Interview #44 — Shu-Ling Chua
Interview by Baya Ou Yang
Shu-Ling Chua is a writer of memoir and criticism, focusing on sex, culture, femininity and growing up. Her work has appeared in Feminartsy, Peril Magazine, Seizure, The Lifted Brow and Meanjin. She is working on a collection of essays on coming of age as a young Asian-Australian woman in the twenty-first century.
Baya talked to Shu-Ling about Saturday Chinese school, writing memoir, & defying & complying to stereotypes.
You’ve recently moved back to Melbourne from Canberra. What has changed since you’ve been away?
I moved to Canberra after university for work. I love my parents but I needed to make certain mistakes I couldn’t make in Melbourne. I craved the anonymity of a new city—I became a writer and went through a second adolescence, my real adolescence. I was forced to grow up, to question who I really was and who I wanted to be. It was difficult and heartbreaking, but I met some of my closest friends in Canberra. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them. I learnt to stand on my own feet but I also learnt to let people in.
I love Canberra, but felt like a change after four and a half years. I wanted to spend more time with my parents and my friends in Melbourne. My reasons for leaving and returning grew. I’ll always be grateful to Canberra’s writing community for giving me my first break.
I’m now living with my parents. I’m grateful to my mum for all her support and advice. She’s always reminding me to take it easy and to keep things in perspective. When I was in my early twenties, I was always planning ‘what next’. I thought I’d become more serious and more certain about things with age, but I became less serious and less certain. Since returning, I’m more open to not knowing what will happen, yet more self-assured. Rather than focusing on ‘who I should be’, I’ve learnt to focus on ‘who I am’.
I find that a theme that pervades your writing is that as an Asian woman, you felt your behaviours were only seen as either defying or complying to someone’s expectation of you—whether that be your parents or the man at the bar. Do you still feel this way, and does writing about it help you make better sense of who you are?
I want to believe my decisions are mine, that I’m doing or writing about something because it’s my choice rather than because I’m Asian, because I’ve assimilated or because I’ve ‘sold out’ to whiteness. This feeling is something I’ve grappled with for years and I still feel it. Writing has helped me to understand and accept aspects of who I am. I see each piece building on the previous one. To me, writing is an exercise in detachment; it allows me to excise certain experiences, analyse them and ultimately, set them free.
In writing about sex, I wanted to challenge the stereotype of Asian women as meek and conservative. I’ve built this image of a sexually confident Asian woman—partly true, partly performative—but what if I’m feeding a different stereotype? That of the femme fatale. I can’t win, can I? I can’t control how people see me and my work so I’m focusing on what feels right for me. As one of my closest friends said, “If you’re writing honestly, can it really be a stereotype?”
In your piece for the Stella Prize titled ‘Good Asian/Bad Asian’, you wrote: ‘Before I had to make any decisions about sex, being Asian felt simpler’. Why do you think it is only since you started having sex that you began to critically consider what it means to be Asian-Australian? In what ways do you think your sexuality is tied to race?
Growing up, I was taught a certain idea of what it meant to be Asian-Australian. It meant not dressing provocatively, no lee-lee-lah-lah [messing around with guys] and no premarital sex. When I started having sex, my behaviour and my desires no longer fit with these ideas, my mother’s ideas, of what it means to be a good Asian daughter. I was torn between my then-boyfriend and Mum; neither understood. It was something I had to work through on my own.
It’s terrifying when your identity fractures and you no longer recognise yourself. Writing and talking to friends helped me glue the pieces back into something new. I’ve been thinking and writing about the intersections between sex, race and culture for years. There’s so much to unpack: parental expectations, guilt, racism, sexism, desire, pleasure and more. We don’t think enough about the ways sexuality is tied to race. Whiteness is assumed to be the default and everyone else is either repressed, promiscuous or sexually deviant. There is, of course, variation within whiteness but most discussions of sex assume one is white, young, middle class, atheist, cishet and able-bodied. My recent essay for Meanjin responds to this erasure by exploring representations of Asian female sexualities and their role in my sexual awakening.
The fetishisation of Asian women and emasculation of Asian men in Western media seems obvious, but it’s not. A white guy once said it’d be easier being me on Tinder than him because I’d get more swipes. He conceded I’d have to filter more but that’s beside the point. What’s important is I don’t feel safe or comfortable using Tinder due to racism. Sexual politics and stereotypes matter, because whom we deem desirable and what we project on certain bodies reflect our prejudices and power structures. They determine whose stories are heard and believed. I don’t think any of this is a coincidence.
You’ve published quite a few personal memoirs and shared intimate details about your life; what was the most frightening or otherwise challenging story to tell? Is there anything you’re scared to write about?
I’ve been writing about ‘Asian-ness’ for years but I still feel scared writing about race and culture. Even when I write about something as personal as sex, I need to consider how it represents Asian-Australians and how it could be read by a white audience. Will it be read as an indictment of my family and ‘Asian culture’? It’s frustrating. A white writer is rarely, if ever, expected to explain or represent whiteness in the way I’m expected to write about Asian-ness.
When I first started writing, I didn’t want to write about being Asian but I couldn’t help it. It kept popping up. No one forced me to write about being Asian but I do feel forced. In writing about my life, discussions of race and culture are unavoidable. It’s important to me in the context of representation, but I also want a break. It’s a privilege and a burden. On a more positive note, the response to my writing, particularly from young Asian-Australian women, motivates me to write what I write. Many of these women are now my friends.
You often describe yourself as living the memoir you hope to write one day, and in your talk about mythbusting feminism, you mention how you considered participating in an experience because it might be useful, life-wise and writing-wise. I’d like to talk about your experiences writing about the things that happened, compared to letting things happen in order to write about them. In other words—has the way you live your life changed since you started writing about it? Why do you do it?
This is something I’ve thought about a lot. I started writing a memoir when I was twenty-four but realised a lot of what would be in the book hadn’t happened to me yet. I write about the things that frustrate or confuse me, to control my narrative and because my stories matter. I write about my life to make sense of it.
What I meant in my talk on mythbusting feminism was that I didn’t think I could write realistically about sex without experiencing it, so the last few years have been my ‘guinea pig’ years. I wanted to write the stories I didn’t see. Most stories about sex don’t discuss race and vice versa. I saw a gap and wanted to fill it. I didn’t set out to sleep with men only so I could write about it, but I put myself in environments where it was a possibility. Most of these experiences were painful, mediocre or manipulative, but a few were rewarding or hilarious.
As a memoir writer and a former nonfiction editor for Voiceworks, what do you think makes a great nonfiction piece of writing?
I think great nonfiction possesses conviction, humility and clarity of purpose. It acknowledges, implicitly or explicitly, one’s biases and one’s place in a broader context. Think of it as a dialogue with the reader and with the broader world. If you find a gap, explore it! Great nonfiction is open to other perspectives; it is open to being wrong and vulnerable. Pace and rhythm matter. I also love surprises and lines that read like poetry.
I liked reading that you went to Chinese school on Saturdays and filled in small squares with Chinese characters—because I, like many others, also went to Chinese school. Though you don’t dive into too much detail in the pieces you’ve published, I’d like to hear your thoughts about these temporary ecosystems of Asian-Australianness that popped up every Saturday across the country.
Aww—I feel a bond with anyone who went to Saturday school! I hated going to Chinese school. Who wants to spend another day in school? Especially when most Aussie kids don’t. When I asked why I had to go, Mum said it was because I was Chinese. I don’t remember this but she says I told her I didn’t want to be Chinese.
Looking back, I was lucky. There was enough of a Chinese community locally to set up Werribee Chinese Association. Our parents wanted us to be proud of our Chinese heritage. They did what they could. Most of my childhood friends were Chinese-Australian because we went to Chinese school together. I attended classes on Saturdays all through primary school, stopped for few years, then took after-school classes in high school. I started appreciating Mandarin more as a teen because my high school teacher was amazing. Our classes focused on communication rather than studying Chinese history and geography as we did at Saturday school. I loved using my big, heavy dictionary to decode the meaning of characters—it felt like a puzzle!
Now, I love finding Chinese characters in novels like A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo or The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang. I was relieved to find I could still understand some characters but sad I couldn’t read them all. There’s something incredibly cruel and alienating about losing one’s mother tongue. As a child, my parents and I spoke Cantonese, but English took over when I started primary school.
I’d like to write about language and how it affects the way we perceive the world and express ourselves. The other day, I helped a lost Chinese couple find their hotel. I could hold a basic conversation but that was it. I teared up afterwards because if it weren’t for my great-grandparents emigrating to Malaysia, she could easily have been me, and I her. I could have grown up in Guangdong. Instead, I’m scared I’ll be made fun of if I ever work in China.
A big congratulations on your recent writing residency fellowship! Tell us a bit more about this new project and any other budding projects we can look forward to from you in 2018.
Thank you!! I’m thrilled to be heading to KSP Writers’ Centre in November. I’m working on a collection of essays on coming of age as a young Asian-Australian woman in the twenty-first century. I don’t know exactly what the essays will be about, but I see them as a portrait of my twenties. Writing about sex, culture and feminism is important, but only as part of who I am. I want to write about music, photography, nostalgia, friendship, social media—the little details too. I’d like to also try short stories and photo essays/zines.
I’m also so excited to be joining Peril Magazine as a board member and contributing to Asian-Australian arts and culture in this way. I’m looking forward to organising events and opportunities to bring people together, not just in Melbourne but beyond, and discovering new emerging writers to nurture and love.
You once gave the advice to writers to ask themselves, 'why are you writing?', so I wanted to ask, why will you still be writing in 2018?
I was close to walking away from writing last year because I didn’t know what I wanted to write anymore. In hindsight, I was probably also burnt out from 2016. I took a break from writing and focused on my friendships, within and outside the writing community.
I’ve met so many wonderful people through writing. A highlight last year was speaking at Feminist Writers’ Festival in Canberra. I received an email afterwards from a young woman thanking me for sharing for my voice and my writing. I cried. The thought that my words might make someone feel less alone is why I started writing and why I continue to write.
Do you have any other advice for emerging writers?
Trust yourself and the process. It’s okay if you’re not yet emotionally or technically ready to write what it is you want to write. Wait until you are, and practise in the meantime. You’re not any less of a writer if you have a day job. Read widely and deeply. Give yourself permission to ‘fail’; your writing won’t appeal to everyone and that’s okay. Patience, patience, patience. Learn to tell when to let go and when not to give up. Be bold but also be gentle on yourself.
Who are you inspired by?
My parents, my ‘adopted’ Grandma Toni and my friends inspire me with their generosity. They encourage me and keep me grounded. I wish I could name them all! In terms of writers—Alice Pung, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Durga Chew-Bose, Sylvia Plath and many others inspire me.
What are you currently listening to?
My last dance/writing playlist was called ‘but when we’re dancing i’m alright…’, after ‘Perfect Places’ by Lorde. It included Lorde, Grimes, Lady Gaga, Robyn, Florence + the Machine, Yeo and songs from nights out. I need a new one; it reminds me too much of Canberra.
Lately, I’ve been listening to my auto-generated YouTube mix—it’s mostly electro-pop crossed with Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Eurovision and the odd Deng Lijun song—and ‘You Don’t Sound Asian’ playlists curated by Tanya Ali for Peril.
What are you currently reading?
I recently finished A Bestiary by Lily Hoang and Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin. This year, I want to read more poetry and translated writing. I’m reading Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong at the moment, at the rate of two poems a night. It’s just wow. Invisible Planets, an anthology of contemporary Chinese science fiction edited and translated by Ken Liu, is next on my to-read list. Online, I’ve been meaning to read Winter Tangerine. I’m also currently re-reading Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose.
How do you practice self-care?
I dance to my favourite music, talk with friends or Mum, write in my diary and if all else fails, nap.
I also work really close to The Paperback Bookshop and Hill of Content so I like popping in for a browse at lunchtime. I love running my fingers over the spines of books.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
Being Asian-Australian is switching between PopAsia and AFL one Sunday afternoon, observing both as an outsider. It is writing on a slip of paper in high school ‘I want to be more than just that smart Asian girl’—and crying when I discover this years later. It is feeling at home when I hear Cantonese or Malaysian-English in Sydney, and the ‘Aussie’ accent in New York. It is my parents showing rather than telling me that they’re proud. It is acknowledging my privileges as a young, university-educated, Australian-born Chinese woman from working class roots. It is my friends and my community. It is part of who I am.
Liminal is a proud recipient of the Victorian Government’s 2017 VicArts grants program.
This interview was supported by Creative Victoria.