Melanie Cheng is a Melbourne-based writer and practising GP. ‘Muse’, published in Griffith Review 54: Earthly Delights, is part of a collection of short fiction, Australia Day, which was awarded the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. In this interview, Cheng explains how her novella fits within the Australia Day manuscript and discusses the central of role of empathy in her work as both a doctor and a writer.
‘Muse’, published in Griffith Review 54: Earthly Delights, is part of a collection of shorter works of fiction, Australia Day. Will you tell me more about Australia Day? How does this novella, ‘Muse’, sit within the manuscript?
Australia Day is a collection of short fiction exploring contemporary Australian society. Like any writer I have certain preoccupations and these have manifested in the themes of the book. In addition to multiculturalism and identity, one of the strong themes in the collection is ageing. The media and our politicians portray the elderly as a nameless, faceless burden, but in reality they are our parents and grandparents and the rest of us in twenty, thirty, forty years. In ‘Muse’ I wanted to create an elderly protagonist who was empathetic and relatable. Evan is a widower who has a past but also a future. He is someone with great life experience but who is still susceptible to the passions and insecurities of a teenager. It may be terribly naive and idealistic of me, but I believe that the more people can relate to the experience of the aged, the better they will treat them.
Most of your writing has been published in the last three years, with quite a flurry of activity in the last two. Why this seemingly sudden rush of creativity?
The last few years, and this year in particular, have been wonderful for me in terms of publication and recognition. But this does not reflect a sudden rush of creativity on my part. I have been writing consistently for about ten years. The Australia Day manuscript is the culmination of a very long, hard and painful slog. There have been moments of validation along the way but many more moments of self-doubt. ‘Muse’ is one of my earliest works. In 2009 it was highly commended in the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards. It took seven years of tinkering and submitting it to prizes to finally get it published. A little bit of my soul is in that story.
You’ve worked extensively as a medical professional. How do you think your experience as a GP influences your writing?
I can’t overstate the influence my work has had on my writing. There is one very important skill that is common to both writing and general practice, and that is empathy. Being a doctor is a privilege and while it goes without saying that I would never write about specific patients, the insights I gather from talking to people from all walks of life allow me to write confidently about fictional characters and situations outside my lived experience.
In ‘By Any Other Name’, your personal essay in LEAP +, you discuss your experience as a ‘half-Aussie, half-Asian’ writer in Australia. You said that you generally ‘affiliate with whatever part…is in the minority’ in whichever place you are, be that Australia or Hong Kong. Why is that? How does this experience inform your work?
I don’t think I am unique in this respect. I think human beings are driven by an innate desire to fit in. As the mother of small children, I am constantly reminded of this! It is this desire to belong that makes us acutely aware of the very things – no matter how minor – that make us different. This is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to writing. It means that I can take an outsider’s perspective on both Australian and Hong Kong society. Such distance is helpful in helping me identify contradictions and idiosyncrasies. It allows me to be more objective and precise in my writing.
As in ‘Muse’, family is a major theme throughout your fiction as well as your non-fiction, sometimes with direct reference to your own family, such as in ‘The Lucky Country’ (Meanjin) and ‘Pure Lotus’ (Peril Magazine). What is your literary interest in the concept of family?
Families take many different forms, especially in modern day Australia, but everybody has one. Even a refugee who arrives in Australia, alone, is shaped by the family they left behind. Sometimes it is the absence of family, even more than the presence of family, which influences people’s thoughts and behaviours. In ‘Muse’, for instance, Evan’s late wife, Lola, is a significant presence in the story. It is this universality of experience that appeals to me as a writer. More than anything a writer wants readers to connect with what they are writing. Everybody knows the intensity of emotion – whether it be love or rage or both! – that you can feel towards a family member.
A couple of years ago, your short story ‘Ticket-holder number 5’ was published in Griffith Review 45: The Way We Work, and to me that piece contains a lot of fear – fear for personal safety, fear of being taken advantage of, and fear of losing tightly held control. Was this your intention? How does the concept of fear operate elsewhere in your life and writing?
I think most of us have been treated appallingly by someone in the service industry. In my work as a GP I have to deal with government agencies like Centrelink quite regularly. ‘Ticket-holder Number 5’ arose out of my frustration at the seeming lack of empathy exhibited by some of the people working in these organisations. I wanted to explore the factors driving this phenomenon. Was it the employee’s negative experience with previous clients, or was it simply a defence mechanism against emotional burnout? In ‘Ticket-holder Number 5’ it is both of these things. The protagonist dehumanises her clients in order to do the brutal, dispassionate tasks her work demands of her. In her mind it is a matter of survival and, of course, fear plays a big part in that.