Speak my Mind: Race

November 21, 2017

So, what I’m really valuing about my new writing life are…author events.

It’s pretty awesome to talk about stuff and for people to turn up to listen. Bonus points when you share the platform with  heavy hitters who happen to be extremely genial.

Tonight, I spoke at Speak Your Mind with Amal Awad (Beyond Veiled Cliches), Peter Polites (Down the Hume) and Megan Williams (#JustJustice). Our topic: Race.

Questions were sent beforehand for us to think about. My thoughts – and roughly how my part in the conversation played out- are below. I thought it was about time I started documenting my mouthing off process, seeing how much I’m enjoying an audience all over again.

 

Organised by City of Sydney and Better Read than Dead.

Let’s start with a question which gets to the heart of the theme for tonight – Race. How have your own experiences of race shaped your work?

My story is a memoir, and the notion of identity is directly explored. Race- as a signifier and influencer of the way we self-identify, and the way we are socially perceived is a part of that. However, The Good Girl of Chinatown is also about performance. The way we perform certain identities, and then disseminating performance as a construct, and through that how race is also a construct. Because of course, my story as a showgirl isn’t actually about sequins and feathers. It’s about how my search for identity and belonging took me to a place where I ended up performing a pastiche of my cultural identity, facilitated by a white man’s neo- colonial dream.

So that’s one facet of it, the way that in my search for my cultural identity, I ended up inadvertently exploiting the most superficial and fetishisic parts of it – and not being fully cognisant of this at the time -self destructed.

But race also figures personally as well. There’s the racism I grew up experiencing growing up in Australia in the 1980s. being told to ‘go home’, being called a ‘chink’- all that stuff. There was the way racism impacted on my family life. My father became more violent, and as an adult analysing what happened, it’s not a long bow to draw to say that my father overcompensated for the lack of power he experienced outside of the home, inside the home. There’s the structural racism I experienced as a young adult trying to get work and feel valued by wider society as a whole.

So admittedly, I did move to China with almost a smug relief in 2008. It was like “well now I’m going to a country where I’ll no longer be a minority. And guess what- it’s got the highest growth rate in the world.” Then of course, I got the shock of my life because the racism I encountered there was more outrageous than any I’d experienced before. So, I moved there with my  foreign husband. And when we went out together, people would literally push me out of the way to speak to him. Then there was the fact that I was a performer. At that time, any venue that was trying to make a statement that it was hip/progressive/selling a prestige product only wanted foreign faces on stage. So for me to look ‘mainstream’ or ‘like everybody else’ was a complete disadvantage. And people weren’t shy about telling me this. “Oh, we know you can do then job, but we don’t want to hire you because you’re not white.” There was one job I turned up to fill in for a sick dancer one night, and after they made me do the job they refused to pay me for not looking foreign.”

Then there was the racism of my own family towards my marriage. And it is this racism that was the most raw – and important for me to write about.

How have you decided to depict the histories, cultures and experiences of the main characters or people in your book? What role did the genre play in this depiction?

Genre was really secondary in my thinking. Being a memoir, I was focused on being as honest as possible. Being a first time author, I was focused on finding my ‘voice’ as well. And as a person – I was also focused on not hurting anyone that I cared about.

So, initially I did think that my memoir was just going to be about me. I mean, one does tend to think that, don’t they? But the more I wrote and thought about the story, and the way cause and effect works- the stories of the generations before kept intruding in on my contemporary negotiation of identity. I mean, I was in China. This kind of mythical landscape of my childhood imagination filtered through my grandparents’ stories and my parents’ displacement.

So it became an East meets West family epic with some burlesque thrown in. But as I started integrating my grandmother’s and father’s stories….I found myself slipping into their first person perspectives. And I think I just wanted to paint the immediacy of their lives in wartime China; I wanted to get inside my father’s head as he lost control of his emotions ….maybe it’s the actor in me, that desire to stand in the shoes of your characters, to empathise. In the end, that was a more cathartic choice – and I took it.

I didn’t feel that by writing about my father’s violence and anger from my point of view would do anything to shift my  position of anger and judgement of it. If anything it would only reinforce it. And that was not helpful for me.

What story did you set out to tell in publishing your work? Did you have a goal in mind in doing so; to change minds, to raise awareness, to tell a fascinating tale…

I think I wanted to tell a modern China story from a female point of view, and also from a diasporic point of view.

Like so many people, I went to China with some pretty simplistic notions of ‘the Motherland.’ And I’m someone who purportedly grew up in the culture. But I do think it says something about the migrant experience. The way we hold onto this idea of our homelands through the years, the way we peddle narratives of the homeland, the way we might eulogise them, and the way that quite often these narratives distort with time, nostalgia and just the shortcomings of memory.

I wanted to highlight the precariousness of the way female bodies are expressed to the point of commodification in performance, the slippery but important line between empowerment and exploitation. And then the intersection of race through that. I think the way an Asian female body is viewed in performance, particularly in a genre like Burlesque which plays and provokes with sexuality comes with it a particular set of readings because when we talk about the male gaze, what we’re usually referring to is the white male gaze.

Yes, I wanted to raise awareness of racism – but the way that it is a complex beast with different permutations depending on context and place. The reverse racism I experienced in China was a hangover of the colonial era when the imperial powers came in and ridiculed the Chinese for their backwardness, and put up signs in Shanghai that read “No dogs and No Chinese.” What I experienced was a century of internalised racism from that era.

And lastly, I didn’t intend to – but ended up writing about domestic violence. The way I experienced it, what I felt were some of the influencing factors, and the way the scars of that played out in my life. It was actually the part of the book that I was most nervous about discussing, but interestingly, few reviewers or interviewers have opted to explore that aspect. They’ve been more interested in me talking about burlesque, and race.

Do you think Australian literature represents the diversity of Australian cultures and stories? What books would you recommend to the audience for further reading.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, Benjamin Law, everyone here on this panel obviously, Beth Yahp, Omar Musa, Julie Koh, Roanna Gonsalves. Special shout out to Alice Pung even though I haven’t read her yet. I’ve been told I’m a more salacious version of her, so I really must get onto that!

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