Bri and Allie walked around Newcastle at the National Young Writers’ Festival this year and cajoled a bunch of writers into answering their questions. Here they chat with Giselle Nguyen. Giselle chatted about writing for Rookie, writing about her sex life, and how much fun she had at the festival!
I read this piece as a part of Amazing Babes at the Emerging Writers’ Festival on 19 June 2017.
When I was a little girl, my Bà Ngoại would play a game with my sisters and me. Her hand spread out wide, we would point our fingers and jab her palm quickly as she sang a Vietnamese song which stopped abruptly at the end, marking the point where we’d pull away as quickly as possible to avoid being caught by her closing fist. We would always laugh at the end of the game, no matter the outcome, and she would laugh too.
Bà had a funny way of kissing me, the same way my mother still does – pushing her nose and lips right up to my cheek, then inhaling sharply. It felt like we melted into each other every time, like we were becoming the same person.
She had a smell, an instantly comforting one that enveloped her bedroom in the house where we lived – the one where I stayed until I left home at 23, when she’d been gone for years and we’d had so many renovations that I sometimes forgot she’d ever been there at all. The bedroom had an armchair where she’d always sit, and a chest of drawers full of tiger balm, beaded bracelets and all of her secret treasures. Bà wore a jade Buddha around her neck. She was the picture of old world sophistication and elegance, with beautiful scarves and soft, mottled hands that glided around the mah-jong table as the tiles gently clinked.
We used to tease my mother for not being able to roll up her tongue, and one day we had the brilliant idea of seeing if Bà could do it. She sat there, silk scarf wrapped around her head, and slowly her tongue protruded in a perfect roll. What a strange image – this prim and proper elderly woman sticking her tongue out. We laughed until we could not breathe.
Bà couldn’t speak a lick of English, but she loved to watch Home and Away, and she’d regale me with all the scandalous gossip about which character was sleeping with which other character. I guess her understanding Home and Away wasn’t so different from me understanding her – I knew nothing about her fears, her past, what it felt like to leave her home behind without a backwards glance for a different world, and yet she made perfect sense to me.
I have only now begun to put those pieces together, but I was a child then, and I never thought to ask. She was just Bà – someone who had always been, would always be, there. Maybe I was selfish, or maybe just young, but she existed in the context of my world and I couldn’t imagine her outside of it, in the past or future.
I don’t remember when Bà got sick, but I remember that she did, and all of a sudden she was different. She went from a spirited, chatty woman to someone who lay perfectly still, eyes closed like she was always dreaming. She would smile weakly when I went into her room, and once, when I got the highest mark in the grade for the English competition, I took the medal I won to her, tucked away neatly in blue velvet. “Look what I got, Bà!” I said excitedly, except she could barely open her eyes to see me or the medal, and then I was ushered away again.
And then there were the days and weeks when she wasn’t home at all, and we were in and out of hospital rooms. The walls were so bright that they hurt my eyes, and my little sister and I raced around the hallways and skipped across the brick walls outside, singing Don Spencer songs at the top of our lungs. The nurses would yell at us to stop. Maybe people who are dying don’t want to hear two little tuneless girls singing songs about elephants and walruses. We didn’t know that, because we didn’t know death. It was something that happened to our guinea pigs and pet fish – not to Bà. How could anything exist without her?
Everything is a blur, now. Maybe that’s because it’s been so long, or maybe I’ve just tried my hardest to forget. I don’t remember the last time I saw her, or what the last thing I said was, but one night my parents were gone and we were all bundled up at home, and the phone rang and suddenly my older sister was crumpled in the corner of the stairs, folded carefully in the carpet, and her face took on a shape I’d never seen before, and I didn’t have to ask why she was crying.
For 49 days, we mourned, as Vietnamese families do. We put on white headbands and we sang, we cried, we burned. I’d never seen my mother seized by grief like that before, and it is a grief I came to crushingly understand. It wasn’t too late for me, but for her, the thought of being a careless or thoughtless daughter in past lives haunted her long past the day of the funeral.
That day was long and confusing and strange. We walked, hands clasped, past an open casket containing my beloved Bà, except it wasn’t her at all. She was pale white, ghostly, asleep like I’d seen her so many times before, but in a way that scared me. I stood over the coffin and gazed at her, with my auntie next to me, when suddenly I saw her move, and my heart leapt. Had there been a terrible mistake? My auntie saw the same thing, and we grasped each other’s hands in holy terror as we stared, transfixed.
But it was just a trick, someone’s leg nudging the bottom of the table and shifting it ever so slightly. For a moment, I thought she was coming back to me, and then reality took over again.
The house was quiet after that – one less voice, one less body. Her room remained there, exactly the same with the chair in the corner and her drawers full of miracles, but there was no one there anymore. Eventually, it became a guest room. None of them were her, though, and so I didn’t care.
Sometimes I’d lie in bed and whisper to her about the things that were happening that frightened me, or the boys I liked, or the grades I wasn’t getting. She was never there, of course – she’d been dead for years – but I felt a comforting glow, just saying the words out loud. We never had those conversations while she was alive, but we have had countless in the weeks and months and years since she left me.
I wonder what she would think of me now. She knew me when I was barely myself – I hadn’t become anyone yet, or I was a million different people, just trying them all out to see which one fit best. Would she like my writing? Would she like my friends, my lovers? Would she be proud of who that nine-year-old girl became? Would we continue to love each other in wordless silence, like we did at the very end?
My mother always talks about the afterlife; about what happens when we die. She believes in cycles – that what we do when we are on earth now will inform the way in which we are reincarnated. I don’t know if I believe in that, but it’s been 20 years since Bà left me, and I still see her in everything.
Is my mother right? Is she in the flowers that I admire in the gardens, smiling at me through pink-hued cheeks? Is she a new born baby, full of wonder at the world? Is she the people I walk past and as our eyes meet, a flash of mutual recognition – but neither of us knows where from?
Or does she only live up in my memories now? Do people really cease to exist in any physical form when they die? Can I handle that as the truth of it all? Do I romanticise everything too much? Does it even matter?
Sometimes all I want is to touch the palms of her hands again. I would let her catch me every time.
I was very honoured to be a guest of Women of Letters on 26 March 2017, reading a letter to the thing I wish I didn’t care about. Here is the full transcript of my letter.
We need to talk.
Do you remember when you were four years old, and every time you and your sister hung out with your family friend Jackie, you would play “boyfriends” with the plastic toy phones you all had? You’d hold the receiver up to your ear and you’d feel so sophisticated, so grown up, so loved, to have a boyfriend – someone who wanted you and only you – even if it was just make believe.
Do you remember in preschool when a girl named Jodie liked the smell of your Strawberry Shortcake doll, and you became fast friends? You walked around holding hands and it felt like you meant something to someone, but one day – and you can’t remember why, now – you and Jodie stood at the front of the classroom, both crying, while the other children laughed at you. It wasn’t long after that that you moved to a different preschool, where you lay awake and told stories quietly to your teddy bear while the rest of your class napped. You knew the teddy would not talk back or laugh, that it would listen to you.
Do you remember the first time you looked in the mirror and did not like what you saw, how at family gatherings adults would smile sadly and then whisper among themselves in Vietnamese about how you weren’t the dainty thing you should have been? You used to take biscuits into the bathroom and eat them there alone, hoping it wouldn’t be too obvious when you put the container back in the kitchen that any of them were gone. You learned the language of self-loathing early on, when your mother tried every diet under the sun in order to shrink herself. You learned to want to shrink yourself too. You were always too much, which meant that you were never enough.
Do you remember in Year 2 when everyone was encouraged to come to school in the traditional dress of their culture? You didn’t have anything traditional to wear, so you went to school in a navy and white striped dress. At recess you watched the parade with your friends, where kids in traditional clothing walked around the concrete square, and a teacher asked, “Where are you from?” and they’d confidently shout the name of their country, and walk on. Your best friend Larissa said if you didn’t go in the parade she wouldn’t be friends with you anymore. You knew you had nothing to say, but you didn’t want your friend to hate you, so you got up, and you walked around the concrete square, and you tried to run past the teacher so you didn’t have to say anything, but she pulled you back and asked, “Where are you from?” and you whispered “I don’t know”, and everyone laughed, and your sister cried. Within a year, Larissa wasn’t your friend anymore anyway.
Do you remember in Year 5 when you moved schools and you were so excited to be in a new place, even though you hardly fit in with the beautiful blonde girls with horses and double-barreled last names? There was one girl who was so nice to you when not many others were. You repaid her kindness by sending a note around the class telling people to sign it if they hated her, stealing her things and putting them in lost property, making up mean names for her. It made others think you were funny, but what did it make you feel about yourself? Why did you make a sweet girl’s life hell just to climb the ranks with people who never cared about you?
Do you remember in Year 8 when you met that Year 11 girl, and you were drawn to the way she laughed, the glint of her teeth, her shiny black hair? You looked for her in the hallways, and your breath caught in your throat whenever your eyes found her. You didn’t know what it meant, not really, but your sisters and friends used “lesbian” as an insult, and you knew it wasn’t something you should ever even think about, so you burrowed it away, where no one could find it. The girl moved away and you were too scared to ask to keep in touch. You wonder where she is now, or if she knew before you did.
Do you remember when you were 14 and you had your first boyfriend, kind of, and he hated Blink 182, and even though they were your favourite band, you told him you hated them too? For four months, you contorted your personality to be someone he wanted. He dumped you anyway, and years later he told you that you hadn’t meant anything.
Do you remember all the boys you tried to impress after that, how they made you feel like you were never good enough – how you made yourself into a chameleon for them? The boy who told you so many lovely things, and then drew a crude picture of you on Paint, exaggerating the thighs you were already so self-conscious of, and made it his MySpace profile picture with the caption “my girlfriend”, and all of his friends, and some of yours, laughed? That same boy drove to your house in the middle of the night and stuck plastic knives all throughout your lawn, and left a note in your letterbox with a picture of a cat holding a knife over another cat, and the caption “I’m going to rape you like I raped this bitch”. Your little sister found it in the morning and cried. He said it was just a joke. “He said he liked me,” you told yourself. “Doesn’t that mean something?”
Do you remember when you had your first boyfriend, for real, and you clung desperately onto him because you wanted to be loved? He told you that you were disposable. When you had sex for the first time and it hurt, he did not care for you, and it never got better. He told you that you were bad at sex, that it was a dumpable offence. You wrote in your diary about how you hated him, but you stayed with him for another year, because it was better than being alone. Even after you finally left, sex kept hurting for years, but you never talked to anyone about it, because you were afraid of being proven to be broken.
Do you remember when you found yourself alone and began to experiment sexually? It was wild and exciting and thrilling, and you learned so much about yourself, but you also learned how terrible men could be. I’m sorry those things happened to you, love. You are so much more than the ugly things others have done to you.
Do you remember when, a couple of years ago, some of your friends stopped being friends with you? You’d see the awful things they said about you and your work online, and more than once it made you not want to publish something you’d written, because you were scared what they would say. You still have drafts that will never see the light of day. You still don’t know how to move past it.
Do you remember when you were fired from your dream job and they said you weren’t good enough? You lay in bed memorising the tiny patterns on the ceiling, drowning slowly in bottles of wine. You were only a few weeks into what would become an incredibly toxic relationship. You let both those things get to you, and disappeared into yourself.
We need to talk because I don’t want you to believe that all of these things define or limit you. This is not a sad letter. This is a letter of defiance.
Do you remember how it felt when you used to make art for you and only you? You didn’t need anyone else to tell you it was good. It was perfect just because you thought it was. You’re making a living from your art now, but remember what it’s really always been about.
Do you remember when you spent five years with a boy who loved you – really, really loved you – and you really, really loved him too? He sent you pictures of dogs every day and made you a book out of all of them, and you talked about futures, and you meant it, and he knew all these things about you and he loved you anyway, and you loved him back, despite the anxiety and the terror that made him hide too. You both beat the odds and loved each other despite finding it so hard to love yourselves. Look at that boy now, your best friend in the world, thriving and succeeding in spite of everything. You can do that too. You must.
Do you remember when the boy who broke your heart the hardest messaged you a couple months back, and instead of pandering to him, you told him exactly where to shove it, and you didn’t even feel bad? You don’t need people in your life who only want you when it’s convenient. It hurt so bad at first, but it hurts less now, and every time you tell him no it will hurt less and less, until it doesn’t at all.
Do you remember when you were 23 and you moved to Melbourne by yourself? You didn’t know anyone and you were scared, but you found the best friends you’ve ever had, a community you truly belong to. Whenever you hear those little voices in and out of your head telling you that you’re no good, just remember all the people here who love and value you. It’s so good to have a team.
Do you remember, a few months ago, when you finally came out, and you were surprised that your family was nothing but supportive? You had held back for so long because you were afraid they wouldn’t love you anymore, but they love you just as much, maybe even more.
Do you remember what happened after you were fired from your job, and you decided to write again, about the parallels between being dumped and fired – two things that are contingent on other people’s thoughts about your worth? And then it happened – your writing began to pick up, and resonate with people, and you started to write more, and more, and more, until it became your career. You grew something special from the roots of cruelty.
This is an exorcism. We are witnessing all the hurtful things that others have said to you, or made you feel, all the doubts and self-loathing, washing away.
I wish you didn’t care about what others thought of you. I wish you didn’t seek their validation in everything you do. I wish you didn’t hate yourself.
Let’s make some promises, you and me.
We will not shrink ourselves, physically or emotionally. We are allowed to take up space, be loud, eat whatever we want to eat, love ourselves despite the number on the tag or scale.
We will like the things we like and never apologise for them. We don’t need to defend them, or call them guilty pleasures. If anything awakens a spark in us, that’s all the proof we need.
We will kiss boys and girls and people who aren’t boys or girls. We won’t be afraid of falling in love with boys or girls or people who aren’t boys or girls. We wasted so much time being scared about becoming who we are – we’ve got some catching up to do.
We will not get caught up in negative things people are saying about us. Here’s a flow chart. Do we know or care about these people? If no, who cares. If yes – is what they’re saying constructive, or just petty? If constructive, this is a good time for self-reflection! Maybe we can learn something. If petty – in the bin. We would do so well to not get bogged down in the hatefulness of people we don’t care for.
We will not settle for less than what we deserve. We’re talking about relationships, work, sex, friendships. All of it. We have made ourselves small for so long to appease other people, but if we continue this constant act of self-erasure, soon there will be nothing left. And we are so much more than nothing.
We have spent 28 years wishing ourselves into non-existence, but you’re all I have, and I’m all you have. Let’s promise to take care of each other.
I did an interview with the wonderful people at The Two Chairs about exploring sexuality as an Asian woman.
I was thrilled to be involved on two panels at this year’s Digital Writers’ Festival: The Internet We Miss and Traversing the Print/Digital Divide.
You can watch both sessions below.
THE INTERNET WE MISS
TRAVERSING THE PRINT/DIGITAL DIVIDE
I presented this piece as part of Speech Night at the 2016 National Young Writers’ Festival.
Who are you? Whoever you want me to be.
When we first meet Marissa Cooper, she’s standing in the driveway of her sprawling mansion home in Orange County, California, where she comes across the troubled Ryan Atwood, who’s just arrived in the area, and they share a cigarette. Described as “heartbreakingly beautiful”, we soon discover that the 15-year-old daughter of wealthy Newport socialites Jimmy and Julie Cooper has a litany of issues, from depression to alcoholism. The anhedonia so common in teenagers befalls her despite – or maybe because of – her privilege, and she falls further away from the social activities that defined her younger years. From the outside, she has everything, but she yearns for something more, and rejects what she’s been taught all her life when she dives deep into a world of rebellion, binge drinking, sex and all the wrong boys. Throughout the three seasons of The OC in which she appears, Marissa finds her most meaningful friendships not in the beautiful people she’s been accustomed to being around, but in the outcasts, on the fringes of her picturesque life.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Right now, punk.
Yeah, I am sorry, but Avril Lavigne doesn’t count as punk.
Oh yeah? Well, what about the Cramps? Stiff Little Fingers? The Clash? Sex Pistols?
I listen to the same music as Marissa Cooper? I think I have to kill myself.
I was 12 years old when I first heard All the Small Things on a radio countdown show, sitting at my clean white desk in my two-storey childhood home, tucked into a pocket of sleepy suburban Sydney. The red boom box in the corner announced the song, and those punchy guitars felt like a jolt of electricity. I hungered for something, but I wasn’t sure what it was – and then the song was over, and I was thrown back into the world I knew, tennis lessons and classical music and maths tutoring and S Club 7, the life of a girl born to refugee parents who had rebuilt their lives by the time she was born, a trust fund kid who had never wanted for anything. But I felt something change, and I knew I wanted to be different.
I’m not sure about you, but to me, the definition of punk is throwing a tantrum at Kmart because your mum won’t buy you The Mark, Tom and Travis Show because of the explicit language sticker on the front. My mother did not approve of my new interests, and yelled at me for saying I wanted to marry a member of Good Charlotte. She was even less impressed when I began to wear a padlock around my neck and call myself Elly Vicious, ditching the clothes she bought me for boys’ skate shorts, tattered Converse and a mesh shirt that had safety pins and tartan drawn all over it that I purchased at a very punk rock store called Jay Jays. I wrote a diary entry about my dad telling me to go to bed, and called him a fascist – a word I didn’t know the meaning of, but had learned with glee from the Sex Pistols song God Save the Queen.
This diluted version of rebellion was the best I could do in my circumstances – a second-generation Vietnamese kid growing up in the suburbs where nothing ever happened, desperate to be different but too scared to let my parents down too much. I never drank or smoked or had sex or did drugs, but I pursued the desire to be someone else – anyone else – through the safe avenue of music. My first boyfriend, who I met, obviously, on MSN, hated Blink 182, so I told him I did too. He was super punk, but our song was Michelle Branch’s Everywhere and in retrospect that really does not add up.
It’s probably about as punk as Ryan and Marissa’s song, Forever Young, which becomes retrospectively tragic when – spoiler alert – Marissa dies at the age of 18 (may she forever rest in peace). From the outset, the pair’s relationship was more doomed than the one in the classic 2002 Avril Lavigne hit Sk8er Boi. Marissa is a wealthy socialite who should have wanted for nothing. From the outside, her life looks perfect, but she has a father who, despite his kind heart, is wildly irresponsible, and a shallow, careless mother, who sleeps with her daughter’s first boyfriend and generally leaves a trail of destruction in her wake everywhere she goes. Ryan is a weirdly old-looking teenage felon from the working class town of Chino. Rewatching the show recently, I constantly screamed YOU’RE THE WOOOOORST at Marissa on screen, and yet I felt, more than ever before, a sort of connection with her. Like my teenage self, Marissa feels the need to break out of the rigid structures expected of her, but is often too naïve to know how, resulting in some truly stupid decisions and even worse outfit choices.
The class tensions in The OC, and particularly within this relationship, are interesting. The social standing-obsessed Julie Cooper grew up in the poor neighbourhood of Riverside, right next door to Ryan’s Chino – a fact she tries to hide. In one episode, she exclaims indignantly, “he basically called me white trash – he said I was from Riverside”, to which Jimmy retorts, “honey, you are from Riverside”.
The show is brimming with deeply problematic classism, but there’s an important common factor: the yearning to be something else, to escape ourselves, transcends just the teenage characters. We’re all trying our hardest to break away from what we were born into, to become what we want to be, or what we want others to think we are. Sometimes, we seek that through other people. Marissa’s tendency to flock towards the troubled boys – Ryan, Oliver Trask, Johnny Harper and, fatally, Kevin Volchok – mirrors my own relationships as a young adult. I chose the boys who I thought needed saving, and it was only in retrospect that I realised that by trying to save them, I was sacrificing myself.
My parents probably thought they were doing something wrong by me when things started going awry. It wasn’t their fault that I began to hallucinate the worst kinds of things when I was seven, or that I met a boy who pulled me under with him when I was 13. I started taking a heavy dose of antidepressants when I was 14 and I thought about dying every day, and I didn’t know why everyone told me I was so lucky. A pop punk song saved my life when I listened to it over and over again underneath my blankets at night, stuffing my fist into my mouth so I wouldn’t cry out loud. It told me to keep holding on, so I kept holding on. I knew that people with cooler tastes in music mocked these kinds of stories, that “real” punks laughed at the “posers” for being so impressionable, but that song did for me what thousands of dollars of therapy couldn’t. Everything looked fine from the outside but I was falling apart. My friends at school didn’t get it. The only people who did were names and avatars online, and boys in bands who said all the things I didn’t know how to.
I met my best friend on LiveJournal in 2003 when we discovered we’d been at the same New Found Glory show. We didn’t meet in person until 2005, outside an Alexisonfire show. Like me, she grew up in a well-to-do family, but she ditched the dresses and frills for black jeans and blacker eyeliner. Our mothers both hated it. I had a four-year crush on a boy who caught the bus past my school every day, and we burned each other CDs – MxPx, NOFX, the Bouncing Souls, Bad Religion – and I memorised his handwriting, thought about him hunched over, making that awkward scrawl just for me. We barely ever spoke in person. I ran a LiveJournal community for one of my favourite local labels, and teens from all around the country would gather in it to talk about Yellowcard and Last Year’s Hero and Kisschasy and it felt like we were speaking a language only we knew.
It didn’t matter to me that most of these friendships existed only online, or that most of these memories were made alone in my room or my head. It was the escape I needed, from a life I felt guilty to hate. My parents loved me, I was doing well at school and I had plenty of friends offline – but I wanted to be something different.
The OC was my drug of choice when I was 15 years old. My sister and I would settle down in front of the TV every Tuesday night with Cheezels to watch the drama unfold. Upon rewatching the series this year, it’s probbo as fuck – slut shaming, classism, glorifying shitty relationships, male entitlement, the lack of any non-white people… And yet it spoke to me, as a teenager going through things I didn’t really understand, knowing full well the whole time that I was one of the lucky ones.
Like me, these beautiful characters had their struggles. Proto-hipster Seth Cohen is at as little ease with his Jewish cultural background as I often was with my Vietnamese one. His pining for his childhood crush, Summer, reflected my own angst towards boys as a teen, culminating in his departure from Orange County at the end of season one IN A YACHT TO TAHITI, because that is how white boys deal with their problems. Marissa turns to sex, alcohol and an insultingly brief foray into same-sex relationships. Ryan just likes breaking shit – I would too if my absent father reappeared in my life and lied about having cancer and was also Kevin Sorbo, who you may remember from his starring role as Hercules in the television drama Hercules, which aired from 1995 to 1999. Even Seth’s mother, the incredibly successful businesswoman Kirsten Cohen, secretly struggled with alcohol addiction beneath her perfect veneer.
The pop punk that helped me keep my head above water when I was a teenager is equally troubling – it’s a cess pool of floppy-haired, friend zoned noodles whining about how the girl of their dreams won’t break up with her boyfriend and complaining about wanting to get out of their hometowns.
It’s utterly bizarre that either of these things spoke to a 15-year-old Vietnamese girl, and yet they both did. Pop punk gave me a peek out at the world beyond the suburbs, where nothing ever happened and no one was like me. It was the Aldi version of rebellion that inspired me to seek out similar ideas and people, musically and otherwise, and pushed me out of my comfort zone, providing the blueprint of the person I would become. The OC saw the rawest and ugliest parts of myself reflected back at me in unexpected, melodramatic ways, forcing me to confront the realities of my privilege, but also reminding me that there was no shame in feeling whatever feelings came to me.
Both get a bad rap for giving a platform to privileged kids to whine when some people have real problems, but when you’re 15 and your mum won’t let you go to that party or no one understands how you feel, it feels like the end of the fucking world. When that feeling, or a hugely aggrandised version of it, is put under a microscope in the form of entertainment, it deftly encapsulates the disaffected ennui of being a teenager who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, and for a teenage girl growing up in the middle of nowhere with a head full of bricks, that was incredibly validating.
These days, I’m more of a Seth Cohen – an insufferable nerd who still sleeps with soft toys, likes reading comics and has a music taste that never moved past 2005. But I remember all the people I was before – punching things like Ryan, screaming at my mum like Marissa, wearing ugly hats like Anna, delivering an impeccably-timed “ew” like Summer – and the soundtrack to all of that, in the years when I was constantly rediscovering myself, was the pop punk that came from the hearts of people the world over who, like me, struggled in spite of their obvious privilege, and made music to reach people like them. The lines we stood in for hours before shows, the bruises on my legs afterwards, the friends I made and the words I still know like they’re burned into my brain. I needed an escape and I got it through a sanitised, commercialised version of difference that transformed me.
So who am I?
Whoever I want to be.