Six Degrees from the City is a podcast about writing in Western Sydney, hosted by the writer and critic Fiona Wright. Each episode features a writer based in or hailing from the western suburbs of Sydney, one of the most diverse – as well as most maligned – areas in Australia, and the site of some of our most interesting and challenging literature and conversations. This episode features the essayist and radio producer Sheila Ngoc Pham.
Sheila’s non-fiction has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including Southerly, Overland, Griffith Review, Peril, New Philosopher and Womankind, and her radio documentaries have featured on several ABC Radio National programs. She’s currently undertaking a PhD in Bioethics at Macquarie University, and co-writing a Young Adult novel. Sheila grew up in Georges Hall, near Bankstown, and her experiences with her family in this area are at the heart of much of her work.
‘I have this very fluid relationship with Bankstown, with the Western Suburbs, I’m part of it but also not part of it too. Even as I was growing up in the Western Suburbs… I think my head was always very much elsewhere. I was a huge reader when I was young, I was a huge letter-writer, I had boxes and boxes of letters of pen-pals from all around the world. So even if I was physically located, living in Georges Hall, in my head I think I was a real citizen of the world from a young age, and I really valued those kinds of interactions with people from other places. Which also happened within the borders of Western Sydney too.
That’s the thing about Western Sydney, it’s a very cosmopolitan region, it’s very multicultural. So it’s funny, having all these memories of growing up in Georges Hall and Bankstown and thinking now, in the future, that will be part of my life again. It’s very pleasing in a narrative sense, it feels like I’m coming full circle. But another thing that’s very important, the reason why I’m even more motivated now – is that now that I have a child who’s mixed race, and I think very much about cultural maintenance: how can I give her a sense of Vietnamese identity and Vietnamese language skills? And if I move back to the area where there’s a lot more of the community there, that will give her a lot more exposure to Vietnamese language…And the thing is, it will have to be a concerted effort, it will have to be something I construct and something that I actually have to think about. Growing up, that didn’t have to happen because both of my parents spoke Vietnamese, we spoke at home, we were very much in the bosom of the Vietnamese community. But now that’s not where I am, where my parents are either…’
Acknowledgements and links
Six Degrees from the City is supported by the Crown Packer Foundation, the Sydney Review of Books and the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. Music is by Phil Faddoul. Special thanks to Ben Denham for production assistance.
Some of Sheila’s essays are available at Griffith Review and Peril. Listen to her documentary about her mother’s wartime singing career. Visit Sheila’s website.
Fiona Wright: Hello, and welcome to Six Degrees from the City, a podcast about writing and Western Sydney. I’m your host, Fiona Wright, and I’m delighted to be talking in this episode to the writer and broadcaster Sheila Ngoc Pham.
Sheila’s non-fiction has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including Southerly, Overland, Griffith Review and Peril, and her radio documentaries have appeared on Radio National’s ‘Into the Music’ and ‘Ockham’s Razor’ programs. She’s also currently undertaking a PhD in Bioethics at Macquarie University.
Sheila grew up in Georges Hall and Lakemba, and joined me to talk about the complexities of national history, cross-cultural identity and belonging, and the strange moment stepping out into the wider world and discovering that you’re a Westie. Here’s Sheila reading from her essay ‘Black April.’
Sheila Pham reads from ‘Black April’
FW: I’d like to talk about ‘Black April’ first because I think it’s a really startling piece. And one of the things I like about it is that it’s such a complex engagement with the idea of multiculturalism (in inverted commas) in the first place, a sort of engagement that’s a little bit uncomfortable but also deeply empathic, and it seems like you’ve got this sense of really trying to understand the complexity of a place like Bankstown.
SP: Yeah, I read that section about Bankstown because I thought it would be relevant to what I’m talking about, but where that piece actually starts is, it’s about Anzac and the Anzac myth, because at the time I was working at the ABC, and the centenary was coming up, and there was a lot of energy devoted to this. But at the same time a lot of colleagues were also a little bit cynical, I would say, about the way that we could only present a particular view of that centenary of war. And then it brought to mind too, April 25th is when we celebrate Anzac Day, but April is a month that has a lot of significance for other communities. In particular, for me, it’s always loomed large in terms of the Vietnam War, and the 30th April being the day that is significant because it’s the day that the war ended…
FW: You say in the piece that the community’s term for that is ‘The day we lost the country’.
SP: Yes, that’s what I grew up with. My family are part of the South Vietnamese who left, and who ‘lost the country’ but in Vietnam, that’s not how it’s referred to, – it’s the day that the country was reunified, after it was split. And I think growing up, I don’t know that I necessarily engaged with it in that way because for a long time I never met anyone from the other side. I never met anyone who grew up in the North, I grew up in Bankstown, which is very much a Southern Vietnamese community. And another really fascinating thing too that I only discovered more as I got older and met other kinds of Vietnamese, is that even within Sydney, there are these kind of fault lines about where Vietnamese communities are, and what part of the country they come from. So you’ll find that Southern Vietnamese tend to gravitate more towards Bankstown, Cabramatta, those kinds of areas; and I think the Vietnamese community that is in Marrickville tends to be more Northerners.
FW: That’s so interesting!
SP: And that’s the sort of thing that I started to notice as I started to get my head around all these issues, about…from the outside, everyone just thinks, all Vietnamese, but from the inside, from a young age I really had a sense that there were… I call them fault lines, you know! Within the community. As so with something like the war, thinking about Bankstown, over time, all these ideas start to come together. I was triggered by thinking around the centenary of the Gallipoli landing, and then I started to think about war, and what about the Lebanese, that was another thing I had been thinking about in terms of Bankstown. I grew up in Georges Hall, actually which is in the Bankstown area…
FW: Oh, fantastic! That’s very close to where my nanna use to live, she was in Picnic Point…
SP: Yeah, very close!
FW: That side of the river!
SP: And in fact it’s not where we started out – I mentioned that in the reading I did, we initially started out around Lakemba and Wiley Park, so that’s where my earliest years were. I was actually born in Adelaide though so…
FW: I’m sorry.
SP: Well, it’s a funny story and I tell it half-jokingly – after the refugee camps my parents ended up in Pulau Malang near Malaysia, where lots of Vietnamese refugees ended up – I think they estimate a quarter of a million were from there. Then they were resettled in Adelaide, and after a time my father thought, oh my god, Adelaide, I’ve got to get out of here! (laughs) Not enough work opportunities, what are we doing here? My dad’s very adventurous, and in fact he was the one who organised the boat leaving Vietnam, and that’s how my mother met him, she was a passenger on the boat. I mean, that’s another layer, a whole other big story. But they ended up in Adelaide and then my dad eventually learnt how to drive, got a car, and drove all the way to Sydney! And started out in Lakemba. So that’s where we started out as a family, those are my earliest memories from that area. I went to school in Lakemba for the first few years, eventually we went to Bankstown. And Bankstown I guess is where I feel like I have the longest history. I lived there for more than twenty years. Georges Hall, though, someone once described to me as ‘a nice part of Bankstown’! I don’t know what that means!
FW: The nice bit!
SP: Well, it is very lush and very green and there’s a river…
FW: It’s very pretty!
SP: It’s very suburban, very tranquil. But I guess I think of Bankstown as being an area that really formed me in a lot of ways. It’s where I had my first jobs, and I’ve always been in and out of that area, because I was catching trains, and on weekends I’d always be there.
FW: One of my first jobs was at the Gloria Jean’s in Revesby, actually! But what I love about that piece is that you’re really making a point that we have such diverse ational stories, and even such diverse stories around war, and there’s so much sitting underneath the surface of that great Anzac myth, that has become this kind of monolith…
SP: Yeah, and I guess what I was trying to do with that piece, ‘Black April’, and in fact another piece that’s sort of similar and was published in Kill Your Darlings, which was called ‘Flags of my Father’. I guess this is the thing: I think of how monolithic stories about war often are, and how it’s so difficult to have a counternarrative. And I know that so well from my own experience growing up with the father that I did, with the background that we have, and then I started to apply that sort of thinking, about broader narratives of war, around flags, these kinds of national symbols. And I guess it’s something that’s always complex, there’s no easy answers to some of these things and that’s what’s very frustrating, but with the war narrative in particular, the Vietnam War, to quote a writer Viet Thanh Nguyen who won the Pulitzer Prize, he talks about how war is fought for the first time on the battlefield and the second time in memory. And I think that’s exactly right, about every war you can think of. And certainly in my piece, I specifically deal with the Vietnam War, and I raise the question about the Lebanese community. I raise it as an outsider thinking about these issues. I don’t have the answers to that, and I chose not to go in and read the history of the Lebanese conflict, because that wasn’t what I was trying to say. I wanted to explore the idea that we don’t really engage with it on a deeper level, but we certainly engage with certain kinds of wars more comfortable, and the Vietnam War in some ways fits more comfortably in with that national narrative as well…
FW: With goodies and baddies and causes?
SP: Yeah. But the really interesting thing that’s happend over the years is that there’s a lot of Việt Kiều like me who’ve grown up and are trying to present different ways of thinking about it, and to challenge the American way of presenting the war, the Australian way of thinking about the war.
FW: I wonder if this is a good time to talk about your mother? I listened to your piece, your ABC documentary about the songs of wartime Vietnam, and your mother figures really prominently in that. And it’s such an amazing story…
SP: It is amazing, and I’ve thought a lot about how all that started, that story. It just started in such an unusual way, it didn’t come from my mother. I didn’t even really know about her history…
FW: That’s what I think is so cool about it, though, right? I guess it’s similar to ‘Black April’ in that way, that there’s this much larger story that then gets you to ask much more specific questions of individuals and individual communities, and suddenly this light goes on!
SP: Yeah, I think for me personally, doing historical research creates a space to then find a way to talk to my parents, essentially. Maybe that’s ultimately what all this is about, I just want to talk to my parents! But it’s hard to find the language, it’s hard to find the way to approach these things. Because we have grown up in very different contexts, I mean, I was born and raised in Australia, they were born and raised in Vietnam and by the time they came over here they were fully-formed adults already. And the struggle since I was born has been being able to find common ground. So with the piece about my mother’s singing career in Vietnam during the war, how that started though actually had a lot more to do with me trying to reconcile having this Australian background but this Vietnamese heritage, and bringing them together. Growing up, I listened to a lot of rock music – that’s the kind of music that I liked. But it took me a very long time, not until I was 29 or 30, to finally ask the question, oh, what were the Vietnamese listening to? It wasn’t something, that part of my life, the popular culture interests I developed growing up in Australia, they were not really things that I shared with my parents. It’s very different to my husband, for example, he’s Anglo-Australian, and so are both of his parents, so he grew up listening to Bob Dylan –that was something that his dad introduced him to. So there’s a level of consistency in terms of passing on those kinds of interests and those tastes, whereas when you’re a child of migrants, especially migrants who aren’t engaged with the broader culture, you basically have to form these things for yourself. And so one day, I just had this idea of bringing them together, I had this question pop into my mind: I wonder what the Vietnamese were listening to? So that’s a side of the quest, I guess, to try and learn a bit more about music in Vietnam, but especially during that ’60s and ’70s period, and the ’50s as well. And it was just through that process that suddenly I stumbled on the fact that my mother actually sang during the war; but the reason why I don’t really know about this beforehand is my mother’s not the kind of person who talks about herself very much. My mother and father represent two very different states of being, I think, when it comes to stories. My dad is a huge storyteller, he talks all the time, he tells lots of stories – that’s probably where I get it from! My mother is the kind of person who… in fact, as I was reading in a piece recently, not everyone is narrative, and my mother is an example of somehow who doesn’t necessarily think very narratively. She’s not that kind of person, who goes back to the past, tries to reconstruct meaning…I mean maybe she does at some level, but she certainly doesn’t articulate these things…
FW: You know, it amazed me the first time I read that there were people like that, I was just like, oh wow! Not everyone does this thing!
SP: Yeah, that’s right! (laughs) I think that’s so important, and there was a very critical essay that I loved, it was in Aeon, and it was just challenging this idea…
FW: I think it was the exact same essay that I read! They used the example of some people are walking through a park, thinking about what they’re going to do later in the day, what they did earlier in the day, bringing up memories, putting them into patterns, making shapes from them, and some people are just walking through the park. And I was like, whoa!
SP: I know it turned into a discussion on Facebook with one of my friends about this, and I just started to bring my mother into the discussion. I mean at least as far as my engagement with her. I’m 36 years old now, I’ve known my mother for a long time, I just think that she doesn’t necessarily construct stories in that way. She’s very much topical – when I see her, we talk about the things that happened that day, it’s very rare that we talk about the past. So that’s why making this program was very important, for being able to engage with her at a deeper level. But you know, it’s a huge effort to have to go to the length of making a documentary to then be able to talk to my mother! And I guess I could have asked her before that, but it didn’t even occur to me. And it was just actually serendipity in fact – I was recording that concert in Mount Pritchard near Liverpool, and then I came over to my parents’ afterwards that evening, and then she just mentioned, like, I know Hoang Liem! And that’s more or less how it happened!
FW: Wow (laughs). It’s quite a story though! It sounds like she was kind of moving around the country, entertaining the troops, just on the other side of the equation, right?
SP: Yeah! I didn’t mention this in the piece, but at some point she even ends up going to Cambodia, I think. I mean, it’s not that far away Phnom Penh, I think it’s like five hours by bus, it would have been longer back in those days. But yeah, she had quite a big life before she had me and everything, but I have very little sense of it. I’ve only heard it from other people, and even my dad is better at telling stories about my mother than she is herself. Even my aunty, who I’ve written about before, when I met her for the first time, she told me about my mother growing up, and how my mother had a closet full of really beautiful dresses, and I have really no sense at all of this from my mother, she just doesn’t talk about these things. And in that way she’s a real survivor, I think, she just looks forward. She doesn’t necessarily go over in her mind about things that have happened in the past, and I see how we’re so different in that way. I’m constantly looking backwards, I’m constantly re-evaluating, and that’s what really drives a lot of my writing, I think.
FW: I really get that sense in your writing, too. There’s lot of trying to reconcile history with its legacy, or to bridge that gap between generations. I kind of had a little giggle when you mentioned, maybe understanding my parents is all it’s about, because in my notes it’s like, this project of understanding one’s parents! In some way, I often joke that that’s one of the big jobs of adulthood, is coming to see your parents as human beings with histories and faults and foibles and mess and just making shit up as they go along, just like the rest of us, doing what they can. But it’s infinitely more complicated when you’ve got cultural issues and issues of war and trauma and all that kind of stuff hanging around as well. It must be.
SP: Absolutely, that’s right. Everyone goes through this process, if they choose to, with their parents. It’s a lot easier in some sense when you come from the same cultural context, if you both grew up and were raised in the same country…
FW: Because you don’t have to cross as much territory in your imagination, the landscape’s the same…
SP: But then what happens is that it takes a long time to work out where your parents end and the culture begins as well. It’s unclear some times, how much of what your parents are is particular to them, or whether it’s something to do with their culture, or their displacement even. At some point, because this has been the project of my life really, up to this point, trying to work all this stuff out before having my own child (laughs) because that raises a whole other set of questions as well! But with my parents, it took me a while to realise, oh, my dad’s just kind of a weirdo! I mean some of it maybe had to do with his Vietnamese background, being a migrant, but now, especially now at this stage, I’ve started to see more clearly what’s him, what the unique parts of him are that don’t have to do with the trauma, that don’t have to do with growing up in Vietnam!
It’s sort of hard to explain, because I guess this is what I’m trying to articulate with my writing, but my parents, in fact, both of them, it took me a really long time to understand that they’re both black sheep in different ways in their families, and in some ways they’ve passed that on to me a bit. I’ve become a black sheep in other ways as well. But for a long time growing up I didn’t really have a sense of that, I didn’t understand that these were things unique to them – that they’re different from their families, that they’re different from other people around them. I really appreciate now how singular my dad is in some ways. I grew up with a very strong sense of heritage, and myths and stories and that, but I don’t think lots of other dads do that. Lots of dads don’t just sit around casually and then bring up some myth from 2000 years ago! But that’s my dad, that’s how he thinks. For him, a lot of these things are very much at the forefront of his mind. And even really fascinating things – my husband, because he’s Anglo, he’s come into this space as well now, and he really gets to hear different stories, because he’s a man, and there’s a real gender divide, I think. For example, we were both there that time where my dad, it wasn’t that long ago, where he suddenly talked about how before the Chinese colonised the Vietnamese, we were more of a matriarchal society, and I was like, I can’t remember what context he brought that fact up. And then I went and googled it later, and my dad was right, that the patriarchal or patrilineal perhaps aspects of Vietnamese culture were introduced through colonisation. But this is the sort of life that I’ve grown up with! But my mother though, in context, going back to this original question, she doesn’t ever say things like that. She never really openly talks about those kinds of ideas, it’s very rare that I engage with her on an intellectual level, because she’s just not that kind of person.
FW: I like that you took that matrilineal story, was that the basis of the piece that you wrote about surnames for Peril?
SP: Oh no that, I wrote this piece about surnames that generated quite a bit of discussion at the time, I’d actually say that that was a bit more of a pushback against, me now, getting my head around… I can’t think of a better way to describe it than ‘white feminism’, I mean…
FW: Go for it!
SP: That’s quite a simplistic way of saying it too, but I just started to see that feminism sometimes ends up being very exclusionary in the way it talks about practices. So one very fascinating thing is that this whole generation of women our age, there are a lot of them who change their surnames, and it really bothers feminists, I think, or people who openly identify as that, or maybe even second-wave feminists, who fought really hard to keep their surnames. But I was just thinking about this the other day, I was counting the amount of women I know around me, educated women, professional women, they’ve all changed their surnames. But then I started thinking about it my context, in that my mother never changed her surname: the cultural practice in Vietnam was that women kept their surnames. You could argue that that’s also an exclusionary thing too, maybe women weren’t able to be included in terms of the family surname, but it made me understand that I occupy an interesting in-between space, where I do understand the argument of keeping your own surname in the Western context, but then I thought, if I change my surname, I felt that would erase my identity in some ways. Not everyone feels this, and I think about that all the time, not everyone feels these things; I felt it, I didn’t want to change my surname, but then having a child, for example, with an Anglo husband, this really raised the issue in a different way. The compromise that we ended up with, which I’m very happy with and so is my husband, is that she gets to have his Anglo surname, but her first and middle names are Vietnamese. And I think everyone’s happy, I feel like I get to honour that mixed heritage for her. She’ll grow up, though, having to spell her name constantly (laughs) but then, you know, I was given an English name from birth, my dad was very practical like that, on my birth certificate, I’m Sheila Ngoc Pham, those are my three names, but the funny thing is, I was given the most Australian name you can think of, and yet everyone is constantly asking me to spell it, so I’m constantly saying, Sheila, S-H-E-I-L-A…
FW: I was going to say that it’s one of those words that I always get my ‘i’ and my ‘e’ in the wrong spot (laughs)
SP: Yeah, that’s what most people do! And it’s funny because that’s what gave me a bit of reassurance that ultimately she would appreciate perhaps, my baby, that… having a Vietnamese first name. The surname issue though is very complicated, depending on which cultural context. But I guess I wrote that piece because I wanted to challenge the idea that if you change your surname it means this, if you don’t change your surname it means that, and that’s not necessarily true at all.
FW: I don’t know if you…I was talking to Lachlan Brown in the first episode, and he’s written a lot about his grandmother, and the Anglo name she chose when she came to Australia was Sheila, because that’s what everyone was calling her, and his grandpa chose Allen, because it was the name on the lollies, I just love little stories like that (laughs)
SP: Yeah! I don’t think my dad even chose Sheila for that reason, he chose it because he’d seen a film growing up in Vietnam, where there was a character named Sheila, and it stuck in his mind. And I can only imagine that once he brought that name up, and then people said, it means ‘girl’, he’d go, great, that’s a great name for a girl, it means girl! But I don’t think that was the initial motivation at all in choosing my name! (laughs)
Sheila Pham reads from ‘Caught between Worlds’
FW: I wanted to ask you about this idea of the community, because I think you have a lot of writing that’s about thinking about your place, inside or outside the community, and what that means. And also as a part of that, there are other people who use that as a way to think about home, and where home is, I think there’s one person who has an idea about dying ‘at home’, despite living in Australia for so many years, and it leads you to wonder where your father, for example, would consider home. I find that so interesting, that kind of… in one of the pieces you read you referred to that as being between worlds in a way.
SP: Yeah, I mean, this is the other central question of my life! Where do I belong, if anywhere? And probably the answer I have these days is I do feel like I sort of belong everywhere, and yet I belong nowhere at the same time. And this is only reinforced by the fact that I constantly move, or end up in different countries. That piece that I wrote was about this Vietnamese man dying who… it was a really sad story, I just stumbled across it, which I explain in the piece, just through a friend. He was homeless, essentially, but had a brand new passport amongst his very few possessions. There were no stamps in it, but he was dying from cancer and he… we can infer that probably he wanted to die in Vietnam. And that’s the sort of thing my dad used to talk about a lot, but I’d say over the last ten years he’s never really mentioned it again, and I’m a bit too afraid to broach the topic of dying with him! This is the moment we have to start thinking about these issues, but I think, it just raised this whole idea of community and who was inside, who was outside, and I’m very conscious that someone like me very much exists on the peripheries of the Vietnamese community, but that’s why I’ve become a writer. And all writers, I would say, have this feeling too, of just belonging slightly on the edge of things, because that’s what gives you the space to observe and to think. Most people who are in the thick of it don’t necessarily have to think of these things – why would you then question your identity and your sense of belonging when you completely belong and your identity feels very coherent, but a lot of us who get drawn to writing or some kind of creative expression have these kinds of questions.
But I do have to constantly remind myself that I represent a particular viewpoint, and many people never think about these questions. I’ve met many Vietnamese-Australians who seem unfazed by being Vietnamese or Australian or both or neither. But when I think about my parents and then myself, it’s so fraught with thinking about where we belong. My parents feel very much like displaced people, their identity is Vietnamese, they were fully-formed adults when they arrived here, as I’ve mentioned, and they’re not really, and they never will be Australian in the sense that I could be Australian. And yet even I don’t necessarily feel Australian in a lot of ways, I feel very conflicted about that. My daughter on the other hand will have a very different sense of this growing up, she will… I’ve kind of married into the culture in some ways, and when I say that I guess I mean Anglo-Australian culture, but even in Josh’s family there is some Indigenous heritage too, and I think that really anchors you to Australia. Whereas for me I feel like I’m somehow…through an accident of history, I’m here now, and making the best of it. But having said that, there are many times when I do feel Australian, I feel my limitations as an Australian often as well, especially when I’ve been in Europe – and that’s been one thing that’s been very liberating about spending time in other places, and being a complete outsider is that… when I was living in Belgium, people could see my Asian face, but actually, they would interact with me as an Australian.
FW: Well, that’s kind of wonderful!
SP: It is wonderful! It’s very freeing, and that’s something that I have really enjoyed and continue to enjoy about living in places outside of Australia. In Australia I do feel the burden of my heritage in that way, which is really not the case when you’re abroad. The same in England, when I was in England, I’ve been thinking about that time but have never really written about it, I spent a year on a working holiday in London. But when I look back on that year, it’s very rare that I felt fraught about having some kind of Vietnamese cross-cultural identity, I just felt it as an Australian. And I think that’s why I keep getting drawn into being overseas, I think it’s just a bit of a mental break, for one thing!
FW: Wow. But it’s obviously very different in Vietnam – there’s a piece that you wrote about the first time you went to Vietnam, and your father was really resistant to that idea for a while, right?
SP: Yeah, and that’s another thing I often think about too. In everyone’s life there are these big moments that really change things, and the big moment that changed my life was going to Vietnam for the first time in 2010. But I suddenly had that desire to go much earlier than that, I would have gone in my early twenties, I would have spent a year there – I applied for a volunteer position, but then my father was so upset by that idea, which seemed really counter to what I’d been raised to think about. I was always raised to think about Vietnam being the real homeland. And so finally, I went, yes, I want to go to the homeland, and my dad was like, no, you can’t go, it’s a Communist government. And so in that way, I didn’t have that choice in the end. I mean, I could have fought, and I could have just gone, but it just seemed like such a huge risk to lose my relationship with my parents over essentially what is their homeland, but less of mine. I think if I had been allowed to go in my younger years I would have turned out to be quite a different person, actually! I might have just ended up in Vietnam for many years, I don’t know how that would have worked out. But I would have had a very different sense of questions of identity and belonging if I had been allowed to go when I was younger.
FW: And the first time you went, it was with your now-husband, who had been there before, right? (laughs)
SP: Yes, he’d spent six months living there! I mean, we have a very interesting relationship because I really feel like we embody a very successful cross-cultural relationship. I married an Anglo, he’s very different to other kinds of Anglos, perhaps! Because he speaks Chinese, and he’s a scholar, he’s very nerdy about his interests in China and Vietnam. And when he was younger, he spent six months living in Hanoi. And so in that way he sort of has provided another bridge into Vietnam for me, in an unexpected way. So when I went to Vietnam, it was a place that he had already been to a few times, he’d been to Ho Chi Minh City and I hadn’t at all. But he understood how challenging it was for me to be there. And I think having his support was really important, because it ended up just being such an epic emotional time in my life, and of course it was going to be, how could it not be, but that first journey was… now I look back and it seems so different. It was almost eight years ago, and a lot has changed since then in terms of my thinking about these issues.
FW: I love in one of the pieces there’s another character who refers to it as ‘this overseas-Vietnamese trauma stuff,’ just like (laughs) kind of half-flippantly, but also deadly serious.
SP: That’s right, that Việt Kiều trauma, as an adult too and especially over the last five years, I’ve gotten to know a lot of Vietnamese, and also people who have mixed heritage, who might be Anglo and a bit Vietnamese, who really understand this, basically this generational trauma. And we didn’t really have that language growing up, I mean, I started a psychology degree and I don’t remember discussing a concept like intergenerational trauma…
FW: It’s really new isn’t it?
SP: I think it’s relatively new, I’ve been meaning to do a bit more research into where this term really started, and how it became part of our lexicon. But people who have Vietnamese heritage generally – and I mean not just Vietnamese, I’d say lots of other migrant groups as well – we really connect on this level, of oh, wow, isn’t intergeneration trauma such an awful thing! And yet it also shapes you in so many different ways as well. So I do find now that meeting other Vietnamese, there’s always this shared ground, if they’re willing to go there, and not all Vietnamese will. Sometimes I’ll meet someone from a Vietnamese background and they don’t necessarily want to put that identity first and foremost, they’d rather relate on other terms, and I get that as well.
FW: Can we talk a little bit more about Bankstown and Lakemba. When we were corresponding, you told me a great story about coming to Sydney Uni for the first time, and suddenly realising where it was that you live…
SP: We’re talking here at Sydney Uni today… that’s another hugely formative experience of my life, like it is for many people, going to university really opens your eyes to the world. And it’s also your first real step into adulthood as well. So I grew up quite oblivious to a lot of the fault lines of Sydney around the Western Suburbs, or the Eastern Suburbs. I remember I really loved Looking for Alibrandi by Melinda Marchetta; in there there’s a section that talks about the East and the West and that, but I think that would have been completely lost on me at the time, I don’t think I understood that.
FW: I remember that piece, I understood it as racialised, right, because I think she also talks about how the rich girls end up with the rich boys, and also that the wogs end up with the wogs, and I originally read that as just as sort of, alright, cool… a thing that was a division along the way you look. But I had a similar experience, I didn’t realise there was a class thing going on until much later.
SP: So when I was in high school, there was an opportunity to go to Sydney Uni on this shadow scheme, where you could follow a student around for a couple of days. And that was probably one of the first times in my life where I was independent enough to catch a train into the city and come to university, and I really loved the campus. I did fall in love with the campus of the university, and a very nice young man who I followed around for a couple of days, going to classes! I think that was when I really felt like this was going to be my escape out of… it was an escape out of my family more than anything, more than the suburbs. It was more about my family.
So then coming to Sydney Uni, that’s when I started to have this sense that, oh, I actually come from a geographic area or a class background that’s different to lots of people, and perhaps because it was Sydney Uni, I started to meet lots of people who’d gone to private schools, lots of people who grew up on the North Shore or the Eastern Suburbs or elsewhere, and then I found myself naturally gravitating towards certain types of people. People who came probably from migrant backgrounds I found a bit easier to relate to, or if they weren’t migrants, if they were from the Western Suburbs. I became very friendly with a guy who grew up in Chester Hill, very close to where I grew up, he went to Chester Hill High, I went to Sefton. And he actually was one of the first Jewish people I ever met – I often joked about him being probably the only Jew in the Western Suburbs! He had mixed heritage, and he was a half-American-Anglo-Jewish guy, randomly who’d grown up in Chester Hill. But then I’d meet people like that, and I’d naturally feel like we had something in common. But then you meet other people…the story I told you was there was this guy who I met through friends or something, and his comment to me, after we’d been talking a while, he goes, oh, you don’t sound like a Westie! And I was like, what does that even mean? (laughs) And I remember I was affronted, thinking, what does that even mean? At the time, people used to talk about Westies, I don’t think people talk about that now? I think that language sounds quite dated?
FW: Yeah… bogan, but not Westie?
SP: Yes, yes! I mean, I don’t think bogan was part of the lexicon back then, probably not. But Westies was a thing, and it would get reinforced every now and again, soeone would mention that. And I remember also I had a boss who’d grown up on the North Shore, had gone to North Sydney Boys. And he was saying for him, growing up, Westies to him were like, black denim jeans and…. he had this whole idea of what a Westie was. So it was a thing. Which I don’t think now we think about in quite the same way.
FW: It’s so funny, the stuff I always remember was, I remember one girl asking me if we had cows in the backyard. And I was like, you do know it’s part of Sydney, right? I don’t live on a farm. Because it took me an hour and a half to get to uni, because I lived in a kind of public transport black hole. And another student asking me, when I got my first HECS statement and I made a big sort of, look at me, I’m in debt now! And she was like, you know if you pay it upfront you get a 25% discount? And I was like (laughs) r-i-i-i-i-ght? And she was like, why didn’t you just pay it up front?
SP: It’s true, lots of people mention that! But thinking back to that time now, it’s so interesting and formative about thinking about class. Because that’s what it’s more about…
FW: Yes, absolutely!
SP: It’s not necessarily about geographic area. But a lot more to do with class. And I definitely felt that, going to classes with people who were from very privileged backgrounds. I remember there was a girl, she was mixed heritage actually, half-Japanese and half-Anglo. And she got $50 pocket money each week or something, and then for summer holidays they’d go overseas as a family. I think she went to PLC, actually. And then, people would very casually talk about going on skiing holidays with their family and things like that. And I was like, wow, this is how rich people live, and I really didn’t have a sense of that growing up. And I don’t think I even had a sense of shame about the Western Suburbs even, there wasn’t even that, but it was certainly a consciousness that was formed, that something about the way I grew up was going to be very different to lots of people that I’d meet at university. But having said that, there was a time when I’d hang out with all these guys who went to Sydney Grammar, for example, but there was some common ground there, because for one thing, they were very nerdy! (laughs) And I was a nerd, and being a nerd seemed to trump class considerations (laughs). Same with being a migrant. So if kids who were from wealthier backgrounds but were also some kind of migrant, I found that also meant that we could maybe bridge that difference a little bit.
But yeah, I mean, it’s funny, because I think having that formative time in my life at Sydney Uni, it just made me very good at trying to find common ground with people who are very different from me. Instead of being scared of people who are different, I think I really leaned into that, and I’m always searching for people who I might have something in common with, even though on the surface it may not appear that way at all. But if they went to a private school and they were the scholarship student probably I’d have more in common with them! But I think it was just such an important time in my life, going to university, because it just really opened up Sydney and opened up the world in fact in ways that having gone to school in South-West Sydney and spending most of my life there, I didn’t necessarily have that sense of a greater Sydney.
FW: I find it really interesting that you mentioned too that you plan to move back? That you’re living in Wolli Creek now and plan to move back to Bankstown? That’s fantastic…
SP: Well I mean it’s always been on the cards, actually. And I know a lot of people that I’m friends with, that grew up in the area, none of them live in South-West Sydney any more. They’ve all moved out for various reasons. And in some ways it’s another fascinating thing that I think about a lot, about internal migrations. I think that there’s these kind of pathways within Sydney, that depending on your background you end up following, perhaps. Like, people who grew up in South-West Sydney, who now moved to Epping, or who’ve moved, for example, I knew someone whose brother – they’re Vietnamese – his brother intermarried into Anglo culture and now lives in Turramurra, and I think, oh my god, you must be one of the only Vietnamese who lives in Turramurra! Because that’s a bit of an atypical pathway.
But then for me, it’s hard to explain because my relationship with the Western Suburbs is very complex, and probably more complex than lots of other peoples’, in that not only did I grow up there, but even as an adult, in terms of the jobs that I took, a lot of them were also in the Western Suburbs, and I didn’t necessarily feel a great desire to have a job in the CBD. Which is more typical if you work in the corporate sector. But because I ended up in some strange nebulous career of communications work, I worked in Liverpool for many years, for almost five years in a couple of different jobs. My first job in a university was in Ashfield, which I guess is on the borderlands of the Western Suburbs, and very much a Chinese area. And actually at the time I was there it was still not fully Chinese, now it has become very Chinese. So I think, going back and living in South-West Sydney is very much in keeping with the way I have this very fluid relationship with Bankstown, with the Western Suburbs, I’m part of it but also not part of it too. Even as I was growing up in the Western Suburbs, having said all of that, I think my head was always very much elsewhere. I was a huge reader when I was young, I was a huge letter-writer, I had boxes and boxes of letters of pen-pals from all around the world. So even if I was physically located, living in Georges Hall, in my head I think I was a real citizen of the world from a young age, and I really valued those kinds of interactions with people from other places. Which also happened within the borders of Western Sydney too. That’s the thing about Western Sydney, it’s a very cosmopolitan region, it’s very multicultural. So it’s funny, having all these memories of growing up in Georges Hall and Bankstown and thinking now, in the future, that will be part of my life again. It’s very pleasing in a narrative sense, it feels like I’m coming full circle. But another thing that’s very important, the reason why I’m even more motivated now – before it was a theoretical thought – but now that I have a child who’s mixed race, I think very much about cultural maintenance, I think about, how can I give her a sense of Vietnamese identity and Vietnamese language skills? And if I move back to the area where there’s a lot more of the community there, that will give her a lot more exposure to Vietnamese language. If we go shopping in Bankstown on a Saturday morning. And the thing is, it will have to be a concerted effort, it will have to be something I construct and something that I actually have to think about. Growing up, that didn’t have to happen because both of my parents spoke Vietnamese, we spoke at home, we were very much in the bosom of the Vietnamese community. But now that’s not where I am, where my parents are either. And having a daughter of mixed heritage, I think there’s that richness in growing up somewhere like Bankstown where I can try to recreate a little bit of that for her.
FW: What a wonderful idea.
SP: Yeah, and not everyone necessarily worries about this the same way that I do. But since I was pregnant last year, and having a baby, the main thought I have is actually, how can I help her speak Vietnamese? And I do have Vietnamese language skills, but I feel slightly inadequate about them, because I have quite a childlike vocabulary. But that’s where I think, in terms of Western Sydney, that’s why it’s such a huge part of my life still, and I’m regularly there, even though I don’t currently live there. Because that’s where I still have some sense of the Vietnamese community. But maybe it goes back to that whole idea we discussed earlier about being on the outside. If I wasn’t on the outside, I wouldn’t necessarily feel like this. But even though I was living there for so long, I guess that exposure was quite natural, whereas now, outside, you don’t get to have that same kind of exposure.
FW: That’s fascinating… To change tack entirely, can you tell me a bit about bioethics, I know that’s your field at the moment right? One of the things that I found so interesting looking at so much of your work is that you’ve got such a diverse practice – you’ve made radio, as well as writing, as you’ve worked in public health as well as journalism, some of your stuff is about philosophy, some of it’s about music, some of it’s about science and ethics in a really fascinating way. It struck me that I don’t think I’ve read such a wide-ranging body of work for a really long time… that’s a compliment, by the way!
SP: It’s not really intentional that it’s become this way, but that is what’s happened – I’ve ended up just constantly changing tack or going back to things, and shifting constantly. And that’s something I have thought a lot about the last few years. Currently I’m doing a PhD that’s a bit more focussed on healthcare, public healthcare, but very much health systems research, I’m now thinking about it in terms of systems…
FW: Good, because those systems are broken!
SP: Yes, I’m looking at pregnant women’s experiences in public healthcare, because of my experiences last year in a public hospital. It was really fascinating. And frustrating. And we do have excellent first world care in Australia somehow, despite how dysfunctional the system is thus far. But in terms of how I ended up across all these different divides, it goes back to… one way to construct the story is that is has a lot to do with growing up feeling different from everyone. So part of the narrative would be, when I went to primary school in Georges Hall, just for a year or two there, I was the only Asian girl in the whole year. There were a couple of other Chinese guys, but that really reinforced this sense of difference in values, in some way. It wasn’t even necessarily articulated like that, but I felt it. But then after that I went to a school, a very multicultural school again, so it was this very brief window that made me feel very different. But then I think that thinking about the fact that I felt somehow… that we have different values, not all of us have the same sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, I think that’s what formed my understanding and interesting in ethics. So when I was an undergrad, studying at Sydney Uni, I was studying psychology, and I got really drawn to the history and philosophy of science. And part of that involves ethics. So I was learning a bit more about ethics and science, it started to raise broader questions around ethics at a societal level. I think that’s kind of how I’ve ended up coming into bioethics, I had an opportunity to do a Masters in it a few years ago. I find all these things, though, at some level, they’re all related. All this stuff about being in between, because ethics is about the in-between spaces, the grey areas. I grew up in a grey area of being Vietnamese-Australian, and even the academic studies, I’m in the grey area between science and arts and humanities.
FW: I’ve always thought…somehow, I ended up with a whole bunch of science PhDs as friends when I was at uni, and listening to them talk about their work, when they were deep in that research thing, I realised, especially listening to one of them who deals a lot with numbers and was doing bioinformatics…like a statistician on crack. But the way he talked about this work, it seemed to me it was all about finding patterns and making shapes out of the gross chaotic material of the world, and I suddenly went, huh, that’s exactly what I’m doing with my poems. I feel like it’s the same impulse, just with two kind of ends that we’re taught to think of as being completely opposite, science and imagination. But I think it’s all about a curiosity, and that narrative drive, it’s just the narratives you find are… different.
SP: Yeah, I agree with that. I agree that they’re manifestations of similar impulses. Having said that though, what really drove me more towards the ethics end of science is that there is this kind of monolithic idea of what science is that bugged me, even at that young age, at university. I’d get into arguments with people, people were very deterministic about biology, you know, saying, well, if you’re unable to have children, that’s it, why do you need some kind of intervention? That’s just one way of thinking about. I remember I had an argument with someone about, humans were designed to be omnivorous, so being vegetarian is going against nature. And I just found that really black-and-white thinking really bugged me in science. In fact, now I’m talking out loud, all monolithic stories really bug me, that’s what drives a lot of my writing and work and thinking, is trying to challenge those very monolithic narratives. And science is a kind of… people have a very religious view of science, in that people hold up science as having all the solutions, it’s the most objective thing, but it’s not true at all, it’s just another…
FW: Yeah, it’s bullshit…
SP: Yeah, it’s as you say, it’s just another form of human expression in some ways, and we’ve constructed a lot of these ideas of science, and in fact a lot of people don’t really know what science is. It’s a process, it’s a methodology, it’s about proving things are right or disproving other things, but it’s also really slippery. And that’s really fascinating to think about, there’s a real source of inspiration for writing, as part of that.
FW: So it’s the changeability of science that fascinates me, how what we know slips from year to year and decade to decade, the more that we find out abut the world…
SP: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that’s the same with all art as well. The more you go deeper into it, the more you realise how little you know about anything. And science is part of that as well. And that frustrates me, when people don’t seem to appreciate that about science, that it is shifting, that one generation will think this, but then the next generation will think something different. So I’ve been interested in writing a bit more about that. Because it’s just another source of fascination for me… I think that’s why I’ve been struggling with writing a book, actually, it’s something that’s been in the back of my mind of a long time. But I haven’t quite worked out my way through, because of my very disparate interests, and the way that my thinking is very organic, it goes from one thing to the next. And I think the discipline of a book is that you are very coherent about a particular way of looking, an idea, or whatever. I mean, I’m getting closer, and I’m not in a huge rush either. I’ll just get to it in my own time. I’m a real believer in getting to things in your own time. That’s one thing I discovered, maybe the way I live my life was going to be very different to other peoples’. And everyone’s is, but certainly some people have a slightly more conventional narrative in terms of how they live their life and the milestones that they reach at certain times, whereas some of us…
FW: Oh, it took me so long to figure that out! And even now, sometimes, I’m like, but I haven’t done it…yeah, because I don’t want to!
SP: Yeah, that’s right. I think, if you wanted to, you would have gotten there by now. But that’s one thing, I really dread writing bios about myself, you know, in 50 words or 100 words, I’m like, oh my god, what am I going to put in this time, what am I going to leave out? I often have a very modified bio for every single thing. And the only place where it’s a bit more uniform is on my one-page website, where I get a bit more space to list all the different things that I do and talk a little bit about myself in some coherent way!
FW: Actually, I did want to ask, you are working on a book at the moment, aren’t you? The collaborative book with Felicity and Faith. Are you working on one of your own as well?
SP: I have been collaborating with Felicity Castagna and Faith Chaza on a Young Adult book, and that’s been a really interesting and great process. Because a lot of writing is very solo, so writing a young adult novel with three different perspectives has been quite a fascinating exercise in trying to come together to tell a story. But aside from that, I do spend a lot of time just working on my own projects as well, when I find the time, which is increasingly hard with a baby as well!
FW: I’m amazed, by the way, with women with babies who write. I think you guys are superhuman…
SP: Not all women have this experience of course, I totally understand why some people just find it absolutely exhausting. For me, it’s actually been a really great creative time in my life, this year. I’ve had a lot of time for reading, I’ve been reading a lot more poetry, and reading all kinds of things, have a lot more space for thinking, funnily enough. I get just enough sleep each night, but also I’ve always functioned very well on limited sleep, so the impact hasn’t been so horrendous in terms of that! I’ve actually kind of gotten a lot more…a lot of time to think about a book idea that I’ve been struggling with for a long time, which is pretty much everything we’ve talked about – how do I bring all this together, or do I need to? But having a child has focussed my thinking a lot, and I’d say that I’ve read a couple of books this year that have really helped me think about this. One is Maus, by Art Spiegelman, and another one, which I loved, is The Best We Can Do by Thi Bui; they’re both graphic novels and I really loved the form of graphic novels. Basically, both of those books are a lot to do with, how do you pass down stories through generations, and how do you deal with intergenerational trauma. Those are two big questions in my life too. I’m getting a bit closer now, I think, having read those kinds of works, having a child, and then just thinking about where I’m up to. With memoir, I’m a bit conflicted about this idea of writing a memoir about myself…
FW: Ha, do what I did and call it essays (laughs)
SP: Absolutely, I’ve had that conversation with other people too (laughs).
FW: Don’t call it memoir, and you’re fine.
SP: But the thing about memoir, though, is I do read a lot of memoir, I love reading memoir and I have for a long time. And I love essays as well – those forms I really gravitate towards naturally anyway, but I guess I’m up to the stage now where I think what someone said to me once is, memoir is like a wisdom project. And now that I’m in my mid-30s, I don’t know how wise I am, but I certainly have more wisdom that ten years ago when I was thinking about these issues. So I think now my writing is starting to deal with these issues in a slightly more complicated way. But I also don’t want to rush these things. The only thing that makes me a bit anxious is probably the thought of death! (laughs) I think, ok, well hopefully I have a lot longer to go, but that’s the only time – when I’m on a plane and there’s turbulence, I think, oh my god, I haven’t written a book yet, this is not the moment to die! I need to ride this out and eventually get to this book!
FW: (laughs) That’s fantastic! That’s where we’re actually going to end – on death! Thank you so much, that was so much fun.
SP: Thank you, that was fun!