Interview #97 - Melanie Cheng
by Elizabeth Flux
Melanie Cheng was born in Adelaide, raised in Hong Kong and now lives in Melbourne.
Her debut short story collection, Australia Day, won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (VPLA) for an unpublished manuscript and the 2018 VPLA for fiction.
Melanie spoke to Elizabeth about growing up in Hong Kong, balancing careers as a GP and an author, and the Eurasian experience.
What’s the first story you remember writing?
I’m sure I wrote many stories in high school, and even during primary school, but the one I remember most, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the one I won a prize for. It was the school’s annual short story competition and the theme was “red”. I had just returned from a trip to Kenya with my parents and had written a story about the Maasai people. Even though I was young and didn’t understand the politics, I was living in British-ruled Hong Kong and had some sense of the injustice and traumatic legacy of colonisation.
In Kenya, I found another place where locals were treated as second-class citizens. I visited the old colonial buildings with their wide verandahs and manicured gardens, and while I understood how incredibly seductive that life must have been, I recognised that such a lifestyle depended upon the oppression of an entire race of people. During my time in Kenya, locals told us how the Maasai had resisted the British invaders and those stories appealed to me. In my story, red was the colour of the Maasai people’s clothes and the spilt blood of the speared colonialists. I’m not sure where that story is now but I hope for my sake that it never again sees the light of day!
Do you think fiction can sometimes be a more effective way of delivering hard truths than non-fiction?
Most definitely. I would go so far as to say that in this world of social media and fake news, fiction is the last bastion of truth. It’s ironic that we need a make-believe world to understand the real world, but the beauty of fiction is that it’s immersive. I watch my kids and see how comfortable they are surrendering to their imagination, and it strikes me that as adults we rarely allow ourselves this freedom. Reading fiction is one way. Good fiction seduces us—it lures us into new worlds and dazzles us with beauty and horror. It’s in this state—when our minds are open and our prejudices are suspended—that we are most ripe for the delivery of hard truths.
You work as a GP while also having a successful career as a writer—was there ever a period of time where you thought you’d have to choose between these two threads of your life?
I did the English GCE Advanced Level in Hong Kong, rather than the Australian high school certificate. Most people only do three or four A-Levels, and this meant that at the premature age of 16 I had to narrow the focus of my studies, essentially choosing between an arts stream and a science stream. I loved English literature and visual art but I also loved chemistry and biology, and I suppose years of listening to my pragmatic Chinese father won out in the end. But in my final high school yearbook, I still included “writing a novel” as one of my key ambitions.
I would go so far as to say that in this world of social media and fake news, fiction is the last bastion of truth.
How did you find ways to channel your creative side during those years? Or did you put it completely to one side as you focused on science?
As you know, medicine is all consuming. I hardly read fiction, let alone wrote any, during the six years of my medical degree. But I don’t resent the time I spent devoting my life to studying medicine. All those experiences have contributed to my writing and my understanding of the world. When I look at my short story collection I see it as a culmination of all my life experiences up until that point. Therein lies the beauty of being a writer. Nothing is a waste of time—everything is material.
At first glance it might seem like being a GP and being a writer are two completely separate jobs—but do you think the two inform and enrich one another? And if so, how?
General practice and writing are good companions. One skill essential to both is empathy. To be a good and caring GP you must be able to imagine what life is like for the patient sitting in the chair opposite you; to be a good writer, you must be able to get into the head of your characters—people who may be very different to you. General practice and literature are both concerned with the human condition—birth, illness, loneliness, sex, anxiety, depression, death—and they do this through the medium of stories. The most famous author-physician, Anton Chekhov, is famous for saying: “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress; when I get bored of one, I go to bed with the other.”
When I was a medical student, I found a lot of people made assumptions about my capabilities and career plans purely based upon my gender. Having seen friends go into the field, it seems these attitudes—that women should only occupy specific specialisations, that they are often assumed to be nurses while their male colleagues are not—are still going strong. In some cases with a strong side of racism. Have you encountered this? And if so, how did you tackle it?
Most workplaces are microcosms of society and the medical world is no different. I don’t know if it’s worse than the corporate world or indeed the publishing world, but racism and sexism definitely exist. There are certain disciplines, like surgery, that have bad reputations when it comes to attitudes to women. The long hours and the lack of flexibility make life difficult for female trainees and consultants who want to have a family. More often than not, it’s a culture of attrition. The person rewarded is not necessarily the most skilled or the most knowledgeable but simply the last man standing.
I don’t know if I’ve tackled any of this other than to remove myself from it. This could be seen as cowardly or as a means of self-preservation. The world of general practice is a different place to hospital-based medicine. There is flexibility, a greater appreciation for work-life balance and a reduced focus on career trajectories. You don’t go into general practice to have your ego stroked. The happiest GPs often work part-time and derive meaning and enjoyment from the work itself.
General practice and writing are good companions. One skill essential to both is empathy.
Very specific writing question: how do you make the dialogue in your work so realistic?
I’m so pleased you think so, thank you. Dialogue is something I find relatively easy to write. When I write dialogue I often write fast and everything just flows. I once read that dialogue should be used to reveal character and never to advance plot; I’m always nervous about absolutes but I think there is definitely some truth to that. I suppose I spend a lot of my time talking to patients and listening to people. One important thing about dialogue in both real life and in books is that it’s just as important, if not more, to listen to what people aren’t saying.
You were born in Adelaide and then moved to Hong Kong—what was it like growing up there as Eurasian?
My mum recently told me a story about how, after my first day at school in Hong Kong, I came home really excited because there were other kids in the class “just like me”. She reflected on how sad that made her feel, because up until that point she hadn’t realised I was aware of my difference. I now believe I was lucky to spend my formative years at an English school in Hong Kong, because while Eurasians were not the norm, they certainly weren’t an oddity. In fact, by the time I got there, in the mid 1980s, Eurasians were pretty mainstream. Randee, the girl assigned to look after me on my first day at school, was half-British and half-Filipino.
While I was growing up in Hong Kong, there were quite a few prominent and powerful Eurasian men and women in the media. If anything Eurasianness was fetishized, with Eurasians frequently used as models in advertising campaigns. The other benefit of completing my schooling in Hong Kong was that I was spared from the experience of being a Eurasian teenager in Australia during the peak of the Hanson era. For this I am grateful. I know Eurasians who lived through that period and some of them had a hard time.
Sometimes to me being Eurasian feels like having a foot in each camp but never fully belonging to either one of them. What are your thoughts on this?
I think there’s some truth to that. I don’t speak Chinese so I know I will never be Chinese enough. But I didn’t feel Australian when I first moved here from Hong Kong either. 20 years later I feel pretty comfortable telling people I’m Australian. Part of this has to do with starting my own family in Melbourne. My kids don’t know any other home and as we make new memories together, Melbourne feels more like home to me too. It helps that almost half of the families in my friendship group have Eurasian kids—it’s very much the norm within my circle of friends. But I know this is not the case in many other parts of Australia.
When you did move to Australia, did you find it to be a big adjustment?
It was harder than I’d anticipated. I guess I’d assumed that as a native English speaker who’d lived an “expat”-type lifestyle in Hong Kong, I would slide neatly into Melbourne. But for a long time I felt like an outsider—I had to explain myself all the time. When I told people I was from Hong Kong, they often told me how well I spoke English, not realising it was the only language I spoke! I grew tired of being told I didn’t look Chinese. There were other adjustments too. 20 years ago Melbourne felt like a small and quiet place compared to Hong Kong. It also felt a bit scary—I was used to noise and having bars on my windows. Australia felt eerily quiet, and those picket fences didn’t look like much of a deterrent to potential intruders!
What’s a typical day for you?
Every day is a little different but it always begins with me dropping the kids off at school and kinder. I’m usually frantic, shouting at my 4-year-old to put his shoes on and searching desperately for my car keys. Three out of five days, I work as a GP at a university health service. I see patients with predominantly mental health issues and sexual health concerns. I love my job. The most gratifying experiences I’ve had as a GP have involved treating people successfully for depression.
After work, I grab lunch and a coffee while I deal with emails. If I have time I try to get a few hours of writing done at the library. Before I know it, it’s time to pick up the kids again, and I’ll pop into the supermarket to grab something quick for dinner on my way to school. The rest of the day is a blur of cooking, homework, bathing, brushing teeth and bedtime stories before my husband and I collapse into bed. Depending on my mood, I might read a book from my towering To-Be-Read pile, or watch some trash TV before calling it a night. Of course, along the way I’ll do a bit of tweeting. A blissfully boring life!
My mum recently told me a story about how, after my first day at school in Hong Kong, I came home really excited because there were other kids in the class “just like me”.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Yes, lots! Firstly: don’t wait for the time to be right. Life happens and rarely will you be gifted with a long stretch of time and the perfect conditions to write the next great Australian novel. I only started writing seriously when I was pregnant with my daughter. It took the looming threat of sleepless nights and a young child to spur me into action. But it meant that I learnt to write in short bursts. I have written things with my son literally hanging from my neck and screaming for my attention (please don’t judge me!)
Secondly: show others your work. Everyone, even the most famous and successful writers, need an editor—why should you feel you’re any different? Yes, it’s scary and confronting but it’s also necessary. Find writer friends or a writing group and share your works-in-progress—it will make all the difference.
Thirdly: be persistent. It’s a cliché, I know, but like many clichés, it’s true. I’m absolutely certain there are lots of writers far more talented than me who haven’t published a book—the only difference is that I kept submitting.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some steely, confident person—far from it. Every time I missed out on a shortlist I would descend into a deep despair. My brain would echo with the automatic negative thoughts that have plagued me all my life: you’re shit, what makes you think you can be a writer? You’re wasting your time. But it was momentary. As the days rolled on, that despair would eventually, thankfully, morph into an angry kind of passion—to keep going, to try harder, to do better.
Who inspires you?
I hate celebrity culture. Once you start idolising someone—whether it be an actor, a singer, a politician, or even a writer—you lose your ability to see them and what they produce with a critical eye. This is dangerous territory and why so many people are disappointed and disillusioned with public figures.
I prefer to take my inspiration from people I’ve encountered throughout my life. People I know. People living ordinary lives and managing to make the world a better place, and not for any recognition or acclaim. My grandmother, who lived through the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, buried two children and faced a long and brutal death from stomach cancer. My friend, who pulled herself together after the sudden death of her husband to care for her two young sons. My in-laws who escaped the war in Lebanon to make a new life for themselves in Australia. And, of course, all the patients I’ve met over the years who have faced illness and death with incredible grace and resilience.
How do you practise self-care?
To be honest, it’s a struggle. Mostly it works, but I’m conscious I’m always teetering on the precipice. When something doesn’t go according to plan, like if there’s a stressful situation with a patient at work, or one of the kids gets sick, or an interview goes really badly, then I do tend to collapse in a heap. Luckily, I have a supportive family to pick me up when this happens. And I’m good at making an effort to see my friends—old friends who are not from the literary community—which helps. But I do need to do some more regular form of exercise—maybe after the novel!
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
I have to say, I don’t really identify with that term. When I came to Melbourne for uni I hated the way the word “Asian” was used to describe all people from Southeast Asia. I understand now that the phrase is linked to funding streams but when it comes to describing myself, I prefer the term Chinese-Australian. While I understand that there is a commonality to the migrant experience, I reject the homogenising of the whole of Southeast Asia. When I was in Hong Kong people would never dream of doing this—even Chinese people were differentiated according to whether they were from Hong Kong, or northern or southern China. I think the impulse to lump us all into one big group has its roots in colonisation and the incapacity (or laziness) of British and European colonisers to distinguish between people from different countries. Yes, we can be stronger together but it’s okay and even desirable to acknowledge and celebrate our different histories and traditions.