What Tips would you give a new Playwright or #Writer ?

As part of my ongoing guest post series in this blog,  Jane Camens, who co-edited the recently released New Asia Now edition of Griffith Review, Australia’s leading literary magazine, recently appeared on Daily (w)rite. Today, it is my pleasure to welcome the talented and versatile Michele Lee, an Australian-Asian playright and author whose work has also appeared in the Griffith Magazine. I’ve highlighted some of her responses in blue, because they made an impression on me.

Please ask her any questions that occur to you, and she might drop by to answer them.

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As part of my ongoing guest post series in this blog, Jane Camens, who co-edited the recently released New Asia Now edition of Griffith Review, Australia's leading literary magazine, recently appeared on Daily (w)rite. Today, it is my pleasure to welcome the talented and versatile Michele Lee, an Australian-Asian playright and author whose work has also appeared in the Griffith Magazine.
The Griffith Review: New Asia Now

1. Could you tell us something about your writing journey?

The first time I wrote something of some significance was in year 9. I wrote what I guess you’d call a memoir piece. My teacher, Mrs Swift, was very enthusiastic and told me I would have a career as a writer. She also told me, at a different time, that she was sorry that her teenage daughter was so racist. I later went to college (year 11 and 12) with her. It was so strange having a teacher confide in me.

So I guess writing has been something I’ve been doing since I was a kid. My official line is that I began writing professionally in 2008. This was when I got my first playwriting grant, when I was 27. Then Saturn returned and I was more fully on a writer’s path.

2. You’re a memoirist, essayist and playwright: what importance does each role hold in your life? What are your preoccupations as a writer?

I describe myself foremost as playwright. I’ve got more runs on the board in that realm. I might tack on ‘author’ when describing myself because of a handful of short stories once upon a time and my memoir. But I identify more as a playwright, one of those fringe creatures on the literary scene. I’m more at home in an arts festival than a writers’ festival.

I am preoccupied with myself – isn’t every writer! Well, to be more eloquent about that, when I look at my writing and what I return to, I think my writing has a big sense of absence, otherness, yearning, unrequited-ness and chaos and busyness. My characters are lonely, they are never going to fall in love, they are orphans, they are lost. Oh, of course, mostly my characters aren’t white. You could say I am preoccupied with putting non-white people at the centre of my plays but I’m not absolutely consistent about that.

3. Which authors and playwrights have been your biggest influencers? Could you name a few works that you think all writers should read?

Playwright Caryl Churchill, theatre-maker Young Jean Lee. Books I’ve read recently which I loved are Ali Smith’s ‘The Accidental’ and Atiq Rahimi’s ‘The Patience Stone’ – I could see these books as plays, actually. I was recently in the National Playwriting Festival, and I was very intrigued by Maxine Mellor’s ‘The Silver Alps’. I also enjoyed the absurdity in I’m trying to kiss you’s ‘Madonna Arms’ in last year’s Next Wave Festival.

4. What tips would you give a new playwright or writer?

  • Find opportunities to meet with and talk to other writers.
  • Get used to rejection letters/emails.
  • Write with a big heart.
  • Be nice to yourself.

5. Tell us something about your memoir, Banana Girl, and your impetus behind writing it.

Well my memoir was trying to go beyond migrant narratives – many of which I love – that pitch the conflict between child and family, home culture and outside (white) culture. I know this story. So I wanted to write about being Asian, but also being a woman, also being a sexual woman, also being an artist, also being a Melburnian. The reader I had in mind was other women leading a similar urban life – internet hook-ups, late nights, day jobs on the side, arts at the centre.

6. Talk to us about your piece at Griffith Review: New Asia Now.

I was really stumped when Griffith Review asked me to consider submitting some prose writing. I hadn’t really written much prose, not since ‘Banana Girl’, and I should add I began writing that when I was doing my writing and editing course at RMIT.  So I’d had that course as part of my motivation to write. I’d started to drift away from any prose writing and seeing myself as that sort of writer.

In ‘Where are all the nice Asian girls?’, I am reflecting on ‘Banana Girl’ and expectations around Asian women writing about being Asian. And I am also reflecting on me as a writer, where I fail, where I don’t hit the mark. I try to make fun of myself as an obnoxious hipster, although I’m not sure if that comes across! Someone told me recently that my writing is funny but I can never tell where the laughs will land. I’m probably always a little off in my judgement about what people want to read, and the memoir piece reflects on that.

7. What’s your take on challenges facing Asians writing in English today?

Hmm, well I can’t speak for Asians writing in any other language than English as I’m not bi-lingual enough to write in any language other than English. I think the question of responsibility raises its head. As Asian people, do we have a responsibility to create stories with Asians at the heart of the piece, complex characters that are culturally and proudly specific but also universal and not exoticised? Do we have a responsibility to lead on this? I know that for me, back in 2008, I started to embrace this as a responsibility and an interest. The challenge can be not to be seen as the spokesperson for all Asian people.

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I’ve loved the editions of Griffith Review I’ve read before, and would encourage you to pick up a copy. The New Asia Now edition carries insightful features, essays, poetry and fiction that give an insight to emerging Asia. I’m stunned by the amazing diversity of voices in this issue. Volume 2 of this edition is available exclusively as an eBook: Download it here!

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Michele Lee is an Asian-Australian playwright and author who works across stage and audio. Her works are about identity, otherness, intimacy and chaotic worlds. She is currently working on a digital theatre commission, The Naked Self, for Arts House, and a new play commission, Going down, with Malthouse Theatre. Michele’s produced works are in radio and audio theatre: Going and going, Radio National, 2015, See How The Leaf People Run, Radio National, 2012 (winner of an AWGIE for Best Original Radio Play in 2013); and Talon Salon, Next Wave Festival 2012, and remounted for You Are Here Festival 2013 and Darwin Festival 2013.
Michele Lee: Playwright, Author

Michele Lee is an Asian-Australian playwright and author who works across stage and audio. Her works are about identity, otherness, intimacy and chaotic worlds. She is currently working on a digital theatre commission, The Naked Self, for Arts House, and a new play commission, Going down, with Malthouse Theatre.

Michele’s produced works are in radio and audio theatre: Going and going, Radio National, 2015, See How The Leaf People Run, Radio National, 2012 (winner of an AWGIE for Best Original Radio Play in 2013); and Talon Salon, Next Wave Festival 2012, and remounted for You Are Here Festival 2013 and Darwin Festival 2013.

Have you read the Griffith Review? Interested in writing from Asia? Do you watch or read plays? If yes, what draws you to them? If you’ve been writing for a while, what tips would you give a new writer ? Do you have questions for Michele Lee?

 

I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !

14 comments

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  1. ccyager

    “As Asian people, do we have a responsibility to create stories with Asians at the heart of the piece, complex characters that are culturally and proudly specific but also universal and not exoticised? Do we have a responsibility to lead on this? I know that for me, back in 2008, I started to embrace this as a responsibility and an interest. The challenge can be not to be seen as the spokesperson for all Asian people.”

    Write what you know. “Write from your heart” I take to mean writing from what you love, what moves you, what you have experienced. If you’re writing from your life and heart, then writing about the Asian experience isn’t a big responsibility. The responsibility is, as a writer, to be true to the characters who want you to tell their stories and to their stories.

    Cinda

  2. SumanDR

    Its a pleasure to be here. We do not normally witness a blogpost turned to a forum of sort. When we lookup at the Indian bookshops (virtual or otherwise) we see a English language books are arranged in two sections, one for Indian writers writing in English and the other for the rest. So there is a distinctive difference in the style of writing though most of them if not all have English as their first language. And moreover in India, the style is distinctly different from north to south and east to west… that’s where probably the culture kicks-in. Any thoughts

  3. macjam47

    Great interview questions. It is lovely to meet Michelle, and get to know a bit about her. I find so often while reading interviews with writers, that many began writing as children.

  4. Birgit

    There is, in this country so little knowledge about Asian culture and each place is different just like here but we are unaware of it mostly. It is nice to see that someone is writing about this and not just novels but plays as well.

  5. davecenker

    I think the very first question you asked Michele really struck home with me. It’s amazing how just an ounce of encouragement injected into someone’s life at the right time can have such a monumental impact on their chosen path and the confidence in following it despite any obstacles that may arise along the way. Very well done, great interview with some amazing insights into the life of a creative soul! Thanks for sharing, and best wishes for an inspired day 🙂

  6. gpeynon

    This was a great honest and light-hearted interview. Thanks. Very interesting to see that Michelle applies her advice to both playwriting and novel writing. I’ve heard that a crossover between novels and screenplays is quite easy (and sometime recommended), but never thought about playwriting too. Interesting.

  7. ianscyberspace

    I enjoyed reading this. Having spent most of my work life in Asia as a Caucasian Australian I think I understand what it means to be “modified” by association. When we eventually returned to Australia after thirty years working in Southern and Eastern Asia we found to our dismay we were no longer Australian. Australia had moved on from the 1960’s and most of our working knowledge and friends were Asian. In essence we were migrants though holding an Australian passport. lol. You can imagine how hard it would have been for our children having been brought up in Asia to transition back to the West in US colleges! I smiled at the title “Banana Girl” heard it so many times in Singapore (Sin-ja-pur) I wonder if that makes me “Durian Boy” or perhaps “Jack Fruit Boy” would express it better?” Much the same thought. One word on racism which seems to be the buzz word in Oz right now. Yes it happens, and it’s happened in every country I’ve visited in Asia too both against sub-groups and of course foreigners. Fortunately travel breaks this seemingly common dysfunctional trait down. We hear the mantra education breaks down prejudice. I haven’t seen that demonstrated. I think the human race has a long way to go yet.

  8. michele lee

    hello, just chiming in with some thoughts having read through some of the comments. thanks to damyanti for interviewing me. i’ve never joined in on a thread of comments so i don’t know how to link in people’s names to respond to them directly.

    so just a general response about representation. my experience has been that i get included into events, panels, festivals, conferences to speak about diversity from an asian australian perspective. i don’t mind this but implicit in the invitation is that i will have something to say that can represent, to an extent, the experiences for other asian australians. and, to an extent, i can speak to this and want to speak to this. i am still navigating – and probably will for many years – when i speak for just myself and when i speak for others as well.

    on another note, it was interesting to observe some of the reactions to my book after it came out. so… an asian woman writes about her young life (i’ll say young because it was when i was in my 20s). if it had been ‘a woman writes about her young life’, i think people would have been more open to what that looked like. but as an asian woman writing, people expected (whether consciously or not) there to be more content in there about my family, my culture, my struggles to fit in etc. i think there are very different expectations of what you can/should write about if you’re from a minority. i did have someone ask me if i was ashamed of being asian because i appeared uninterested in focussing on that part of my identity. for me, these expectations can be a challenge.

    but they’re also expectations that fuel me to explore different sorts of questions in my playwriting. and i suspect that at some point again in my life i will write something unabashedly about my culture and my place within it.

  9. Deborah Drucker

    I don’t think the writer has an obligation to represent their culture. But a writer writes from their unique life experience and that can include the immigrant experience and cultures coming up against each other.

  10. mdellert

    Firstly, thanks to Damyanti for bringing a whole part of the world to me that I otherwise might not experience.

    Lee’s reply to the question about being Asian writing in English is true of anyone writing at all:

    As [people], do we have a responsibility to create stories with [people] at the heart of the piece, complex characters that are culturally and proudly specific but also universal and not exoticised?

    I think whether one is Asian or African or European or (native) American (and regardless of the language one is writing in), as an artist one has a responsibility to create stories about honest, complex, and proudly specific people. And yes, in so doing, those characters should transcend from the particular to the universal. Whether those characters are ethnically representative of the artist should only be of concern if it serves the purpose of the story. I don’t think Ms. Lee has an obligation to stand in for “all Asians writing in English” anymore than I have an obligation to stand in for “all diaspora Irish writing in English.” But she does have an obligation to stand in for human, in all its shapes, sizes, and colors.

    I think she does that admirably in this interview, and I’m very intrigued now by her work. Thanks for the interview and the link to New Asia Now!

  11. Denise Covey

    Lovely to meet Michelle. I love the Griffith Review and often buy past copies to read. I’m blown away by this interview. I too loved the bits you’d highlighted in blue, Damyanti, especially the one about the characters getting lonely…:-)