Mindy is an award-winning poet, editor of Peril Magazine and one of Queensland’s most outstanding young writers. Isabella Moore sat down with her to talk about cultural identity, her poetry and the current culturally diverse arts scene in Australia.
Can you tell us a bit about your cultural background and your upbringing?
My parents migrated from Malaysia a couple years before I was born. My father is Punjabi and my mother is Chinese so it’s very mixed. When I was younger, everything was intermingled. I’ve never really known where one [culture] ended and the other began. I guess everyone comes to a revelation where they question which culture they are. Now I’m quite accepting of what I know and what I am and what I’m not. It’s always about learning. You’re never going to come to a complete understanding of where you belong. It’ll never be so solid, it’ll always be intangible, like a process.
How does your cultural identity influence your writing and your poetry?
I wouldn’t say my poems are explicitly about cultural identity. Poetry is so personal so obviously aspects of my identity will come in because it influences the way I operate in the world. So whilst it’s not about culture, there are certainly themes of it. Sometimes writing specifically about identity can feel quite false or performative or turn into something that you’re not writing for yourself but to make others understand. That can be a very valid and wonderful way of writing but I want it to come from the personal and not the “I want people to understand my culture, to understand why I feel this way because I operate this way in a white world.” So I would say that I don’t sit down and go “I’m going to write this poem about being Asian-Australian specifically”.
Whilst doing my thesis though, I was looking at Eileen Chong’s body of work and how food can be a vehicle to belonging. How through the act of eating and cooking and the food itself, you can locate how you consume your identity. The conclusion I came to in the thesis was that food and poetry allows you to navigate those not so clearly defined cultural structures. It’s accepting that belonging neither here nor there can actually be a great thing because you have access to so many different cultures and ways of living. It made me wonder why we need to belong to just one thing. I guess that’s an evolutionary, survival tactic thing. I just feel now that having access to so many different cultures is much better than just one.
Sometimes writing specifically about identity can feel quite false or performative or turn into something that you’re not writing for yourself but to make others understand.
How do you feel about the Australian culturally diverse arts scene at this current stage? As a growing space, what else do you think needs to be done to help culturally diverse artists?
I found a lot that things that are made to be diverse events or discussions or workshop weekends end up almost tokenistic. The discussions being had at these types of events can be incredibly valuable but its almost as though, and I’m sure its not the intention, as long as the people who are speaking are diverse then it doesn’t really matter how good the event is. Then some people talk about how to make the arts more diverse but completely ignore Indigenous artists.
I think it will get better. This kind of thing is so new and I think you learn how to do it better every time it’s done. Just the fact we’re even having these events is great. Once we’ve gotten past that, it can really be fine-tuned to be helpful to everyone and not just being a diversity event for the sake of a diversity event.
I also have mixed feelings about when journals do a diversity issue. It’s great for writers who might not have had that window but a journal will open up a diverse writer’s issue but then going forward will continue to publish what they’ve always published. Instead of doing a diverse issue, it should be constant. With Peril, we did the queer edition but we always publish queer voices throughout all of our editions. I know it is hard because editors can only look at the writers who are out there. A lot of the time it’ll be “why wasn’t there a diverse person doing this?” and it’s because there really was no one there to do it. Which is a completely separate problem, like why wasn’t there anyone? This kind of thing is really tricky but I’m sure it’ll change.
Belonging neither here nor there can actually be a great thing because you have access to so many different cultures and ways of living.
Speaking of journals, can you tell us a bit about your role at Peril and how the magazine is contributing to culturally diverse arts?
I started with Peril at the end of 2016 and began editing last year. Peril is a journal of writing, arts and culture centering around Asian-Australian voices and stories. We don’t only exclusively publish Asian-Australian writers but we focus on publishing things that are relevant to non-white writers or things that address ideas beyond the Australian context.
What is really nice is that so many people who are involved in arts and writing and culture and have either published in Peril or been on the editorial team. If you go into any kind of Asian-Australian space or event, there’s a lot of people who have been involved in Peril in some way. So I hope it continues to be a space where people can have their first publication or their first involvement in the arts and it is really great that there are more like Pencilled in and Liminal. I think it’s nice – it is a small community within a community so there’s always someone you can talk to. Everyone is so close.
Do you have any regrets or lessons you’ve learnt throughout your writing career so far that you’d like to share?
In terms of publishing, yes. Especially with the Internet and online publication, I think there’s a big desire to be in rush to get your work out. Which is a great motivator but because these days its possible to get your work out immediately, it can mean that you’re not represented by yourself as well as you could be. Obviously it can be really, really exciting the first time you see your name on a publication whether online or in print but I wish I had slowed down and maybe not have published so early because there are a lot of things out there that didn’t need to be out there and could’ve been so much better. If you’re going to put yourself out there creatively, or in any context, do you not want it to be your best self?
And I think the reason I was rushing to publish was because I thought because there’s no way I can get this thing if I don’t have at least this many publications to my name. But just because you have an exhibition doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything if you, yourself, know it’s not great. It’s as though the achievement has become the fact you have an exhibition, not that you have created something really great. There’s a very fine line between the accomplishment of having done it and the work itself and it should always be the work.
I also have mixed feelings about when journals do a diversity issue… Instead of doing a diverse issue, it should be constant.
Have you got any advice for aspiring writers, especially those who come from a CALD background?
Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and ask them for advice and how they’re able to be in the industry that they’re in. I always thought I wish I knew how that person did that but I never thought it was possible to ask them. But most people are really nice and very open to having a chat. You can ask someone for their email or if you know someone who knows them, ask them if they can put you in touch. It’s such a small community and everyone knows of everyone. For me, the people who just a few years ago I was wishing I could just have a conversation with are now my peers, which is really weird. So don’t be afraid to reach out to people from who you look up to and want to know things from.
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