1. Something familiar: convincing ourselves we are not ‘something’ enough. As writers, before or after we put something to a page we are likely to question whether or not we’re close enough to the subject in order to fully capture it. In writing class, the most common question the class asks our lecturer is: can we write a place we’ve never been to, but know about, or a place we’ve spent minimal time in? Or, can we write a person we don’t fully live inside the shoes of but can empathise with? Every writing lecturer says something different, but most agree that as long as there is a purpose for situating your story inside these differing frames – it could work.
2. When I wrote ‘Panther’, which was the first fragment in what would become my debut novel, I was writing to a timed prompt in Advanced Fiction Writing, Semester 2. In these automatic sessions, we didn’t have the time to Street View a place, we didn’t have time to research the trees that would line it, what cars were most likely parked on these streets. The prompt we were given was something broad, I think, something like ‘write a home’. And of course, one of the first things we think about when we think about a home is what’s outside of it. What does the landscape look like if you’re standing at the window? The place I had described in my less-than-100-word response was a timber flat in an inner-city building. A busy Chinese home in a busy, non-Chinese surrounding. I had been chosen to read that week because I hadn’t put my hand up for any of the other weeks and it was nearly the end of semester. The general feedback was given. A classmate of mine had said; you can really smell it.
3. If we were to take the stance of writing from the inside-out, it could work. On Google, when we Street View or Google Earth, we can only see the outsides of homes. Sometimes now the technicalities are altered and we can look into public stores, restaurants or bars but it still looks flat and unrealistic. When I wrote the first 500 words of the book, I had not even thought about the outside of the apartment. What I knew: it was upstairs, it was overlooking a street with bins and occasional people slipping in and through corresponding streets, there was no backyard. I knew this because it was the first thing I had noticed about my character, she felt squished.
4. Elements of the inside stretch onto the streets, onto the grey pavement. In the book, it doesn’t extend beyond what is considered Chinatown for a while – my characters are staying in the house and right outside of it. And this says something about them, and it says something about the city they’re in. 5. I’ve been to five different Chinatowns in five different cities. I have seen plenty in movies. There is something familiar for me in all of them.
6. In interviews I’ve talked about ‘designated spaces’ for culture and ethnicity to exist in. When you are the best version of your identity, you are probably in a comfortable space to do so. As a child I performed my culture in the spaces that Western society would feel comfortable with me doing so. I remember this Chinese restaurant we stopped at in Coober Pedy, a comment my mother had made about the black bean sauce looking like the giant flies bumping the windows. I remember the hot pot place in San Francisco we spent CNY in last year. Firecrackers going off in the gutters, hobby shops, ladders hanging from the tight buildings (this is what I imagine in ‘Pink Mountain on Locust Island’). I remember the empty streets of the Los Angeles Chinatown, the import stores. The fruit shops in Sai Ying Pun, the Mandarin Centre and the Korean buffet upstairs in Chatswood, the statues of fruits with faces in Box Hill.
7. This is how I wrote the city in my book, and even more so, this is how I wrote the character in my book. The way that she consumed the place around her was the way she felt comfortable or uncomfortable within it. The way that she walked a street was the way the street instructed her to walk with its people and with its architecture and with its colonial buildings.
8. When we are given so much to look at (whether it be the way buildings fuse with time and reconstruction, deconstruction or whether it be with the historical and emotional information we absorb; the articles, the movies, the genres we consume) – it’s hard to reduce a place and time to one moment of it. We are made up of different memories, different digital memories, different consumed/ second-hand memories. When we’re writers, we’re writers of this time with the resources made available to us. No place belongs to us, but what we take and what is stained in our memory of it, belongs to us.
9. We have this feeling of connecting to foreign places through familiar sound, moments, objects, colours, language, smell. For me, it was the way my grandparents, our family and the people surrounding me growing up, had all moved across borders and oceans to be in one place – then, not be in one place. I think I have adopted the same method of extracting elements of nostalgia I find in new places and adapting myself there through them. I wrote the book like this. I was not picturing ‘home’, I was picturing things which triggered ‘home’ in me. This is the way a lot of us will live, this is the way a lot of new writers will write, the way Jamie Marina Lau. Photo: Jesse Mercieca. 16 T V W voices that should be heard should be listened to. Alexis Wright said it well when she said in her essay, ‘Is Travel Writing Dead?’: While my library contains the works of travel writers, I have mostly searched for those who speak about their own place in the world. But the world is changing and many people have no place to call home. Some of the most important kinds of travel writing now are stories of flight, written by people who belong to the millions of asylum seekers in the world.
10. Many places have restricted us from calling it home, many people have restricted others from connecting to a home. As writers, what is becoming more interesting than knowing a place is how our relationship to a place is cut through and morphed by others.
11. The way we read place is to read how the place may influence its character, its author. For ‘Pink Mountain on Locust Island’, the ‘unnamed Western city’ became a character made up in the head of a fifteen-year-old who didn’t know how to see herself in it, or comprehend it. We write as travellers and visitors, commentators, exposers of the places we’ve been to and lived inside of. You write from inside of the apartment until you discover you’re writing the outsides too.
About Jamie Marina Lau
Jamie Marina Lau is a writer and artist. Her debut novel, ‘Pink Mountain on Locust Island’ was published by Brow Books in April 2018 and shortlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize. She is currently working on her next novel, more writing, and producing music.