Q&A: Playwright Michele Lee

Date posted: 19 Sep 2017Author: STC Production: Going Down

Michele Lee

On the surface, Going Down seems to be pretty autobiographical. The character of Natalie mirrors you in a number of ways – she’s a writer, a Hmong-Australian living in Melbourne, and a young woman who has published a memoir called Banana Girl, just like you have. And you've written her as quite a flawed character. Did you set out to write such a revealing story?

The initial concept was a Melbourne-based Sex and the City in which not everyone was white. So, because it was riffing on Sex and the City, there was a writer character, which became quasi-autobiographical. Then, the Sex and the City layer dropped away. And because I had actually written a memoir – called Banana Girl – that material then just fed into this other idea. 

The truth is, in real life, my book had a pretty average reception. The sales didn't really concern me, because I was more focused on just getting it published. That, to me, was a major accomplishment. I hadn’t really thought through the reception and what it would mean for it to do well or not do well.

So, in writing Going Down, I was responding to some of the reception I had to the memoir. People had particular expectations about wanting to know about my Hmong background. That came from the Hmong community, but it wasn’t just them. More broadly, it’s part of an immaturity that Australia still has – people from migrant communities are expected to tell stories that are representative of that experience. I was deliberately pushing against that in Banana Girl and that wasn’t received so well. In Going Down, I wanted to explore that further: what do people want from an Asian woman writing a memoir?


So, if someone watching the play comes in with the assumption that you’re going to tell a migrant story, where do you hope to take them by the end? 

I want them to have a sense that there is more to my story than what happened to my parents. But, ironically, what happened to my parents becomes a strong part of the play. Natalie’s connection or lack of connection to her culture and her community is a really important absence in her life.


It's interesting that the character’s resistance to writing about her heritage in the end becomes undermined by the play itself, which talks about her heritage. For both you and Natalie, there’s an unwillingness to write the migrant story and yet it keeps knocking on the door. 

I know! Does the play succeed in arguing its point? Maybe it doesn’t. But that’s something I accept about the play. It doesn’t have to argue the point in a successful way, it's more about how complicated things are and how difficult it can be to achieve certain aspirations. There's a theme of failure within the play and that failure extends to the play being able to holistically argue a certain point.

On the other hand, what we get from the end of the play, with her mother, isn't her people's story. The mother has something to say which you don't really expect. That nuance means it isn’t a typical story. Maybe that’s the point, but maybe that's also where I am at in my playwriting experience and journey – at times, I don't know what I'm saying until it's said.


Are you still working on the script?

Yes. I don't think it will shift too much. But some of those underlying questions will be what people can debate in the foyer. Did the play achieve what it set out to do? Yes? No? What I hope for is that there'll be a freshness to the play, even if it's messy in how it makes its points. 


The tone of the writing, like Sex and the City, is very sexually explicit…

Yeah, Banana Girl had a lot of sexual content in it, which reflected a particular phase in my life. I guess the confessional memoir of a woman’s explicit experiences is an established form, but I was interested in the intersection of that with questions of culture and race. So, the sexual content in Going Down is a part of saying that there is more to my identity than just a single aspect, like which country my family was born in. And, in the play, that's also Natalie's motivation – she wants to say something that hasn't been said. 




Going Down, 23 Mar – 5 May 2018, Wharf 2 Theatre

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