Interview #87 — Sonia Nair
By Cher Tan
Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based writer and critic. Her work has been published by The Wheeler Centre, The Lifted Brow, Time Out Melbourne and Kill Your Darlings, among many others.
Sonia also blogs about how she never follows her dietary intolerances at whateverfloatsyourbloat.com.
Sonia spoke to Cher about the art of criticism, juggling the tightrope between freelance writing and a full-time day job, and navigating dietary intolerances as a person of colour.
What did you read growing up?
From what sounds like a highly predictable reading list now, I devoured Enid Blyton’s six-novel series Malory Towers, everything set in the Sweet Valley High and Baby-Sitters Club universe that I could get my hands on, and later, Harry Potter. I also had a predilection for trashy prepubescent horror like Goosebumps and—somewhat less predictably—a strange affinity for The Three Investigators, an American juvenile detective book series.
Growing up in Kuala Lumpur between the ages of eight and eighteen, I mainly acquired my motley reading material by visiting a book rental store called Novel House, so I blame its sub-par collection for the reason why my early reading was dominated more by Sweet Valley High than the likes of Austen or Brontë. Everything I read was highly whitewashed—I dreamt of being Sally Hope (Darrell Rivers’ best friend in Malory Towers), swimming in the pool cut into the Cornwall cliff tops, or being with Bob Andrews, the dreamboat in The Three Investigators. It wasn’t until I started reading Harry Potter that I encountered a brown girl in fiction, Parvati Patil.
In my teens, I sought out postcolonial literature and began reading novels and short story collections by South Asian writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Monica Ali, Kiran Desai and Sharon Maas. As someone who didn’t grow up watching Bollywood, Mollywood or Kollywood films, in a religious Indian family, or by speaking Malayalam at home (my parents chose to speak English with my brother and I), I grew up feeling highly disconnected from my heritage. Reading South Asian narratives was one of the few ways I felt unabashedly South Asian.
As a very well-read person and book critic, how do you think your reading habits have changed over time?
In the midst of reviewing Naben Ruthnum’s Curry: Eating, Reading and Race for The Lifted Brow last year, I looked back on my fixation with postcolonial narratives and realised that nearly every book I read in my teens—with perhaps the exception of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection The Interpreter of Maladies and the works of Kiran Desai—fell into what Ruthnum terms ‘currybooks’.
According to Ruthnum, currybooks are ‘the nostalgic, authenticity-seeking reconciliation-of-present-with-past family narratives’ which cover a predictable set of themes: the constant quest for belonging, the feeling of being in two worlds at once while feeling at home in neither, and the promise of salvation on the mystical shores of India. They’re formulaic, limiting and predictable, but I found them comforting as a second-generation Indian migrant, and Ruthnum encapsulates why perfectly:
The disconnected experience of being a person in the West, let alone a person of colour in the West, doesn’t lend itself to a sense of comfort or peace: fitting your own story to a narrative where answers are to be found in a familial, national past can be extremely soothing.
I don’t think I’m above books with banyan trees and mangoes on the front cover, but I read differently. My favourite books nowadays are still by women of colour, but they’re messy and crude and defy simple categorisation. Jenny Zhang’s scatological Sour Heart and Xiaolu Guo’s immensely affecting A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers were two of my favourite reads last year.
I’m also excited by supernatural Southeast Asian narratives with a feminist bent (like Apple and Knife by Intan Paramaditha and Ponti by Sharlene Teo, for instance) that resurrect familiar emblems of my childhood, recasting them to challenge traditional notions of femininity. I’ve always been drawn to short stories, and I Iove how local writers like Roanna Gonsalves and Melanie Cheng are working within its confines to make searing observations on what the idea of ‘Australia’ means, particularly if you’re a non-white settler living on stolen land.
To be honest, I have large gaps in my reading repertoire where classics should sit, and maybe one day I will sit down and read Lolita in full, but it’s hard to care too much when my to-read pile include the likes of Rachel Khong and Min Jin Lee.
Reading South Asian narratives was one of the few ways I felt unabashedly South Asian.
I want to talk about your blog Whatever Floats Your Bloat. It puts such a refreshing (and sometimes humorous!) spin on eating as someone with dietary intolerances—something we hardly see in the ‘wellness’-centric western landscape. It's also a great guide to Melbourne's many eateries. How did it all begin?
Thank you! That’s lovely of you to say. When I first became diagnosed with a lactose intolerance and what I thought was a FODMAP intolerance well into my twenties, I started searching online for experiences that mirrored my own. And while I found numerous intolerance-friendly blogs with easily replicated recipes, I didn’t, at the time, find anyone talking about how difficult it was to adhere to the dietary restrictions these intolerances would often entail, and how easy it was to slip up.
Moreover, I didn’t encounter anyone talking about what it was like for a person of colour—especially one who's obsessed with food and the social ritual of dining—to be curtailed and isolated in a way that was previously unimaginable to them. I’m making it all sound very dramatic, but discovering that onion and garlic—the bedrock of most cooking, but especially the Indian cooking that I grew up eating—gave me flatulence, a bloated stomach and severe cramps was very upsetting.
I also don’t particularly enjoy cooking (this is why the ‘recipe’ tab on my blog is completely unpopulated), so my experience of trying to follow my intolerances was, and still is, very much grounded in the Melbourne dining scene. I’ve always thought about food incessantly, but after being diagnosed, I began charting my meals in a more compulsive manner: meticulously checking menus days in advance to see if there was anything I could eat, planning how I would explain my intolerances to waitstaff, and finally, berating myself when, yet again, I neglected to speak up about my intolerances and ended up sick from eating out. This experience of being both in thrall and at the mercy of food is the focus of Whatever Floats Your Bloat, the name of which I’m forever indebted to my friend Sam van Zweden. It was either that or Bloatsheet.
The premise of the blog is that I visit different eateries every week and accord them a bloat score from zero to five. The bloat score has no bearing on the quality of the food; it’s merely a way for me to gauge how ill something made me feel after. Sometimes, I end up with zero bloats—how people with no dietary intolerances typically feel after a regular meal, but for me, a sensation I cherish. Other times, I end up with five bloats, clutching my distended stomach in pain and rushing to the nearest toilet. There’s also something intrinsically Asian about the scatological nature of Whatever Floats Your Bloat—I grew up in a family where farts are dispensed with and discussed in the open, and my blog’s no different.
In a piece you wrote for SBS Life, you note, ‘if you're a person of colour, the danger of being shut out in the cold and the difficulty in finding alternative ways of “being an adult” are even more pronounced.’ How do you walk that tightrope many Asian-Australians often face—of fulfilling both the roles of eternal child and sensible adult, especially in a white Australian society which doesn't give voice to these experiences?
It’s tricky! I think many of my white friends see me as spoilt and unimaginably lucky to have my parents deliver home-cooked meals to my house (I am, I don’t deny that!) but I don’t think they’re often cognisant of the expectation for young people of colour to support their parents (financially and otherwise), which is often much more pronounced than it is for young white people. The responsibility we feel towards one another as a family unit goes both ways.
In the piece, I talk about the difficulty of finding alternative ways of ‘being an adult’ when you’re a young person of colour who chooses to stay unmarried, but I can apply this same pressure to other things. For example, instead of pursuing the path of becoming a full-time writer, I’ve held down a full-time day job since I was 21. This was, in part, due to cultural expectations, and in part because I didn’t feel as though it was an option for me to not seek a financially adequate way to support myself, especially after all the sacrifices my parents made to fund my tertiary education in another country, something I’m immensely grateful for. I reasoned that the least I could do after graduating with my degree was to secure a full-time job. This meant that I’d never have to ask them for help, and also that I could help them out in return when needed.
I really relate to this sentiment expressed by Jenny Zhang:
But on a macro level, a lot of Asian Americans who want to pursue a creative field don't have the same security blanket that an upper middle-class white kid who comes from generations of wealth and college degrees might have, and because of that financial and psychic insecurity, Asian Americans might be more likely to make sure they have a backup in case ‘being a writer’ doesn't work out.
I grew up in a family where farts are dispensed with and discussed in the open, and my blog’s no different.
Maybe you've been asked this question to death, but for the benefit of Liminal readers: how do you juggle writing so prolifically with a full-time day job?
It’s a perennial struggle. 2018 was probably the busiest (and most professionally fulfilling) year of my life and I got through it by crying a lot, grappling with constant heartburn, and stressing my partner out with my perpetual whingeing about deadlines. I generally worked many weeknights instead of bingeing on Netflix (which is what I’d usually rather be doing), hardly got enough sleep and subsequently crashed on weekends, constantly requesting deadline extensions.
But I don’t want to fetishise burnout. I did write a lot while holding down a full-time job but it often meant other things were falling by the wayside—I wasn’t cooking meals for myself, I wasn’t exercising, I wasn’t living in a clean house that I was proud to invite people into. These are tasks people take for granted and perform without fanfare every single day, but which I found near impossible to do, and I suffered for it. I ended the year feeling what Honor Eastly has termed ‘crispy’, i.e. on the verge of burnout—I still don’t feel as though I’ve fully recovered.
That said however, I’ve started to implement changes to work in a more sustainable, fulfilling manner. I’ve cut back my hours and now work a nine-day fortnight. I've also stepped down from a six-year volunteering gig at human rights media organisation Right Now.
On a week-to-week basis, I compile a comprehensive to-do list that gives me a complete overview of what I have to do and how much time I have to do them. As I’m not one of those people who can wake up at an unearthly hour to write, I often use my daily commute to read books I have to review, write short snippets of whatever it is I’m working on, or, when I’m really pressed for time, address edits on a piece. Sooner or later, however, this tyranny of productivity that demands I use every second of my day gets the better of me, and I compensate by sleeping all day.
But I'm also lucky to work a day job that doesn’t require onerous hours or emotionally demanding work of me—I wouldn’t be able to write as much as I do otherwise.
The writer Hanif Abdurraqib once referred to good criticism as an ‘act of care’. Do you agree with this? Where do you see your criticism sitting with regards to your sensibilities?
I love this way of approaching criticism. The cultural criticism I enjoy writing the most originates with a question or a concern that I’m unable to resolve. One of the most challenging pieces of criticism that I’ve ever written revolved around cultural depictions of sexual relationships between young women and older men, and what this says about the ways society thinks about sexuality and agency.
Before embarking on the piece, I’d watched the films Una and Diary of A Teenage Girl in close succession and was struck by how differently I felt after watching each one, even though they were both films that depicted uneven relationships with huge age differences. To make sense of my divergent reactions, I dove into the political, social and cultural context surrounding the making of each film, and the way things like cinematography and art direction framed the young women’s sexual agency. I also explored other works that portrayed similar depictions of uneven relationships.
I didn’t end my piece with a clear hypothesis, but in writing it, I got the chance to work through the sociopolitical and environmental considerations that shaped my viewing of each film. It ultimately broadened my understanding (and hopefully readers’ understanding) about the ways agency and power are illustrated in film.
You've spoken on and chaired several panels, some of which have included a conversation with celebrity chef Adam Liaw, a panel on the fallibility of Australia's justice system, as well as a recent Time Out talk on gentrification in Footscray. I'm curious about how you prepare for speaking as a writer. Any tips for the less verbally eloquent writers out there?
While I have, on occasion, stolen a beta-blocker or two from a dear friend, my main piece of advice would be to prepare extensively and well in advance. I’ve chaired quite a few panels now, and I’ve found the best way to prepare for them is to dive into everything my fellow panellists have ever expressed about the particular topic at hand—whether that’s in a tweet, a written piece or a televised interview. I enjoy asking them things they’ve never been asked before, but that they’re well equipped to answer—one of the highlights of my interview with Adam Liaw last year was having him go on an unexpected tangent about the differences between ‘flavour’ and ‘taste’. It was such a treat to hear someone as polished and as experienced a public speaker as Adam think through ideas he hadn’t had a chance to work through yet. Moments like these result in the conversations I like best.
I have notes that I bring with me on stage, but I find the process of immersion beforehand helps me when I least expect it—I’m able to refer to a funny thing a panellist may have tweeted about recently, which builds camaraderie and rapport, or I can back up what I’m asking them about with assiduous examples of things they’ve written about in the past. I used to rigidly stick to a formula, reading questions off my notes, but I’ve since started to relax. It doesn’t matter how eloquently worded my questions are, so long as the panellists understand the intent of my questions and are able to answer them in ways that can be illuminating and surprising.
When I’m up on stage, I always feel less nervous once I’ve cracked a joke or showcased my personality in some way, and maybe it’s because I naturally use humour to diffuse tension when I'm anxious. But the audience’s warm reactions always underscores what I know to be true but constantly need reminding of—no one wants you to fail when you’re on stage. They’re on your side.
The cultural criticism I enjoy writing the most originates with a question or a concern that I’m unable to resolve.
Do you have any advice for emerging critics?
Read widely, but also read outside your usual areas of interest. As an early-to-mid career critic, I often have to review genres I wouldn’t naturally gravitate towards in my spare time, and this has helped me break out of any lazy habits I’ve inevitably formed in the way I approach a new work and the narrow parameters I have sometimes found myself working within.
My friend Shu-Ling Chua also told me something that I always try to remember: you don’t have to be writing to be writing. Allowing ideas to percolate before committing them to paper or discussing with a friend what irks or excites you about a particular piece of work is as much a part of criticism as the writing is.
You’re also not any less of an artist or critic for having a day job, and you’re still a writer even if you don’t write every day.
Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by all the women of colour who speak truth to power every single day in this country, even when speaking out comes at the price of their safety and personal well-being. I’m inspired by Yumi Stynes’s strength and composure when calling out racism on national television amidst an all-white panel that tried to gaslight her into thinking what she had done was offensive. I’m inspired by Lidia Thorpe, who had to educate the same perpetrators of this racism about the dispossession of her people in the face of blatant disrespect and the outright dismissal of her views. I’m inspired by Evelyn Araluen, Celeste Liddle and Ruby Hamad who use their platforms to work tirelessly to counter misinformation and advocate for minorities. Across the sea, I’m inspired by and in love with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
What are you listening to?
I’m really enjoying listening to 3CR’s Summer Skool series, and Sisteria’s second season. I’m also a big fan of the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend so I’ve always got songs from that either playing in my head or playing in the background.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading what everyone else seems to be reading at the moment—My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. It’s dark, strangely hilarious and, for some reason, bleakly uplifting.
How do you practise self-care?
My therapist, whom I've just started seeing recently, told me that I lean on the act of being constantly busy as a form of self-care. I will always enjoy the feeling of having multiple things on the go, but the guilt I felt when I wasn’t being “productive” and the constant pressure to do everything all the time wasn’t working out for me, which is why I’m seeing her. Investing in my mental health in this way, exercising when it’s the last thing I feel like doing (which it often is), reading for the sake of reading, and eating something intolerance-friendly instead of ordering the spiciest thing on the menu is how I practise self-care.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
I find this question really fraught. As someone who was neither born in Australia nor spent my formative years here, I’m not sure if I identify with being Australian. My sense of belonging in this country is tempered by the fact that I don’t have an Australian passport—my entry is often complicated by rigorous questioning ascertaining if I have the right to be here. And, despite my perfected Australian accent acquired from my eighteen intermittent years here, sentences inadvertently uttered in the Manglish style that I grew up speaking immediately alert Australians to my outsider status.
Even I were to become an Australian citizen, I don’t know if this feeling of alienation would fade. People don’t often regard me as ‘Asian’ because of their reductive notion of what being Asian entails—which often precludes South Asians—but I am Asian. Despite the multiplicities of what this term represents, it means relating to one another over how we don’t wear our shoes in the house and how we brush our teeth before eating.