Michelle Law has become a fixture in the Australian freelancing scene for her outspoken nature and sharp wit. She has written for publications such as The Lifted Brow, Peril, Frankie, Seizure and Meanjin, among others. In addition to her freelance work she’s a bookseller, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and fish owner. AWM intern TJ Wilkshire took five with Michelle to find out what it takes to be a modern renaissance woman.
Your portfolio of published works covers a range of subjects including being a woman, growing up Asian in Australia (which is literally the title of the book), to commentary on TV and how it works in society. Is there any subject you wouldn’t write about? You’ve contributed to five books so far: do you think a book is in your future, or do you prefer the flexibility of your current mediums?
I don’t think there’s any subject I would rule out, but there are of course topics that I’m naturally drawn to and will always be interested in unpacking, like the ones you’ve listed above. The main thing is I want to remain curious about the world, because if you’re open to learning about new things and always asking questions, there’s an opportunity to become a more informed person and writer. As for writing a book, I don’t have anything planned for the near future; I’m quite happy shifting between mediums at the moment. I’ve always got a thousand project ideas floating around in my head, which is probably why I can’t choose just one bloody thing and stick to it (!) but there are book ideas in there too. One day I’d love to write a novel, or essay collection, or YA … see, I can’t even choose one genre when it comes to books.
I see you behind the counter at Avid Reader in West End every now and then. What is it like working at a book store and being a published writer at the same time? How important do you think it is these days for writers to be multi-talented? Say to be a creative writer, a non-fiction writer, a screen writer, a journalist, like you are. Do you think the writing industry now demands writers to be more than just writers?
It’s lovely working at a bookstore because it’s a job that complements being a writer so wonderfully, especially at Avid. From a mental health standpoint, it’s helpful to have a job that requires you to leave the house and your own head once in a while. I get to work with a team of incredible people, most of whom are writers themselves, so you’re always walking into an empathetic environment. Our boss, Fiona Stager, is also so supportive and understanding of our wild schedules as writers, and on top of that we get discounts on books. What else could you ask for as a writer?
In regards to working in different mediums, I think it’s vital to possess an adaptive skill set as a writer. Financially speaking, if you’re a creative and a freelancer, paychecks can be few and far between and when they do come, chances are they’re not regular payments. You need to have multiple jobs happening at once just to pay the rent. On a creative level, having an expansive skill set is only going to be an asset when it comes to telling stories in new and unique ways.
When it comes to the changing role of writers, I don’t know if the industry is more demanding, rather that it demands different things in a digital age, whether that is doing a panel with a live stream, or making a trailer for your book, or being a voice on social media. There is a certain level of performance involved with being a writer and some people enjoy that and others don’t; both attitudes are understandable.
I recently asked a poet if any of her poems were about her cats. Have you written anything about your aggressive tropical fish?
I haven’t yet, but now you’re giving me some ideas! It is very fun to watch them while I’m working. My workspace is beside my aquarium and my fish like coming right up to the glass and just hanging out. I’m sure what they’re seeing is far less interesting than what I’m seeing; their view is just a woman staring blankly into space, trying to think of what to type next. Maybe we can get someone started on an Only The Animals type of project.
You’ve written a lot about existing as an Asian woman in Australia. Since the Brisbane Writers Festival there’s be a lot of discussion, nationally and internationally, about diversity in who writes and what is written. What can you say about being a writer who represents a minority in Australia? Do you feel you have a lot of expectations to meet? Is it draining being considered a go-to voice for your communities? Within the Arts and Publishing arenas, do you think things are improving for diverse writers/editors/publishers, and what do you want to see change?
It’s always lovely to be invited to speak on panels, but it can also be very taxing knowing that you’ve been invited to speak about your point of difference or your ‘diversity’ rather than what it is you actually do. It’s a common complaint among the folks I meet on those panels; we all joke about being called in for our ‘monthly diversity panel’. I’m hugely passionate about all things CALD (Culturally And Linguistically Diverse), but it’s also not the only interesting element about me; I’m qualified to speak about other things too. On top of that frustration is the pressure of feeling as if you are the representative of an entire race at any given festival or conference or what have you, so you better get it right because there’s so little representation out there as it is! I think things are improving; in terms of writers we have fantastic talents like Maxine Beneba Clarke, Omar Musa, Julie Koh, and Ellen van Neervan just to name a few. But ask me to name editors and publishers of colour in Australia and it’s difficult for me to come up with even a handful of names. That’s a problem because until something shifts behind the scenes, from what gets commissioned to what gets edited with an informed perspective, the kinds of stories we’ll have access to and the kinds of stories that reach a mainstream audience will be restricted or misrepresented. So I’d love to see the numbers of CALD editors and publishers grow, more sensitivity readers and consultants being brought onto projects, and the continued championing of diverse writers and their stories.
You’re currently working on your first stage play with La Boite Theatre Company. Can you tell us a little more about that? What can we expect of the play? Or is it all top secret?
The play is called Single Asian Female and it’s a black comedy about family and women. It’s set in a Chinese restaurant on the Sunshine Coast where two Chinese Australian sisters are feeling at odds with each other and the lives they’re living. One sister has reached a point in her life where she’s realizing that as a woman she can’t have it all, whereas the other is struggling with racism at her school and the desire to assimilate over cultivating her own identity. Meanwhile, their migrant mother is harboring a secret that will tear their family apart. It’s a play about labels — those labels we impose on ourselves as well as the ones we are assigned by others, and how they can dictate your sense of self. It’s all chugging along so stay tuned for announcements about the production!
You can read more about Michelle Law here.
TJ Wilkshire is a twenty-something Brisbane based artist and writer. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and English Literature and is currently studying the WEP Masters at the University of Queensland. Her work focuses on birds and she hopes to one-day turn into one. Wilkshire’s poetry has been published in Peril and Uneven Floor, and won the NotJack Competition.