Each month we shine our spotlight on a member of the NSW Writers’ Centre community to learn more about their writing journey, achievements and inspirations. This month we are delighted to feature Sheila Ngoc Pham, accomplished creative non-fiction writer and 2015 CAL WestWords Western Sydney Emerging Writers’ Fellow.
Sheila grew up in South-West Sydney, reading books set in faraway places and writing letters to pen pals all over the world. She’s worked in many different fields over the years, including public health, radio, digital media, education, and community development. Her work is regularly published and broadcast, and she’s been involved with numerous writing-related events, including the Talking Writing series at NSWWC. She will be chairing a session at the upcoming Boundless: A festival of diverse writers.
Our intern Mia Do spoke to Sheila about identity, the stories behind her published work, and her upcoming projects.
Many of your works – articles, stories, radio programs – evolve around the journey to embody one’s national identity. How does being a Vietnamese woman born and raised in Australia influence your perspective on this topic?
My ideas about national identity have been fundamentally shaped by my family’s experience of becoming refugees displaced from Vietnam, and having to find their feet in Australia. So being Vietnamese is a critical influence – how could it not be – but my thinking is also shaped by being married to an Anglo-Australian and my life is filled with people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds. As an adult, I’ve lived in different countries as well, including the UK, Belgium and Thailand, and each experience has provided fresh insights. Writing is an enormous help in any process of understanding – an example of such a piece I’ve written is ‘Flags of My Father: The Question of National Identity’ in Kill Your Darlings.
What is your typical process of researching for and creating a writing piece/podcast?
Sometimes an idea for a work will be one I’ve had for years, while other times it’s seemingly sudden inspiration. It’s generally a fermentation process that comes out of thinking, reading, listening and having conversations. I keep lots of notes on my phone, in documents on my laptop and in notebooks. I usually spend a lot of time sorting and grouping ideas before I start a more rigorous course of research, including interviews.
Some of the research builds on my formal education, most recently in bioethics. For example, I’ve just written an essay for Ockham’s Razor on ABC Radio National about the graphic medicine movement, looking at how comic books are being used to improve the training of medical doctors and develop their soft skills. This piece draws heavily on academic research.
So that’s how I approach the ‘content’ aspect. In terms of the form of a work, whether it ends up being a particular kind of writing or a certain kind of radio program is usually inspired by what I’m reading or listening to. If I’m ever unsure about how to develop what I’m working on, I’ll engage with other people’s work to help steer me in the right direction.
Your return to Vietnam in 2010, as you recounted on stage for Stories Then and Now and later recorded for ABC Radio National, was modestly told yet so moving and inspiring. How did it confirm/challenge your thoughts about your own Vietnamese identity? What was its impact on your works that followed?
Most writers feel a sense of difference and for me, that feeling is intimately linked with being Vietnamese and feeling at odds with Australian society. It was difficult growing up in Sydney during the 80s and 90s. People would shout out, ‘Go back to where you came from’, yet I had no relationship to Vietnam. So finally visiting in 2010 was one of the watershed moments of my life and, ultimately, it was an empowering experience. I’ve visited a few times since then and each visit confirms it will always be complicated for me. As I wrote last year in Womankind about my most recent trip, when I’m in Vietnam I wear different hats: ‘Australian, Vietnamese, tourist, returnee, foreigner, pilgrim’.
My cultural heritage is a wellspring of ideas and I’ve become more comfortable with the ambiguity which provides a lot of grist for my writing – not just about my own identity, but as a stand-in for broader issues as well. Writing is about constructing meaning as well as illuminating the in-between. My hope is that what I write and produce resonates with a wider audience, because being caught between cultures and identities is hardly particular to me and is a universal story.
In 2012 you produced a program for ABC Radio National called Saigon’s Wartime Beat, featuring Vietnamese wartime singers in the army who followed the troops. What was the experience like for you?
Saigon’s Wartime Beat was an idea I’d had for a few years, based on my interests in rock music and the history of the Vietnam War. When I started working at the ABC, I was in the right place to pitch my idea and was given the opportunity to pursue it.
It was one of the steepest learning curves I’ve ever been on, going from little experience making radio to producing an hour-long documentary. But I’d listened to Radio National since I was young and so it was an immensely rewarding experience to ‘graduate’ from being a listener to being a creator. I learnt lots of new skills, from going out into the field to record a Vietnamese concert in Mt Pritchard, as well as interviewing key people in Australia and the States.
It wouldn’t have been possible for me to make this program without the support of an excellent sound engineer, Louis Mitchell, as well as executive producer, Cathy Peters. It was particularly poignant when my mum opened up about her life when I interviewed her. A lot of her past remains a mystery to me, as she’s not a natural storyteller and making this program created the space for me to hear her. I wrote about this process in ‘Saigon Songs‘ in The Big Issue.
From your experience, what would be some advice, or just some words worth bearing in mind, that you want to give others who are also interested in writing about family and the past?
There are far wiser writers who’ve been on similar journeys, and I find books are essential companions and writing an invaluable tool. Something Cheryl Strayed wrote comes to mind: ‘Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding. It’s good you’ve worked hard to resolve childhood issues while in your twenties, but understand that what you resolve will need to be resolved again. And again.’
In 2015 you were a CAL WestWords Western Sydney Emerging Writers’ Fellow. Congratulations! How did the mentoring experience help develop your writing?
The Fellowship was a wonderful experience. There was the generous financial aspect, of course, and I pursued the opportunity to work with a group of emerging writers to showcase their stories at Africultures.
Being mentored by the inimitable Walter Mason was so helpful. I loved his book Destination Saigon which has superb attention to detail, and written with such warmth and humour while effortlessly bringing in scholarly aspects. Walter patiently read my work and provided lots of useful advice to develop my essay, ‘Black April’, which was published in Southerly’s War and Peace edition. But what I gained most from Walter was how to be a better literary citizen. That’s been a lasting legacy from the fellowship and something I’ve taken very much to heart.
Recently you’ve been involved with Finishing School, which you’ve described as one of your most exciting projects to date. Could you tell us a bit more about this collective?
Finishing School is a collective of talented women at various stages of our writing journeys, and all of us are connected to western Sydney. It’s exciting because we’re all very different and that diversity is a strength. It’s going to be a lot of fun to collaborate as well as develop together.
Having spent most of my life in western Sydney, I understand implicitly why initiatives such as Finishing School are needed to provide support and, to some extent, help level the playing field when it comes to writing. There’s the work of writing and the career of writing, and both aspects can be isolating, particularly as we’re focused on book-length works. Although I have a mentoring role, I require the support as well because writing a book is a daunting task, to say the least!
It’s also exciting to work with my very accomplished friend Felicity Castagna, who’s directing the initiative. We first met at university about 15 years ago because we edited Sydney Uni’s literary journal Hermes in consecutive years. I’m pleased to finally have the chance to collaborate with her in this way.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently reading several books: The Permanent Citizen by Roanna Gonsalves – a collection of short stories, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David – a collection of her writings, The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf – a graphic novel and Rilla of Ingleside by LM Montgomery – the last novel in the Anne series. They’re all excellent for different reasons.
I’m also reading the incredible Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon as an ebook on my phone and listening to Rebecca Solnit read her book The Faraway Nearby.
This year I’ve made an effort to always reading one book by someone I know, going back to that idea of being a literary citizen. I’m in the middle of so many because since having a baby I’ve developed a voracious appetite for reading and I always make sure there’s a book anywhere I might get stuck for a while!
In your opinion, who/what is the most inspiring…
Writer/Poet? Viet Thanh Nguyen
Weather? Hot and humid
Time of day? 6am
Music? Arcade Fire
Location? Western Sydney
Excerpt from Sheila’s latest digital essay, ‘Protection in the sunburnt country: How coral holds the key to a new, reef-friendly sunscreen’, published in the Griffith Review for Science Week:
IN THE SUMMER of 1980–81, a few months before I was born, one of Australia’s most successful public health campaigns of all time was launched. The legendary ‘Slip Slop Slap’ animated commercial featured Sid the Seagull singing a catchy jingle about how we can stop skin cancer by taking the following steps: ‘Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat.’ From that moment on, the distinct fragrance of sunscreen became a feature of summer as much as the smell of chlorine and sea salt. Yet, for many Australians, peeling skin is still as much a part of summer as the greasy white lotion. Caught off guard and unprotected on a glaring day, on occasion I’ve come home red raw, skin overexposed to the harsh UV rays. Despite the wide adoption of sunscreen, Dorothea Mackellar’s description of Australia being ‘a sunburnt country’ still rings as true now as it ever did.
I didn’t realise just how much emphasis we placed on sunscreen until I first moved abroad. One summer, travelling in northern Syria, I stood on the street applying lotion from a large bottle of SPF30+. The beating sun in that part of the world was a shock after my working holiday in London. I slopped the sunscreen over my face and exposed arms without thinking anything of it while some men nearby watched. One came over with a grin on his face and gestured at the bottle. I squirted a blob onto his palm and said ‘the sun,’ pointing to the sky. I watched him awkwardly mimic the act of rubbing in sunscreen, presumably for the first time ever, and he laughed as he did it. I laughed as well, realising how comical the situation must have seemed to the locals.