m cultivating my time, both when it comes to reading and writing. I try and take my time. I try to see a film alone, though I don’t do this as often as I used to. Now that I have many film enthusiast friends, I’m usually accompanied by someone.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means being someone who is unapologetically complex and constantly on the move.
At the end of her essay “Pure Heroines”, Jia Tolentino mourns about the absence of an “identification” which would “never be truly reciprocal”. As an Asian woman, I am forced to see myself within the “universal” heroes in history, whereas white people would “rarely, if ever, be expected or able to see themselves in me.”
For the first 18 years of my life, all I ever read were books by straight white men. Sometimes there’d be a few white women in the mix. Like many other people of colour, I intuitively drew myself to them because I didn’t know anything else. It’s only through writing that I’ve made better sense of who I truly am. Of course, my true identity is constantly shifting, but I feel that writing has allowed me to carve out a truer version of who I want to be.
It’s far easier now in 2019 to find other Asian Australians to run to and wail about common experiences. I find that really important. There’s not enough people in mainstream media who look like me, and so you grow up feeling like you inherently don’t belong in this country.
I want to change that.