Looking for Mai Tran: a new voice from the space between two cultures

Looking for Mai Tran: a new voice from the space between two cultures

- Giselle Nguyen

My life, my identity, has always been a duality. Born and raised in Sydney to Vietnamese parents, I felt Australian, Vietnamese, both, neither. It was a strange schism to exist in, especially when I reached my teen years and began to take an interest in things that my sheltered upbringing had forbidden. It was stranger, still, when I discovered that I had vaginismus, and could not speak to my parents about it. It was a lonely, terrifying time.

I never saw myself reflected in the books I voraciously read. The closest I felt to understanding was in the character of Josephine Alibrandi – a girl who was also yearning to break out of her place between cultures, yet constantly felt an obligation to her family and heritage. She validated my fears and worries, and we weren’t even from the same background.

Last year, I attempted (and failed) NaNoWrimo – my project was a young adult novel about a Vietnamese teen who finds out that she has vaginismus. I aimed to explore my own adolescence through this character, using the knowledge and hindsight I have now to highlight, with more nuance, the struggles I so acutely felt back then. So when I was offered a monthly fiction column for Scum Mag, I jumped at the chance to further flesh out this story through a teen girl’s diary – a very familiar and dear form to me – to create a blueprint for a future young adult novel.  

I always feel weird when I think about my heritage – like it’s a part of me, because it is, of course, but it’s also so separate.
— Mai's Super Sweet 16: April

Set in 2005, Mai’s Super Sweet Sixteen is the diary of Mai Tran, a teenage girl living in suburban Sydney with her parents and grandmother. She likes pop-punk, and boys, and wants to be a psychologist – all things that were true for me at that age. She constantly feels the prickling of difference in her life, especially when those around her don’t understand her strict upbringing.

Mai’s older sister was kicked out of home when she fell pregnant (not something from my real life), and Mai constantly battles with loyalty to her parents and sister. She is respectful of her culture, but she also feels separated from it, especially when she encounters benignly racist comments from her peers. She feels parental pressure to excel academically and in music, even though her passions lie elsewhere. She has her own desires, but feels guilty for them – when she becomes sexually active with her first boyfriend, Daniel, the anxiety, fear and guilt she feels around it leads to what she has not yet identified as vaginismus.

It’s not only Mai who contains aspects of my life as a teen, though.

One of the story-lines I’m working on is about one character’s struggle with sexuality, and its manifestation in a lash-out against her friends because she’s unsure how to deal with it, coming as she does from a conservative family, and attending a conservative school. In high school I too grappled with my sexuality, and pushed it aside due to a fear of how my traditional parents would react – it took me until I was 27 to embrace my queerness. I’m exploring that conflict through Mai’s friendship circles, and the emotional violence we inflict on ourselves and others when we are afraid and unsure, desperate to fit into a box.

Daniel’s struggle with mental illness, and its manifestation in his relationship with Mai, is an amalgamation of my own struggle with mental illness, and my first boyfriend’s. It’s allowed me to think more deeply about the emotional labour I performed, and expected to be performed for me, as a teen, and how that often results in unhealthy, codependent relationships. This has been a tricky one to write because I don’t want to demonise any of the characters, but rather paint a holistic picture of what it looks like to battle depression and mental illness both as an adolescent, and as someone who comes from a cultural background where these things aren’t discussed.

Later in the column, Mai will experience a great loss based on an event in my early years. I don’t want to give anything away, but this event will be the catalyst for a lot of familial healing in her life – something I think about often, as I continue to mend my relationship with my family after past transgressions. Vietnamese families are tied together by a boundless kind of love that is sometimes marred with cruelty – it’s taken me a long time to understand, and exploring that through Mai’s life is a way for me to take that empathy further. 

A lot of Mai’s entries are observations and fractured thoughts about various topics, rather than recounts of events in her life. This was important for me to do because reading back on my own diaries from childhood through to adolescence, so many of the entries saw me unpacking abstract concepts that I was grappling to make sense of. Especially in terms of sex and the future, Mai isn’t sure what’s going on, or what she should think or believe – whether she should pave her own way, or follow what she’s always been taught. I feel like this is a critical part of writing teenage characters – to inhabit their minds in a way that reaches beyond their immediate surroundings.

...in the dream, the door flew open and Bo Me were there, looking right at me, from me to him and back to me, and they were screaming that good Vietnamese girls don’t lie to their parents or have sex before marriage...
— Mai's Super Sweet 16: June

The joy of writing Mai, for me, has been in blurring my real-life experiences with imagined ones, incorporating elements of my friends’ lives, injecting wisdom I have now that I didn’t have back then, to create someone who is me, but also not me (a fun Easter egg about the column is that each month’s instalment contains a line or two from my actual teen diaries). It is a creative exercise, but also a very personal one.

I wrote for Kill Your Darlings last year about the challenges of memoir writing, and the benefit of fictionalisation in allowing us to explore uncomfortable truths, and unpack our own traumas and difficulties, from a distance. Mai’s story is my story, but it is also distinctly separate. It’s a real comfort – and previously unknown pleasure, as a first-time fiction writer – to purge myself onto the page in a way where only I know what’s real.

Teenage-hood is a precarious, and exciting, and strange time for anyone, but with the duality of second-generation identity, everything is magnified. Writing a Vietnamese character on the precipice of becoming herself has been an extraordinary way for me to think back on my own adolescence and unpack the key events that have shaped me as an adult. Through her, I have been able to voice the frustrations and conflicts I felt in myself as a young woman, and explore how my culture played into it – as well as celebrate the family and traditions that I love so much.

Having never read a teenage Vietnamese character before, I want to do for young Vietnamese-Australian girls what Josie Alibrandi did for me – to give a voice to their fears, joys, confusion, lives, within the prism of their bicultural experience.

To see them, the way they deserve to be seen.

Photo credit: Giselle Nguyen

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