It took me a while before I was comfortable calling myself a writer. I mean, I’d always been good with words, but until recently, I’d never really envisioned that I would make a career or even any money out of it. That’s not to say I don’t have moments where I feel inadequate among my esteemed peers, but I’m certainly getting more used to it as time rolls on.
This ambivalence towards writing is not just a result of my cultural upbringing, but also of the physical environment I was brought up in. My parents and teachers certainly encouraged me to write (and it was mainly fiction, when I was younger), but writing is not a career. At least, not in most traditionally Chinese circles. It does not earn you money, and nor does it carry the seemingly arbitrary status that playing a musical instrument does.
At the same time, society was unconsciously telling me that people with names like mine could not be writers. I rarely, if ever, saw Asian artists celebrated in the news, and it wasn’t until my late teens that I even read a book by an Asian author, let alone an Asian Australian one. And though this has improved in recent years, it is still a huge problem.
I’ve lived in Brisbane my whole life, so I can only really comment on what happens here. I imagine it would be similar in other cities – maybe worse in some, better in others. But in terms of representation, it is clear that many of the writing events in Brisbane are patronised, organised, and hosted by white Australians. It’s probably a detail that’s just that – a detail – to most people. But it’s something that I’ve become increasingly attuned to in the past couple of years, and something that I now can’t help noticing whenever I’m at one of these events.
If I’m being honest, this dearth of representation can be demoralising. Sometimes I wonder how I’m ever going to “make it” when it seems like there is no room for me, and people like me, and it’s at these times that I have to remind myself not to be silly and to keep on keeping on. But I’ve also come to realise that if those of us who recognise this is a problem don’t speak up, or don’t try and change the status quo in some way – nothing is going to change.
I don’t want to say that being a writer of Asian descent in Australia is hard. Being a writer straight out is hard – and there are plenty of other things that are also hard. These include, but are not limited to: solving a trigonometric equation without a calculator, resisting the urge to buy and eat severely discounted Easter chocolate, and any of those immunity challenges they have on Survivor.
In any case, I digress. Being a writer of Asian descent in Australia is not “hard”, but it comes with different and added obstacles. There is the added self-doubt that almost undoubtedly comes from familial and cultural expectation, feeling like an outsider even though you’ve lived here your whole life (and if you have a name like mine, that doesn’t help either) – and this is all before a single word is ejected from your brain onto paper or screen.
Other obstacles include getting racist (and sexist) abuse online from self-entitled people who have nothing else better to do with their time, getting pigeon-holed into “diversity panels”, and being expected to behave in a particular way and only have opinions about specific topics. Yes, the personal is almost always linked to the political, but my cultural background has nothing to do with the quality of my work.
I’m also wary of the fact that in Australia, Asia normally means East Asia – and primarily the countries of China, Korea, and Japan. Asia is more than these three countries (yep, who knew!?), and I’m really excited to see writers and artists outside of these countries get the credit they deserve. The obstacles that these writers face are probably a little different again from those I have encountered, and I don’t presume to speak for them. They all have their own stories.
But luckily, change – and big change – is afoot. It is not enough for writers and artists to become more diverse. Publishing needs to be more diverse as well. The tide is turning, albeit slowly, and I would like to think I have (and will continue to have) a hand in this. I find myself thinking about “younger Yen-Rong” a lot, especially when I’m starting a new piece, or thinking of ideas for new initiatives. I am always thinking – what would she have wanted to read, what opportunities would she have loved to have? What can I do to eliminate these obstacles, or at the very least, make them a little more surmountable?
So watch out, Australia. This is happening, and it’s happening now.
We’re coming to swamp you all.
Yen-Rong is a Brisbane based writer. She is the founder and editor in chief of Pencilled In, a magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of young Asian Australian Artists. When she is not writing, you might find her on Twitter, drinking tea, or chasing after her cat, Autumn. You can read more of her work here.