Inside the mind of Emily Sun: West Australian writer and poet

Emily Sun is a West Australian writer and poet living on Whadjuk Noongar country. I first met Emily in a draughty corridor at Murdoch University while we were completing our postgraduate studies. We are now firm friends and writing buddies, and Emily’s talent and enthusiasm for her craft is a constant source of inspiration. Her poems and short stories have been published in literary journals and anthologies, including Cordite, Island, Westerly, Australian Poetry Journal and Growing Up Asian in Australia. She is currently a Hot Desk Fellow at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge, Western Australia, where she is finalising her first collection of poetry.

Emily, congratulations on your short story “Maybe it’s Wanchai” being awarded runner-up in the 2018 Deborah Cass Award for emerging writers from migrant backgrounds. Has winning this award buoyed your confidence in yourself as a writer?

Thanks. I didn’t expect to get as far as I did but knew I had to submit something after I read Deborah Cass’ life story. It really resonated with me because I’m a cancer survivor and around the time I saw the call for submissions, I’d just had my ‘five years clear’ appointment. Deborah was a law academic at the London School of Economics who returned home to Australia to write after she was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away before she completed her novel. When I read the fine print and saw that the competition was open to migrants and children of migrants who haven’t had a complete work published and fewer than 10 publications — I saw it as the universe telling me to give it a go. Getting the first runner-up prize definitely boosted my confidence as some of my favourite writers were on the judging panel. It was also a great opportunity to meet writers from around the country.

Your short story “These are the Photographs We Take” was published (for the second time) in Growing Up Asian in Australia (2008). We sometimes chat about the challenges we faced as migrant children growing up in Australia, one with European heritage, the other from an Asian background. Do you feel your childhood experiences as an Asian Australian have influenced the themes you explore in your writing?

I think most writers draw from their lived experiences and intellectual interests, and intellectual interests come from lived experiences. I remember when I was really young, all I wanted to be when I grew up was an office worker in one of the many Hong Kong skyscrapers I passed every day. Your environment and socio-political conditions of the times definitely shape you. I would be a very different person with different concerns if my family hadn’t migrated to Perth in the early 1980s. I’d probably be able to converse more effectively in my mother tongue, and I wouldn’t have grown up in a minority cultural group. Although, a Hong Kong friend told me in 1997 when I was there to witness the handover, I would likely have grown up more confused if I’d remained—Hong Kongers resented being colonial subjects, yet many also resisted their newly imposed Peoples Republic of China (PRC) identity, albeit a new identity with the caveat that they had 50 years to get used to it. As someone who has lived all but the first three years of my life in Hong Kong, I don’t have that confusion because I grew up at a time where my group and self-claimed identity was ‘pan-Asian Australian’, and it still is really when I’m home. So, I’m identifying with individuals from different diasporic-Asian groups who I’m sure most Hong Kong Chinese feel absolutely no solidarity with. I remember I had a social studies teacher who just threw the question out there one day, ‘What is an Australian?’ Looking back, he was an Italian-Australian and probably grew up when the vitriol was directed towards South European immigrants, so he would have gone through a similar experience of questioning Australian identity. I’ve always found questions of imposed and self-claimed identities fascinating and I suppose this comes through in my fiction. 

We are both busy mothers, juggling our writing and work goals with the joys and responsibilities of parenthood.  How did becoming a mother influence the way you view yourself as a writer? What particular challenges have you, as a mother and a writer faced, while balancing a writing life with motherhood?

My writing identity is very new even though I had works published when I was younger.  It’s probably only over the last few months that I’ve had the confidence to think of myself as a writer, so I’m still learning how to balance writing with my other roles.  I have that acute awareness that time is not limitless so it’s taken me a while to figure out my priorities.

All writers need time to think in order to generate new material. Joyce Carol Oates says that ‘constant interruptions are the destruction of the imagination’ and cites Hemmingway as someone who could write all day at a Parisian café, drinking his bottles of wine and losing himself in thought, because he had a wife to do all the childrearing and cooking back at home.  I live in a semi-extended family structure so it’s really hard to get time alone.

Many ideas come to me in that semi-lucid moment between dreams and reality, but they often evaporate as soon as someone starts talking to me about something else. I need to keep a notebook by my bedside so that I can capture some of these ideas before everyone else wakes up. Some women rise before the crack of dawn and write before their family wakes up, but I need my sleep.

I don’t have a regular writing routine at the moment, but I do set fortnightly writing goals and complete them when I can.  I have to be flexible because of my other responsibilities, but it feels so good when I tick off those check boxes on my to-do list. I’ve learnt to break things down, that way I’m not overwhelmed by the bigger picture.  I also walk around with a small note book, sketching down ideas as they come to me. I tried recording them on my phone but reviewing and transcribing my recordings took too much time.

In 2018, you attended the Katherine Susannah Prichard Foundation (KSP) 1st Edition Retreat. What did you learn from this experience, and has participating in the program lead to new opportunities for you as a writer? You are also KSP’S Culturally and Linguistically Different Fellow (CALD) in 2019, which includes a two-week writing residency at the centre in Greenmount, Western Australia. What will you be focusing on during this exciting opportunity?

At the 1st Edition Retreat, I learnt that nothing makes me happier than spending a weekend with people who value creating stories as much as I do. I loved the energy of being with three amazing local writers: Laurie Steed (the workshop convener), Melanie Hall and Emma Young (the two other participants). We are all very different types of writers with diverse writing concerns, but what we had in common was a passion for story telling with the aim of entertaining, informing, provoking and/or responding to the world around us.

I have Rashida Murphy to thank for the CALD fellowship because she fully funded the position, and Laurie and Mel, who had already been fellows, encouraged Emma and I to apply. By the time I return to KSP for the week-long residency, I’ll be editing a full draft of my current project and making inroads on another project that’s been on the backburner for a while. I’m just really excited to have an entire week to myself!

What are you working on now?

I’m reading a lot. I have the backburner project, the one I will take to KSP later this year, and I’m also part of a Saga Histories and Poetry Group.  In fact, the  Deborah Cass story ‘Maybe It’s Wanchai’ came out of one of our group writing sessions. I also generated a poem from some poetry writing exercises that engage one’s sensory memory. That was quite a different experience. Usually, my poems emerge from an idea or theory that I’m obsessed with. I am also recovering my mother tongue and writing multi-lingual poems with the help of new translation technology.

Is there a book you have recently read, that has influenced your approach to your own writing?

I’m interested in the works generated by Asian-Americans, Asian-Canadians as well as Asian-Australians, people who share a cultural/linguistic immigration background to mine, anyone Chinese who has grown up as a minority and seeing what stories are being published. I really love Melanie Cheng’s short story collection Australia Day, because she is able to encapsulate all the complexities of contemporary Australian identity in such elegant and engaging prose. I also read two books recently by Asian-Americans that I really enjoyed, not only were they entertaining, but they dealt with themes I explore in my own fiction, but in different ways. One was Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, a NY Times Bestseller, which was cleverly marketed as a ‘literary thriller’. The story is set in the late 1970s and begins with a mother frantically searching for Lydia, her missing teenage daughter. The family is mixed-race—dad is Chinese and mum’s Caucasian—and the story explores bi-racial family dynamics at a very specific time in history, and how these dynamics play out as the police try to discover what happened to Lydia.  I liked this book for the reasons I loved Alice Stephen’s Famous Adopted People;  Both novels explore issues of belonging, identity, race, and racism, and Cheng, Stephens and Ng write from a position closer to my own experience than the books I grew up reading. Randolph Stow’s Merry Go Round in the Sea is one of my favourite books. It deals with postcolonial Australian identity. I fell in love with Stow’s war-traumatised character Rick. I probably related to this book because I grew up hearing stories about the Second World War, although I came to it from a very different reading position. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the themes I explore, my positionality, and what I want my stories to do.  I buy books the way Imelda Marcos bought shoes, and my local library is like a candy store. It makes me sad that there are so many books I want to read, that I will probably never get around to reading.

If you could give your younger writing self any advice, what would it be?

Are you giving me a time machine? Keys to the Tardis?

If so, I would ask someone else to go back instead and just send the person with a note: ‘Be Bold or Be Patient’. I would say to 18-year-old me, look up Pierre Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital theory, and find a way to study Asian-American studies at UCLA or UC Berkeley, because you will find your voice much sooner and meet people you will have a lot in common with! If this isn’t possible, just be patient and get a real job. As a young Asian-Australian writer there were definitely fewer opportunities to write and publish the stories I wanted to tell.  I watched an interview with Emma Thompson about her latest movie Late Night (a comedy about a female late show host hiring a ‘person-of-colour’ to salvage her dying program) and Thompson admitted there was no way she could have made the film 20 years ago. So broadly speaking, there are more opportunities for writers like me now, than when I was a younger. But at the same time, I’m going to a forum soon about diversity in arts and they have set 2050 as the year when there will be an equitable landscape. I’d also tell younger me to keep all her journals. I threw out many of my diaries from a really interesting period in my life, because later, I found them cringe worthy. Now that I’m older and have that distance, I regret that I threw the baby out with the bath water. I’ve lost volumes of observations and reflections I had about the world around me, the random people I met, and intricate descriptions of unique spaces I’ll never visit again.

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