Author, playwright and Peril’s co-founding editor, Hoa Pham interviews Michele Lee on her recently published memoir Banana Girl.
Both Banana Girl and Moths have an element of the intimate sexual confession to them. In moths you used the sexual experiences of the actors and interviews. Banana Girl is your memoir. Did you choose to use these themes deliberately or did it occur more organically than that?
I remember as a teenager watching Head On, which is a film adaptation of Christos Tsolkias’ Loaded. I loved the film. I remember finding myself drawn to the graphic depictions of sex and to a character who was a young, Greek man, charged with the expectations of your parents’ generation and of your culture. I had one of those moments of self-identification with fiction – I was a young, gay Greek man too! Well, not really. But I felt like an outsider too, and one of his defining characteristics was a very naked sexual appetite. At that age of my life, I couldn’t match his experiences but I understood them. I think I’ve always had a vexed relationship with my own sexuality and perceptions of Asian sexuality more collectively. Moths, my verbatim theatre play, was an exploration of other Asian-Australian’s people’s perspectives on sexuality. Sexuality was definitely there as a deliberate theme – it was there on paper in the first grant application! The introduction of the meta-verbatim and the actors’ stories – which are semi-fabricated – was generated in workshopping and not so much in the realms of my brain. Why did I go in this direction, where sex and sexuality is so immediately in the foreground of the world of the play? Partly, it’s because I grew up not seeing stories about Asian people’s sexuality; there were plenty of stories about Asian people as successful migrants, or refugees who’d faced off with death and war to get here, but I never saw Asian people depicted as characters with love lives and sex lives. In my community, and in other Asian communities, the zealous commitment to ‘saving face’ made sex taboo, which probably made it more seductive to me. Also if I talked to other Asian people, generally other young Asian women, I knew that being an Asian woman often felt like it was about being someone else’s sexual fantasy. I’m talking about yellow fever, about the white men who seem incapable of engaging with an Asian woman without fixating on us being Asian. So in Moths, I can see that I would have I drawn upon all of these experiences as starting points for my interviews.
I started Banana Girl as an assessment in my RMIT writing course, and that was in 2008, so many years ago. I can’t recall what the impetus was thematically. I don’t think I had an agenda about sex and only sex. I do think that what I just said about Moths was probably what motivated me for Banana Girl.
A reviewer on Peril made a great observation about the book’s themes of sex, and I’ll let you read it here , as I find that I am somewhat fumbling trying to explain it myself. I think most writers have ongoing themes and that not surprisingly these themes originate in personal experiences, and these themes appear repeatedly. I do feel as though sex won’t be a persevering theme for me, or be the only theme, as other play ideas I’ve been working on since explore other elements of identity.
The typical sexual stereotype for Asian women is being submissive like Madame Butterfly or the dragon lady like Lucy Liu. Banana Girl is a refreshing break from this. Have you encountered these stereotypes in your life and how have you reacted to them?
What I didn’t expect from Banana Girl being published is having strangers email me. So far I haven’t had many, but the people who have emailed me have been white men. One man talked about his struggles with the yellow fever label, and he talked very warmly of his Hong Kong born wife. Another man used to date a Thai woman who’d been adopted by a European family. Another man had adopted a Korean girl many years ago and his adult daughter referred to herself as a banana girl. Ironically I feel as though in trying to write something that says “I am Asian… and other things” that I have then invited people to engage with me on the basis of me being Asian. But then I may be reducing these men to just ‘white men’, and they may see themselves as more than this, as interested bystanders in the lives of women who are Asian, among other things.
But, yes, for as long as I can remember, white men have felt entitled to approach me and talk to me, usually about me being Asian and how they like China or Thailand or Vietnam. Is it because of the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman? I don’t know. But I can’t help but feel as though it does relate to that. I can’t help but feel as though they have neatly categorised and reduced me in their heads, that I am an ambassador for Asia and because Asian girls are nice and polite, then I am meant to acquiesce and entertain and respond politely and swap stories and help them practise their language skills, if they are the type of white man who has also learnt a language.
When I was online dating, I remember this guy sent me a few e-kisses. This was RSVP’s system of showing interest without parting with money for an actual email. The idea is that if I sent a kiss your way and you liked my kiss (‘like’ is probably not the term, sorry, that’s the dominance of Facebook talking), then I would feel more certain in taking a chance and sending you an email. So, this particular fellow had sent me a few kisses, I hadn’t responded. He sent me an email anyway. In it he talked about China and how he was learning Chinese and how he had just been to Chinese New Year and what Chinese horoscope he was and what Chinese horoscope I was, based on my birth-date. While my profile had my birth date, nowhere in my profile did I say I was Chinese. I’m not. I had a few pictures and clearly I was Asian but who was to say I was Chinese. I wrote back, was polite, but pointed out that I wasn’t Chinese and didn’t appreciate being approached on the assumption I’m Chinese. He replied insulted – what a rude way for me to respond when he’d spent $7 on an email.
Sure, stereotypes come from somewhere. The quiet Asian girl who smiles benignly, my internal prejudices about hanging out with Asian international students – that comes from somewhere. While I don’t think any Asian person would say that all Asians are submissive and passive – certainly there are Asians I know that you can’t shut up, or Asians with infectious, constant laughter – broadly Asian people approach social situations differently from Westerners. You could say that we’re not as forward. I’ll probably go as far as agreeing with that, and then there are plenty of exceptions.
What has been the reaction to your book from friends family and lovers?
It’s been positive so far but then people who didn’t enjoy it probably aren’t going to tell me! With the exception of one guy in the book that I don’t have a relationship with anymore, all the major people I chronicled read their ‘bit’ before I committed it to the manuscript. I was nervous about the protocol for this as I hadn’t written autobiographically before so I didn’t have a clear sense of what the ‘rules’ are – do you show people, does that mean you’re allowing them to veto, should you allow them to veto, how meaningful is it to show it to them at a near-finished stage? Much earlier on, I had written a chapter that I never included because I shared it with the subject of the chapter. This was someone I had been friends with and then on several occasions we’d had sex. He lambasted me; he said he’d sue me for defamation. I was terrified by his response, although I was sympathetic to it. Many months later, he said he’d over-reacted and many years later he told me what was going on for him at the time. So with this experience in mind, by the time I got closer to a finished manuscript, I showed it to people who still remained chronicled in the book, people I wanted to ensure I could maintain a relationship with.
I’ve heard that Helen Garner upset people around her in writing her quasi-autobiographical stories, and my former fiction teacher at RMIT alluded to a son of his that had cut him out of his life for being included in his father’s stories. The Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard has written a six-part autobiographical fiction series on his life – it pissed off a lot of people and it threatened his relationship with his wife.
In the end, no-one tried to talk me out of publishing. One of my exes disputed some of the dialogue attributed to him. He said he wouldn’t have said things in the exact way I had written them.
One common thread of response is how people enjoy the sense of place. This was never intended. I live in Melbourne, so Melbourne details were necessarily a part of the book. I think this probably works better than me intending to name-drop. My partner, who hasn’t read that far into the book, said to me after a pause, “It’s very detailed”, which is partly him affirming that my writing is consistent with my conversations with him – very fine-detailed!
What did you discover about yourself in the writing of Banana Girl?
I wrote Banana Girl throughout my late twenties, a time where I was becoming more interested in Hmong culture. You won’t find a lot of Hmong content in the book as I can’t pretend to be a complete insider and expert, and I don’t practise Hmong-ness on a daily basis. But writing the book did keep my interest in being Hmong alight, and this interest will and does continue now.
I also learnt that I’d probably rather stick to theatre than to prose. I’ve suppressed the memories of the days spent doing a copy edit of Banana Girl. Maybe more experienced prose writers have strategies for how you edit your own work in a compartmentalised way but going through 70,000 words took days for me. I don’t look forward to that sort of editing again. With theatre, I still get torturous and drawn-out days of rewriting but my plays probably don’t exceed 20,000 words so it’s more manageable to review.
I also enjoy the collaborative nature of theatre, that it demands you to work with others. Whereas writing a manuscript can get very lonely!