One of the first plays Michele Lee wrote was about being a Hmong person in Australia, when there wasn’t much representation of her southeast Asian community in theatre or pop culture in the country.
Michele, who was commissioned to write the play by a government body, was taken aback when the play – which was one of the only stories in pop culture about Hmong people at the time – was later adapted for radio and other platforms and went on to win awards.
“In a country like Australia, when you aren’t part of the dominant majority, when you put up an artwork like this, it kind of becomes a protest and an act of activism,” she says.
There was no looking after that for Michele, who now writes across theatre, live art, audio and screen. Her works explore otherness, Asian identity and found families, usually through contemporary narratives that privilege the experiences of women and people of colour.
Born to parents of Hmong descent – her father was a scholar and her mother a refugee who had to escape southeast Asia due to the Vietnam War – Michele grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s in Australia where she stood out for her Asian identity. “It’s hard to understate the effect that had on my sense of being a writer and artist in Australia,” she says.
She began to take up issues of identity and belonging, “especially in a settler nation like Australia that has a very violent history of occupying a land that belonged to other people for many thousands of years.”
In the latest episode of eShe TV, she speaks to eShe’s editor Aekta Kapoor about the sense of ‘being othered’ and lack of belonging that follows immigrants, and the themes in her work especially the phenomenally successful play RICE, which puts two women of East Asian and South Asian heritage front and centre-stage. The play has won numerous awards including the Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Best Original Stage Play.
RICE livestreams on 4th and 5th November and is available on demand from 14th to 17th November internationally. Book it here.
Michele travelled to India to research the play and she talks about stereotypes of Indians and Chinese immigrants in Australia; the generational clash; and whether the backlash to Adani’s coal mine in Queensland had anything to do with the inspiration behind the play’s theme.
Watch the complete conversation here:
For more conversations with inspiring women, follow us on YouTube.