‘We watched the first two new eps of BoJack last night and there is a Diane episode that’s so fucking hectic,’ a friend texts me. ‘I don’t exactly recommend it at this time.’
This time: the end of a relationship, an unwritten manuscript, a time of uncertainty.
Pressure, pressure, pressure.
Of course, I watch it immediately.
In the final season of BoJack Horseman, Diane Nguyen is struggling. The former feminist blogger, now working on a memoir that she hopes will be a ‘profound treatise on damage’, is sitting at her laptop, the words CHAPTER ONE blinking before her. She’s recently started taking antidepressants and she actually feels happy, but as a result, she can’t write the book.
Traveling into her mind through a series of cartoon sketches, we see her abusive father yelling at her, a high school bully pleading for understanding, her friends—especially BoJack Horseman, a washed-up actor who has projected his issues onto her across the series—demanding more, more, more. She’s immobilised by it; she sits in front of the screen, and nothing comes out.
Then, through the fog—somehow, she writes. She writes, and it’s good. But what she’s writing is not her trauma memoir. It’s a middle-grade detective novel about a Vietnamese-American girl who solves mysteries at a food court.
Her boyfriend loves it. Her agent loves it.
But it’s wrong, she thinks. It’s so wrong. Nothing is good enough unless it’s the thing that is tearing her apart.
1996: OCD diagnosis. Start antidepressants (half-dose).
2003: Sign up to LiveJournal.com. Write daily diary entries about interior teen life (crushes, ideation) to an audience of kind strangers who relate to each inconsequential word and thought. Feels pretty good?
2004–?: Dream to write a book about refugee parents begins.
2014: First publication of personal writing about vaginismus (a painful sexual condition). $USD60 for one year of work. Start therapy.
2015: Become a columnist with a national feminist publication. Weekly, fortnightly: sex, heartbreak, feminism, you.
1. Lay self bare/reach people like you
2015–?: Mine life, search for gold; hope for hurt for tangible profit.
2016: Start antidepressants again. Come out as queer, receive immediate email asking for a column about it.
2017: Job interview with prospective boss who asks about a former relationship he read about on a column.
You know yourself now not as a person, but as pieces of pieces. It feels strangely false to read these true stories, and when you finally sit down to write about your parents, that feels false, too, inhabiting the real things that had happened to them as if they are your own.
Pressure—from yourself, others.
2018-2019: Receive a prestigious fellowship to finish the manuscript, but struggle to make anything come out.
Guilt, guilt, guilt.
Who are you performing for?
There is a cultural myth that the most meaningful art is that which comes from trauma or struggle. In the modern age, this combines with popular feminism to create what Laura Bennett called the ‘first-person industrial complex’: the undeniably gendered commodification of trauma and marginalised experience in the name of writing.
On its face, the personal-essay economy prizes inclusivity and openness; it often privileges the kinds of voices that don’t get mainstream attention,’ Bennett writes. ‘But it can be a dangerous force for the people who participate in it. And though the risks and exploitations of the first-person Internet are not gender-specific, many of these problems feel more acute for women.
Amy Gray writes that first-person writing is ‘compelling for writers, especially those who want to break into publishing, and who haven’t been able to enter the industry either due to circumstance or various layers of structural prejudice.’
In today’s literary economy, memoir writing is often seen as the domain of women. Post-#MeToo, there’s a demand for more personal stories, more trauma, packaged up in digestible ways. These pressures are even more pronounced for women of colour—there is a two-fold expectation of duty towards their specific community and the wider world to crystallise the group’s experience through an individual lens.
Without ignoring the value for the writer of sharing these stories, especially when women’s stories were previously dismissed as frivolous—and for the reader, who gains catharsis, insight or both through consumption—there is a real burnout that comes from continually writing trauma. There’s also the challenge of summarising it all neatly—beginning, middle, end—with a message or moral to take away, and the idea that everything personal is indeed political, when sometimes it’s just solipsism.
Bojack’s Diane is a typical figure within this landscape: she has a strong sense of social justice and wants to make the world better through her writing, but this career choice is underscored by the neoliberal machine that capitalises on her struggle. She lands a job as a staff writer at GirlCroosh, a feminist blogging start-up run by a Sophia Amoruso #girlboss type. ‘Be productive AF!’ the office walls scream. Diane churns out content that is supposed to empower, all the while perpetuating a dollar-sign version of feminism which entrenches, rather than destroys, structural inequality.
Her own memoir seems like much more honest work. Even there, though, she is paralysed by her memories and depression (or lack thereof). Still, she must write —she must make good from bad. Because, as she says, ‘If I don’t, all the damage I got isn’t “good damage”. It’s just… damage. What was it for?’
‘Good damage’, as if there is any way for trauma to become worthwhile. For some of us it is this: to write we must suffer, but writing, we suffer.
It is a bind that feels so impossible as writer, as woman.
Of course you know the contradiction inherent in even writing this piece, but it is second nature now.
Every time: this is the last time.
The elephant in the room: the first representation of Vietnamese diaspora we’ve seen in animated television is voiced by a white actress.
The episode in which Diane goes back to Vietnam, season five: simultaneous belonging and lostness. ‘It’s comforting to see your name everywhere and so many faces that look like your face,’ she thinks, but there is something different. Something missing. ‘It feels like a costume’ the voiceover says as the camera pans down on Diane in traditional clothing. ‘This is not your home; you are a tourist here.’
And it’s not the same, but also it’s not different, really, that you feel like a tourist in your parents’ trauma, in the generations of it. It is not the same as being a white woman giving voice to a Vietnamese woman, but sometimes you feel like your career is predicated on acting (upon acting upon acting). What is the truth (yours, hers)? What is authentic?
You feel like a pretender sometimes, cloaked in this inherited trauma that does not feel like yours. There is so much unease around how much you relate to this deeply flawed character written by white people, criticised so often as a two-dimensional representation of your community. You wonder what that says about you.
Yet there’s something like comfort, as well—you feel seen, unexpectedly. That even in fiction someone kind-of-sort-of-exactly like you in these strangely specific ways exists, and is walking, slowly, towards some kind of light.
2020: Half-baked idea for a middle-grade novel about a missing Vietnamese grandmother and two sisters who go looking for her.
Memoir on hold for a year, five years, forever?
Acceptance, which is to say love, kindness, relief, a change of plans.
At the end of the first season of BoJack Horseman, the titular character shows up at an event, begging Diane for forgiveness.
‘I need you to tell me that I’m a good person,’ he says. ‘I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person, and I need you to tell me that I’m good. Diane? Tell me, please, Diane. Tell me that I’m good.’
At the end of the series, the two characters sit on a rooftop. ‘Life’s a bitch and then you die, right?’ BoJack says. ‘Sometimes life’s a bitch and then you keep living,’ Diane responds. The duo sits in silence as the camera pans to the stars, reflecting on the end of everything. There is an unspoken understanding that this will be their last encounter together. Boundaries.
In the end, happiness might be a novel about a girl in a food court, or two girls finding their grandmother. Or happiness might be a pathway that you only realise is possible through a Vietnamese cartoon character written by white people somehow just for you.
Tell me that I’m good, Diane.
Life’s a bitch but you and I, we keep living.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Australian writer and bookseller based in Melbourne. Her work has been featured in publications including Meanjin, The Saturday Paper, Kill Your Darlings, SBS Life, Rookie and frankie. She was an inaugural recipient of The Wheeler Centre’s Next Chapter fellowship in 2018.