Last October, I had the honour of speaking stories, self-representation and why changing the narrative matters at the biennial FECCA conference in Darwin. The talk’s now been published in Mosaic magazine, but thought I’d post a transcript below. Enjoy!
“I’d like to acknowledge the Larrakia people as the Traditional Owners of the Darwin region and pay my respects to the Larrakia elders past and present.
When I was invited to speak with you today, I was incredibly honoured.
There comes a time in life when you realise you may have graduated from being a misfit to a role model, and this is one of those times. Certainly, my memoir The Good Girl of Chinatown is far from being a treatise on good behaviour. The title itself is ironic. The story is about the knots and twists we get ourselves into when we lose sight of who we are and the community we belong to.
Today I’m here as a fellow storyteller. All I have to offer is a road map of some of the things I discovered about owning my narrative in the writing a book.
Make your story matter. In the telling of it, identify the universal in the personal. When that happens, your audience becomes invested in the outcome, as if they can imagine it happening to them. The best stories are the ones that remind us of our common human experience.
Hook people in. Look at television. The cliff-hanger gets us to imagine all the different possibilities a story could go so that we tune into the next episode. People are born problem-solvers. They want to use their imagination to complete the story for you. By not giving away too much – by drip feeding details and creating anticipation- you hook your audience in.
Pay attention to structure. Ask yourself: what do you want your audience to take away from your story? Every story has a beginning, middle and an end. With my story, I decided to start close to the end.
I’m at my lowest point. I’m in a strange country and I’ve woken up alone. I don’t remember what happened the night before. I’m completely lost. I then take the reader back in time – to the beginning- so that together we relive the moments that brought me to rock-bottom. And together, we just might be able to find our way back. I invite them on the journey with me.
When I started writing my story, I thought it was about me. But the more I wrote, the more I questioned who I was, the more I realised that this wasn’t just my story, it was the story of my family. Everything that happened to me could be traced back to something that happened to my parents, or my grandparents or even my great grandparents.
I learnt about my great grandmother who had been wealthy at the wrong time, in the wrong place. When Mao and the Communist Army swept through China, he seized everything she had, and locked her up in a wheat silo where he starved her for three days and nights.
My grandmother was forced into a hasty marriage while her boyfriend was far away fighting in this war; When her boyfriend returned for her, she had to tell him that he was too late, because she was now somebody else’s wife.
Through digging through my story, I realised that my father hadn’t always been an angry and violent man. Once he had been young as well, with hopes and dreams for a better life.
And even as a little girl, I loved to dance and perform and to tell stories to anyone who would listen.
When I started doing this research, my memoir took on a whole different dimension. My family’s stories are a clear example of how the personal is political.
What is your story really about?
It took me a while to realise that my story was actually about running away.
Not only was I running away from my family, but my grandmother had been running away from the Communists. My father had running away from the guilt of his sister’s death.
And all the other characters in my story became about people who were running away. People who had run away from love, from the global financial crisis, people who were running away from themselves.
Another of the themes in my story is racism. Growing up Asian in 1980s Australia, I’m no stranger to racism. But when I got married, my battles with racism were no longer with those outside the family, but those inside the family. In my narrative, racism is the most toxic obstacle- the kind of fear that entrenches itself in the mind to boil hate down to something as innocuous as skin colour. But it’s not a simple enemy. It does not come in a one-size-fits-all model. The way it exudes its toxicity is a product of a specific time and place and set of experiences. I’ve written about my parents’ racism towards my husband. That despite – or because- they had been on the receiving end of racism themselves – they found it all too easy to project that same social prejudice onto others. And I realised that this too fit into my overall theme: how racism can sometimes become a vehicle for people to run away from their own humanity.
In your story, how you deal with conflict becomes what defines you. It’s the inner motivation that drives you in your journey. The acting teacher Judith Weston calls this the character spine: Stanislavski called it the super-objective.
A character like Batman’s would be to avenge his parents’ murder.
Superman’s however would be to protect and serve his adopted Homeland. His is the ultimate refugee story.
Different character spines, different stories.
When you’re telling your story, treat yourself as a character, and know yourself in the context of struggle.
The role of fear as part of the human condition is a strong driver in my story. But what became even more important was its oppositional and more transcendent force working in juxtaposition at all times, and that is love. Love doesn’t always win out – it is a real story after all – but as I came into my own as a writer – I realised that that is what becoming master of your own narrative ultimately affords. To see the light you may have missed stumbling around in the darkness the first time.
The thing about all art – and storytelling is no different – is that you have to tell the truth. And I’m not talking about the difference between fiction and nonfiction. I’m talking about capturing a truth from your experience and expressing your values. You cannot -and shouldn’t -hide from yourself. Be the truest you, and then shine a light into your darkness.
Great storytellers don’t judge their characters, they celebrate human flaws.
Stories create a desire for change. It’s an antidote to what normally happens in life when we shrink away from change.
Good Stories map transformation and the more we are trained to understand that change is a part of life, the more we are training ourselves to see not the world for what it is, but to harness the power of the community to imagine it for what it could be.