Shirley Le- Funny Ethnics | SYDNEY WRITERS’ FESTIVAL 2023

interview by Lychee Lui

Who are you?

My name is Shirley Le, I am a second-gen Vietnamese-Australian writer. I am from Western Sydney. I am a part of the Sweatshop Literacy Movement. Funny Ethnics is my debut novel published by Affirm Press.

What was the inspiration for the title Funny Ethnics?

The title Funny Ethnics refers to a specific type of marginalisation in Australian popular culture. I have observed that people of colour are ridiculed and are made the butt of the joke a lot of the time. If we look at shows like We Can Be Heroes by Australian comedian Chris Lilly, there is a character in there called Ricky Wong. Chris Lilly is playing Ricky, an Asian man, and mocking his accent and artistic aspirations. I wanted to turn that humour around and look at White Australia and look at society now and take that humour and speak back to power.

Funny Ethnics is not literally saying that people of colour are inherently funny. It is instead referring to the marginalisation that we have felt in terms of being ridiculed and othered by popular Australian media.

What were your inspirations for the voice and nonlinear structure in Funny Ethnics?

For the nonlinear structure, I was inspired by life itself. I know that in storytelling the traditional storytelling structure is usually a three-part arc with a Beginning-Conflict-Resolution but life does not unfold that way. Life is quite messy. Relationships fade away and sometimes come back. I wanted to mimic the way life unfolds in the writing of Funny Ethnics. It is more about my feelings about how relationships play out in real life and how conflict and resolutions play out in everyday life. That is what I wanted to bring in terms of my storytelling.

In terms of the voice in Funny Ethnics where there is that Western Sydney humour, Western Sydney slang, and internet slang, I’ve always been interested in books with very strong voices. I’m part of a writers’ collective in Western Sydney called the Sweatshop Literacy Movement and I’ve always been inspired by the strong voices in storytelling that have emerged from that movement. The founder is Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad. His books such as The Lebs and The Other Half of You have strong voices that capture the Western Sydney voice.

As someone who has grown up in Western Sydney, I wanted to bring that language, play with it, and bring it to the page. I think Western Sydney as it is represented in popular media is focused on the criminal activity and moments where characters or people from Western Sydney are mocked for being uneducated. I wanted to make a statement, here is a book that uses Western Sydney language and a very Western Sydney way of expressing things, here it is in literature, and it is saying powerful things. I’ve always been drawn to saying things in a simple way but making the maximum impact. That is the inspiration behind the voice of Sylvia Nguyen in Funny Ethnics.  

How did you come up with the titles for each chapter?

For the chapter titles, I wanted to be playful and reference the internet context of Sylvia Nguyen’s upbringing. She grew up in the early 2000s and late 90s. The internet played a big role in disseminating pop culture that she references throughout the book.

What does it feel like to be a novelist and have a book out there now along with your short stories and essays?

That is such a big question. It feels unreal, it’s a bit of a cliché but honestly, I still feel a shiver when I go into a bookstore and I see a book with my name on it on the shelf. Sometimes I have to wonder if this has really happened or not.

For the past ten years I’ve been publishing short stories and essays here and there. That is how I’ve chosen to approach a career in creative writing. I wanted to learn the craft first and that came through my university education at Macquarie University and from engaging with fellow writers of colour at Sweatshop workshops. Joining those workshops and getting critical feedback to improve on my craft was part of how I chose to become a writer.

There are lots of different ways to become a writer. As a writer from a marginalised background, it is important to understand why you want to write as well as how writing works in and of itself as a craft.

For me, the reason why I wanted to write is because growing up, stories about Vietnam I encountered in an Australian context focused on three things: the boat journey, the Vietnam War, and the trauma associated with both of those big events.

As a second-generation Vietnamese-Australian, I wanted to dig deeper into the second-generation perspective because I wasn’t on the boat with my parents, nor did I live through the Vietnam War. I might experience the aftermath of both of those events. That’s the uniqueness in the perspective I wanted to bring. Literature is about playing with language and making an original contribution to knowledge. Focusing on that second-generation perspective is my way of contributing something new to Australian literature.

How long did it take to write Funny Ethnics? How long was the editing process?

Ten years of thinking time went into Funny Ethnics. 2022 was the final sprint of putting chapters together; putting a first draft manuscript together and having it go through the final editing process. The final sprint took a year.

What is your writing process? Did you have a routine for Funny Ethnics?

It took me a long time to come to a writing process. In the end when I had my routine, it was writing every day after my day job. I’d work full time and then in the evening, I’d put a couple hours aside to work on the book. That was the physical routine.

I would say getting there was a big personal journey for me to find the motivation and confidence to work on a book and say, my voice deserves to be heard and my story deserves to be on the bookshelf alongside other Australian writers—that was a huge journey. I had to really learn how to take care of myself as a person. That meant cutting out limiting things like imposter syndrome. It meant I really had to work on myself and figure out what in my life was a negative impact and what was a positive impact, things like social media. I had to really ask myself—What social media nourishes me? What kind of social media leaves me feeling absolutely empty and depleted? In my life I needed to curate everything in order to put forward a healthy version of myself to write this book.

For young writers out there, I’d encourage them to do the same. Writing a book is a physically and mentally gruelling task. I’d almost treat it like being an athlete. I had to think to myself, what can I do to nourish myself mentally, physically, and emotionally in order to run that marathon in order to write that book?

Who designed the cover? What does the ibis represent to you?

The cover is designed by George Saad, a brilliant artist. I believe he’s also from Western Sydney. The cover features the ibis, which I think is a really interesting kind of motif in Funny Ethnics. I’ve been interested in how ibises are viewed in urban environments. They’re viewed as a pest or a maligned creature even though humans are the ones who’ve pushed them out of their natural habitat to survive on our scraps and rubbish. I wanted to use that as a way to talk about a lot of things: migration, the Vietnamese diaspora having to leave due to the war, American influence in that war, and the displacement of the Vietnamese people all around the world. The ibis is an interesting way of symbolising that marginalisation and journey as well.

What was your initial reaction to the cover?

I thought George nailed it. It’s an ibis holding a bubble tea standing on a trash can. It’s a playful cover that stands out on the shelf. I think the cover draws on particular elements from Funny Ethnics. I couldn’t be happier; George is brilliant and I’m so thankful that he came up with this interpretation.

How involved were you in the design of the cover?

When it came to the book cover, I really respected the designer and illustrator’s role–it’s a collaborative artistic process, it’s not oh it’s my book and my vision. Writing a book is a project that involves other people and I really respect that. The process involved editors and an artist for the book cover. I enjoyed the collaborative process.

All of the descriptions feel deeply familiar to me, but they’re recast anew in Sylvia’s eyes with references to everyday things like Coles trollies, Supre leggings, and the Sydney Morning Herald. What was your inspiration for including these in writing this story?

Australian literature has so much to offer and we’re at a really exciting point in the industry where we’re seeing more and more diverse stories being told. I’ve met a lot of writers of colour who have come to Sweatshop and say, I don’t know if my life is interesting enough to write about. I felt that same way too.

When I was a university student I really struggled to realise, or to understand, whether I had anything interesting to say. That comes from a shame of not seeing yourself represented, and so you start to doubt whether you matter at all, whether your story deserves to be told at all. And so, in Funny Ethnics, I focus on the mundane everyday things in Western Sydney suburbia because I wanted to show that this is a world and this is a story worth telling.

In literature, when you play around with language, when you pick up on the complexities and nuances of the story, you can tell really interesting tales. That’s why I wanted to pick up on those mundane things. It’s been such a joy to hear readers from Western Sydney, Sydney, or even Greater Sydney saying that they recognise the locations, the places, and that it’s quite touching to see their home represented on the page like that.

What are your views on reviews and art criticism? Can critics be objective when engaging with a text?

I think reviews and art criticism is an extremely important part of enriching Australian culture and arts. I treat reviews as works of art in and of themselves. I really appreciate reviews of Funny Ethnics where the critic talks about their own personal story and how they have found Funny Ethnics to either relate or be very different from that. I don’t believe that reviewers can be completely quote-unquote objective. Everyone comes into review writing with their own personal experiences and their own personal context. I really admire reviewers who aren’t afraid to bring that perspective into their criticism work.

Have you read reviews about your novel? Has the way you read reviews shifted as a result of reading reviews about Funny Ethnics?

Yes, I have read some of the reviews of Funny Ethnics. One review that stood out to me, in particular, was in the Sydney Morning Herald by Sonia Nair. My parents have actually read my book. My dad, who is a first-generation Vietnamese-Australian, or let’s just say Vietnamese man, said he read it carefully. After he read my book, he read Sonia Nair’s review in the Sydney Morning Herald and he said that review helped him to understand the deeper themes that I was trying to talk about in Funny Ethnics.

And that just means the world to me. It made me see reviews as really, really valuable because I always thought about them in the way of art criticism generates important conversation within the arts industry but when my dad said that it made me realise that reviews are great facilitators for a conversation with the outside community as well.

My dad isn’t involved in the arts in any way but thanks to that review, he felt like he could understand the deeper messages I tried to convey in Funny Ethnics. Sonia’s review discusses the tensions and relationships between different marginalised communities in Australia. When my dad read that, he was like Oh I think I understand what you’re trying to do with all these different characters in Funny Ethnics and it was such a touching moment for me.

And so, I think I owe Sonia a drink! She’s really helped me have a deeper relationship with my own father. Thank you so much Sonia, shout out to you Sonia. 

Blitz Editor

Anandi Ganguly

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