Your Story Matters

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.

Speak my Mind: Race

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!

My affair with a city

October 2017 marks the 7 year anniversary of returning to Australia after almost a decade travelling the world. Like many travellers I had adventures, met interesting people, had my heart broken, learnt a whole lot more about humanity and came “home.” That home, I decided was Sydney – the city where I had grown up, the city I had been running away from. Then to my shock, I happened to land a book deal in order to detail the high and low points in  The Good Girl of Chinatown, which took me 5 years to write.

As many of you know, The Good Girl of Chinatown was published this year – and amidst the sheer relief and incredulity and activity of it all – I suddenly felt a terrible sense of emptiness. You see, all that time writing and remembering and reliving had kept me psychologically tethered to that time and place. Sure, my body was no longer there but my soul never left, thanks to the long term task I had taken on of memorialising not just a city, but of the person I was in that city.

I knew I had to go back to recalibrate my contemporary relationship with Shanghai, and the past. It’s one thing to sit at a desk and work it out in your head over a period of time, it’s another thing be immersed immediately in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of the thing that you call your muse, the well from which your best stories have sprung.

So last month, I packed my bags and set forth. I have heard many people say that Shanghai is a different city to the one I write about between 2008-2010. Which is to be expected considering that city’s infamously dizzying rate of change. But they say that the city has become more mature and regulated these days. More like a grown-up than a crazy teenager whose anarchic impulses kept the adrenalin junkies in us hanging onto the joyride even as we visibly careened into disaster.

Then again, one’s relationship with a city is just like any other relationship – entirely dependent on what you bring to it, and how history projects itself through perspective. I’m sure I’m not unique in this experience. Have you noticed that different cities bring out different parts of who you are too?

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Perhaps it’s not the city itself that has kept me beholden to its spell, but the part of me that felt safe to come out. Not the “good girl” I had been conditioned to be, someone that could safely fit into the model minority box. But someone infinitely more complex, wild and susceptible to as dizzying rates of change as the city itself . Someone I had to know, before I could even begin to sit down and contemplate writing the ‘truth’ of who I am, as a memoir demands.
It’s been 7 years. And now I know, I’ll still always have Shanghai.

On Racism

This week, my first ever article was published in The Daily Life. It’s been a bit nerve-wracking to write for such a large readership. I mean, I know that I’ve written a book and all but

1) 1200 words is that much more consumable than 86,000

2) you have about 85,000 more words to explain yourself in a book

But I knew I wanted to write about racism, zeroing in on one particular personal aspect of it as it played out in my cross-cultural Chinese Nigerian family.

My submission did go through a pretty judicious edit before hitting the Fairfax channels, so I thought I’d provide readers with a full- length version below. It gives more context on the current state of affairs with my parents now that my memoir has been published.

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My Wedding Day, 2005

“What do you mean, he’s black?” My mother’s voice on the other end of the line wobbled as we talked of the man I’d just become engaged to.

I took a breath. “He’s Nigerian. Well, he’s British. But his parents migrated to London. Just like you and Dad migrated to Sydney.” I said, thinking this information would showcase our similarities. After all, we were both children of the migrant experience.

But my mother was not to be swayed. “How black is he?” For her, concentration of pigmentation was directly proportionate to what she could and couldn’t accept.

I had given up on my parents’ approval of any of my life choices long before that moment. I had deliberately put oceans between us to be free of their malice, which extended far beyond race. Still, I thought it courteous to let the people who gave birth to me know I was getting married. If I was to be honest, there was a sliver of hope that after all that had been said and done, my falling in love and finding happiness would collapse their barriers of hate. But it was not to be. If anything, I became more aware than ever the depth of their prejudice.

My father’s guide to dating when I was a teenager followed more or less along these lines. “I expect you to date a Chinese man. If you must date a white man, I’ll think about it. Jewish men are acceptable. If you date a black man, I’ll kill you.”

This thinking was the product of a rage-filled mind. My father battled demons that meant his need to feel better than others was unerringly high. The ability to control and oppress the only panacea to the gaping void at the core of his self-worth. Yes, it seems almost absurd to justify his hate in these psychobabble terms, and yet the need to make sense of senselessness overrides futility.

I’ve battled racism my entire life. And half of that battle has been waged with my own people, with my own parents. It’s made me think a lot about the contributing factors to racism, the kind of fear that entrenches itself in the mind to boil hate down to something as innocuous as skin colour.

“Race,” writes the historian Nell Irvin Painter, “is an idea, not a fact.” And therefore racism 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. My parents – knowing all too well the pain and subjugation of living life as a marginalized identity – found it all too convenient to project that same social prejudice onto others. They bought into the narrative that blackness implied greater poverty, less privilege, poorer education. Likewise, that ‘whiteness’ (whilst traitorous to marry into) denoted a kind of roughshod dominance, and therefore acceptable. The Jewish preference was purely because my father worked at a firm where the upper echelons were occupied by wealthy, Jewish men with zappy business skills, and felt this experience must be representative of the “quality” of the entire culture. But the most noble race of all was naturally our own. Maintaining our ethnic purity and cultural solidarity, etc. Though –it should be noted – there was also a hierarchy to be observed here. Ali Wong calls it the difference between Fancy Asians and Jungle Asians. Criteria ranging from global development to skin colour – generally, the darker the skin, the less superior. And – according to my family- out of all light skinned Asians, the Japanese were at the bottom. After all, the war and what happened in Nanjing belying the barbarianism underneath the affected sophistry was not that long ago.

My parents prioritized their convoluted construction of race over other, more intrinsic, qualities of existence: kindness, compassion, love, empathy. They did not attend my wedding. My father refused to acknowledge my husband’s existence, and ceased to acknowledge mine. When we came to Australia to visit, my mother would only deign to meet my husband in the covert darkness of night. The fact that she was willing to meet him, but did not want to be seen provided further insight. For my mother, it was not so much that I had married a black man but the supposed social stigma that came attached to this. In her mind, her friends (other baby boomer Chinese migrants with a precarious foothold in the wider Anglo-Australian culture) would shun her, mock her, reject her if they found out the truth to this…this scandal. She was utterly convinced that her world operated on such rigidly held lines. We might have been only a generation apart, living in the 21st century world, but our psychological realities couldn’t have been more different. If my father’s prejudice was characterized by a fear of difference and need for control, my mother’s prejudice was the manifestation of a different but equally primal need. That to be accepted by her community. Whereas I – their child, the beneficiary of their sacrifices to provide a better life and better education – could only observe their bigotry with horror. My world had been a late 20th century Australia conscientiously embracing multicultural values followed by culturally fluid London, with no less than three arts qualifications under my belt. For me, racism was- and still is- the most ignorant type of hate, vindicated by everyone else I chose to have in my life, except my parents.

Even my grandparents accepted my husband with open arms. They were well into their 90s by then. They had lost parents to famine, children to war, generations of accumulated wealth to revolutionaries. On the day I introduced them to my husband, they gifted us with calligraphy scrolls painstakingly handcrafted with their wishes of happiness and marital longevity. Perhaps it was that they had seen too much not to recognize that the concept of shame was as useless a construct as race. Or simply, that love trumps hate. It was the last time I saw my grandfather. He passed away 3 months later. That last memory of his gift, his smile, his open arms in defiant opposition to my parents’ disapproval says so much about the man I’m glad my husband had a chance to meet.

My grandfather

My marriage lasted seven years. In the end, communication breakdown, moving to a new country and my own insecurities eroded its fabric. I walked away as things got hard, the imaginary, incessant sound of my parents’ “I told you so’s” greasing the wheels of my retreat. I was heartbroken, but I told myself that it was for the best. We would remain friends. And perhaps I could repair the relationship with my parents that had caused me so much pain. Pain that I had inadvertently brought into my marriage, like a fraying backpack full of bitter angst.

 

I returned home, and I made myself available to the family I had run away from. I engaged with the good and the ugly, and tried to stand my ground. I wrote a book, and reflected and built bridges, and then came to accept that some divides are just too wide to bridge.

Two years ago, my sister married an Italian (Caucasian) man. They held the ceremony at a luxury resort in Bali – a scenic geographical compromise for our family flying in from Sydney and his family flying in from Milan. It was a beautiful wedding. My father walked her down the aisle. My mother wept. My sister had invited my ex-husband, who happened to be in Bali at the time. After 10 years, my father continued to act as if he didn’t exist. Later that night, as both sets of parents laughed and danced with the bride and groom, my ex-husband stood beside me.

“Do you think if we’d had half the support and love your sister got today, we might’ve lasted?”

I couldn’t answer him. And at that moment, under the silvery sky of my sister’s happiness and the celebration of two families coming together, the stark contrast of our alienation a decade earlier was just too much.

My mother travelled to China for a holiday this year. Before she left, I made one request. A few weeks later I heard from my ex-husband, who is still living in Shanghai.

“Your mum called me while she was in town.” He sounded bewildered. “She wanted to apologize for her racism towards me all those years ago.”

In my mother’s case, it seemed that age and experience has started to take the edge off her fear and hate. Or perhaps it’s safer for her to make this concession now that he’s no longer part of the family. Or perhaps she finally recognizes the part she can play in mending old wounds with her daughter if she just opens her heart a little.

With my father however, after spits and starts – we are back to estrangement. He is Jekyll and Hyde in his temperament, a rollercoaster of unchecked anger punctuated by steep descents into regret. It’s exhausting and terrifying to keep up with. Our last argument occurred on publication of my book. I still remember the moment when he reassured me I could write whatever I wanted about him. It was during one of his magnanimous spells, when he is wont to behave like a different person. I remember these times during childhood, when all we ever wanted was for this nice and pleasant version of my father to stay and for the mean, violent one to stay away. Of course, this never happened. The mean, violent version would return, sweeping everything in his wake. This time, it was the sight of my freshly printed uncorrected proof that set him off. The evidence of an actual book I had written, available to read made him inexplicably angry. I left the house before it could get physical. I also vowed then not to return. When anger and hate is that deep and boundless, sometimes the only thing to do is to walk away, and stay away.

And yet, there was a brief moment last year with my father that I’ll hold onto. It was a warm evening in Sydney’s Chinatown. We had just enjoyed an unusually amiable family dinner and were walking down Sussex St. My mother was ahead with my brother and sister. My father and I had just settled the bill. As we walked side by side to catch up with the rest of the family, my father said, “I’m sorry I opposed your marriage, it was wrong of me.” Then he turned away, and quickened his step as if he hadn’t said anything at all.

 

 

 

 

The Writer’s Habitat

With just a few days to go before Sydney Writers Festival, I’ve been busy making my to-do list:

Just on that last point, at the end of my Richard Fidler interview a few weeks ago, I was accosted by an irate audience member for giving an answer he didn’t like when I was asked where home is today (more or less Australia). He preferred China perhaps, or Taiwan. As if one home had to be mutually exclusive from another. As if by nominating one, I was betraying another. Maybe this guy had a vested interest. He was of an age and cultural background that could easily slide into (an unhealthy) paternal projection.

But other interviewers too have pressingly asked the same: where is home now? Well, I can’t say definitively that it’s one place. The idea of ‘home’ as a place where all the facets of my identity feel settled and attached to its geography doesn’t exist. Maybe a nicer way to put it, is it’s fluid.

If we were just going off duration, Australia wins hands down. I’ve spent 26 years of my life here. It’s also the place where my most difficult memories are stored. As with all long term relationships,  my connection with it is complex. We know each other well, perhaps too well. The dance of compromise to stay committed is a familiar one, and still we continually test each other’s patience. We’ve always made awkward dance partners. From the very first steps, the abrasiveness of a too hot sun and flat vowels betraying a cagey guardedness kept me at arm’s length. But the slow imprints we’ve made on each other’s bodies have crystallised into something permanent, the way we’ve moulded in and around and through each other becoming the prism through which all steps filter.

Taiwan is my birthplace, and where my parents were born. But my relationship to it is an abstract one, grounded in only flimsy experiential knowledge. I left at 18 months, and have returned just a few times – and never for more than a fortnight. It has been 25 years since my last visit. When I think of Taiwan, I can dimly recall the architecture of my grandparents’ house. The enormity of a staircase that I could not climb. A red-painted front door with a threshold I had to jump over. The sound of a bell and children laughing in the playground of the school I didn’t know I would not one day attend. Taiwan might have been the country where I took my first breath, but it quite soon receded away like a tide leaving only scraps on the shore.

I had intended London to be my new home but in retrospect, it was more of a hotel. A monolothic, slightly gothic temporary residence. Unless you were born or grew up there, it’s almost impossible not to feel like a visitor in that sprawling metropolis steeped in history, yet at the same time teeming with different nations jostling for attention. Three years of ambitious negotiation gradually deepened into a mutual dialogue. I found a family who I grew to love. I made a lifelong commitment to a UK national and new complex layers of the city revealed itself. What I had mistaken for a subdued grey palette camouflaged  a colourful underground party that taught me how to dance. The inscription of that city resides in my ligaments and joints, honed to obey the fruits of an education and coming of age. London might never be home, but the expanse of the city is a place I can always return to- either in my mind’s eye, the deft execution of a phrase, or the “permanent resident” status stamped in my passport

But it’s Shanghai that’s the real star of my story. The allure of this city stopped me in my tracks in a way that might be described as falling in love. A deep recognition of its inability to stay still coupled with enough opaqueness to keep me in thrall as to what it might do next. Or what it might enable me to do. My Chinese astrological sign is Snake, and the speed and frequency with which this modern, decadent backdrop enabled me to shed my skin (both literally – clothes- and metaphorically -identities) was and still is, powerfully intoxicating. If I was to nominate a spiritual home, it would be this city whose psyche has been shaped by the poison and pleasure of opium, as a historical means of control by West over East. Its constant shape-shifting borne out of the need to survive, subterfuge its only strategy to stay ahead of its foreign oppressors. It is a city where seduction is easy and intimacy hard. It is a place where I am most inclined to forge meaning out of my everyday observations.

I’ll be talking more about these thoughts and more at the Writers’ Habitat this Thursday at Sydney Writers Festival. I hope to see some of you there.

ABC Radio: Conversations with Richard Fidler

My conversation with Richard Fidler in front of a live audience at the Brisbane Powerhouse has hit the airwaves 📻 . Among many things, we talk striptease, racism and forgiveness.

Speaking with Richard was a fantastic experience: he’s a masterful interviewer. Empathetic, gentle and insightful. You can listen to the podcast episode here.

 

The Good Girl of Chinatown tops a Bestseller list

The lovely people at Better Read than Dead just informed me of the following *NEWSFLASH*

“Jenevieve Chang’s memoir The Good Girl of Chinatown has topped our bestseller list this week after a fabulous launch on Thursday!”

Thank you so much to all you wonderful readers who have picked up a copy of my story…only a week since publication, and already the view is looking pretty good from up here! 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

The Good Girl of Chinatown Launch

A massive, heartfelt THANK YOU to all who made it along to The Good Girl of Chinatown Official Launch last Thursday. Revellers and readers filled up the top floor of Better Read than Dead, stories and secrets were exchanged and we drank all the gin. Of course, there was also dancing.

As I said on the night:

Writing is a solitary occupation, but it takes a team to bring a book into the world.”

Most importantly –  it takes a community to bring it to life. And The Good Girl of Chinatown got the most generous, love filled first breath at its inaugural debut. 

     

Speaking with Feminartsy

Great to speak with Feminartsy​ this week about narrative, recurring motifs and diversity in theatre. To tell you the truth, when I decided to write – I didn’t immediately think my story would address overt political concerns. I think the desire to make art comes from a deeply personal place. It’s only in the making and sharing of it that one realises a piece of work doesn’t exist in isolation to the communities that have shaped, nurtured or put up obstacles to their voice.

Here’s the full interview:

The Good Girl of Chinatown – Jenevieve Chang

Ahead of her upcoming talk at Muse Canberra on Saturday 6 May, we get to know Jenevieve Chang, writer and performer.

How would you describe yourself to a stranger?

“If you’d like to get to know me better, I hope you enjoy dancing and intense conversation.”

What do you hope people get out of reading your book?

I see my book as a bit of an anti-morality tale. The social convention of judging people –especially the way we sometimes train girls from a young age to see themselves –  in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can be very limiting. Essentially, what is being asked is: can you conform to my expectations of who I think you should be? I think it’s important that people learn to separate themselves from that, and assess themselves on their own terms.

The book is also a sly love letter to difficult relationships, with people as well as cities. In life, passion often overrides pragmatism, and that thing that makes something special to you and only you – is the thing that lingers long after the rest of the world has moved on. For my grandmother, it was the desire for her mother’s approval long after she had already passed away. For me, it was falling in love with a city like Shanghai – seduced by contemporary fantasies that this glittering metropolis represented a place where East meets West, and where anything was possible. To me, this was dangerously –  and became almost fatally – attractive.

There are so many different themes in The Good Girl of Chinatown, including the recurring motif of journeys/escape – how did you decide how the narrative would unfold, to form the structure of the book?

Like many travellers after a long stint away, I experienced grand adventures, hit some tricky patches, had my heart broken and then came home. Granted, transforming into a Shanghai showgirl halfway through was a bit unique. Initially, this was the story I thought I was going to tell.

Halfway through my first draft, as I started interrogating the reasons behind why things happened the way they did, why I made some of the decisions I made – I realized the breadth of my story went beyond lived experience. The root of it could be traced back to the generations before. And the more I travelled down this path, the more a different dimension opened up.  It became a story about war, about people getting trapped in the power struggle between governments, about how the personal is political.

By the second draft, the narrative was a mess. There was a lot of time and continent leaping and a few too many characters. It was only in the third draft that I finally clarified that my story was about running away. Not only had I been running away from my family but my grandmother had been running away from the communists, and my father was running away from survivor’s guilt. And all the other characters in my story became about people who were running away – from love, from responsibility, from the global financial crisis, even from themselves. Once I established this as the dominant theme, the story began to tell itself. The multi layered narrative began to interlock as characters and events connected up around this central idea, across space and time.

Tell us a bit about the issues with Australian theatre in terms of diversity and inclusion – how would you like your story to help address these issues?

Compared to 20 years ago, it is heartening to see how far the conversation’s developed. It was one of the reasons I left Australia initially –opportunities were so few and far between and when they did come my way, I had to be someone so utterly different from my life experience (i.e. someone who didn’t speak English). Don’t get me wrong – there’s still a long way to go! But at least now the conversation has broadly moved on from why it’s important to have our stories reflect a more inclusive society, to how can we improve on what we’re already doing. That is, how we make sure that the way we address diversity is beyond mere tokenism. That we’re not just trotting out the same Western narratives with a ‘diverse’ cast. That the stories themselves are from the lived experience of those who haven’t exactly belonged to the dominant culture.  I hope my story is just one of a multiplicity of perspectives that continue to populate an ever enriching tapestry.

What can people expect from your talk at Muse?

I’ve been experimenting with what my prose would look like as a one-woman script without it being too “performancey.” It’s still a bit raw…what we like to call a ‘work-in-progress ‘ showing in theatre parlance. But I’m having great fun making it. Every opportunity to reimagine my narrative for new audiences is a fresh creative journey. I also hope people aren’t too shy to ask me some hard questions afterwards.

What’s next for you in terms of theatre/writing?

I’m directing a new play by Melissa Lee Speyer, which looks at the various pressures that can cause a familial relationship to break down; and I’ve started to think about my next book….and this time, it’ll be fiction.

Conversations with Richard Fidler

I’m very excited to be heading to Brisbane on Friday 28 April for a live conversation with Richard Fidler at the Brisbane Powerhouse. Come hear us talk – raw and unfiltered – through the annals of personal and family history, spanning Sydney, London and Shanghai.

Program airs Friday 5 May, so tune in then if you can’t be there on the night!

Full event details here.