Writing Yellow: On Identity and Representation in My Own Writing

The layout is like that of a beginner learner’s exercise book - it shows how the character is drawn with the stroke directions numbered and has an accompanying grid for learners to practice.

By Annie Kheo

Are POC writers responsible for representing our own cultures in our writing? It is a question that perhaps weighs on the minds of many of us.

My Chinese-Australian identity wasn’t something I thought much about when I was growing up. It was just something that was there – a part of me that didn’t need explaining or showcasing. Despite learning to take pride in my background since then, there is still a disconnect between me and my ethnicity.

As a second-generation immigrant child, being ‘Chinese-Australian’ often feels like existing in the space within that hyphen, where I can never truly relate to my Chinese or Australian identities – a cultural limbo where I’m not Chinese enough to call myself Chinese and not Australian enough to be Australian. Nevertheless, I never felt the need to write about any of these complexities. The ‘writer me’ was much like the ‘child me’, not considering my identity and how it might show in my writing.

Finding something I want to call my own

It wasn’t until the pandemic hit and I suddenly had time to binge-watch all the media I’d been stockpiling, that I began to rethink my place as an Asian-Australian writer. At the top of my watchlist was Chinese xianxia television drama, The Untamed (陈情令, Chén Qíng Lìng). It became the first Chinese drama I’d completely fallen in love with since I was a child. Despite its fantasy setting, its representation of Chinese cultural elements (i.e., music, religion, customs and costumes) was still at the forefront of the story. I was so invested in the world and its characters that I read a fan-translation of the novel it was adapted from – Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s (MXTX) Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (魔道祖师, Mó Dào Zǔ Shī). With it came my desire to learn more about the themes and worlds it portrayed, and in turn, about my Chinese heritage.

However, it was only when my grandpa passed away that I felt like that part of me was something I needed to give voice to. I desperately wanted to believe in the customs and practices that my parents held so dear to them. I started to ask my mum about the significance behind the days we prayed, why we’d make zongzi (粽子) and eat an influx of mooncakes once a year. I asked her to recite the stories she used to tell me when I was younger – stories of goddesses on the moon, and how the sun and stars came to be.

The more I learnt, the more I wanted to talk about it – to write about it. I began weaving Chinese mythology and folktales into my stories and code-switching from English to Teochew and Mandarin in my prose.

Despite my growing interest and the desire to write about my own cultural identity, there is still an indescribable fear that I may be misrepresenting my Chinese heritage. I want to be able to speak on these topics accurately but be it my waning Mandarin skills or that feeling of being in-between two cultural worlds, I feel as though I’m not in a position where I can give voice to anyone but myself.

On pressure and responsibility

In a society where representation in media is so heavily fraught with discourse on who can portray what, being a POC writer seems to carry an expectation to represent our culture. Elizabeth Tan describes it as, ‘an invisible pressure to do well, to be seen as good and cooperative, carving out a small corner of acceptance at the expense of other ethnic minorities and First Nations people’.

Nonetheless, that pressure shouldn’t be the reason POC authors write about their race and identity. A writer should never feel forced into writing about their culture, but rather something they should do only if they want to.

Though representation in media is incredibly important, Singaporean-Australian poet Eileen Chong believes, ‘the emotional labour of having to speak for a group bigger than yourself should not be anyone’s by default’.

It doesn’t need to be my responsibility, or any writer’s responsibility, to have to carry that alone or at all. Despite my own fears of misrepresenting my background, I don’t think a writer owes it to anyone but themselves to write what feels true to them. To create the work that they want to create – whether that means to write about their identity or not.

Speaking of her experience on this, Chinese-Malaysian-Australian author Jessica Zhan Mei Yu says, ‘it’s just something that has felt right to me at different points in my career, it was something I was genuinely interested in exploring … it is my area of expertise as well as my experience … I don’t think it’s something that every POC needs to do or at all ever feel pressured or compelled to do, but certainly felt right to me’. Much like Yu, writing culture, for me felt right at different stages of my life. Yu ends by encapsulating a feeling that I could never put words to when I did choose to incorporate my culture, describing how it ‘can be a really cathartic thing to be able to write about your experience in that particular area of your life’.

(Wô), I, Me: a Chinese-Australian writer

Certainly, for me, the desire to write about or be influenced by my culture grows as I learn more about it. If not overtly, it still presents itself subtly. My identity permeates my writing whether I’m conscious of it or not. The way I perceive the world is ingrained in the way I write – the way my characters act or react, their movements and descriptions.

Though it is an ever-changing process, I’ve learned to reconcile that it’s enough for me to want to share my own experiences as a Chinese-Australian – in whatever form that may take. And to hope that my experiences can connect to other people who share a similar background. So, when I say, ‘writing yellow’, I don’t necessarily mean to write the colour of my skin into the page, but rather, to write my culture in a way that is meaningful to me.

Annie Kheo is a Chinese-Australian hobbyist writer, poet and graphic designer/illustrator based in Naarm. Her areas of interest are magical realism, fantasy, romance and exploring the intersections of culture, identity and fandom. She is currently a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing student at the University of Melbourne.

Banner image: Features the Chinese character/Hanzi for ‘Wǒ’, meaning ‘I’ and ‘Me’. The layout is like that of a beginner learner’s exercise book – it shows how the character is drawn with the stroke directions numbered and has an accompanying grid for learners to practice. Original image by Annie Kheo.

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