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F*ck Covid: An Online Literary Affair (2)

August 29, 2021

This is the second of my two posts on the F*CK COVID online-only event. My first post introduced it and covered the fiction session. This post will report on the non-fiction session. I’ll start by noting that while the first session involved established authors, this one, I think it’s fair to say, involved emerging writers, who were also both from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Past-present: adventures in non-fiction with Shu-Ling Chua and Sneha Lees

While Gold’s and Brandi’s books were both novels, the two books covered here represent different forms, Shu-ling Chua’s Echoes being a collection of essays, and Sneha Lees’ Good Indian daughter (published under the name Ruhi Lee) being a memoir.

On their inspirations

Shu-Ling was inspired by the surprising discovery that a pop song in Crazy Rich Asians, “I want your love”, had been loved by her grandmother. This led her to researching the soundtrack, and exploring “lineages and inheritances” from various perspectives, including cultural, literary, fashion. This core theme held true, she said, through the three essays, which focus on domestic life, fashion, music, and water. Nigel suggested the word “intricate” described her book, but Shu-Ling prefers “intertextual” because she layers different cultural sources. She talked about the pressure she felt to be original (but I’ll leave that to the Q&A where it came up again!)

Sneha‘s book started with her wanting to understand why she was disappointed to discover, when pregnant, that she was having a girl. She came to realise that it was not about the baby but about how she felt as a woman in the world, and that this went back to psychological and physical abuse she’d experienced growing up. Her challenges in writing her story were: how to maintain a relationship with her family on whose watch this abuse had happened; and how to retain her culture. She talked about the high suicide rate for Indian woman, and her wanting to break the silence.

On wounds, scars and critiquing culture

Nigel said there was a heart of forgiveness in her memoir. Sneha laughed and said that Hard Copy program’s Nadine Davidoff had advised to write from the scar not the wound, but she’d often written from the wound. She admitted, however, that she had developed empathy for her parents, as their own stories had been tough, and this had given her a kernel of forgiveness. (This reminded me of Alice Pung coming to understand her parents.) Sneha’s book is about self and inter-generational understanding.

Shu-Ling talked of writing about wounds and scars – regarding sexual trauma – in her earlier writing, and the need to write about these things in ethically, responsibly. You need to consider, she said, the ethical, social, cultural, historical backgrounds. 

Sneha, sort of expanding this, spoke of needing to be mindful when writing about Indian culture in Australia. She was writing, she said, for white editors, publishers, readers, and didn’t want to make it easy for white people to see her critiques of her culture as evidence of their culture’s superiority. She loves her culture, but she also wanted to critique it. She’s interested in what it means to be Indian, what it means to be Australian.

Nigel wanted to explore this more, particularly how to critique dominant Australian culture?

Shu-Ling spoke about being part of a bigger group of writers trying to broaden Australians’ understanding of migrant culture, away from the expected traditional voyage and first generation stories. They need to be able to write about things important to them. Activism can take different forms and newer writers are carving out their own space.

Nigel asked whether the current bland simplification in Federal politics regarding migrants – like the “stop the boats” mantra – makes it hard to write about. Sneha commented on how distressing the short-term understanding behind these policies is. How can a white person proudly say “send back the boats” when they themselves came by boat and ruined the country. This thinking devalues what migrants and refugees bring: it ”feels like shit but you just write through it”.

On writing openly, honestly, respectfully about family …

… when they are still alive!  

Sneha talked to her parents about publishing her story, being anxious about airing “dirty laundry” and not wanting to attack the family. As a result, she agreed to publish under a pseudonym, Ruhi Lee (she’s now out!), but she also quoted Ann LaMott’s

If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

For Shu-Ling it was different. Her book is mainly about her mother’s side and her mother was part of the process. There were, however, uncomfortable conversations, such as about premarital sex. She agreed with Sneha that it’s not easy to write about family, but said that Echoes is a bit removed. She used music, for example, to create a bridge with her mother (and grandmother).

On the role of place in their writing

Shu-Ling said that, while she wrote the book in Melbourne, it is very much about Canberra because She’s exploring nostalgia. Also, she sees Canberra as “her” city, because neither her mother nor grandmother lived there.

Sneha didn’t feel that where she was writing, Melbourne, had impacted her book, but admitted that, before she wrote it, she had seen India through rose-coloured glasses.

The readings

As in the first session, both authors read. Sneha chose a section about having to talk to her parents about her sex education homework. Her father was horrified by the “the debauched syllabus”. Being taught this was “so veritably un-Indian”. Shu-Ling read from the last essay in her book, “To fish for the moon”, in which she talked, among other things, about what “opting out of motherhood” means. Is this a beginning or ending or both?

Nigel asked Shu-Ling about the tenderness he perceived in her writing. She said she writes as if she is speaking to a friend. She also said that her favourite writers write tenderly.

For Sneha, the question was obvious – her humour. Sneha said that humour writing is her first love, and that books and memoirs by comedians were major influences. She grew up with a diet of humour in her family. Readers need humour, she said.

Q&A

  • On the pressure to be original. Expanding this, Shu-Ling explained that she loved, for example, Alice Pung’s work, but had felt she must be different from her and others, like Benjamin Law and Maxine Beneba Clarke. She wanted to move away from the capitalistic focus on the individual, so used the conversation idea. She sees herself as renovating rather than building a new building. What a great metaphor!
  • On feeling equipped to write about BIG issues. Sneha spoke about addressing the political in a personal way. The advice from Hard Copy was to “just tell your story”, and to “give the reader more credit”, letting them come to it. This lets her stick to what she knows. Shu-Ling spoke similarly on focusing on the personal, and also about not wanting to speak over others.
  • On relationship with editors. Sneha said she had a great editor, and really enjoyed what was a collaborative process. She felt she could push back, but she also respected their suggestions and probings. Shu-Ling didn’t feel comfortable with her first editor, but the second one was collaborative.
  • On whether their families have read their stories. Sneha was sad that she felt she couldn’t celebrate publication with her family, besides her sister, while Shu-Ling said her mother had read her final draft for inaccuracies.
  • On turning memories into memoirs, managing the gaps and creating a narrative. Shu-Ling starts with a moodboard, and writes her first draft using stream of consciousness, winding her way through her question to a conclusion. She then develops her narrative during polishing. Because her subject matter is recent, she has few memory gaps. Anyhow, she says, memoir is not about the past, but about your relationship with the past. Sneha, on the other hand, says regarding narrative that she is a big structure person, so puts that down first. Her memoir was structured along her pregnancy timeline; for her new novel she has mapped out her chapters. However regarding memory, she said her story was complicated by gaslighting so she had to cross-check with sister, husband, and friends. Nigel commented that he loved her memoir’s chapter titles, like “Thanks for the panic attack. Here’s a heart attack in return”.
  • On surprising post-publication emotions. Shu-Ling was initially “down” that her book hadn’t charged the world, but appreciated the positive responses. Sneha didn’t expect ”to feel like shit”, but this was partly due to her the lockdown causing her launch to be cancelled, and to the COVID crisis being so bad in India. She was surprised by how much women “felt” her book.

Tips for writing through the pandemic

Sneha said to go back to what you love, like rereading old favourites. She was reassured about the value of her work by Ethan Hawke’s TED talk’s statement that

art’s not a luxury—it’s actually sustenance. We need it.

Shu-Ling agreed with rereading old favourites, being for her, essays. She also talked about the importance of community, and that the pandemic means she can attend interstate and overseas writing events which revitalise her creative energy. (Hear, hear!)

Overall themes

Interestingly, two ideas recurred in both sessions: one related to trusting readers, and the other to the value of the editing process.

A big thanks to the ACT Writers Centre, Nigel Featherstone and the four panelists for organising and taking part in an event that felt so honest and reaffirming. Art is indeed sustenance.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2021 21:10

    1)”they themselves came by boat and ruined the country”. Right on !
    2)I couldn’t possibly have written about my parents had they been still alive: no guts
    3)Imagine all that work to write something ! If you just tell it, isn’t that good enough ?

    • August 29, 2021 22:30

      1. Absolutely, M-R.
      2. And I think that’s fair enough. Each writer has to weight these things up, I think. There’s no one answer is there.
      3. I’m not sure what exactly you are commenting on here? Didn’t your memoir take a lot of work?

      • August 30, 2021 13:26

        Nope. It took a lot of cudgelling the ancient brain; but once a memory was loosened and came free, I RIT IT. [grin]
        Oh: there was definitely work in the editing, in the rearranging .. But any new stuff was just .. written. It was as if I was telling someone.

        • August 30, 2021 14:33

          Ah like Shu-Ling who writes her first drafts as streams of consciousness as if she’s talking to a friend, then does the hard yakka.

        • August 31, 2021 07:28

          That sounds very familiar !

        • August 31, 2021 08:31

          I thought it might! It’s interesting that Sneha is the opposite, being more into structure. That would probably more me – if I ever I wrote a book, which I won’t.

  2. August 29, 2021 23:00

    Gutsy choice for naming this event – I like it but do you reckon it alienated any potential audience members?

    Unrelated (but sort of related) – last year during the middle of Vic lockdowns, I had to take my daughter to the hospital emergency for suspected appendicitis. The waiting room was set up with seats apart. A mother arrived, with three very little kids. The one who was approx 5yo looked at all the seats and asked his mum ‘Why are the seats were in stupid spots?’ His mother answered, “It’s because of COVID.” The kid, looking around the room, hands on hips, said “F*cken COVID….” It took all I had not to laugh out loud and tell him that he said what we were all thinking!

    • August 29, 2021 23:04

      Thanks Kate … good question, but I suspect probably not in terms of the target audience?

      I like your hospital story!

  3. August 29, 2021 23:34

    WG: It seems that Nigel F opens up a positive space for these interviews and is not obtrusive in the way some moderators can be – dominating in certain ways – at least your review of these two writers gives me that sense – and as always – I think – tenderly and positively described!

    • August 30, 2021 00:14

      Thanks Jim. I think the sense you’ve got for my posts regarding Nigel’s moderator style is the right one, but I suppose you’d have to ask the panellists to be sure!

  4. August 30, 2021 04:05

    Oh thank you, Sue! I read through the whole thing and really enjoyed it. I’ve got Good Indian Daughter on my Wish List now. I’d been wondering if we were all going to get a deluge of books by authors who were encouraged by lock-downs to produce something. ??? – I haven’t noticed a deluge yet. These sound good.

    • August 30, 2021 08:11

      Thanks Bekah, I’m impressed that you read it all from your different vnwebe. No, I haven’t seen a deluge yet either. I hope you get to read Sneha Lees’ book. Hope all is going well where you are. We never hear much about the Dakotas.

  5. Karen Viggers permalink
    August 30, 2021 07:32

    Great summary Sue. It was an interesting session, and you’ve drawn out the essence really well here.

    • August 30, 2021 08:14

      Phew, thanks Karen. In aways nervous about what other who attend the same event think. BTW, you live tweeting was impressive. I would fnd that harder.

      Anyhow, they were excellent sessions weren’t they?

  6. Sara Dowse permalink
    August 30, 2021 07:42

    Thanks, Sue. I admit that the session’s title did put me off. Shucking off my 1950s fastidiousness has taken time. That’s not to say that I don’t use the F-word constantly in the privacy of my apartment now that there’s so much to cuss about. So sorry I didn’t sign up for the sessions now that I’ve read your reports on them. Seems like I missed out on something special.

    • August 30, 2021 08:21

      I completely understand Sara, as I haven’t fully shucked off my church-family youth either! I felt brave putting up these titles! However, the two sessions were just excellent. The two young non-fiction writers were so impressive, and the more experienced novelists covered more familiar ground and yet felt fresh and insightful as well.

  7. Sara Dowse permalink
    August 30, 2021 10:22

    Haha. Am working on the second of a trilogy of thrillers that may just see the light of day. One of the characters uses the F-word and derivatives because that IS in his character, so I’ve let it rip. But I still find it difficult in real life. I remember in the 1970s when Beryl Henderson, a doyen of the women’s movement and in her 70s used the word in its literal sense on the ABC’s Coming Out Show. It created an absolutely furore. No one bats an eyelid now.

    • August 30, 2021 11:50

      I applaud you Sara for rising above your personal preferences for the sake of your characters! I do hope your thrillers do see the light of day.

      • Sara Dowse permalink
        August 30, 2021 15:21

        Thanks, WH. So do I but the point is that I’m having such fun with them.

        • August 30, 2021 15:42

          That’s great Sara. I’m sure what you do will be better for it – and if it isn’t, well, at least you enjoyed yourself.

  8. August 30, 2021 14:33

    Thank you for coming to the event and for this blog post about it, Sue! It’s lovely to read and reflect back on what was a very enjoyable conversation.

    • August 30, 2021 15:39

      Oh I’m glad Sneha, that my write-up is interesting to the participants. I hope I got what you and Shu-Ling said right, and didn’t put your words in her mouth and vice versa. My notes were a little confused in a couple of places – because it was all so interesting and mind-opening – so I had to rely on my memory in a couple of places!

      I will try to find time to read your book. I do enjoy serious things told with humour.

  9. August 30, 2021 17:49

    I love it when a phrase jumps out, for you as well as me, obviously, “memoir is not about the past, but about your relationship with the past”.
    The truly memorable, moving memoirs are the ones who achieve this.

    • August 30, 2021 18:55

      Thanks Brona… And, I think in a way, that that’s what – hmmm – literary historical fiction is about too? In a different way but somehow it’s about what the past means and can say to us?

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