STEPHEN PHAM: Define yourself and tell your story
Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer hailing from Cabramatta.
Pham's work has featured in Meanjin, Griffith Review, and Overland, and he has performed at Sydney Festival, Sydney Writers’ Festival, and many others.
THE PIN. Tell us about growing up in Cabramatta?
STEPHEN PHAM. 80% of Cabramatta’s population is Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Chinese. It’s quite an Asian suburb, and when I grew up in Cabramatta in the 90's I think it was a ‘dangerous place’ regarding there being a lot of crime, particularly to do with drugs and drug-related violence, specifically, heroin. There might have been a parallel with Springvale and Footscray back in the day.
My mum owned a shop in Cabramatta, so I was there pretty much every day—she was a single mother and couldn’t afford daycare. The schools I went to were in Western Sydney as well. I went to a selective high school. You have to do a test to get in, and it’s a pipeline to university for doctors and lawyers, and finance people. There, I was pretty much surrounded by Asians as well. I know this is probably a later question you have, but I guess I normalised all of that, being around Asians so much.
When I watched TV, it was all white people on the screen. I wasn’t aware that this was a big deal. Seeing all these white Australians on TV represented a far-off Australia that had nothing to do with me. Then when I went to university, and I started doing an arts degree, I was sitting in a lecture theatre and had this realisation that I was one of the few ethnic people in the room, not to mention Asians. Everyone else was white.
Going to a selective school, and growing up Vietnamese-Australian, were there expectations that you’d then go on to study medicine or something similar?
SP. Definitely. When I went to tutoring after school, the tutor would guilt and emotionally blackmail us into getting really high marks because of our parents' sacrifices. So I started out doing a degree in commerce, majoring in accounting and actuarial studies. I was okay with it, but at a certain point I was feeling quite burnt out. That’s when I started doing creative writing and eventually transferred to an arts degree.
At university, at that moment where you realised you were (basically) one of the only Asian and non-white people in the class, stepping into that space did it change how you perceive yourself?
SP. Yes, a lot. One of my first stories published was written in the class of the lecture where I realised I was one of the few ethnics in the room—creative writing 101. I guess I subconsciously understood that that was the edge I had over the white people who wrote about being a cockroach running around Franz Kafka’s house. I had a very specific experience that they did not. So my first story was written and published was about growing up in Cabramatta. I really played up the ethnic-ness of it all. The poverty, the suffering, and the sights and smells of ethnic Australia. I was aware of my difference, but in writing that I applied the white gaze to myself in a way that - when I look back on it - was quite gross but understandable.
Are you talking about 'Holiday in Little Saigon'?
SP. I am talking about that cursed story, yes [laughs].
How do you feel about that story now?
SP. feel - hmm - I was proud of it at the time. I had shown people around me, people in the area and they were quite happy that I’d gotten a story published about us. For my next project, I wanted to transcend my ethnic-ness. I wanted to start writing imaginative stories. I wanted to be a writer, period. When you’re trying to be a writer, you go to all of these literary scenes and events and things and you are surrounded by white people. At the time I didn’t think of these people as white, I thought of them as “alternative” and “cultured”. Especially compared to what I was used to, which was culture but in a “vulgar” way. Ethnics just make nice food, do pretty dances, and wear pretty clothes, but our culture is not of the mind, it’s of the body. Writing while trying to be white didn’t work out too well.
Then I joined Sweatshop, which at the time was known as West Writers group. It’s a Western Sydney literacy movement. Being in those workshops opened my eyes to the idea that the stories that I have are mine to tell, and if I don’t say them, who else will? The workshops helped shift my perspective away from ‘let me exploit this’ and towards ‘what can I do as a writer of colour?’ I learnt that being an ethnic and having an imagination aren’t mutually exclusive.
Goethe is one of the classics in the Western canon. One of the things about his quote-unquote fictional writing is that if you compare them to his journals, the emotional story is the same, that they correspond. There is something of an autobiographical element to his fiction. It’s just that we don’t consider this—we just see it as a product of a great mind. Whereas I was under the belief (and this is how people treat non-white writers) that our stories aren’t anchored to the mind, they’re pinned to our bodies, just like our cultures. Everything has to be autobiographical, as opposed to white people’s stories, who, unless they explicitly state it, are assumed to be products of imaginative geniuses.
For maybe five years I was quite scared to revisit ‘Holiday in Little Saigon’ because I was ashamed of how exploitative and white gaze-y it was. I read it earlier this year, and it wasn’t so bad, I empathise with where I was at the time, and it launched my career, so I’m grateful for it.
It did something for you...
SP. Yeah, but I’m also learning that there is no one defining piece of writing in my career. It’s all just a record of where I am at the time. Right now, my priorities, politics, and so on, are entirely different from that period. ‘Holiday’ is definitely my work, but I would be quite frustrated if someone thought it defined the rest of my career because I have grown from that.
It seems like writing about race, or being involved in discussions about race is almost a rite of passage for POC writers in Australia. Do you think we’re getting to a point where POC can move beyond the discussion and into other interests?
SP. There’s been so much progress in the conversations we have today about race and, I don’t think it would have been imaginable two decades ago.
I support writers of colour and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers that are writing about things that aren’t about race, multiculturalism, and diversity because we are capable of talking about so much more than that.
At the same time, I don’t think we can ever properly be post-race in the sense that race doesn’t matter. It still matters, and it still matters in the politics of today, especially with Turnbull raising a scare about African gangs, the 1600 people trapped in offshore prisons, and Fraser Anning openly advocating for a return to the White Australia policy.
It’s not that we shouldn’t talk about race, but I think race has been inflected to mean ‘non-white’. That normalises whiteness in a way that is quite disturbing for me. Discussions about multiculturalism and diversity that denote non-whiteness can be quite tired, repetitive, basic, and do nothing to evolve the conversation. For me, intellectually, politically, it’s so much more important that when we talk about race, we’re talking about whiteness. I would like more white people to talk about whiteness and more people of colour to talk about whiteness. Not whiteness as an ethnic identity but whiteness as a mode of navigating the world that is inherently violent and colonial.
How important is it to you to identify as Vietnamese-Australian as opposed to just Australian? Is it something you think about?
SP. It can be quite gross, on the one hand, as a marketing exercise. People are going identify me like that anyway so I may as well embrace it, have faith in the fact that my writing won’t necessarily transcend the identity, but will redefine for the reader what it means to read a Vietnamese-Australian writer. Though I fight the white gaze, I also have to lean into it because that’s the reality of the world we live in. We will be tokenised. It is crucial for me to anticipate that gaze and subvert it as well as I can in my writing, so I identify as Vietnamese-Australian openly.
On the other hand, I also note my ethnic identity, class, and geographical location because there are so many stories that haven’t been told for and by Vietnamese-Australians just yet. For the most part, there are just narratives of being a good migrant or being a "good" Australian out there. There isn’t room for any ugliness or struggle or awkwardness. It’s critical for me to identify as Vietnamese-Australian for the people who belong to my communities, or at least to create those communities so we can have those conversations.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
STEPHEN PHAM. Honestly. Just don’t write [laughs].
I have found that no matter how long I try to abstain from writing, or how busy life or work gets, I still have that impulse to write. I’m still thinking about issues that would be best processed through writing. The experience that I would have had if I had just chilled on the whole being a writer thing—not that it doesn’t take enormous amounts of luck, skill, effort, and work—not to discount all of that, but I think the stories that I could have told if I had just gabbered at Defqon.1 and gone on drag races down the Cumberland Highway would have been so interesting. Instead, I’ve had this mongrel of a life where I’ve struggled to define myself as white against non-white peoples for the first half of my life. And now that I’m in this white-dominated scene, I am struggling to establish myself as ethnic against all these white people. I think I would have been more ethnic if I had just relaxed and lived life instead of trying to be a writer. Not that they’re mutually exclusive, but you can only do so much when you’re working class.
*This interview has been condense and edited
Photo Credit: Leah Jing McIntosh & Jonno Revanche
Find Stephen on twitter or his website