Reviewed: Me, Her, Us, Yen-Rong Wong, University of Queensland Press
As a woman of colour, reading about sex, relationships and desire has often made me feel slightly uneasy. Most depictions of sexual awakening come from straight white women, whose experiences of sex so rarely engage with the nuances of racialised identity. But when I discovered books such as The Terrible (Yrsa Daley Ward) and Sex Lives of African Women (Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah) that deal firsthand with how race can influence our sex lives, it felt as if I had found something that had been missing. This underrepresentation is especially glaring in the Australian context.
In the introduction to Me, Her, Us, Wong writes that this book of essays, her debut, ‘acts to remedy that gap’. Split into three sections as per its title, Wong looks at her current experiences of sex and relationships, her childhood and familial relationships, and finally the experiences of Asian women throughout the diaspora. While the collection was initially conceived as ‘a letter to [her] younger self’, she states that it’s really for all young women of colour, specifically Asian women:
It’s for those of you who feel stifled by familial expectation, those of you who feel like you have to make a choice between cultures you belong to and participate in. It’s for young women who look different, for women who have ‘foreign looking’ names, for those who have complicated relationships with their parents.
The writing is funny and frank, at times caustically so. Wong uses a conversational tone throughout, whether she is commenting on the kink scene in Brisbane where she lives, or the politics of interracial dating. But this style lends itself to some essays more than others. When describing her own experiences, they come across as removed. Conversely, the more analytical sections feel so specific to the author’s experience that it ends up highlighting the gaps from broader conversations on sex that Wong has omitted—in particular sexual trauma. Without a personal touchstone, these topics are glossed over despite their relevance to the topic at hand. The reading experience thus teeters frenetically between memoir and cultural criticism. Perhaps this is Wong’s continual attempt at resisting categorisation.
In the essay ‘An Oriental Flower’, Wong reflects on how she ‘didn’t fit the stereotype’ of a ‘nice Asian girl’. Growing up Malaysian Chinese in Queensland, she felt burdened by the ‘rules, anxieties, wanting and needing to be a good girl—a good Chinese girl, a good daughter, a good girlfriend’. This was compounded by her strict Christian upbringing in a world that simultaneously sexualises and demonises Asian women. However, Wong is determined to tell her own story, of ‘what it is to be a sexual being—not a sexualised being’.
The refusal of labels continues as Wong discusses her parents. Despite the almost oppressive environment she grew up in, Wong describes her parents as flawed and multifaceted people and not the ‘monsters’ she saw as a child. She worries about what it means to critique her mother as a Chinese woman, writing ‘I don’t want her to be pigeonholed into a stereotype’.
The power of language is a strong theme throughout Me, Her, Us. Wong writes in Chinese when describing Chinese customs or recounting her parents’ dialogue. There is no attempt at translation for anglophone readers; as she notes, ‘language influences the way we think, the way we approach the world’. Wong’s use of the Chinese language is a purposeful rebuttal. As her language is ‘slowly eaten away’ in monolingual, anglophone Australia, she cements its place on the page.
When written in Chinese, these conversations about sex feel almost transgressive, as Wong rebels against the ‘stigma attached to kink and sexual openness that is common throughout communities of colour’. Although I cannot read Chinese, I understood Wong’s desire to not compromise on the authenticity of her experience for non-Chinese speaking readers. However, this only emphasised how Wong’s experiences are not universal to all women of colour.
The last lines of her book echo its core thesis: ‘You are not alone’. Although Wong draws attention to the hypocrisies of a modern world—which despite having opened the door to frank and fearless conversations about and around sex, still unfortunately excludes race as a significant factor—the specificity of her experiences means she cannot speak for all women of colour. It’s a tired trope in itself, that women of colour are monolithic. The multiplicity of cultures and subsequent burdens are starkly different; one memoir for all is not enough. Nonetheless, Me, Her, Us is broadening the genre—it is at once a highly personal and political book and an important addition to Australian literature. I only hope this leads to many more books by women of colour in this space.