Morally Good Lesbian

15 March 2018

Jean Tong swims in an ocean of labels. Chinese-Malaysian. Asian. Australian. Queer. Lesbian.

“I’m ambivalent about gender,” is her reply when I ask how she identifies. “‘She/her’ is like, it works … I get called ‘sir’ a lot.”

“It’s just always funny for me because I don’t care … And I also like them being a bit confused.” We joke about misidentification as a kind of educational tool—a means of queering by confronting people with their assumptions. Tilting her head, Tong jokes: “Teaching through them feeling really awkward about what they just did? If I had an aesthetic, that’s probably it.”

Being misgendered certainly isn’t an uncommon occurrence for LGBT+ people, and yet Tong’s revelry in the ambiguity around her identity seems characteristic of the writer’s acute sense of how her work is perceived in relation to a publicly imposed persona. Late last year, following the opening night of her lesbian electro-pop musical, Romeo is Not the Only Fruit, the Melbourne-based writer, dramaturg, and director was praised by Cameron Woodhead from Fairfax Media as the next Australian lesbian comedy prodigy, following in the footsteps of Magda Szubanski, Hannah Gadsby and Zoe Coombs Marr. The only problem?

“I don’t know that I’ve actually said ‘I am a lesbian’ in any interviews.”

With a buzzed undercut, khaki shorts and a ‘lesbian musical’ currently in rehearsals for its redux at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Tong isn’t exactly unacquainted with a lesbian aesthetic, but her growing success reveals a kind of identity-centrism in the ways we promote and discuss art that sometimes misses the point.

For Romeo, the creative team intentionally bought into the market for queer theatre in Melbourne. “We know this is what our peers and community are going to be interested in, so identifying as that was a really deliberate choice. And it attracted the kind of audience we wanted to bring it to, and a lot of them love it.” But for Tong’s newest work, Hungry Ghosts—premiering at the Melbourne Theatre Company in May—the language that has been used to describe her work in 2017 seems ill-fitting. “It’s a really uncomfortable identity to wear sometimes because of what people then start to expect … That’s the other thing where language is used to create a box. Because queerness is a lot of things.”

Tong articulates a frustration among emerging artists whose identities are capitalised on in order to fill seats. Following Woodhead’s review of Romeo, explains Tong, “The whole team did just for the next two weeks call me Hannah, Magda or Zoe instead of my name because all of the lesbians are interchangeable.” On one hand, her dry tone seems emblematic of the comedic flare Tong has recently been praised for, but at other points in the interview she appears simply apathetic to the flimsy labels applied to her work.

“What makes writing queer?” is the question we begin the interview at, and, almost an hour and a half later, Tong’s considered response is: “Can a work ever really be queer?” The growing fixation with transfusing an author’s identity into their work has propagated the kinds of debates it feels foolish to indulge: “Do you continue to be a queer artist ‘cause you’re personally queer? Or if you’re a queer artist who’s never made or been involved in a work that is exclusively queer, are you a queer artist?” Moreover, these questions fail to acknowledge the reality of artistic practice that is less concerned with sociology and more with the art itself.

The balance between failing to recognise systematically disadvantaged artists and fetishising what makes their work important is difficult to find, but Tong’s vision for that future is clear. “[Artists] will be allowed to make shows or work about ideas that they’re interested in—and their queerness, their race will hopefully bleed in, to enrichen it and actually make the ideas more robust and challenge those ideas and break them apart and put them back together in a different way than we’ve seen before. And that’s why it’s important to have diversity—not because it’s a morally good thing.”

Tong challenges the language continually used to contain her work, not explicitly or vocally but in the breadth and variety of her writing. It is this linguistic tug-of-war that Tong herself sums up as ‘languaging’.

“To ‘language’ something is to put something into words to make sense of the world … I love ‘language’ as a verb because it reminds us that it is ours to take back and create.” Bubbling beneath Tong’s witty exterior is an acute excitement at the possibilities language offers. “Words are how I understand the world, so, when I don’t have that, I feel like death,” she says. “For a lot of communities we’ve not had that language and we haven’t been able to put ourselves at the centre of being able to say what something is and make sense of the world, and put that forward as something that’s legitimate and understandable and shared.”

It is this language that artists like Tong are slowly building. And perhaps there isn’t a way to adequately explain what that is, simply because we haven’t yet found the right words. But Tong hasn’t let this discomfort with the definitions of her work alter the ideas she is determined to explore. Her writing cannot be contained by the genres or traditions of artists who have gone before her. Instead, Tong seems happy to rest in the inbetween, intentionally identifying as unidentifiable.

Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit is running from 28 March to 8 April at the Coopers Malthouse as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Hungry Ghosts premiers at the Melbourne Theatre Company in May. Tickets for both shows are now on sale.

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