By Michele LeeDrama Malthouse Theatre
Natalie Yang's career is going up. Or, so she thought. Her semi-autobiographical sex-positive debut novel, Banana Girl, has finally hit the shelves, but it's not quite the best-seller she hoped it would be. The career success of her rival, Lu Lu Jayadi, an award-winning author of clichéd migrant stories, sends Natalie’s confidence spiralling out of control.
Natalie is only one bender away from cracking her next big idea, but it may take a shame spiral in a luxury shopping centre to get there. Her career come-down is about to get very real.
Leticia Cáceres directs this side-splitting comedy on the contradictions of Melburnian multiculturalism, from the fast-paced mind of Hmong-Aussie playwright Michele Lee.
On the surface, Michele Lee’s Going Down is a brilliant excoriation of Australian literary culture, and it can be enjoyed just for its wickedly funny satire. Lee’s observations of hipster Melbourne are written with a scalpel accuracy that allows her to push through the stereotypes she’s satirising to create genuine complexity, both in the ideas she pursues and the characters she creates.
However, this portrait of a young Asian-Australian novelist disastrously negotiating the pitfalls and paradoxes of being an ‘ethnic’ writer in Australian literary culture has a resonant subtext that rises through the laughs. Going Down is a moving and intelligent work about self-discovery that follows its protagonist through a major crisis towards a new sense of her identity. It’s a formally adventurous play, unafraid of fluid shifts in form, and the supple certainty of its characterisations – from swift thumbnail portraits to the more rounded portraits of its major characters – is very impressive. What shines through this play is the skill with which Lee balances her varying elements to create an inexorable emotional journey for the reader and audience member. It shows the deepening of a talent that will continue to wow us into the future.
We’re in country Victoria, in Nagambie.
NATALIE is here. She has a sharp black bob and she is wearing her best Gorman. She is textbook Melbourne. She’s amped up. She’s ready. She clutches her memoir, Banana Girl.
NATALIE: I’m in Nagambie. It’s Thursday morning and I’m two hours north of Melbourne. Nagambie is a classic Aussie country town. One hardware shop. One bakery with award-winning vanilla slice, if the sandwich board is anything to go by. An IGA. A Chinese restaurant – bamboo font.
Nine months ago I had my book published, Banana Girl. It’s a memoir. The cover: a black ‘n’ white image of a slim, topless Asian woman her arms crossed over her boobs, her jeans slung low and the button undone. The back cover: Banana Girl is the explosive and poignant memoir of Natalie Yang’s rites of passage. Sexy, irreverent and nuanced, Yang isn’t afraid to lay herself and her relationships bare. Intimacy in an online world, sexual adventures and Gen Y yearnings as an Asian-Australian woman in inner city Melbourne.
The publicity blitz was short but intense: community radio, podcasts, a double spread in street press, and I did socsh – you know, Facey, Insta, Tweetsta. I hosted Celebrity Heads for the Greens fundraiser; the Darebin branch. And there was the actual launch itself, at Brunswick Bound bookstore. Held on a Monday night – quiet night for a launch, sure, but good for all the book nerds. And Brunswick Bound did a corner display next to the Moleskines stand.
Then the reviews came. Some average – can’t please ‘em all! The rest pretty fucking great. In niche publications but still pretty damn glowing. First few hundred copies of Banana Girl flew off the shelf. 500 copies sold. 750. I was number 8 out of 10 on Best Summer Reads in the Moreland Leader. Then 1000 copies sold. Fifteen hundred. One thousand eight hundred and thirty seven!
Not too bad for a first book. Then silence – the natural lull... Except it went for months.
But now this. A book talk. In Nagambie, yes, but a book talk.
Actual people. Real readers. Real people outside the pretentious Melbourne soy-chai-Aesop-lentil bubble I spend way too much time in.
Here in Nagambie, next to the Chinese restaurant, is the public library. And there’s me. Well, a flyer about my book talk. Kevin from the library knocked it up himself: ‘Natalie Yang, author of Banana Girl, new Asian Australian memoir, 11am’.
KEVIN is there. They walk.
NATALIE: How do I look?
NATALIE: Thanks, Kev. I’m just loving being here in Nagambie –
KEVIN: Look, about your book talk today –
NATALIE: I’m very excited. You know, even though Banana Girl is about my life in ‘inner city Melbourne’, it’s more universal, because being a woman is universal. And that never came across in the articles, on social media –
KEVIN: [Hanging back.] Natalie, must admit, been busy with my fence. 233 acres. Only got the chance to really, ah, read your book last night.
KEVIN: Googled a bit more about you … This intersectional feminism hooha. Should’ve mentioned it but most of the ladies who come along to these book talks are a little, well, traditional.
NATALIE: Kev, relax, I haven’t written anything that your readers haven’t done themselves.
KEVIN: Natalie. Nagambie is … Banana Girl isn’t very … Asian.
They both pause.
KEVIN: I’m making a big fuss over nothing … You’ll be right. Look at ya!
NATALIE: … What? Too much Gorman?
KEVIN: No! You’re a bloody Aussie, aren’t ya!
KEVIN is gone. The 80s décor of Nagambie Public Library.
NATALIE: And Kevin’s off prepping the book-talk Liptons and the assorted creams. And I’m in front of … near-empty seats in Nagambie Public Library.
Ok. Sure. Not a stadium-sized crowd.
But there are two very eager ladies. Traditional-looking, I guess. About my Mum’s age. And a third lady who is … She actually … sort of looks like my Mum.
She is also possibly, maybe, definitely, asleep.
I step up to the mic.
NATALIE opens Banana Girl.
NATALIE: Good morning.
[Reading.] It’s white. Not the usual baby pink hue interrupted by an odd mole. But perfect, unblemished white. Like pristine snow. Albeit bulging. Veined. Alive and pumping blood. It is definitely and literally the whitest cock that I’ve ever had stuffed between my little Hmong lips. And I’m only getting distracted by the uniquely white colour of this otherwise average shaft because the rest of Mr Mercedes is radioactive spray-tan orange.
Whereas I may be undemocratic when it comes to choosing friends, I am an open church when it comes to sampling all of Melbourne’s millions of men. From the ones who came from no money, like me, to the ones with shiny three-hundred dollar spray tans.
Mr Mercedes flips me over, buries himself deep into me. He comes. It’s operatic.
I say: “If we keep fucking, I’ll bring you home to Canberra to meet my parents. You know in Hmong culture, fucking twice in one night means we’re engaged. Mum’s going to be sooooo excited.”
And Mr Mercedes says: “I’ve got my fingers in your pussy and you’re talking to me about your mother?”
And I say: “Why don’t you put that snow white / piece of – “
KEVIN: Ah! Natalie, love, think we might switch to some questions from the audience, whaddya say?
OLD PERSON #1, #2 and #3 are there.
OLD PERSON #1: Dear … where are you from?
NATALIE: Ah. Canberra. Like I said …
OLD PERSON #2: But where are you really from, dear?
NATALIE: … Tuggeranong, Canberra.
O/P #2: But your people –
O/P # 1: Your family –
O/P #2: Where’s your family, your mother from?
O/P #1: From Laos? Ooh! A Laotian!
NATALIE: No, Hmong –
O/P #2: Ooh a Mongolian!
NATALIE: A Hmong. As in, silent ‘H’ then M-O-N-G. Like the Asian people in Gran Torino? You know, that shit film with Clint Eastwood?
Confusion. No recognition from the OLD PEOPLE.
NATALIE: The Hmong are an ethnic minority in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, but originally from China more or less, but we have our own language, customs, spiritual beliefs. We fled persecution from the Han Chinese a few centuries ago. Okay?
O/P #1: Ooh an ethnic minority!
O/P #2: Persecution!
O/P #1: And your mother, how did she end up in this neck of the woods?
NATALIE: The war.
O/P#1: The Vietnam War?
NATALIE: The Secret War.
O/P #2: A secret war!
O/P #1: Your mother was a refugee!
O/P #2: A boat person / then!
NATALIE: No Mum came by plane. I mean, yes, she swam across the Mekong River first –
O/P #2: So brave!
O/P #1: Tell us about the Mekong!
O/P #2: Tell us about your Mum!
O/P #1: You should write about your Mum!
O/P#2: You should tell her story!
O/P #1: Then you could have invited her along today!
O/P #2: Don’t suppose she’s read your book yet?
O/P #1: She’d have a bloody heart attack!
NATALIE: What? No! I haven’t – Mum hasn’t – Banana Girl’s only in English anyway.
O/P #1: Have you heard of Lu Lu Jayadi?
NATALIE: Of course I’ve heard of / Lu Lu Jayadi.
OP #1: Lu Lu Jayadi writes beautifully, about her mother. Her culture. Indonesia!
NATALIE: Look, I don’t want to talk about the Mekong. We’re all women here. Let’s talk about the female gaze. On sex. That’s my life. That’s what I write about. That’s Banana Girl.
OLD PERSON #3 wakes up.
OP #3: Dear, are you ashamed of being Asian?
NATALIE is gobsmacked. Book reading fail.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist