Working with Words: Leah Jing McIntosh

We spoke with writer and Liminal magazine founding editor Leah Jing McIntosh about Cathy Park Hong, literary prizes and the limitations of critical opinion.

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

Photograph of writer Leah Jing McIntosh

Photo: Elliot Roberts

I laugh aloud when I’m reading quite a bit – I get immersed. But I rarely cry. For a long time, the only book I had cried reading was Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I held it together, until the part where Sethe is told, ‘You your own best thing’. 

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

I did. When I was a teen, my emotions were stretched so thin. I was just one big wobbly feeling. My writing was no different. I thought of that kind of writing as ‘something to get out of the way’. That I would grow past sharp feelings. But I think, maybe, after doing more writing work, that everyone has their own tendencies to be too tender. We just need to sometimes keep them in check. I feel like I mostly fail. But that’s why we need good editors. 

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

I have worked, and still sometimes work, as a portrait photographer.  There’s something very satisfying about making a good portrait with someone, in collaboration. And then, the process of selection: what is in the shot, but also, what is left out?  – which I think has translated very much to the way I write. I am always paring back. 

When I’m photographing someone – placing them in the right light, waiting for the right expression – I know viscerally when I have the shot. Everything lines up; makes sense. Sometimes it can be within the first few moments of a shoot, sometimes it can take an hour or two until we get there. The same happens with writing, I think. For me, writing is moving words and thoughts around until they fit together. 

Let’s look at these terms – overrated; underrated. I’m interested in public opinion, because it doesn’t just appear. Public opinion is guided by cultures of production. Who decides what is published?

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

This is funny to me because I feel like I’m always doing other things instead. At the moment, I’m editing LIMINAL magazine, publishing interviews and art. I’m also completing my PhD in Cultural Studies. Though maybe that doesn’t answer the question. I think mostly I wish I were a painter, or a florist – doing a job that works in colour. 

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

Writers are often told 'show, don't tell', but Cathy Park Hong outlines some interesting criticisms of this idea in her essay collection, Minor Feelings. Her analysis is that simply to ‘show’ creates an evacuated interiority, which ‘allows the reader to step into the character’s pain without having to, as Susan Sontag writes, locate their own privilege “on the same map” as the character’s suffering’. I’m interested in the relationship forged between writer and reader, and how we locate ourselves in relation to the books we read – how they can change us. Minor Feelings itself is a kind of extended advice. In many ways it feels monumental, in that way that I know it will shift me – or already has.  

I have never studied writing, not formally, so I’ve avoided most advice, good and bad. I love Alexander Chee’s '100 Things About Writing A Novel', in How To Write an Autobiographical Novel. His 26th thing has a nice image: ‘the first draft as a chrysalis of guesses’. I am always rewriting. Some advice from an old professor, which I have pinned above my desk at the moment: ‘You can’t edit what you don’t write’.  

For me, writing is moving words and thoughts around until they fit together.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now? 

Yes. I have a stack of diaries in a box somewhere. Each book is a black moleskine (grid). I find comfort in consistency. Occasionally, I try a different notebook, to see if anything has changed, but I always end up ripping out the pages for scrap paper. Sometimes, writing in my diary is the only practice I can maintain. An impulse to rearrange, or maybe to exhale, or to understand, I think. This year has been a bit viscous, though. There are long gaps between. The texture of time shifted, and I think my ability to respond to the everyday became a bit dulled. In time becoming strange, I don’t know if lost pages are really a loss. Though maybe I’ll be mad at myself later. 

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

Let’s look at these terms – overrated, underrated. I’m interested in public opinion, because it doesn’t just appear; public opinion is guided by cultures of production. Who decides what is published? Who sets a standard for ‘literature’? Who is published, and by whom? Who writes the reviews? Who commissions the reviewer to review? Who publishes the reviews? Who puts these books on curriculums; canonises these books? Each decision is important. 

I think this is made clear if you look at who wins our literary prizes. The Miles Franklin was formed before the White Australia Act was dissolved; what kind of legacy does this history hold? When I ran the LIMINAL Prize last year, it was a small intervention to both point out structuralised racism within the Australian literary industry, and to shift it, if only just a little bit. 

As I write in my introduction to Collisions: critique is love, but so is action. I think we all need to make clear that such ‘rating’ systems are flawed. That we must, together, find a way to uplift these books, these writers, these people, because structures systematically fail writers of colour and Indigenous writers.

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

I just want to have dinner with all my pals. I’d like to be in proximity with at least one hundred friends. Though if one of those friends were a book character, I wouldn’t be mad.

Portrait of Leah Jing McIntosh

Leah Jing McIntosh is a writer and photographer. In 2016, she founded Liminal magazine, a space for the exploration of the Asian-Australian experience. In 2019, she is launching the Liminal Fiction Prize for Australian Writers of Colour.

Her essays and fiction have appeared in the Saturday Paper, the Lifted Brow, Swampland, and Archer. Recently, she was awarded a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship, and has completed the FCAC Emerging Cultural Leaders program. She is a 2019 Victorian Nominee for Young Australian of the Year. 

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