Interview #72 — Thuy On
By Whitney McIntosh
Thuy On is the books editor of The Big Issue and a Melbourne-based freelance literary critic, editor, copywriter and manuscript assessor.
She has written book reviews, interviews, and features for The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Meanjin, Overland, and Australian Book Review amongst many others.She has a been a judge at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards four times. Thuy is presently working on her first collection of poetry.
When did you first start writing? How have you reached the place you are now?
There’s a traditional first birthday practice carried out in various Asian countries: to wit, a row of symbolic objects are placed on one side of the room and the child is encouraged to crawl or walk towards them. Whatever item that is picked up first is supposed to represent a future interest. I picked up a pencil. Whether part superstitious fun or part prophecy, it was, and has been, a telling gesture.
For some inexplicable reason, asians are expected to be genetically gifted in number-wrangling, and—like a lot of second-generation Asian-Australians—I was encouraged to do maths and science at school. But alas, I was numerically illiterate. It was words that nurtured me. So I ended up majoring in English Literature, with a minor in Linguistics, before completing a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. During this time and in between class essays, I started to write for various publications, sometimes for a nominal fee, sometimes for free.
At the time, I was on the editorial board for Voiceworks, where I submitted book reviews, short essays, and poems, while also writing theatre reviews for the (now defunct) street magazine InPress. I also did work experience at The Age as a copygirl and harassed the books editor for work as well.
I suppose I have reached where I am now due to a whole lot of small stepping stones; for instance the theatre reviewing for InPress (which I did for free) led me to become the Melbourne theatre critic for The Australian, a position I held for five years and had to reluctantly relinquish. I think of all my various positions on the cultural landscape, I am most proud of this one because in a sea of white, grey-haired, upper middle-class theatregoers, there was me: young, Asian, and a boat-person immigrant to boot, passing judgement on stage performances for a national, conservative newspaper. I was very much an anomaly.
The majority of your time, you’re a freelance journalist and book reviewer. What’s the first thing you think about when writing a book review?
My thoughts are a tangle of information I have to unravel. They often include the following: genre, the previous books of this author, deadline and word count. There is no one specific thing but a host of matters to consider.
From where did you derive your sense of what makes 'good' literature?
Well, I did spend four years at uni studying the literary canon, which I guess, looking back, mostly consisted of quite a number of Dead White Males. Nonetheless the years did provide a solid grounding of what is traditionally classified as 'good' literature and so I was rigorously schooled in Shakespeare and Dickens and authors of such ilk.
Post-degree, and due to the variety and eclectic nature of book journalism and criticism as well as my own interests, I read more widely, out of the constraints of the syllabus, so that included more women, more POC, and more younger writers. And of course what constitutes 'good' and 'bad' is a matter of subjective taste. I think I have read so much, over so many years, and written reviews for so many publications, that I have an understanding of what passes as exemplary or trash literature and everything nebulous in between.
Many people call this period of literature we’re currently residing in the ‘Contemporary,’ often defined by its autofiction, self-referentiality, and sincerity. What do you think defines this moment in literature?
I find that from my perspective as a literary critic, there are definite fashions, whereby the publishing industry seems intent on copying each other and releasing the same type of books within the same time frames. I do note there has been more of this self-referential style of books and while I don’t necessarily have a problem with it (most people have more interesting lives to mine) I do worry about it feeding into our 21st century narcissistic culture. Also, just because you may have had an interesting life doesn't mean you can write about it in a compelling manner. Navel-gazing done correctly is as much an art form as any other genre.
At the moment there seems to be a host of books coming to the fore from minority identities and communities. Of all the books you’ve reviewed over the last twenty years, how many have been from the Asian-Australian community? How have you seen books from this community emerge?
It’s hard to put a definite figure on this but there has been a definite growing trickle of Asian-Australian writing. I think the collection of stories brought out by Nam Le (The Boat) was the major title that led the way.
Just recently I was a convening judge of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in Fiction (2018) where we awarded Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day as the overall fiction winner. I was pleased with this decision. Not only because we saw it fit to award an anthology of short fiction (traditionally, short stories are seen as the novel’s poorer, less worthy cousin) but also because Melanie’s suite of tales deliberately and subtly touched on the complexities of Australia that we all know: one made up of different races and classes.
As I said in my judge’s report, “The book bears witness to the author’s empathetic eye, multicultural characterisation and easy facility with dialogue…quite a number of her stories examine the frisson and the fallout when people of different backgrounds meet by chance or by design… it feels like Cheng has taken a wide sample from the census to craft this inclusive portrait of contemporary Australia. Indeed, this short story collection explores what it means to belong, to be Australian; its insight from different vantage points and its photo-realistic narrative make it an exciting and impressive debut.”
It’s hard to put a definite figure on this but there has been a definite growing trickle of Asian-Australian writing.
Do you identify as Asian-Australian? How do your personal identities inform your creative practice?
When I started writing for newspapers and other publications many years ago there were lots of people who mistook me for a man because of my name and because a man critic was default setting. My name doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue but I held onto it despite it making (some) people uncomfortable with its obvious foreignness. I kept it as a deliberate political act and didn’t bother anglicising because I wanted those who were unfamiliar with Asian names to realise that despite my ancestry, I was more than capable of being published in respectable, well-regarded publications, and that my critical opinions on books and theatre and the arts in general were as valid as those from a writer with a fully ocker name.
What has your experience been like as an Asian-Australian in the writing industry?
It’s encouraging now, to see so many Asian-Australians making waves in the industry. I felt quite lonely when I started out. There really wasn’t that many of us, and I didn’t have any mentors to look up to. Working in books journalism and criticism is precarious and exacting a job, even more so when you seem to be the only POC doing it. All round me were white voices waxing critical and I did have to overcome imposter syndrome, to pep-talk myself into believing that my opinions were just as worthy as theirs. I had the education, the experience, and the passion. And that was, and should be, enough. Skin colour and background are irrelevant when it comes to an ability to write.
Skin colour and background are irrelevant when it comes to an ability to write.
If given the chance, how would you change the writing industry in Victoria?
I’ve been fairly vocal in my despair of the shrinking newspaper inches devoted to the arts in general and the books pages in particular. I know that lots of people don’t even read reviews or author interviews in the papers, but there is still a sizeable portion of people who don’t want to be perusing Goodreads or relying on friends’ recommendations for the latest publication.
If I was queen of the universe, I’d make the arts and (and in particular the books section) just as important as the sports or business pages. Every day I am sent books from hopeful publishers desperate for their wares to be featured in some capacity and I am so sad that I am unable to showcase them, regardless of how worthy they are. There is just so little space anywhere.
The Big Issue is unique in combining the production of a written publication with social entrepreneurship. Has being a part of The Big Issue changed the way you view your work?
I’ve been books editor of The Big Issue for the last six years but my involvement with the magazine stretches back to its early incarnations. Under my stewardship I have purposely set out to diversify the books pages. The Big Issue has a general readership so I wanted the book pages to reflect that. So I both write and commission features and reviews of genre books, picture books and YA as well as literary and non-fiction every fortnight. I wanted to set up a more democratic and level playing field. We all should read widely. I don’t want to just feature the latest high-brow titles because they would already be covered extensively elsewhere so sometimes it’s more strategic to promote a local, debut author.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on my debut collection of poetry, with a working title of Turbulence. For two decades I have written about other peoples’ words and have necessarily stayed at a critical remove from my source material. This suite of poems is a stark departure for me because they are intensely personal, the subject matter being from my own life. I’m hoping to explore another side to my writing: from objective bystander to first-person narrative via poetic form.
Turbulence is a collection of loosely arranged and themed poems. I’m trying to untangle the messiness of relationships, so the poems explore, but are not be limited to, topics that cover loss, separation and renewal, online dating, sex, longing, rejection and desire. Even though they are personal and confessional and taken directly from my own life I think they’ll appeal to anyone who’s ever loved and lost. They are written specifically for a general audience, for those who don’t read normally read poetry. I have tried to create short sharp bursts of emotion in each poem.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
This is not very original advice but it has to be underlined and bolded. You have to read and read widely, not necessarily in your preferred genre either. Go outside your normal reading comfort zones. I encounter quite a number of younger writers who brim with energy and enthusiasm but, upon further questioning, reveal that they don’t much like or have time to read. And yet somehow they feel capable of writing the next big thing because their innate genius will bring the book from the depths of their consciousness to the surface. It’s breathtakingly naïve.
Also, surround yourself with like-minded people. Writing is a lonely business.
Who are you inspired by?
Anyone creative. It doesn't matter in what format. I am inspired by people who create something tangible out of air: a book, a song, a painting, a poem, a chair….anything.
What are you currently listening to?
I have long been obsessed with the soundtrack to the film In the Mood for Love, so I am giving that another listen. Haunting and sexy and oh so smooth.
What are you currently reading?
I usually have several on the go at the same time, so I am currently reading Angela Meyer’s novel A Superior Spectre, but also Meet me at the Intersection, a collection of short pieces by writers who are “First Nations, POC, LGBTIAQ+ or living with a disability” edited by Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina.
How do you practice self-care?
I self-medicate on a diet of cupcakes and caffeine, and write poems to try and relieve whatever ails me.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
As a second generation Vietnamese-Australian, it means that I am accepted enough to be on the edges of the mainstream, but it also means that I have worked so hard for so many years to prove to myself and to others that I was good enough to be published along with critics and arts journalists from an Anglo-background. It means fighting against any perception that I am the token Asian when it comes to being asked to be a judge or a speaker on any literary panel. (I am on there due to merit and experience and that should be all there is to it.)
It means gleefully disrupting any preconceived ideas people may have of the demure, submissive Asian woman. I am direct, wilful and brutally honest. I am certainly not a fetish so you can indulge in your yellow fever. Lastly, it means constantly educating people to pronounce my name correctly!