Working with Words: Cher Tan

We spoke with essayist, editor and critic Cher Tan about taste, online writing communities and the chaos magick of knowledge.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of Cher Tan

Photo: Su Cassiano

I’ve never cried reading anything maybe because I’m a cold, repressed bitch, but I think the first piece of writing (that I remember, from the age of ten) which made me laugh was Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. It filled me with so much joy, a joy I have continued to chase in my reading trajectory ever since.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

For sure! In my childhood I wrote a bunch of borderline surrealist short stories involving my stuffed toys. Polar Bear was a luckless conman who harboured madcap aspirations that never came to fruition, while Rabbit was an agoraphobic nurse who often had to be forced to leave the house (into a place called 'The Nonsense') to harvest extra fruit for Polar Bear, and they had to learn how to co-exist even though they deeply disliked each other. Looking back now, I think it was about my parents.

It was during my adolescence that I discovered the emotional and intellectual rewards of writing amongst others. Via the (then still newish) internet, I wrote Sailor Moon fan fiction, had extensive debates with strangers on political and music forums, and kept an embarassingly emo LiveJournal – so emo that my handle was 'herslashme'. 

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

It’s a bit of a laundry list (I wrote a scrappy zine chronicling some of it), but a brief summary would include: commis chef, life model, venue usher, domestic cleaner, waiter, retail assistant, data entry clerk, bartender and kitchen hand.

[My jobs] have definitely grounded me in an understanding that writing is not the be-all-and-end-all for me; it’s my passion and life’s work but it’s also never something I want to revolve my identity around.

I’m not sure if these jobs have influenced my writing per se, but they have definitely grounded me in an understanding that writing is not the be-all-and-end-all for me; it’s my passion and life’s work but it’s also never something I want to revolve my identity around. It goes without saying that writing is an extremely classed space. Being able to develop a perspective outside of that helps me to see beyond the common private-school-to-PhD pipeline, which can so easily suck you in with its false elevation and delusions of grandeur.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best: 1) Separate the business from the craft; and 2) Seek to be edited, not published. Making any kind of art within capitalism can present vexing impasses, which often privilege quantity, arbitrary yardsticks around 'marketability' and outcome more than the actual process itself. It’s important to feel like you’re being compensated for your labour towards the boring business of survival, but it’s equally important to ask if it’s worth churning out a piece of writing (for the express purpose of publishing) that you don’t feel a strong sense of conviction towards – i.e. can you actually live with it?

The worst: 1) Show, not tell (what the fuck does this even mean? Luckily for us, Tom Cho recently tweeted an excellent thread articulating its flaws); and 2) Write every day.

In the words of my friend Sonia Nair, who has noted in this same interview series, the latter is 'steeped in privilege'. Fellow writer and interviewee Shastra Deo has opined similarly, about 'input time' often exceeding 'output time' by a large margin. Generally, I find myself being able to write after a period spent simply living or doing nothing, more than if I were to deliberately make myself sit in front of my computer or notebook with the intention of 'producing work'. Maybe someone else will say that I don’t take writing that seriously, but as Jen Fain, Renata Adler’s narrator in Speedboat, deadpans: 'That "writers write" is meant to be self-evident. People like to say it. I find it is hardly ever true. Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all.' Trust your subconscious!  

Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

I don’t think it’s useful thinking of art and cultural products inside a binary of 'overrated' versus 'underrated'. It’s more useful, I think, to view the capital-C Canon, prizes and what gets to form popular conceptions of 'taste' with relative distrust. When I enjoy something, I like to ask myself: why? Is it projection, misplaced desire, not wanting to capitulate to FOMO, or that it caught me at the right time?

And perhaps certain things are considered 'underrated' if you think about it through a scarcity lens, but I would urge people to read Oreo by Fran Ross or Ambient Parking Lot by Pamela Lu, watch Shoplifters (2018) or Close-Up (1990).

When I enjoy something, I like to ask myself: why? Is it projection, misplaced desire, not wanting to capitulate to FOMO, or that it caught me at the right time?

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

Is this considered a superstition? I often joke about the 'chaos magick of knowledge', in that your subconscious will take you to where you need to be both in reading and writing. Kind of like unlocking a side quest that will eventually take you to the main quest in a video game.

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

No, I regret nothing. Sometimes on the sentence level, but not the content. It’s all part of the work. It’s pretty amazing to see how one piece of writing leads to another. They may not necessarily be connected in a direct sense, but there is always some kind of common thread; a map of one’s thinking, if you will.  

Which artist, writer or character would you most like to have dinner with?

Selin from Elif Batuman’s The Idiot or Edie from Raven Leilani’s Luster. I just feel like we’d be friends, in the sense of friendship being curious, open and non-transactional, cerebral and silly at once. We’d talk heaps of shit but then also be quite severe and serious. But then again, maybe we’d be too awkward and nothing would happen.

Portrait of Cher Tan

Cher Tan is an essayist, editor and critic. Her work has appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, The Saturday Paper, Overland, Runway Journal and elsewhere. She is the reviews editor at Meanjin, an editor at LIMINAL and a commissioning editor at the Feminist Writers Festival.

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