Working with Words: Yen-Rong Wong
Yen-Rong Wong is a writer and the founding editor of Pencilled In, a literary magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of Asian Australian artists. She spoke with us about Hello Kitty, how people act in different environments and the importance of headlines.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
I’m sure there would have been others before this, but I remember crying when I met Tien in Hsu-Ming Teo’s Behind the Moon. There was a relief in realising that people like me existed in Australian literature.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
The first story I remember writing was about Hello Kitty and her friends – I was about four, I think? I did write during primary school but I can’t really remember what about – I probably read more than I wrote during that period of time. During my teenage years I wrote a lot of fiction, which, admittedly, was very purple in its prose – but I was also trying to wade through a world where I was being bullied and battling depression.
I put a lot of my own feelings into my characters, and a lot of my writing ended up being quite amorphous and circular in nature without saying anything super meaningful. In hindsight, it was probably my own type of therapy and I am confident that I am a better writer now because of that period of writing.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
I’ve been a waitress, a receptionist, an office manager, a personal assistant, a sales assistant, a call-centre operator (then team leader), and now I’m a user experience analyst in an IT department. All of these experiences have provided me with insights into the way people act and react in different environments, under different types of stress. They’ve made me consider (and at times, reconsider) the way I live my life, and I think that has come through in my writing – more so now that I primarily write non-fiction.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
But seriously, I honestly don’t know. If I hadn’t started writing articles and op-eds I’d probably be working on a Masters or a PhD in literature, which still involves a lot of writing. And if I wasn’t doing anything related to literature or books, I’d be trying to get into science communication, which would also probably require a bit of writing.
I think I just like words too much.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Sometimes I forget that I tend to set impossibly high standards for myself. When I was freaking out about the project I’m currently working on, Julie Koh passed on some advice that was given to her: ‘lower your standards and keep writing’. Another gem is ‘what would a mediocre white man do?’
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
I tried, for a couple of short weeks in my teenage years – a physical one, and then a blog – but both of those fizzled out. I don’t keep one now, though I’ve been thinking about doing it again.
I think the main reason I don’t is because I’ve always felt as if I only have a certain number of words inside me each day. I’ve never been one of those people who can sit down and write 3000 words in one go. Writing a diary just takes some of those words away from me, especially if I’m working on a piece at the same time.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
I’d always thought Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is way overrated, but that might just be because I’m not a fan of the way he writes.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
I don’t know if this is considered strange, but if I can’t finish a sentence or a paragraph ‘properly’ then I leave it hanging and come back to it later. I quite often have a document full of unfinished sentences and thoughts, then I have to go back and thread it all together at the end. There have been times where I’ve forgotten to finish a sentence before sending it to my editor!
Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
There was an article that I wrote for The Tempest that got a rather (in my opinion) clickbaity title that betrayed what the article was supposed to be about. I think I’d try to write the article a little better and be more stubborn about getting the title changed to something I was comfortable with.
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
I’d love to have dinner with Jean Rhys but I don’t know what I’d talk about. I’d probably try to stay silent lest a whole mess of words tumbled from my mouth and she thought me totally incompetent.
Yen-Rong is in the early stages of a memoir/essay collection about navigating sex and relationships under a Western gaze as a young (Malaysian-)Chinese woman.