FWF Q&A: Monica Tan

Former Guardian journalist and Greens politician Monica Tan is the author of Stranger Country.

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism to me means being conscious that my womanhood is a frame through which I have both experienced the world, and been regarded by the world.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?

A feminist friend of mine recently reminded me that while in our early twenties I told her, somewhat haughtily, that I wasn’t interested in my female identity and women’s rights. I had said I was more interested in ‘human rights’. Back then I was sceptical of the writing sphere’s ‘pink space’ and in particular disinterested by its preoccupation with body issues and self-esteem problems.

I’m grateful this friend was patient with me and helped expand my understanding of the female experience, far beyond my own. Now I understand better how power, control and privilege plays out through gender. That said, I’m still learning. I’m better versed in race theory.

How did the idea for Stranger Country come about, and how much of an idea of the book’s narrative did you have before you set off on your journey?

At 30 I had travelled the world but barely seen Australia. I had complicated feelings towards my home country: I’m Chinese-Australian, and a city-slicker, hipster type; what did I have anything to do with salt-of-the-earth, Akubra-wearing Drover’s Wives and suntanned, beer-swilling, BBQ-manning larrikins? And how could I ever truly belong to a land that was the spiritual domain of Indigenous Australians for over 60,000 years? With these questions in mind, I chucked in my dream job as a journalist at The Guardian, threw a sleeping bag and tent in my Toyota RAV4, and hit the long, dusty road. It was always trip first, book second. I had no idea what kind of book I would write and it was always a secondary concern to the experience itself.

In the book, you fuse travel writing with history and sociology. What was the research like for this project, and did your work as a journalist inform it?

My work as a journalist gave me a beginners-level understanding of Australia, Indigenous Australia and colonialism; I wasn’t starting from scratch. The trip took that knowledge up several notches. The reading and research I did after the trip helped me place my experiences in a historical context and reveal myself as a mere line of an unfolding and fascinating national story.

You write about realising that, as a non-white, non-Indigenous person in Australia, you too are complicit in colonialism and Aboriginal erasure. What do you think is the role of non-Indigenous people of colour in the fight for Indigenous rights?

I think it would be unhelpful to define that role in a very concrete way. But suffice to say that being a Chinese-Australian means I find myself outside of the conventional whitefella v blackfella dynamic through which we typically regard Australian colonialism. My skin colour is confusing: I am neither oppressor, nor the oppressed, or am I both? For now, anyway, I think people find it novel and refreshing to view the Australian story from that perspective and perhaps some clarity is gained from a viewing not so heavily burdened with partisan feeling.

A solo trip like this is often seen as a white male adventure. What was your experience of traveling alone as a woman, and woman of colour, for this book?

I’ll use that word again, people found me ‘novel’. A Chinese-Australian woman in her thirties alone in the Outback? I was perpetually a strange and unexpected sight. But Australians are highly versatile people and beyond an arched eyebrow, they would give me a little extra hospitality and perhaps I was hit on more than your average grey nomad Outback wanderer. I found single women in their thirties a rare commodity in the Outback (the surplus of which live in the cities).

How did you get into politics, and what has the experience been of being a young woman of colour candidate?

I was never interested in politics, but I cared about environmental and social justice. I joined the Greens because they were working on issues I cared about: marriage equality, climate change and asylum seekers, and I wanted to make a difference to my community. As for running in the recent election, as a Chinese Australian women in her thirties, once again, I was just as strange a sight on the ballot as I was in the Outback!

Throughout my professional and political life I have had to endure many small humiliations, because I am a woman, because I am Chinese, because I am young-ish, because I am a progressive candidate in a conservative seat. I swallow them; grind my teeth; smile and carry on. Because on the other hand, I also had an upper-middle class upbringing and am well-educated. I am frequently given respect, great jobs, a platform from which to express myself and access to power. I am always reminding myself that I’m a person with more influence than your average Australian. For that I am constantly grateful and committed to using it for good.

Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?

I don’t think I could ever recommend a single writer to ‘everyone’, but in an effort to restore some of the female writers who have been somewhat marginalised by Australian history, I implore others to read the works of ecofeminist Val Plumwood and pioneering suffragette Louisa Lawson. I do what I can to ensure their impact on our world is not forgotten.

What piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self?

No advice. I’m too afraid of the butterfly effect to mess with time travel!

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