Hsu- Ming Teo won the Vogel Award for her first novel “Love and Vertigo” in 1999. She has recently released another novel “Behind the Moon” in 2005. Hearing that she was a fan of the Sound of Music, I had to track her down and interview her by e mail about nerds and her novel….
HP: In “Behind the Moon” all three of the main characters seem alienated from their social worlds for one reason or another. In particular “Gibbo” the engineering student seems to be an atypical nerd. What particularly resonates for you with his character and what do you find appealing about him?
HMT: Gibbo is loosely based on a family friend of Scottish-Australian background who very much wanted to be Chinese and was always hanging around the house when I was growing up. His shyness and awkwardness or social ineptitude probably resonates with me because I was so shy and tongue-tied as a child, especially in school. What I like about Gibbo is that he’s the sort of person few would choose as their friend because he’s outwardly unappealing and not particularly entertaining in a social sense, but he’s got qualities such as loyalty and commitment which make him a wonderful friend to have. Of course, these are the same qualities which, when perverted in an extreme direction, cause him to become a stalker. But he’s quick to forgive and he also has enormous reserves of kindness which I find appealing.
HP: In your writing of the manuscript you used Vietnamese readers to preview the work to check for authenticity, in particular about the boat journey of Linh and the refugee experience. What insights did you gain intoVietnamese culture or experience when writing the novel?
HMT: I grew up around Vietnamese migrants, eating at VN restaurants near my home and shopping in VN grocery stores. I first became seriously interested in Vietnamese culture and history because of my very good friend, Thi Kim Uyen Truong – a French-Vietnamese who now lives in London. Because of her, I was inspired to travel to Vietnam, and I adored the country and the people I met. I’ve never been treated so warmly or generously on any of my other travels, but perhaps I was just very fortunate in my travel guide and friend, Nguyen Dat Truong. I don’t claim to have any special insight into VN culture or experience other than the usual ones a tourist gains. What I discovered for myself, however, was a fascination with Vietnamese history and literature, particularly poetry – albeit in translation, of course! I absolutely love Ho Xuan Huong.
I interviewed many people to create a background for the characters of Tien and Linh in the novel, but in the end I didn’t really use this research as I didn’t want to write a ‘typical’ or ‘true to life’ story about Vietnamese migrants as it wasn’t the point of the novel. I didn’t feel I had the cultural competence although I had done a lot of historical research into the background, nor did it seem right to me to claim any kind of authenticity or authority where the representation of Vietnamese refugees and migrants was concerned. In any case, I was more interested in the exceptional rather than the norm*Linh’s life is anything but normal*and for this reason I also made Tien impossibly hybrid: the daughter of a Chinese-Vietnamese mother and a half African-American, half-Cajun father, and the granddaughter of a francophilic Vietnamese intellectual. At the same time, however, I was concerned with the accuracy of the background so I got a few Vietnamese readers to check earlier drafts of the manuscript. Including Hoa of course – thanks very much, yet again!
HP: Have you found that you have been pigeonholed as an Asian-Australian writer? Have questions been asked about the representativeness of your work?
HMT: I think it’s inevitable that I’m categorised as an Asian-Australian writer but because my academic work is in such different areas and I’m often asked to speak about that as well, I don’t feel that I’m being pigeon-holed as such. It doesn’t really bother me, one way or the other. At the Shanghai Literary Festival this year, someone asked me whether I was “an Australian writer, an Asian writer, or an Asian-Australian writer”. I said if we were going to be geographically specific, then I was probably a multicultural inner-western suburban Sydney writer. And a nerdy one, of course.
I’m not sure about the representativeness question: representative of what? Asian-Australians? Or Asian-Australian literature? Or Asian literature?
HP: Love and Vertigo has been released in Italy, Singapore and Germany (from memory please add if any others) Have there been differences in the reception of the book overseas?
HMT: Published in Italian, German, Thai and Mandarin. Released in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, the UK, but not, unfortunately, in the US – even on that big bastion of booksellers: amazon.com!
I haven’t heard much feedback from o/s apart from Italy where my publisher brought me over to launch the book. The most interesting thing I found out in Italy where Love and Vertigo is concerned is that all my metaphors of falling don’t work in Italian because they don’t have the same idiomatic phrases: “falling in love” and “falling apart”.
HP: I have heard that you love the Sound of Music! What other nerdy interests do you have?
HMT: Did I say I love The Sound of Music? A friend of mine did drag me to the Sing-Along The Sound of Music at the State Theatre a few years back. I went dressed as a mountain carrying a ladder (climb every mountain …. big groan, I know!). Was absolutely fascinated by the propensity of white Australian males to dress up as nuns. Talk about national identity! It must be hard-wired into their chromosomes, the yobbo love of dressing in drag: eg footballers in tutus. Actually, I can only watch half of the Sound of Music. I can’t stand watching it after Maria falls in love with Captain Von Trapp. Goes against every feminist instinct! Why, Maria???? I’m sure you lived to regret it. Down with Capt Von Trapp and his evil whistle!!!
But I do have lots of other nerdy interests, yes. Chief among them: hanging out with other nerds.