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.
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.
- 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!)
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.