Welcome to Why Write, a super short podcast that asks writers just that, why they write. Hi, I’m Noè Harsel, a writer and Chair of Writers Victoria, and you know, I’m excited to chat to a diverse group of writers and simply ask, why write? I’m glad you’re here with me.
Today we have Melanie Cheng. Melanie is a writer based in Melbourne. Her debut short story collection, Australia Day, won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript and the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction. Her debut novel, Room for a Stranger was shortlisted for the 2020 New South Wales Premier Literary Awards, and Long Listed for the 2020 Miles Franklin Award. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, The Weekend Australian, Meanjin, the Griffith Review, Overland, and SBS online, among others. In 2021, she was a health columnist for The Saturday Paper.
Welcome to Why Write, Melanie, I’m pretty excited that you’re here and that we’re doing this chat, because I’m a big fan, as you know. So let’s get right to the big question, the reason why we are here, tell us Melanie, why do you write?
Well, what a big question and a question that I think all writers do get asked a few times across the course of their careers. And what I’ve noticed is my answer has changed, I think over time. I know early on, when I was asked this question, I said it was to make sense of some of the more confronting things that I had seen, particularly in my practice as a doctor, and as a junior doctor. And I think many of the stories in my collection Australia Day, probably had their origins there. And that’s certainly true. I was writing to find meaning, in many of the consultations I had with patients, I would reflect on them, and you know, there might be just a kind of seed of dissatisfaction about the interaction, and it really, writing was really a great way to explore that, interrogate that. And, in a way, it was therapy for me, which is not always the best reason to write about when therapeutic writing is not the best type of writing to consume. But I think that early on, that was where the kind of impulse came from, certainly. And then as I became a published writer, I think maybe the motivations did change with time.
I’ve more recently written for The Saturday Paper, about, you know, in the nonfiction space, and the reasons for writing on those occasion was maybe to, to draw attention to particular issues that I felt passionate about. But lately, I’ve been thinking, after you invited me to do this, on the real reason, maybe at the very core, the big picture reason, as to why write? And I actually think that it’s, it’s something that’s quite innate to writers. And, you know, I don’t come from a writing background, I don’t, didn’t always have a lot of acquaintances or friends in creative industries. And I think sometimes, when you’re in the industry, you feel like, well, everyone surely wants to write a book. Because a lot of the people you surround yourself with do, but it’s not actually a compulsion for the majority! You know, I have lots of friends and family who have who love reading, love consuming books, but have no desire whatsoever to, to put their life story on paper, or to explore a fictional world. And I think as as a writer, you find that quite bizarre. But the alternative is that they find us a bit strange, and that we would want to do that and spend so much time doing that. And when I think back on my, you know, early years as a child, you know, it was always there.
You know, I was, and I’ve seen this having now met many writers, I’ve seen that, that kind of compulsion was there from a very early age. And I think, yeah, that’s what sets us apart. And maybe there’s maybe it’s something bit more primal, maybe we’re trying to put a reason on it, when actually, it’s this this urge. The closest I’ve ever come to maybe, that the very origin of it all is, is Saul Bellows quote, which is that, you know, ‘a writer is a reader move to emulation.’ And I, I think, perhaps, for me, you know, the joy that I derive from books, you know, motivated me to want to do that.
And I also have a very distinct memory, and I think it was really pivotal. It happened a long time ago, like I was a teenager, and I had a best friend at the time, who was very nosy. I loved her, but she was a very nosy friend, so she was staying over, we were early teens. And of course I was, I’d been writing outside of school and had drawers filled of, you know, stories. And while I was having a shower, I think she went through my desk and found all these stories and read it. And when I came back, she was there having read it, and she was so invested in this story, and she actually said, ‘Oh, that character, she’s such a bitch.’ And she was completely, you know, enraged and angry at this character and rather than me be enraged at her for having nosied around in my private drawers, I was, I was really moved. And I thought, ‘wow,’ I thought, through my words, I elicited that response in her. And that was really powerful to me, I thought, wow, that that’s really an addictive feeling like something I wrote, move someone in that way. And yeah, I just thought, I think I mean, even though, between that moment, and my first published books, many decades passed between the two, when I look back, I think that was the moment that I got addicted to that kind of, wanting to move people in that way.
I think that’s an amazing thing to have (A), experienced, remembered, then carry through is that how important writing can be to transform people, to educate people and to let people know about things. And I am curious about this — I mean, you are as I am, biracial, and that has very unique points of view and way of seeing ways of seeing the world. And so I’m just curious about how do you hold, or do you hold, this identity in your writing, and how does it articulate itself for you?
So you know, I’d love to say as well, and my reason for writing that, you know, that I wanted to write representative characters. And, and certainly, you know, that’s kind of emerged from the kind of stories I wrote. But I must say that that was not a kind of conscious decision on my part, when I started out, writing. So the stories in Australia Day, for instance, I wrote as often standalone stories for submission to journals, or competitions or other things. And, you know, I populated those stories, a lot of the time with people from my world. And in my world, people are diverse and come from, you know, a range of backgrounds. And to me, that was just the Australia, that was the Melbourne, that I experienced. It was really only once I kind of put the stories together, that, and looked around at what stories already existed, that I realised that perhaps what I was doing was a little bit different from what had been done before. Not that it hadn’t been done before, but that it wasn’t so common. And, and so it kind of emerged through that process, and then it and then with time, inevitably, it became a more kind of conscious thing, but certainly, originally it was just that I wanted my stories to reflect the world I lived in. And then later on I realised, oh hang, on the bookshelves in our bookstores are not necessarily doing that. And that that, that was something new. So it was more accidental.
There we are and it’s great that we have you reflecting the world that we see, and the world that we see around us, and may there be more of that to be. Thank you so much for sharing with us. Why you write, Melanie. This is great, I could spend so much more time, there’s so much more to say, but thank you so much.
My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Thanks for listening. We would love to hear why you write. Tell me at whywrite.com.au Why Write is a Writers Victoria podcast. All programs and information about becoming a member with us at Writers Victoria is available at writersvictoria.org.au We hope you enjoyed Why Write and if you did, please tell your friends and don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on Apple iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Why Write was recorded at Brand Music and engineered by Michael Burrows.
Original Music by Michael Burrows.