The Stella Interviews: Tracey Lien
Congratulations on being longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize! What does it mean to you to be included on the list?
It feels so rewarding to know that one of Australia’s most prestigious literary awards considered a novel about an often-overlooked community in Australia. Places like Cabramatta don’t usually fit people’s narrow ideas of Australia, but just because it’s not part of the narrative we export about ourselves doesn’t mean it’s not vital to the fabric of our nation. Stories set in the suburbs and in ethnic enclaves are just as Aussie as those set on the beaches and in the outback – it’s validating to see the Stella Prize support stories that explore all facets of Australian life.
What was the first thing you ever wrote?
I was an unremarkable writer as a child, and it was my career in journalism that gave me the opportunity to improve. Given that All That’s Left Unsaid is a novel I wrote because I felt strongly about its themes, I’ll talk about the first thing I ever wrote in which I felt intrinsically motivated to tell the story because I cared so much about the subject: a feature article early in my career about how video games came to be synonymous with boys. I was covering the video game industry as a reporter and was frustrated with the common refrain that video games were for boys and that women should stop complaining about sexism in games because it had never been intended for them. I thought, okay, let’s get to the bottom of this – if it’s true, who made the rules? And if it isn’t true…how on earth did we get here?
I’m not a journalist anymore, but the experience of being passionate about finding answers and telling a story I care about still guides me.
Your longlisted book, All That’s Left Unsaid, has been described as “a complex, harrowing look into the impacts on trauma on a community” (Vogue Australia). What would you say are some of the central ambitions or themes of your work?
There were a few things I hoped to accomplish with All That’s Left Unsaid:
1) I wanted to challenge the myth of the model minority. It’s a burden that so many Asian Australians and other ethnic minorities live with—this idea that we have to be perfect and well behaved and successful and grateful or, else, we don’t belong. Conditional belonging is not belonging.
2) I wanted to show that people in southwest Sydney are just like everyone else. While it’s tempting to think of Asian Australians or refugees or people from Cabramatta as a monolith, it’s important to recognise that we’re just like everyone else. We’re just as complicated and flawed and wonderful and generous and petty and stubborn. We’re just as capable of failure. And when you see us as complex as you – whoever you are – how can you justify treating us differently?
3) Finally, I really wanted my novel to entertain. I didn’t want All That’s Left Unsaid to feel like homework. If some of my themes don’t land for readers, I hope that they at least find the story compelling.
Can you tell us a bit about your artistic process? How do you write, where, when, and on what?
I write a bit every day, not because I’m dogmatic about it, but because novel writing intimidates me, and the only way I can approach it is through tiny bites. I use a laptop, I turn off the Wi-Fi, and I spend more time reading than actually writing.
Are there any particular books or authors that have inspired your practice?
There’s an interview that Pulitzer-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen gave in which he said that a lot of historically or politically concerned novels are “long on mood…but short on entertainment.” He then made the case that a novel could be filled with substance while also being entertaining. That stuck with me. Knowing that I was going to write a story with some heavy themes, I wanted to find a way to make it appealing to potential readers. I looked to authors of page-turners that I love: mystery and thriller writers like Jane Harper; authors of literary fiction whose books have a juicy mystery like Julia Phillips (Disappearing Earth) and Angie Kim (Miracle Creek); and authors whose stories have an active and engaging protagonist like Trent Dalton (Boy Swallows Universe) and Thrity Umrigar (The Secrets Between Us).
Find out more about Tracey Lien’s 2023 Stella Prize longlisted book, All That’s Left Unsaid.