Interview #114 — Joey Bui
by Shirley Le
Joey Bui is a Vietnamese Australian writer. She has just published her first collection of short stories, Lucky Ticket, based on interviews with migrants around the world.
Joey Bui talked to Shirley Le about her journey into the literary world and her creative process behind her debut collection of stories Lucky Ticket.
What are some of your earliest memories of literature?
Myths and legends. As a kid, I looked for every book in the local library (Springvale Library) about Ancient Egyptian and Greek myths and legends. My mum also told me stories from One Thousand and One Nights.
I read in another interview that you wrote your first book when you were nine years old! What was the book about and where is it now?
It was about these twins, Linny and Linna, and their dragon sidekick, fighting battles in an underground world. I wrote it in an exercise book in school—I remember passing it around to some friends to read. No idea where it is now.
The stories in Lucky Ticket are written from a wide range of cultural perspectives—what was your creative process behind adopting different voices?
The stories are set in places that I’ve been to. I conducted interviews, I read the local literature, I studied the history, art, politics, and music of places. I consulted friends that grew up there. That’s the practical side of it. The larger part of the work is empathy. How can I put myself in somebody else’s shoes as much as possible? Imagine what it’s like in their head? Once I know what their voice sounds like, I can start writing.
What was the emotional journey behind writing Lucky Ticket like for you?
I had the worst writer’s block with the title story, ‘Lucky Ticket.’ I didn’t feel ready to do it yet, but my mentor pushed me on a deadline. So I forced myself to write scene after scene, thinking it was subpar, hating myself a little bit for it. For example, one morning I said, ok today I’m going to write a resurrection scene—thinking how ridiculous that was and even if it wasn’t, I can’t pull it off. But Lucky Ticket turned out to be my favourite story. It taught me to let go of waiting to ‘feel right’ in order to write.
The emotional journey behind each story is very different. The stories are very character-driven, so it’s about how I have come to understand each character. For another example, it took me a while to channel exactly what the emotional struggle was in ‘Before the Lights Go Out.’ Ngodup is a character who doesn’t understand why he’s letting people down. He’s not in touch enough with his own emotions, and barely aware of the emotions of those around him. So it took me a while to get the right emotional note for him; then figure out where to take it.
The larger part of the work is empathy. How can I put myself in somebody else’s shoes as much as possible?
There is one story in Lucky Ticket dedicated to Nam Le, what impact does his work have on you?
Nam Le’s The Boat is the most influential work to me. I read it when I was fifteen, and that was when it clicked for the first time — that literature could be about people like me; not just about white families. And obviously, it’s brilliant. I was able to met Nam Le two weeks ago. He was friendly, supportive, and appreciated that I had dedicated to a story to him. We discussed what it is like to publish your first book, MFA programs, and whether fiction writers can write about people from other cultures. It felt like a realisation of those ‘Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?’ things. My dinner party is an afternoon with Nam Le in a Melbourne cafe, geeking out about writing.
How do you make time to write?
Writing is a priority, because it’s something that I know I’ll always be doing. To an extent, that’s how I think. Whatever I’m doing, I’m lowkey looking out for stories I could write. On a more concrete note, Google Calendar and Google Tasks help.
What was studying literature at university like?
I went in planning to study political science. But then I was so strongly pulled to literature, nothing else made sense. Literature made me feel like I had a real natural strength. I also believe in the importance of literature; how well it trains the mind and expands people’s horizons. NYU Abu Dhabi’s literature curriculum is also different in that it tries to be more global. Some of the most influential texts I studied there were Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, which is still the most haunting text I’ve ever read, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Clarice Lispector’s Hour of the Star. My professors at NYUAD are the first people that I thank in my book’s acknowledgments. They were my champions. It’s transformative, when you are about eighteen, to feel like someone sees promise in you.
What would you say is the role of the writer in today’s world?
I think fiction may be the art that draws most on empathy. Readers put themselves into someone else’s life when they read, in an active and sustained way. The writer’s role is to choose which lives will be seen, which voices will be heard — where the empathy will be directed.
What is your hope for the future of the Australian literary industry?
I hope that Australian fiction grows to a point where most Australians’ favourite books would be books written by Australians.
How has life changed for you since Lucky Ticket has been published and what’s next?
Honestly I’ve been feeling like I’m living my dream. It’s a thrill for me every time someone reads my writing. Next, I’m hoping to write a novel.
My dinner party is an afternoon with Nam Le in a Melbourne cafe, geeking out about writing.
Who do you write for?
My ideal reader is probably young people of colour living in the West. Especially those with their own histories or family histories of migration. I hope that they read these stories and feel like their stories are worth being told.
And then I hope that other readers will read these stories to better understand the difficulties that come with migration.
How is Harvard Law going and what are your hopes for your future in law?
I’m currently sitting at the airport, about to fly the 25-hour journey to Boston to get to my second year at Harvard. I’ve downloaded hundreds and hundreds of pages of readings that I have to get done on the flight. Harvard Law is intense, but rewarding. I hope to be a trial lawyer in the future.
It’s transformative, when you are about eighteen, to feel like someone sees promise in you.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Work really hard. Don’t underestimate the hard work part of art.
Who are you inspired by?
Nam Le, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Clarice Lispector, Chimamanda Adichie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sherman Alexie, Jia Tolentino, Mindy Kaling.
What are you listening to?
Frank Ocean and Lizzo.
What are you reading?
Just finished Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie. Up next is Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad and Nina Kenwood’s It Sounded Better in My Head.
How do you practice self-care?
I work out regularly, eat as much dessert as I want, usually sleep seven or eight hours, and get as much alone time as I need.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means anticipating and navigating people’s biases, fighting for more and better representation, and my family’s refugee background.