Interview #60 — Stephen Pham
by Leah Jing
Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta.
His work has appeared in Meanjin, Overland, Sydney Review of Books, The Lifted Brow and SBS Life. In 2018, Stephen received the NSW Writer’s Fellowship from Create NSW to commence work on his debut manuscript Vietnamatta.
Stephen Pham speaks to Leah about SWEATSHOP, embracing the hyphen, and destabilising hierarchies of culture.
When did you first decide you wanted to become a writer?
Although I enjoyed writing stories for school, I never felt like writing was something I could pursue. Being a working class Vietnamese-Australian at a selective school impressed on me the idea that art was for dropkicks.
That changed in my first year of university, when I was miserable from flunking actuarial studies. I took a creative writing course to cheer myself up. The tutor was Jane Gleeson-White, then-fiction editor of Overland. When she read the first draft of my major work, 'Holiday in Little Saigon', she offered to publish it. That was the first time someone had taken me seriously as a writer. I cried. Then I used the money I made from the story to adopt my cat, Pablo.
Sam Cooney, then-editor of The Lifted Brow, contacted me after reading ‘Holiday’ to solicit writing. He also introduced me to Dr. Michael Mohammed Ahmad of what was then known as Westside Writers’ Group, now Sweatshop. Mohammed’s been crucial to my development as a writer.
"Although I enjoyed writing stories for school, I never felt like writing was something I could pursue. Being a working class Vietnamese-Australian at a selective school impressed on me the idea that art was for dropkicks."
In 2017, you were awarded the NSW Writer’s Fellowship, to commence work on your manuscript Vietnamatta. What can we expect?
Vietnamatta is a collection of essays varied in topics but grounded in my perspective as a working class Vietnamese-Australian man from Cabramatta. You can expect something like my current body of work but with more sustained, in-depth explorations of ideas. So I will write about things like the anti-refugee sentiment of Vietnamese-Australians who were former refugees, enjoying Carly Rae Jepsen’s music while struggling to locate her whiteness, and the relationship between the Fast and Furious movie franchise, race, masculinities, and Western Sydney car culture.
"Being professional means that we demand financial compensation for our labour, which is important as artists from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds."
Can you tell us about your involvement in Sweatshop Writers' Collective?
Directed by Dr. Michael Mohammed Ahmad and managed by Winnie Dunn, Sweatshop is an organisation that empowers culturally and linguistically diverse communities through literacy. I’ve been involved with the group for six years, and have facilitated creative writing and critical thinking workshops in high schools across Western Sydney during that time. I recently co-facilitated a workshop alongside my colleague Monikka Eliah at a Western Sydney high school. We were warned that certain students had low levels of literacy as they had come from refugee backgrounds. Once we began reading the story ‘The Boys of Bankstown’ (from Sweatshop anthology Bent Not Broken), which mixes slang from Australian English and Arabic, these same students took much pleasure in teaching their classmates the meaning of the slang. Workshops like these encourage students to take an active role in their relationship to culture, place, and literature.
These workshops pay the writers who facilitate them, leading me to Sweatshop’s other purpose: encouraging the professional development of writers across Western Sydney. Being professional means that we demand financial compensation for our labour, which is important as artists from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Professionalism also requires taking writing seriously as a craft and intellectual pursuit, which can be honed through practice and research.
Sweatshop plays a pivotal role in encouraging literary cultures across Western Sydney. Literacy is fundamental to social change, as Black feminist bell hooks points out in the 1997 documentary Cultural Criticism and Transformation:
[W]e cannot begin to talk about freedom and justice in any culture if we are not talking about mass based literacy movements…degrees of literacy determine so often how we see what see, how we interpret it, [and] what it means for our lives.
For people from CALD backgrounds across Western Sydney, literacy is crucial in our path towards self-determination and solidarity. On a more personal note, Sweatshop is incredibly meaningful to me as a group of writers from immigrant, refugee, and Indigenous backgrounds. It is my primary community, composed of what Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat so succinctly calls ‘accidents of literacy’.
"No matter how much I insist that I only speak for myself, White Australia makes me represent all Vietnamese-Australians. I can’t afford to fuck up. I have to navigate craft, critical distance, and self-awareness to write against the ways that I may be pigeonholed and warped by white supremacy."
Cutting sarcasm with earnestness, I’m interested in how you’ve chosen such a distinct voice within your writing.
A while back, I did a reading at a bar in Melbourne. On the walls hung giant paintings of luchadores with clown makeup smeared onto their faces. In my reading, I sang Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Favourite Colour’, making unwavering eye contact with this mid-twenties white guy in the crowd with smooth, almost pore-less skin, a tastefully tattered puffer jacket, and a mullet that screamed ‘art school’ rather than ‘always profiled by pigs’. He and the people around him stood fixed, faces twitching as they gawked back. I know that I am not a strong singer, but I did it in service of the piece, which was about sincerity. The flat response of the hip young Melbourne crowd suggested that they did not know how to respond to my unapologetic vulnerability.
I had performed the same reading a week earlier in Sydney and the crowd, which was decidedly more mixed in age, race, and class, had laughed along. Their warm reception had suggested to me that they understood that I understood that I was making a fool of myself and I went along anyway. We worked off the common assumption that writing, and reading in public, is inherently vulnerable. That allowed us to bounce off each other’s energy.
As I’ve argued in my essay ‘Good Reader’, making a disclaimer for sincerity in writing is demand for unconditional validation from the audience while shielding the writer from the risks of vulnerability. In these white, middle-class, ostensibly ‘cool’ spaces, writers and audience members gesture towards sincerity and poverty in lieu of having experienced structural vulnerabilities in the intersections between ableism, sexism, racism, and financial insecurity.
In We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, bell hooks writes that
black male “cool” was defined by the ways in which black men confronted the hardships of life without allowing their spirits to be ravaged.
Cool, according to hooks, is about preserving dignity in the face of anti-Black violence. Without oppression, white ‘cool’ is just neoliberal detachment. Being a writer from a working-class, Vietnamese-Australian background, I can never substitute sincerity for craft like this. Occupying space as a writer is a privilege, especially when those from marginalized backgrounds are subject to what British-Jamaican intellectual Stuart Hall calls the burden of representation. Imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy superimposes the messages of the few from oppressed communities that do speak upon the many it silences. No matter how much I insist that I only speak for myself, White Australia makes me represent all Vietnamese-Australians. I can’t afford to fuck up. I have to navigate craft, critical distance, and self-awareness to write against the ways that I may be pigeonholed and warped by white supremacy.
In this dearth of working-class Vietnamese-Australian voices, I find the responsibility to speak to, rather than for, the many, most terrifying. I am most vulnerable when I am trying to tread the line between writing explicit political commentary that my community understands and an aesthetic sensibility that may snub this as didacticism, or, as with ‘Meat pies and bitter melon’ shrug it off as corny diaspora blues. But the stakes are too high for me to give up without trying like white middle-class writers. Whether or not it succeeds, my writing is a record of me doing my best and hoping someone connects with it.
"I am most vulnerable when I am trying to tread the line between writing explicit political commentary that my community understands and an aesthetic sensibility that may snub this as didacticism, or, as with ‘Meat pies and bitter melon’ shrug it off as corny diaspora blues."
In your essay on Bitter Melon, you write that it’s a mistake to think of culture as unchanging, particularly within a diasporic context.
Being functionally illiterate in Vietnamese, I’ve always felt the question of authenticity hanging over me. It is as if every word of English I’ve learnt was at the expense of a Vietnamese one. I viewed myself more as a leaking receptacle of culture than as an agent shaping and defining it. I have since learnt to embrace the hyphen in ‘Vietnamese-Australian’, viewing myself as a hybrid, something new, rather than one or the other.
Reframing culture in this way minimises the presence of authenticity built around cultural practices and knowledge, which can be obtained by anyone with enough time and wealth anyhow. Authenticity is a fraught concept in a cultural landscape shaped by White Australia’s commitment to eradicating the cultural practices and knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, namely in the ongoing Stolen Generation. So it’s imperative for me to think about connections to cultures in a different way, if only by complicating notions of authenticity.
The Lifted Brow recently published your essay, ‘Centring the Crush: The Ephemeral Joy of Carly Rae Jepsen’. My favourite line was in the bonus track—'with each critique of whiteness I generate, i develop further my own sense of identity as a person of colour’. Can you speak to this?
As a term, ‘people of colour’ is defined against whiteness without invoking it (see: ‘nonwhite’). At uni this one time, the white tutor asked the class, ‘When was the last time you felt white?’ I looked across the horseshoe formation of tables and made eye contact with the only other person of colour in the room, a Zimbabwean-Australian man. We gave each other The Look because the tutor had so clearly ignored us. That’s one example of coming together against whiteness. Our perspectives as people of colour, as people who are explicitly racialised, allowed us to point out whiteness, which surfaces as an innocence to racialisation.
That essay was a challenge for me to write, because I struggled to reconcile my enjoyment of Carly Rae Jepsen’s music with her whiteness. I could not point out what exactly in her music corresponded to the whiteness that she embodies, and I felt like that delegitimised my perspective as a person of colour. Race, class, and gender permeate everything; being unable to identify whiteness doesn’t mean it isn’t present, but that I am too embedded in the latter part of my Vietnamese-Australian identity.
In ‘Travel Whiter’, you consider a very familiar experience of living as a diasporic body and experiencing ‘culture’ in Australia:
I still thought of culture as a two-tier system: there was the culture that was celebrated once a day on Multicultural Day, costumes, dances, and 50c food, mostly facilitated by mums wearing their cultural clothing, the culture that I possessed but could not evolve; then there was the culture we studied every other day of the year, things like Shakespeare and Joyce and Winton, culture we had to earn.
How did you break down these two tiers? What can we do to destabilise this hierarchy?
White supremacy in Australia privileges European cultures above all. French cuisine costs more than Vietnamese cuisine because Asians’ labour isn’t worth as much as white people’s. Spanish accents are sexy and Indian accents mocked because European cultures are refined while Asian cultures are vulgar. Approaches like Multicultural/Harmony Day in schools, where non-European cultures are showcased once a year, encourage a consumption-based approach to said cultures, while in-depth studies of White individuals and movements in curricula reinforce European cultures as more complex and worthy of contemplation.
A useful if simple binary is that the cultural products of people of colour are products of and for the body, while those of White people are of and for the mind, with the latter privileged over the former. This mind-body split is White nonsense, but it’s deeply embedded in Australia as a settler-colonial nation. Breaking this hierarchy on a wide level requires nothing less than structural overhaul that questions the very basis of this society.
Personally, I am still navigating this. At the moment, as in the Carly Rae Jepsen essay, I am doing my best to identify the Whiteness in the texts I consume, if not to be critical, then to be conscious of it. I prefer to consume White texts from a place of distrust: did I truly enjoy that, or did they just articulate something from a position I wish I occupied?
Conversely, I am learning to give the benefit of the doubt to texts by people of colour. This doesn’t come from a place of condescension. It comes from the recognition that the White standards of excellence I have been taught aren’t sufficient in understanding and appreciating texts from Others. One especially important lesson I’ve learnt in consuming texts by Vietnamese-Australians is to disregard the temptation to label them as either progressive or conservative. A more helpful question is perhaps how have these texts been useful to their creators or communities at the time of creation, and how has that changed today?
Applied to broader concepts of culture, I prefer to surrender myself to not-knowing and giving up on seeking explanations. I remember this White co-worker of mine once said that Japan and Korea do not get along because of the different ways that they hold their chopsticks. Sometimes it’s not that deep.
"I complicate the dominant narratives perpetuated by White people and some Vietnamese-Australians, which encompass individual alienation, economic mobility, and multiculturalism as celebration."
You’ve noted that ‘Whiteness searches itself for explanations of the Other, a process uninterested in and hostile to the Other speaking for itself.’ Is writing a way for you as the Other to speak for yourself? What can Others who are non-writers do to 'speak'?
That line was based off a panel I was on five years ago, where a White author sat on either side of a Vietnamese poet. The White authors were trying to figure out how to read a piece of text in Vietnamese and discussed it with each other, ignoring the Vietnamese poet sitting between them. That was a moment of everyday Orientalism, where White people would rather ask each other about Asians than ask an Asian. It reminds me of a quote by Arundhati Roy: 'There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.'
Social norms enable racism. Calling it out is a profoundly uncomfortable experience, particularly with liberal views of racism as moral and intellectual failure. I’m working on becoming better at confronting it in person. For now, though, writing is how I create space to speak for myself on no uncertain terms. I complicate the dominant narratives perpetuated by White people and some Vietnamese-Australians, which encompass individual alienation, economic mobility, and multiculturalism as celebration. These can be simplistic, and I, alongside Vietnamese-Australian writers Shirley Le, Tien Tran, and Lieu-Chi Nguyen, hope to introduce more complex and honest stories that more accurately reflect our experiences and ambivalence.
Speaking is a neat metaphor for writing, but I don’t believe that writing is the only way to challenge white supremacy. People like Hannah Donnelly (writer, DJ, and founder of Sovereign Trax), Sabella D’Souza (artist), and my mates, who are grassroots activists, speak up against white supremacy and colonialism in their own ways. What they have in common is a critical consciousness and will to act.
Reading and listening will take you a long way towards understanding our current political context; how you act on it is up to you, the spaces you inhabit, and the skills you possess.
"Social norms enable racism. Calling it out is a profoundly uncomfortable experience, particularly with liberal views of racism as moral and intellectual failure."
"As far as race relations go, social media has raised the floor, not the ceiling."
Your Twitter presence swerves between high concepts and low art. In 140 characters, the medium forces a kind of bite-sized breakdown of the academy; do you have any thoughts on the relationship between social media and race relations?
I don’t know how to react to responses to my Twitter. I feel like people give me the benefit of the doubt in thinking that there is some overarching project or intention, which perhaps stems from the fact that I am a university-educated writer. The truth is that I am terrible at curation and social media is my way of getting instant gratification. I’m a rat addicted to pushing a lever for the electrode in the pleasure centre of my brain, only instead of a lever, I’m tweeting about racism, classism, and the detailed functions of my extremely buff rat body. (As the later Rat park studies have shown, however, this addictive behaviour was largely the function of poor housing and social isolation.)
Social media does present some amazing narratives, though, especially when they seem incidental. I used to work as a researcher in Open Source Intelligence, which involved trawling through people’s social media profiles. One time, going through a particular person’s Facebook profile, I read a bunch of his statuses in chronological order. His daily updates read:
‘craving subway !’
‘gonna eat subway for lunch today’
‘work was too busy for subway’
‘who wants to get a subway tomorrow ?’
‘went to subway. a car crashed through the front window, fukkd! there was a tomato on the windshield’
It was the most moving thing I’d read all year.
Social media has had a huge impact on race relations. It’s accelerated the discourse by connecting people from different communities and holding people accountable for their words and actions. People from historically silenced demographics, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have also used social media as a means of amplifying their voices. Still, online discourses are far from utopic. These exchanges are not innocent to power. They are prone to, say, the imposition of US race relations upon Australia with little regard for differences in their differing contexts, or a great degree of tokenisation that values the optics of who is speaking over the substance of their message. The most extreme example of the latter is outlined in Aria Dean’s breathtaking essay ‘Rich Meme, Poor Meme’ where social media escalates the commodification, consumption, and appropriation of Black cultures by non-Black people. Closer to home, social media has enabled the intense, ongoing abuse rooted in anti-Indigeneity, anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, homophobia, and misogyny towards writers such as Ellen van Neerven, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, and Ruby Hamad by dogshit people.
As far as race relations go, social media has raised the floor, not the ceiling.
Some of our readers have asked me to start asking our subjects to provide practical advice on fighting racism in their daily lives. Would you have any for POC? for Non-POC?
People of colour: do what you want to do.
White people: educate yourselves on how you can ‘break the rules of Whiteness’ from within.
Settlers: learn about and support the owners of the lands you occupy and work within your respective communities.
Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
Surround yourself with people who can offer you loving, rather than brutal, honesty. Encourage each other to do better, however you define that.
Who inspires you?
What are you listening to?
SOPHIE’s OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES and 明日の叙景’s わたしと私だったもの.
What are you reading?
How do you practice self-care?
I go to the gym, watch America’s Next Top Model, and tweet at KFC for free chicken.
"I hope ‘Asian-Australian’ can become a term synonymous with solidarity."
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
‘Asian-Australian’ at this point is still quite a nebulous term.
The New York Times wrote of the LG/LB subculture as an economically mobile, consumption-based Asian-Australian identity. It claimed that it was based off the US’s Asian Baby Girl subculture. I think there are more meaningful comparisons to be made between Asians in the United States and Australia. What does it mean, for example, that radical Asian-Americans celebrated Dien Bien Phu as a victory against Western imperialism alongside the Black Panthers and Brown Berets, only to be joined, population-wise, by fiercely anti-communist Vietnamese refugees? What does it mean when similarly militant Vietnamese refugees form a large portion of the Asian-Australian population?
We’re still trying to figure it all out, but I look forward to groups like the Anti-colonial Asian Alliance making an active effort to mobilise Asians in support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander struggles. I hope ‘Asian-Australian’ can become a term synonymous with solidarity.