Working with Words: Nina Oyama

Nina Oyama is a comedian, actress and writer. She spoke with us about indecipherable teenage diaries, generating ideas late at night and magic potatoes.

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

Photograph of Nina Oyama

Laugh: A short story by Andy Griffiths about a kid who decides to prank people sitting next to him on flights. He sits next to an old lady who doesn’t react to his pranks, so he ends up pretending to vomit everywhere and rubs it into his hair and skin. It turns out she is blind and he’s been doing it for zero gain. It sounds gross, but I loved this stuff when I was young.

Cry: Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson, a kids' book about identical twin girls who do everything together, but one is brash and competitive, while the other is meek and intelligent. At the end they have a huge fight and the brash one chops off all her hair and refuses to speak to her twin. I remember bawling my eyes out at this loss of a relationship and love, it was so real to me. 

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

When I was about seven, I decided I wanted to write fantasy books for a living. I started writing something that I thought would be the next Harry Potter, called The Magic Potato. About three pages in I got bored, and didn’t write any original material until high school.

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

Have the confidence of a mediocre white man. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Own the space if you fiercely believe something is good.

I definitely mine my experiences for material. As a stand-up, I have so many jokes about working in retail. I’ve also worked as a carer, which inspired The Angus Project, an ABC-commissioned webseries I wrote about a guy with cerebral palsy who parties really hard.

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

I don’t know. Probably crying in a sewer somewhere.

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

The best advice is to just do heaps of writing and show people your writing. Read it out loud to people. Listen to criticism, and learn from it.

But also, have the confidence of a mediocre white man. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Own the space if you fiercely believe something is good.

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

In high school, I briefly kept one where I would write down all my crushes, but I would give them code names. I read it the other day and it was super juicy, but I had no idea who 16-year-old me was talking about because of all the pseudonyms … somehow this made it juicier.  

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

Underrated: My favourite young adult series is Uglies, Pretties and Specials by Scott Westerfeld. It’s about a future world where everyone gets surgery on their 16th birthday to become beautiful. It deals with body image, friendship, romance and politics. The protagonist rebels against the Orwellian government that rules her society, it’s so cool.

I like to write really late at night when it’s cold, dark and eerily quiet. Something about everything being so still makes my brain generate ideas, it’s like how I often talk to fill silence in conversations.

Underrated: A memoir by Catherine Gildiner called Too Close to The Falls. It’s about a young girl who grows up near Niagara Falls in the 1960s, delivering pharmaceutical medicines alongside her best friend Roy who is an African American ex-con. It’s amazing and it’s all true. It’s my favourite book of all time and I’ve yet to meet someone else who's read it. Also, I lent it out a few years ago to a housemate and they never gave it back. Chris, if you’re reading this, please return it.

Overrated: I absolutely loved studying Samuel Beckett, but holy moly I once sat through a live production at Sydney Theatre Company and I just did not have the attention span for it. It’s so long and drawn out and I know that’s the point, but I do not care for it.

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

I like to write really late at night when it’s cold, dark and eerily quiet. Something about everything being so still makes my brain generate ideas. It’s like how I often talk to fill silence in conversations – but instead it’s filling empty space with my thoughts.   

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

Yes! I feel like when I was younger I had heaps of internalised misogyny. I consumed so much content created by horrible dudes (comedy, books, radio) that my writing reflected their ideas. If I could go back in time I’d tell myself to stop hating women, and myself.

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

Cat Marnell – I used to idolise her when I was in my teens, she was a beauty editor toted as the 'Female Hunter S. Thompson' and 'Hot Bukowski'. I don’t romanticise the party lifestyle as much as I used to, but the idea of hanging out with her is super fun.

Portrait of Nina Oyama

Nina Oyama is a 25-year-old stand-up comedian and writer. She is the co-creator and star of ABC's The Angus Project. Based on the life of her friend Angus Thompson who has cerebral palsy, The Angus Project aims to subvert perceptions of what it means to a have a disability.

Nina’s comedy has been seen at various festivals across Australia, as well as televised appearances on SBS2's Stand Up @ Bella Union, Channel IV's About Tonight and In The Zone. As a writer, Nina has worked on Tonightly with Tom Ballard, You're Skitting Me season two (ABC3) and The Chaser's Election Desk.

Her debut play The Glass System won the Blair Milan Scholarship and toured Australia in 2017.

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