Interview with Sharon Lam

In which the newest author of the Lawrence and Gibson stable, Sharon Lam, is interviewed by the editor of Lawrence and Gibson, Murdoch Stephens. Lonely Asian Woman will be released at play_station 1/233 Willis St, Te Aro, Wellington on March 16 at 18h00 or 6pm.

MURDOCH STEPHENS (Lawrence & Gibson editor): Hi Sharon, Lonely AsianWoman is your first book. Congratulations! How long has it been since you thought you'd write a novel and it coming out?

SHARON LAM: Once I read a tweet that said “In this life you can either want to have abs or want to publish a novel. The people who want to do both are the most powerful, but also the most tragically vulnerable.”

I have always been “most tragically vulnerable”. So in that vein, I guess my whole life. Getting abs is way harder than writing. But I feel like I am sort of on the way, like sometimes there’s a shadow on my torso that looks a bit ab-like.

MS: Words to live by.... for someone in their twenties, but those of us who are no longer younger and who don't have the stomach to chase after abs, is there any real choice? I guess what I am asking is: aren't you universalising the desire to write just a little much?

SL: Abs are ageless! I guess I imagined it like an apparition comes to you and says do you want abs or a book deal more than practicalities. I also guess you could see the abs and the book as metaphorical - book as wanting to put something into the world, and abs as wanting to nurture your own self. So even though not everyone wants to write I think a lot of people want to put something into the world at some point. Latteart, acoustic Macklemore covers, homemade cheese. 

MS: Looking at your bio, it looks like you've lived in a lot of places around the world. Can you tell us a little bit about the influence that kind of upbringing had on the themes of the book?

SL: Diaspora links a lot of the themes I guess - alienation, feeling a bit lost and dumb, wanting to belong. I’ve always sought comfort in art with these themes - stories about loners, losers and idiots. Not that these stories are exclusive to diasporic lifestyles, of course. But diasporic ones have their own flavour of displacement.

There’s also another theme that’s less obvious maybe - the snobbish fear of being tied down to just one place.

MS: So the title of Lonely Asian Woman reminds me of the sentiment of the Gang of Four song, 'At Home He's a Tourist'. Having moved around a lot do you think loneliness is bigger for you at home or abroad?

SL: To be honest I don’t know if I’ve ever felt “at home” anywhere for longer than the length of a meal. I mean I’ve always had a “home” e.g. an address my pen pal writes to (pen pal of thirteen years this year!), but never have I been like ah… yes I can live out the rest of my days here. So I definitely feel way lonelier when I’m at “home” than when I’m somewhere else, because I can be free of the expectation of having to feel at home.

MS: Penpal, damn! Awesome! Does this penpal know all about your forthcoming professionalisation of the written form?

SL: I swear I told her in my last letter, but she wrote back and didn't mention it at all so either I forgot or she doesn't give a shit.

MS: Paula's apartment is one of the main settings for the book. I saw that for your Masters in Architecture you did a project called "architecture for you me, and the bees" and I wondered if there was much crossover between the thinking for that work and the writing and setting of the book.

SL: One part of my architecture thesis was designing a “Queen Bee” apartment - a home for a single woman and some bees, reappropriating “lonely spinsters” into eco-guardians that share their home with bees in order to help restore dying insect populations. So for that I did think a lot about the domestic rituals of lone women which is very Lonely Asian Woman. But the thesis really focused on the agency of nonhuman things, and I read a lot of Donna Haraway and stuff on new materialism which was real interesting, and I guess if you’re being quite literal about things, a lot of the book Paula is preoccupied with the not quite human Paulab and the not quite human baby. I guess I’m not overly interested in people dealing with people. Maybe an ex summed it up best, when they said that I have an open disdain for most people, but incredible empathy for non human things.

MS: That's an interesting kind of reading of Haraway - for the spectral and the queen bee to be the representations of a new materialism rather than the old cyborg or an animal that is more of a companion. Anyhow... do you have a disdain for most people (in that classic leftish resentment) because they don't live up to your hopes of them, or is it something more complex?

SL: Humans have no parents and no rules except for not being allowed to live underwater because we can't breathe there, and yet each of us has to sell some part of ourselves forever and ever in order to stay warm and eat. And then we inflict pain, war, and violence onto humans and animals on top of that just because! So wild and so dumb. A garden eel or a house cat would never do that. People are annoying and I think it's because we're all deeply, subconsciously lonely from what we've done to the earth as a species, so we lash out in ways like pushing in line or trying to feel control and power via discrimination. It's "lonely at the top" and we're definitely the top at killing and separating ourselves from nature. 

MS: I have a really fond memory of the bathroom fan scenes in the book, especially of the interaction between Paula and Avinesh and maybe that was because it showed different family and class relations among Asian-New Zealanders. Tell me how that scene came to be, and - be honest - does it really derive from your own flatting woes in Wellington?

SL: The book is fiction with autobiographical themes, with some parts closer to auto biography than others. Avi is probably the closest, almost a complete rip-off of life. I can’t remember when it was, but I do remember it was one of those months where I had especially little going on and hadn’t spoken to anyone other than in retail situations. My fan broke and an irl Avi came to fix it, and it was genuinely the most exciting occasion. His impending arrival motivated me to clean up, so that he could actually walk to the bathroom, and then when he arrived he was so focused, had such purpose, and even the strength to carry a ladder. I was very moved.

MS: What do you think he'd think of the book/the scenes featuring him in the book? Or: do people of purpose (or abs) care for our literature?

SL: I think he would be like "haha, okay...weirdo...". I desperately hope people with abs read my book. 

MS: The book was written as part of the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) Creative Writing Masters programme in literature at Victoria University of Wellington. Not being rude or nothing, but what's so international about this IIML thing? Oh and how'd it fare?

SL: I have no idea why it’s called that. But IIML is a chic acronym, which is all that matters, right? I guess we had some overseas writers come to visit us. But then again almost every university department has that... I hadn’t been in a writing-teaching environment since Year 12 English so it was a totally new scene. Being someone who has no self-discipline whatsoever, I would’ve never been able to have written the manuscript without a structured external framework with deadlines, motivation of financial commitment, and other people to be accountable for. I was in the fiction stream headed by Emily Perkins, who was also my supervisor, and she was amazing. I read a lot of old timey books which is maybe why I would have three adverbs in every sentence and she really helped inform my writing and editing habits.

MS: It is a chic acronym and we're in Wellington where there are so many gauche acronyms in government. Ughhh. Anyhow, any comrades from the course you want to shout out to so they thank you at the back of their next book?

SL: It’s too hard to single out names! My class was real diverse in genre, voice, and tone which was cool. I read a lot of stuff I never would’ve otherwise, and it meant receiving holistic feedback. I think I was terrible the other way around though, I discovered I have very poor comprehension skills. Everyone would be talking about how some character in a reading had died and I would have not had registered that at all so my feedback probably made no sense.

MS: Hahhaha - that's hilarious. I know that feeling though, of missing key points because they're subtle and only realising later. Can you tell us what were some of the cultural touchstones that inspired the work?

SL: I’m not too sure what qualifies as a cultural touchstone, but there were some TV shows, movies and a few books that were definite inspirations. They also happened to be what I was watching and reading a lot of at the time of writing. TV shows - Search Party is so good at the entitled idiot genre, Flowers for portraying depression while being crack up, the YouTube movie Grandmother’s Gold by Brian Jordan Alvarez for perfecting the art of comedy through surreal exaggeration. Books - Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper as often I find I’m not really interested in the protagonist of a novel, but more the things they see but this book I wanted to know everything about the protagonist, Chemistry by Weike Wang for being so intellectually emo and Banana Yoshimoto for her ability to write the cosiest, warmest scenes without making you ever want to throw up.

MS: Victoria University Writer in Residence Lynda Chanwai-Earle read your short story 'Potluck' for a Radio New Zealand feature - how did you find that process of having another writer read your work aloud? Are you enthusiastic about reading your work aloud or do you prefer to let the words sit on the page?

SL: Funny story, RNZ actually asked me if I wanted to read my story out loud because they wanted a Asian woman reader and apparently there are no Asian women actors in all of Wellington! So I said oh no I cannot act at all but they were desperate so I went to try it out, and I was truly awful. Dialogue was the worst, because it’s like reading lines. I put on an awful “acting” voice and it sucked so bad. Thankfully Lynda, who was still with RNZ at the time, was able to do it. It was very cool and weird to hear it back on the radio. At the IIML we always had someone else read our work aloud, but in the same room with them and other people so you can hear their reactions, but none of that happens on the radio! But my favourite time hearing my work aloud was when a classmate at the IIML, Antz, was reading out a sentence (that made it into LAW) that mentions all these different voices - Barney, a geriatric Finnish man, and a drive thru speaker, and he did all of them to a T.

MS: You're going to need an answer to the question "So what's next?" when getting interviewed about the book. Any thoughts on how to answer that question?

SL: Working in architecture in Hong Kong doesn’t leave too much free time, sadly. But I really want to write and illustrate a children’s book, about a lost garden eel or an office under the sea or in a forest or something. The ultimate dream is to have a column again. Before LAW there was Single SadPostgrad in Salient, and while perhaps not all of my writing there has aged very well, it was the most fun I’ve had writing anything ever.