How I Write with Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

Melbourne-based writer Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
Melbourne-based writer Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Australian writer based in Melbourne whose work explores feminism, race, sex, relationships and pop culture. She writes a fortnightly column for Daily Life, and has had her writing featured in publications including Rookie, The Lifted Brow and i-D.


Who do you write for?


I write a fortnightly column for Daily Life, where I write about my life and experiences in relation to feminism, sex, relationships, pop culture, mental health and more. I’ve been writing for them regularly for almost a year now and feel really lucky to be a part of what I think is one of the best mainstream feminist publications in the country.


Aside from that, I write for whoever will have me! I’ve had pieces featured in publications including The Lifted Brow, i-D and Rookie, and I also self-publish my own zines from time to time, which I think is a really important medium for creativity and self-expression. I was also recently included in the anthology Doing It: Women Tell the Truth About Great Sex, for which I wrote an essay about the intersections of feminism, sex and online dating.


Do you have a routine when it comes to writing?


When it comes to my columns and shorter-form pieces, I usually just sit down and start typing, and don’t normally stop to edit until the end, so whatever comes out at first is basically a stream of consciousness. Then I’ll go back and read through it again and tighten it up a little, or scrap it altogether and start again.


With longer-form pieces, I put them together bit by bit and do edits along the way. I’m trying to develop more of a routine for this kind of writing—even if it just means writing x amount of words per day, and then going back to tighten it up later. Sometimes it helps to just get words on the page.


For every piece of writing I do, I send drafts to a close group of friends before submitting. Some of them are writers and some aren’t, and their feedback is really invaluable to me—it helps me in fine-tuning my work and I end up with pieces that I’m proud of.


What are some texts that have been especially formative for you, as a writer?


Like any second-generation Australian growing up in the 2000s, Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi was hugely important to me. It was the first time I’d read a book that really spoke to the struggle of being stuck between two worlds, and every time I reread it, it strikes me in exactly the same way. I love how real the dialogue and writing is. Growing up in Sydney, the setting is very familiar to me as well.


I hope that my writing can inspire similar feelings in young women from non-Anglo backgrounds who might be experiencing the same kinds of confusion and alienation.


I’m a big fan of Alice Pung’s writing, especially as I’m in the very early stages of a memoir about my parents and their experiences as refugees. Alice’s book Her Father’s Daughter, which is about her dad’s experience in the Killing Fields, is one of the most affecting and striking memoirs I’ve read in a long time, and I was especially intrigued and fascinated by her use of the third-person voice throughout. On the same note, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, about his father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor, has been a big inspiration for me. It tells a story familiar to many in a completely unique and evocative way, and it’s a book I come back to often, when thinking about how I’d like to tell my family’s stories.


I love reading writing by women, and have countless inspirations from across different mediums: Jessica Valenti, Jenny Zhang, Warsan Shire, Lindy West, Jessica Hopper, Roxane Gay, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Clementine Ford, just to name a few. I also admire the storytelling techniques of artists like Louis Theroux and Ira Glass, which I often think about when writing stories that aren’t my own. Consuming different kinds of media is, to me, a really important part of being a good writer—there is always more to learn.


You have written about your Asian identity and labour it took in order to feel proud of being Vietnamese. Did writing help you in that regard?


Expressing and exposing myself in a very public manner has forced me to confront things I’m uncomfortable about, and in some ways I feel like people who follow my writing have watched me grow and change through my words. It’s been especially meaningful to me to hear from other Asian Australians who may have gone through similar feelings of detachment from their heritage, and having those conversations has empowered me to look deeper within myself and figure everything out even more. The sense of community that has come from sharing my experiences has been a really special thing for me and my sense of self.


Is there one form of writing that makes you feel more powerful than other forms do? (ie. poetry, essay, article).


Most of my writing takes the form of personal essays and articles. I think there’s a lot of power in women writing about their personal experiences, especially those that are seen as taboo, like sex and sexuality. I’d like to branch out beyond the essay format, but so far it’s definitely been a very empowering way for me to express the things that I kept hidden away for a long time out of guilt, shame or a mixture of both.


What do you do when you feel like you can’t write?


I’m a huge procrastinator and am really trying to stop that! I usually only write when I have deadlines, but now that I’m freelancing full-time, I’d really like to settle into more of a routine so I can ensure that I get a certain amount of writing—good or bad—done every day. Sometimes when I can’t write, I text my best friend and she tells me to get my shit together and get the work done, and that actually really helps. Or I’ll have a nap or read a little or go for a bike ride, to clear my head.


What do you hope readers will take away from your writing?


I write what I wish my younger self could have read, and everything I do is with that teenage girl in mind. I want readers to feel understood and validated in their experiences, and I hope I can help them feel less alone. I’ve written a bit about vaginismus, which is a sexual pain disorder, and have been told by some readers that it inspired them to go and seek treatment. A friend told me that my piece about antidepressants motivated her to finally see a doctor about her own mental health issues. It’s incredible to me that my words can inspire that kind of personal change, and these kinds of stories make me feel more determined to continue to write about my own struggles to help others with theirs. I know that when I was younger, there were books and music that literally saved my life, so I want to pay that forward. I also hope that my writing gives insights to people from non-minority groups about the struggles of others, and sparks conversations that can inspire real social change.


Are there things you would like to write about but haven’t yet felt the chance to do so? If so, can you share some with us?


I’d like to write more about my family, and am doing so with this book I’m working on, though there are challenges there too in that writing about anyone you’re close with has its own risks. I am also a voracious reader of young adult fiction, and have been thinking about writing a YA novel about vaginismus. Fiction is not my expertise at all though, writing-wise, so that one might have to wait a while. But I’d really love to explore the topic of vaginismus more in my writing through different formats, to illustrate the journey from start to finish—and everything along the way.