Your writing is often inspired by your personal narrative and experiences. For example, Homecoming Queens, a web series you co-wrote and starred in, was semi-biographical and involved your experience of having an autoimmune disease called alopecia areata. How has writing and creating art allowed you to understand your personal narrative more?
I find that writing what you know lends an authenticity to stories. This isn’t necessarily the case all the time, because as a writer, you have the agency to imagine different experiences - to an extent. But I do find that writing from an informed place shines through in the work.
Writing also allows for sustained periods of self-reflection. It personally helps me to see things in a more objective light. You have to pick which parts of the experience might lend itself to the narrative best, in order to make it a more compelling and cohesive story.
It’s hard to impose a structure onto my own personal story simply because life can be so random. It does make you realise that reality is much stranger than fiction in a lot of ways. And I think that's why people write or create stories a lot of the time - to make sense of that, especially if you're not religious or depending on a higher power. Creating stories is a way for you to try to piece together and make sense of life.
You’ve written for print, theatre and screen; what is your favourite medium to write for and why?
It's really hard to choose because they’re all different, and they all have their pros.
With print, the pro is that the work is almost solely yours; it’s a thoroughly internal process and you have much more control over the outcome.
What I love about theatre is that you can get an immediate audience response, and get to work with performers you admire. When I was developing my opera and workshopping with the singers, I was so blown away by their talent. Being in that space and creating with them, I very much felt like, “I could happily do this for the rest of my life”.
Screen is exciting because it's so collaborative. It’s also out of your hands, which is a blessing and a curse, the blessing being that it can be very liberating to let go.
But right now I would probably say theatre - simply because of how special it is when you're there on opening night and able to witness people's reactions, or when people send you messages about the effect your show has had on them.
Apart from being talented at writing, what’s an unexpected skillset you’ve needed to do well in this creative industry?
People can enter the industry thinking it's going to be quite easy, or that becoming successful depends entirely on the art. They don’t realise that writing is a hustle. All throughout my 20s, I didn’t have much of a social life because I was always inside working, trying to get a foot up in the industry.
It’s important to be tenacious, but also quite adaptable and have a willingness to accept instability, especially since creating art is not a stable nor lucrative job. It’s hard to financially rely solely on your art especially when starting out. I worked in retail doing random jobs, and then as a bookseller for 10 years before I could start freelancing full time.
It’s the same for every sector, but you definitely need good people skills - to be adept at building and cultivating relationships. It helps to have a high EQ, and to be able to read the room. Inevitably you’ll clash with some people along the way, but because it’s such a small industry, you need to find a way to make things work in the long term.
Your most recent play Miss Peony questions what it means to be Chinese as a third-culture kid (children raised in a culture different to their parents’) specifically growing up in Australia. In fact, you’ve been interrogating this idea from a young age, in your first written piece A Call to Arms in the 2008 anthology Growing Up Asian in Australia. In your opinion and experiences, what does it mean to be Chinese, and also Chinese Australian?
This is a tricky question, because being Chinese and Chinese Australian can be anything really - it’s what you personally make of it. In Miss Peony, this is a question the protagonist Lily interrogates throughout the entirety of the play. It comes to the fore when she enters this pageant that she doesn't necessarily agree with, or feel like she fits into.
Like Lily, I feel when it comes to being Chinese, there are core principles linked to Confucianism such as respecting your elders, having filial piety, being stoic and hard working, and there being honour in ‘saving face’.
But when you're from a diasporic Chinese community or a third culture kid, that's when things get confusing because you're caught between two or more worlds. And then what it means to be Chinese can be a nebulous concept, especially when it comes to things like language, clothing, or even the food you eat. It can feel like you're doing everything wrong. And both communities can become quite discriminatory, whether they mean to or not.
Ultimately I think when it comes to belonging in any sort of diasporic community, it's what you make of it. It's a ‘choose your own adventure’ where the answer to that question is always changing. And it’s a question everyone in those communities contends with their whole lives.
A lot of your writing involves dispelling the problematic stereotype of Asian women as meek, demure and submissive. We’ve most recently seen this with your newest book Asian Girls are Going Places interviewing a range of Asian females, and the impressive diverse cast of Asian female characters in your play Miss Peony. What have been some of your own favourite portrayals of Asian women in mainstream media?
I have a lot, which I’m thankful for because I feel like there's been a huge step forward in representation when it comes to mainstream media.
A more recent example is definitely Everything Everywhere All at Once. I really love the TV series, PEN15, which is this offbeat, silly and experimental show that’s also unexpectedly moving as well. One of the show creators, Maya Erskine plays a 13 year old version of herself. I love most things that Sandra Oh is a part of. I really liked Always Be My Maybe, and Bao, the Pixar short film - even though there wasn’t any dialogue I thought they developed the character of the mother really well. We’ve gotten so many more amazing portrayals of Asian women in mainstream media, and my work has really focused on contributing towards that.
What new projects do you have in the works that people can look forward to?
I’ve optioned Alice Pung’s latest book One Hundred Days which I'm planning to adapt into a feature film. I'm in the early stages of doing that. I've also got a new theatre concept that I've been chipping away at, as well as television and book concepts that I’ve been developing. I’m sorry I can’t give away too much more!