I met Emily Sun three years ago at the Deborah Cass Writing Awards. We’d both been shortlisted for the migrant writing competition. On a whim, I’d flown down to Melbourne to attend the ceremony. I knew no one and stood awkwardly outside Abbotsford Convent when Emily hailed me from across the courtyard. It turned out she had mistaken me for another Asian (someone who turned out to be eight months pregnant at the time). Anyhow, we ended up having a nice chat about the old country (Hong Kong), growing up Asian in Australia and the curse of being middle-age, emerging writers.

Two years later, Emily has ‘emerged’. She’s just published her anthology of poetry Vociferate with Fremantle Press. I was lucky enough to interview her on her debut collection.

The title of your anthology is Vociferate which means to shout out, complain or argue loudly. What I loved when I read through your poems was your ambivalence as you made sense of your Chinese and Australian identity.

Can you talk about the mixed-up baggage that comes from inhabiting this hybrid space?

The full title is Vociferate|, however, it’s listed as just Vociferate in most places. is the verb used to describe the humming, chanting or singing of ancient Chinese poetry. The full title of the book reflects the contradictions of living with a hybrid cultural identity, and I suppose the collection as a whole is about finding ways to resolve the tensions. Writing poetry is my way of assembling and making sense of the things that have shaped my world.   is also my name, but not one that I’ve had a chance to use in public other than my time in mainland China.  At home, I’ve always gone by the Mandarin version of the name even though I didn’t learn Mandarin until I was an adult. I was born in Hong Kong and Cantonese is my mother tongue but it’s not my parents’ mother tongue – then again nor is Mandarin.  I wouldn’t say that there’s an ambivalence about “Australian” and “Chinese” identities, but more a problematisation of these terms, especially when we use them outside of describing nation-state identities. 

The beginning of your poem “Vociferate” opens with:

What she really wanted was to be paganini

The mad bad lord bryon or deaf ludwig van

                         For no one ever said he had a resting bitch face.

Humour features a LOT in your poetry. Vociferate made me laugh at first but the words stayed with me and made me contemplate my growing insignificance as a Chinese-Australian woman (quite worrying). Do you think humour is the key to poetry that resonates?

I am not sure if everyone reads my poems the same way but I’m glad that you were able to see the humour in my poems. I don’t think that a poem needs to be humorous to resonate with a reader, but I’ve always enjoyed comedy, particularly political satire and used to love The Colbert Report and The Chaser. I don’t watch as much TV these days but when I have time, I try to catch up with Charlie Pickering’s The Weekly.  The jester was the only person in the royal court who could speak his mind without losing his head!  Just the other day, I had the experience of reading a set of poems to a crowd of strangers without comic relief, and I have to admit that I felt overexposed and unsettled afterwards as the crowd was not quite sure how to react.  I was also less confident than when I read the “funny ha ha” ones, and afterwards I recognised afterwards these reactions as my ‘minor feelings’. 

It also made me wonder whether I have been performing the “funny Chinaman” trope to make myself more palatable for a general readership.  I did, however, learn early on in life the role of comedy and the carnivalesque in coping with trauma. I grew up with a really quick witted and irreverent grandmother who lived through a couple of revolutions and wars. I also used to love my dad’s stories about his childhood in Japanese occupied Malaya even because they were injected with humour, very dark humour but humour nonetheless.

What I loved about the anthology was the way that the poems were curated into three sections: Beginnings, Wandering and Continuing. I felt that the poems in the first section were your younger voice, Wandering were your feelings in your early adulthood, and Continuing are your more recent thoughts and ideas.

How have your feelings towards your Australian-Chinese identity evolved over time?

As a child, I wanted to be Australian and assimilate, which was something that was encouraged even though I migrated to an Australia that had an official multicultural policy.  The idea of a hyphenate identity wasn’t really a thing until we started using terms such as “Asian-Australian” but that’s never been a term legitimised by institutions in the way “Asian-American” has been.  When I was younger, I wanted to move to America because I was blown away by how you could undertake a degree in Asian-American studies where you got to learn about the history of Asian-America, an identity borne out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and it was a tool for empowerment. Australia still had the White Australia Policy in the 1960s. 

If I’d been made aware that I came to Australia not long after its explicit white supremacist immigration policy, and learnt about the history of this land, beyond the name of the captains and their ships, I may have understood why people behaved the way they did.  

I learnt about China mainly from  my  grandmothers who used to tell me stories about their home villages in China. Both left China as very young women, so their stories were based on vague memories of a world that no longer existed, a world that was filled with both literal and figurative ghosts.

My only other view into China when I was younger was either on the nightly news or through the lens of Fifth-Generation directors https://www.filminquiry.com/beginners-guide-fifth-generation-chinese-cinema/

Another one of my favourite poems is Doppelganger Across Lands which opens like this:

Do you think we look like strangers?

When you sit on the couch, fold your right

arm across your left

So do I

I am not sure if this is meant to be a love poem to your partner, but I read it like a love letter. This poem resonates with me maybe because I am in a mixed couple relationship.

Can you talk about the ideas behind this poem? 

I wrote this for my partner after I realised that I hadn’t included any love poems in my collection.  We’ve been together for so long that we have definitely taken on each other’s mannerisms. I’ve never thought of his culture as vastly different from mine because he’s from an immigrant Italian family, and when I was a kid in England, Italians and other ‘continental Europeans’ and the Irish (i.e. people from the Republic of Ireland), were part of our community.  “Double Exotic” is also for my partner, which is my only other love poem in the collection. 

I love the cover for your anthology. Can you tell us about the design choices and who is in the photo?

The photograph is of my mother as a girl in 1960s Hong Kong. It was before she became a wife, mother, and a working class, non-English speaking, migrant woman. She’s on the cover because I dedicated my book to her and people have read the image in various ways. I’ve often thought about what type of person she would be had she grown up in a less feudal household where daughters were raised to be married off to their father’s business associates. She rebelled against this by marrying my dad, a penniless schoolteacher, which changed her trajectory. The design is by Anna Maley-Fadgyas (https://bookdesigns.com.au/about) who came up with the design after my publisher gave her the photo and a few of my poems.  Anna created two covers and I got to choose which one to use. I asked my friends and students for their opinion, and overwhelmingly, people preferred the one you see now.  In fact, my mother was the only person who preferred the other design.

The blog series I’m writing is called Fictional Forties, Fifties and Beyond. I want to start a conversation about what it is like to publish for the first time in your forties. Can you talk a little about your publishing journey? 

I was first published in a lit journal back in 1990s when I was in my early 20s. Back then, I had the idea to be a journalist after reading Jan Wong’s Red China Blues. I was told that I should move to Hong Kong or Singapore if that was my goal but I was too young to make such a big move, nor did I have the connections to make such a move. I just wanted a job so that I could make some money, move out of home, and travel. The easiest way to do that was to do a teaching diploma, so I became a high school teaching naively thinking that I would write on the side. I know that there are many teachers who became writers, Marcus Zusak comes to mind, but I didn’t know where to begin and I didn’t have the confidence to just do it. 

In my late 20s, my partner and I decided to go on an extended working holiday to Wellington and do the things we would probably never explore here in Perth because we were so stuck in our ways.  I saw a call for applicants for a short-fiction summer workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters and decided to apply.   I still remember running up the steep hills and stairs to Victoria University and handing in my portfolio.   It was there that I met like minded others, the cohort  included Pip Adam https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pip_Adam, Catherine Robertson https://iamemilysun.com/catherine-robertson-writing-a-bestseller/ and Mikaela Nyman https://www.read-nz.org/writer/nyman-mikaela/.   I published the short fiction that I generated that summer in journals and anthologies, including one in Alice Pung’s Growing up in Asian in Australia.  

However, when I returned to Australia, I found it really difficult to build on that momentum, in part because I was busy battling cancer in my thirties.  http://emilyneedsstemcells.com 

It wasn’t until 2018 when I read about Deborah Cass writing prize that I had the drive to write again.  Deborah was a law academic who, upon her cancer diagnosis, realised that she wanted to write and publish her full-length book. Sadly, she passed away before that dream was realised. Her story really resonated with me, and when I saw that I didn’t know any of the judges, I saw it as a sign to just go for it. Getting the runner-up prize boosted my confidence and I continued from there. 

Has it been difficult balancing your personal life with your professional writing? 

I still find it difficult to label myself as a ‘professional writer’, as I am not able to just sit down and write for hours each day because I have to juggle everything else that’s going on in my life.  It helps that this year, I am on a PhD scholarship and that has taken away the distraction of paid work. Last year, I took on too many hours and did not write very much because I also had a lot going on at home as well. I know that there are writers who can write when their children are running circles around them and their partner has the TV on full volume, and I want to be them!  If I won the lottery, I’d still be doing what I’m doing now but I’d hire a nanny, cleaner, cook, a carer for my elderly parents, and a personal assistant!  

Do you think your journey would have been much different if it was your younger self that was being published for the first time?

Who knows? I think publishers are more willing to take a risk for “Asian-Australians” to write something other than a grateful migrant/refugee story these days, thanks to global trends. I probably had a more interesting life and with it an edgier voice when I was younger, but I didn’t have the maturity nor the hindsight to generate the type of work that I do now. 

When I met you, I thought that we were the geriatrics in the emerging writers scene, but I’ve come to realise that we’re probably just the average age.   Every journey is unique and mine has just begun.  

Thank you for providing such thorough answers to my interview questions!

Vociferate (print or ebook) can be purchased from Freemantle press https://fremantlepress.com.au/books/vociferate/

or should be available through your local bookshop.