Years ago, I wrote about my first relationships unfolding against the political backdrop of Canberra. These early attempts at infusing memoir with politics were terrible and thankfully never published.
I wrote about the things that frustrated or confused me, like guilt, sex, consent, and my relationship with my mother. These, I thought, were stories about what constituted ‘growing up’, not about being Chinese. I avoided writing about race and culture. Alice Pung (Unpolished Gem) and Benjamin Law (The Family Law) had already written about growing up Asian in Australia and did so brilliantly. I did not think I had anything new or unique to contribute, and besides, I wanted to write about my experiences, not my parents’.
One of my earliest pieces, published as part of Writers Victoria’s Diverse Writers CHINA project, is peppered with cultural references such as Chap Goh Meh and my mother muttering “Gam haau…” My next significant piece, a deeply personal narrative on sexual consent, was my first attempt at feminist writing.
I recognised gender as political, before recognising the same of race and culture (despite experiencing racism long before sexism). Why?
My feminist awakening is rooted in trying to explain why I allowed myself to be coerced into sex. A friend sent me an article by Rebecca Traister about how the game is rigged in ways that go well beyond consent. I read selected feminist writings: Clementine Ford’s column for Daily Life, Night Games by Anna Krien, Sex Object by Jessica Valenti, Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and more. As I read, thought, and discussed, I realised my experiences were part of a bigger picture.
Being Asian, on the other hand, is something I have lived with my whole life. My mother said, “When people look at you, they will always see a Chinese girl.” Asian-ness, unlike feminism, is written on my body. It is difficult, if not impossible, to tell where ‘personal’ ends and where ‘culture’ begins.
If I am to write memoir, I cannot ignore how being Asian and being female shape my reality. If I control the words, I once thought, I control the story. I now realise I control only part of the story. How we see ourselves, how we want to be seen and how others see us—now and historically—are linked.
As a writer, I continued to explore the tensions between my cultural and sexual identities, and the lack of representation. I later wrote a speech on the myth that sees sex as an expression of feminist liberation. It is my most overtly political piece to date.
At the end of 2015, I read Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke, an Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean descent. That and Clarke’s subsequent memoir The Hate Race taught me how race defines my life and importantly, the lives of others. I felt uncomfortable writing about race as I did not feel I was qualified. Not only had others been writing about race for longer, I felt they had suffered more.
What was being hit on for being Asian when compared to police brutality or workplace discrimination? The truth is I am lucky and this bothers me. My discomfort and anger stem not from one unfortunate conversation or one old, white man but from what this says about our society and who gets to decide who is Australian (or what Australian values are).
To write is to expose and face yourself, your fears, your insecurities, your doubts, over and over. For many of us, female, of colour, Indigenous, queer and/or living with a disability, the act of writing is risky. It demands the reader sees us as we really are, not who they think we are. Writing is political. It says: ‘This is me.’ It says: ‘My experiences matter.’ It says: ‘You are not alone.’ This applies to all art, from fiction and poetry to visual art, music, film, TV and theatre.
My advice? Give your political voice time, and permission, to develop. Read widely (a few places to start: Feminartsy, The Lifted Brow, Peril Magazine, Overland, Right Now and Demos Journal). If someone’s work resonates with you, share it. Attend writers festivals. Ask questions. Discuss. Listen.
“Foreign Soil is dedicated to Australian fiction writers of colour: those who paved the path before me, and those for whom these clumsy feet will hopefully help smooth the way,” Clarke writes. I came to understand my writing does not have to be ground-breaking, to be new or unique. Rather than trying to prove myself different, I am adding to a proud history of (Asian-)Australian voices.
SHU-LING CHUA is a Canberra-based writer. Her work has appeared in Feminartsy, Writers Bloc, Peril Magazine, Seizure and other publications. She was producer at Noted Writers Festival 2016 and Voiceworks nonfiction subeditor, and selected for the 2015 HARDCOPY manuscript development program. She tweets @hellopollyanna while living the memoir she hopes to finish one day.