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.
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.
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!
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?