A Chat with Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

By Lisa Divissi | @lisadivissi
Photo Credit: SBS

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a local hero of the Melbourne literary scene, in our opinion. You may have caught her regular column on Fairfax’s Daily Life, seen her speak candidly about dating on an episode of Hack Live or found comfort in her fantastic piece on vaginismus on Rookie Mag. Her writing offers refreshing perspectives on dating, popular culture, sexuality and race in Australia. We spoke to her in the lead up to this year’s Emerging Writers Festival.

Lisa Divissi: As I understand it, your writing practice has roots in DIY and Zine culture. How do you think this has influenced the way you write/approach writing?

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen: I’ve been making zines for about four years now and I see it as pretty separate from my more professional writing, but both types of writing are important to me. The DIY/zine stuff is a lot of fun because it’s so unfiltered and raw, which means there’s no formal editing process and what comes out at the end of it all is exactly what I myself thought was best. Being a part of the zinemaking community, especially in Melbourne, has influenced my writing practice because it’s introduced me to such a wide range of people and ideas, and people who express those ideas in really unique and unusual ways, which in turn makes me think about new approaches for all of my writing.

You write boldly and candidly about your life, especially when it comes to dating and sexuality. How do you maintain your voice on these matters when talking about such topics that can make you feel vulnerable?

I’ve felt weird about it sometimes, especially when I’ve started seeing someone I like and know that if they Google me all of this stuff will be so readily available to them – at times it feels like I’ve lost my sense of mystery because everything is accessible to anyone who cares to look for it. It hasn’t really made me shy away though, because I’ve received so much positive feedback from people who my writing has helped in those regards, which makes it worthwhile to me. I’ve been writing less of those kinds of things lately, but only because I’m trying to be less solipsistic and more selective when it comes to revealing things about myself – I’m proud of the things I have produced on those topics and I think there is strength in vulnerability.

Can you tell us about your favourite bands and how they have influenced your writing?

Music was my first and truest love, and if you go back to the creative writing assignments I did in high school you’ll find more than a few appropriated lyrics from the likes of Bright Eyes and Brand New. There are also books that I’ve read after they’ve been referenced in songs (my favourite book in high school, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was briefly referenced in a Taking Back Sunday song, and 15-year-old me read Nineteen Eighty-Four because it was Pierre from Simple Plan’s favourite book – lol).

My favourite songwriter since childhood is Paul Simon, who tells stories through song like no one else, and my favourite band is a defunct Melbourne group called The Lucksmiths, who have always charmed me with their clever, thoughtful lyrics. I recently read Grant and I, a memoir by The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, who I really admire as both a writer and musician, and that made me think a lot about structure and language, and the relationship between words and music and how one can accentuate features of the other, but also the power of each alone.

What was your writing practice like when you were at uni? Do you have any sage words of advice for those of us starting out?

I didn’t do much writing at uni that wasn’t for my studies. I wrote heaps in high school – poetry mostly – but then I got self-conscious and stopped, because I hated everything that came out. So I guess my advice would be to just push past that little voice in your head that tells you the things you’re doing are no good, and just keep doing them and refining your craft until you have something you’re really proud of and can continue to work on. I wasted a lot of creative years around university age simply because I was immobilised by my own self-doubt.

What role has the internet played in the development of your writing?

The internet was a safe haven for me, growing up as I did in a very stuffy, conservative part of suburban Sydney. When I was 13 I started a personal website and blog, which was a great way for me to write about my life and the music that I liked, and also network with people my age around the world with similar interests (mostly Sid Vicious, a weird watered down teenage version of anarchy and being angsty). That eventually turned into keeping a LiveJournal blog for five or six years, which is the first time my writing really had a wide audience. There was an LJ community called dear_you for unsent letters, and I wrote so many intensely personal, revealing missives and posted them in there. It was such a good feeling to get feedback for that kind of no-holds-barred writing, and to have people relate to what I was saying – without that encouragement, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to pursue writing more seriously and publicly as an adult.

What is your favourite subject to write about?

I love writing about my cultural background and its complexities – it means a lot to me to hear from other Vietnamese people, especially those who are second-generation like me, and push back against some of the boundaries that were imposed on me from childhood. I also like writing about sex, sexuality and relationships – they are things in my life that have been difficult at times, and writing especially about the struggles I’ve had with vaginismus has been such a crucial part of coming to terms with myself and my experiences. Knowing I can help others by sharing my vulnerabilities is a big part of why I keep going with it.

Who are you most excited to see at the Emerging Writers Festival? 

There are so many diverse and wonderful artists and events on the program this year that it’s hard for me to name just a few, but I am especially excited to see my dear pal Hera Lindsay Bird – one of the funniest people in the world – make her Melbourne debut at EWF. And at the formal of all places! Please prepare to see me and my BFF/literary wunderkind Patrick Lenton (also a very good funny person you should see at the festival) be crowned prom king and queen.
You can find Giselle on Twitter at @gisellenguyen.

The Emerging Writers Festival will take place from the 14th-23rd of June. More details can be found here.

Read more of Catalyst’s Emerging Writers’ Festival interviews here

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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