Anika Donnison: So, Tiffany, what do you do outside of writing?
Tiffany Ko: I like to read, probably not as much as I should. There are so many books and new ones keep coming out. They look so pretty I just want to add them to my bookshelf. I’m drawn to specific covers, and they tend to be in the same genre.
Aside from that, I recently started pottery, which is really fun, but I’m not very good at it. It’s on the wheel [gestures with hands].
AD: Like a Ghost moment?
TK: Not that romantic [laughs]. I do it by myself, so maybe I should invite someone to join me. It’s just a hobby that I can enjoy. I don’t have to worry about whether it’s good or whether I am doing the proper technique, because I find most of what I try ends with me thinking that I have to… I should create something good or worthy enough to even talk about. It’s a mindfulness thing. When I do it I don’t think about anything else, I get lost in the moment, I’m concentrating on it and not thinking about what I’ve got on or what I need to do.
AD: That’s what you want from a hobby, I think. Stress free. So, why do you write?
TK: I guess in the beginning, of time – just kidding. When I was little, I really enjoyed writing because I liked to read. It’s like most-other-people-who-write’s origin story. I didn’t really know why or what I was writing. It was just fun to create worlds. I was very shy and introverted. My inner world was more interesting than the outside world. So, I think that’s why I enjoyed it. Now, I write because I want to process what I think about the world and articulate what my opinions are, what my experiences are, what my values are in that point of time. Usually, what I write about comes from my subconscious, I don’t even know what I want to say until it’s down on the page and then I realise, oh, that’s what’s been bothering me.
AD: Do you mainly write nonfiction or do you delve into genre fiction?
TK: I usually write genre fiction, but it is pulled from my real-life experiences. Like thinly veiled reality. I’m really inspired by Julie Koh and Elizabeth Tan. I aspire to write like them. They sort of have magical realism but also, they write about things that are normalised in an absurd way, to show that they shouldn’t be normalised, which I think is really cool. I also like writing about Asian-Australian experiences because it’s really personal to me.
AD: You already mentioned two authors who influence you, so what’s a book that changed your life?
TK: Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities and Elizabeth Tan’s Rubik – who I mentioned before – I feel like they really helped me find the style I want to write in. In Portable Curiosities there were stories in there that really spoke to me. I like that each story has an issue in our current society that she flips on its head. Like, why do we act this way? Why do we see things this way? The stories really resonated with me. Elizabeth Tan’s Rubik, I really liked because it had a lot of magical realism. All of these books are similar in that they are a little bit strange and a commentary on our society.
I also liked, it’s from Margaret River Press actually, A Chinese Affair by Isabelle Li. Before then I didn’t really read a lot from Australian authors, especially not Asian-Australians. She inspired me to read more works from Chinese-Australian authors. It’s a short story collection, but they all are in the same world and some characters are repeated and interrelated. Each story is focused on a different person.
Also, I even remember the year, back in 2016 I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I loved it because it was very surreal. I just really liked how clever it was and that made me want to write something that explored deeper themes. I think it was sort of exploring a relationship between a man and a woman, they were married but the woman left him, and it was this quest of him figuring out why she left. A lot of weird things happen, really surreal stuff. I think Murakami had an interesting way to talk about how nuanced relationships are and that relationships aren’t – I’m not sure if this is what he wanted to say, but this is what I got out of it – relationships are not linear. There are a lot of things that happen. It really put things into perspective. I really liked Murakami’s surreal style to explore very human themes, about love, relationships, loss, that sort of stuff. It was really sad. It was a bit creepy as well. Which I liked. I needed that oomph. Yeah. The different books that spoke to me at different times have a personal thing about them.
AD: That’s amazing. So, you have previously done a mentorship with Centre for Stories, attended workshops over the years, and also volunteered at the Centre for Stories. How has the hot desk fellowship specifically influenced your writing or given you more insight?
TK: Well, the Centre for Stories have done so much. They’ve always been so supportive. They made me confident about what I write. Being around people who are really creative from different backgrounds is really inspiring. They make me feel like what I write about is important and interesting.
Most of my life, until I came across the Centre for Stories, I didn’t like writing about the Asian-Australian experience because I felt like our story didn’t matter because other people had it worse, or they experienced the same things, so why does our individual story matter? I don’t think that anymore. But I used to. There weren’t any Asian-Australian stories in my formal schooling.
When I started doing things with the Centre for Stories, I actually felt like my story is interesting and important. Like, people want to know about it. My whole life up until then I was suppressing that side of myself. I love writing about Asian-Australian experiences now but back then… I guess I was ashamed of it. I always used to downplay it and be like, ‘oh, haha, it’s not really important, why should I write about that?’ when that’s what I like to read and write about.
I think this place [the Centre for Stories] is really needed. In other spaces I always have a guard up. But here I never feel like that. I really found what I wanted to talk about, and I am able to talk about my experiences and feel heard.
AD: That’s fantastic, I think the Centre for Stories is really doing fantastic work. When you first applied, you said you were going to work on a collection of stories exploring the themes of belonging, identity, nostalgia and place with a special interest in Asian-Australian experiences – did you decide to continue with these ideas?
TK: I did decide to continue with it. The main story I am working on now is based on my relationship with my – I say my but the main character isn’t me – grandma, and it’s a little bit about nostalgia, a little bit about language barriers, a little bit about not really having the relationship you want because you don’t really know them.
AD: Is it mainly the language barrier that stops them from having that relationship or does she live elsewhere?
TK: Well, my actual grandma lives outside of Australia, and we have a pretty big language barrier. It’s kind of a double whammy. I never really see her unless I travel to Hong Kong, and I haven’t seen her since Covid. It was her 90th birthday in 2020, and we were all planning to go over and have a big celebration. It didn’t happen. But that was when I started thinking about my relationship with her. A big part of the story is whether the main character will melt gold jewellery that was gifted from her grandmother – whether to sell it for money to survive or keep it because of its sentimentality. I was inspired when I looked at my own jewellery from my grandmother and thought what sort of situation would I have to be in to contemplate this? How important is the jewellery? How important is it to have money?
AD: I think that’s a really important story to tell. A lot of people don’t have the relationship they want with their grandparents. Based on your experiences already within the Centre for Stories, what is some advice you could give to emerging writers? This could be advice from yourself or that you have received.
TK: I would say come to the Centre for Stories. See how you can get involved. It’s an amazing place with amazing people. Also – this is from my mentor from the mentoring program, Camha Pham – she taught me that telling your story is important no matter how convinced you are that it’s not. You should also write what you want to write about. If you don’t want to write about your CaLD experiences then don’t do it just because everyone thinks you should. It’s easy to be pigeon-holed into that area.
AD: Like, because you are a part of this program for CaLD writers, you don’t need to feel pressured to write about being CaLD?
TK: Exactly. I guess, luckily for me, right now I love talking about it. But one day I may not be as interested. I think if you do want to talk about it, sometimes there is a pressure to talk about the most traumatic part of it, where you might not want to or may not be ready to. It’s tiring if you want to write about something else entirely.
AD: That’s really good advice. Finally, what will you be working on next?
TK: I would really like to continue my short story collection. There are still a lot of short stories that haven’t been written yet. I want to write about a lot of different themes and issues. I’d love to connect all the stories in some way and am trying to play around with having them set in the same world, even if they’re set years apart, or about different characters. It would be fun to have some characters repeat so that different facets of them can be revealed. As I mentioned above, I really like what Isabelle Li did with her short story collection A Chinese Affair and would love to try something similar. For each individual story, I’d like to explore a theme or a few themes, such as identity, place, nostalgia and language barriers from the Asian-Australian perspective. These are things close to my heart that I’m still trying to figure out myself, so I’m interested to see what will come out in my writing!
Tiffany Ko is a Chinese-Australian emerging writer living and practicing on Whadjuk Noongar boodja. Her work explores identity and belonging, especially within an Asian-Australian context. She has appeared in To Hold the Clouds, and online in Liminal Magazine, Journal, Pulch Mag, Singapore Review of Books and elsewhere, and is currently on the editorial committee of Portside Review. You can find her on Twitter @tiffanykowrites.
Anika Donnison studied Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University. She has appeared in GROK and COZE. She currently works as a Social Media Coordinator for Pegasus Professional Accounting.
Writing Change, Writing Inclusion is Centre for Stories’ signature writing program for 2021 to 2023. Generously funded by The Ian Potter Foundation, Australia Council for the Arts and Centre for Stories Founders Circle, this writing program features mentoring, hot desk, and publication opportunities for emerging writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and/or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.