My changing relationship with contemporary stories, and what it means to see yourself in literature
Guest post by Wendy Chen
During my early high school years, I gravitated almost exclusively towards books that provided escapism, especially speculative and mystery novels. Though I couldn’t fully articulate it at the time, the main reason I shied away from contemporary and realistic stories was because of how little they reflected my own reality. Being part of two cultures – Chinese and Australian – is an intrinsic part of my life, such that it was, and still is, alienating to have this experience represented so little. And this is a multifaceted experience. There are ups and downs to being Chinese-Australian and navigating two cultures: there are humorous sides, there are aspects of this experience I’m grateful for, and then others that are more difficult – all of which can only be shown through a variety of voices and representations.
Furthermore, the few representations of marginalised identities I did find in contemporary stories usually had negative implications. For example, Asian restaurants and entertainment would often be depicted in the background of contemporary fiction, and yet Asian-Australian characters would rarely be present in (let alone at the forefront of) these same stories. Continuously encountering this was a jarring reminder that mainstream Australian society only values what it can consume, rather than listening to our voices. The inclusion of Asian stereotypes (which were not delved into holistically) was similarly affecting, because even if they were included unintentionally, these throwaway descriptors reinforced the damaging impact of micro-aggressions.
Over the past few years, certain books I’ve read have powerfully countered this. There are still many more stories and voices I hope to find, but I’m lucky to have experienced these validating and resonant stories. Below are some of the contemporary/realistic stories that I saw myself reflected in:
Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung
I loved this beautiful memoir about the author’s Chinese-Cambodian family, primarily focusing on three generations of women within it (her grandmother, her mother, and Alice) and their experiences in Australia. I laughed in recognition at the way it showed the humorous aspects of cultural differences and misunderstandings, felt the pain of what everyone went through so powerfully, and there were incredibly poignant and memorable moments throughout. Alice Pung’s writing and voice came across powerfully throughout the book, and lingered in my mind after I’d finished.
Cloudwish by Fiona Wood
Vân Ước Phan, the Vietnamese-Australian protagonist, felt so incredibly real and relatable with her introversion and fierce inner voice. My favourite aspect of the book was how it delved into her relationship with her family – especially with the cultural and language gap between them, and the empathetic portrayal of how she came to understand more about their past. It meant a lot to me to see reflections throughout the story of experiences which I’d always felt, but hadn’t known how to express, or really understood as real – until Cloudwish put them into words.
Preloved by Shirley Marr
Preloved by Shirley Marr was actually the first book I’d ever read with a Chinese-Australian protagonist. I loved the Chinese cultural elements here – there were many superstitions that I recognised – and the author wove them into a ghost story in clever ways. Amy, her mother and her friends were each unique and compelling, and I loved how the storyline shaped them holistically, delving into the foundations of, and going beyond, traits usually associated with stereotypes – rather than the superficial portrayals we usually see.
What are some stories you’ve seen yourself reflected in?
Wendy Chen is a writer from New South Wales, with a particular passion for fiction, review writing and advocacy. She is a contributor to Meet Me At The Intersection published by Freemantle PressShe co-runs the blog LoveOzYA on Tumblr. You can find her website here.