Hmong–Australian writer Michele Lee’s new play, which explores death, ghosts and memory, began with a regular phone call to her parents. By Jinghua Qian.

Writer Michele Lee

Black & white portrait photograph of a woman with short hair.
Writer Michele Lee.
Credit: Victoria Scott

The setting for a memorable scene in How Do I Let You Die?, a new one-woman play by award-winning Melbourne writer Michele Lee, is a funeral home in Minnesota. That’s hardly surprising, given the title and the themes of death, ghosts and memory that permeate the “somewhat autobiographical” work. What’s startling here is the scale of Lee’s diasporic Hmong lineage, presented coolly with a projected family tree that spans three continents and four generations.

The numbers themselves are haunting, suggestive of a spectral presence that you can’t quite get a proper look at, though you sense its brooding weight. The funeral goes for three days and costs US$100,000. It honours Lee’s grandfather, a polygamous patriarch who had three wives, 37 children, 122 grandchildren and scores of great-grandchildren by the time he died in 2019 – including Lee’s young son, Yeng, who attends the funeral with Lee and her parents.

Aside from his impressive progeny, Grandpa was also respected within the Hmong–American diaspora as an insurgent leader who helped 100 families escape Laos after the end of the civil war, crossing the jungle into Thailand. But because Lee’s father – Grandpa’s firstborn – was already in Australia by that time as a recipient of a Colombo Plan scholarship, much of this family history is unfamiliar to Lee, who grew up in Canberra with her six siblings.

Lee is there to mourn, of course, but also to research Hmong death and funerals for this play – she’s just got development funding. Throughout the play, the story interweaves with reflections on the craft of story, as Lee lays bare her worries and limitations in creating this work. Alice Qin plays the writer onstage, while Lee and her parents appear through video, projected photographs and audio recordings of their phone calls. Their conversations about dying dance on the frilly edge of live performance.

How Do I Let You Die? premieres at Arts House Melbourne this month. Lee began this project four years ago, while she was writing Single Ladies, a play produced by Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre that centred on older women in Collingwood and Fitzroy. Growing older and becoming a parent made her more interested in ageing and more conscious of mortality. “As I’m getting older, I was looking to people in the generation above me, how they were in the world,” she says.

From there, it was a natural leap to bring the focus inward to the Hmong people, who have been a recurring focus of her work, and to her relationship with her parents, who remain in Canberra while Lee lives in Melbourne. “The initial constraint was that I’m not that close to them,” Lee tells me. There was an emotional distance she wanted to bridge as a daughter, and an artistic curiosity to test their dynamic – to shake the container and see what fell out.

“The playwright brain was like, what is the form of this, what’s the process? I’m not close with them, I’ll call them,” she says. The phone calls offered a structure for the creative development and the audio component appealed to Lee as an aficionado of the medium – her audio works include Broth Bitch, Going and Going, Talon Salon and See How the Leaf People Run, which was commissioned for Radio National and won the Australian Writers’ Guild award for Best Original Radio Play in 2013.

“From a practice point of view, I was interested in things that pushed me, like that discomfort of looking up close at your own dynamic with your parents,” she says. “And because I don’t call them as much, how do I do something that has personal but artistic challenge as well? It was quite calculated in some respects, rather than just being an incidental decision.”

Lee called her parents for 30 minutes a day through February 2020, recording their conversations in English and Hmong through the ashes of the bushfires and the panic of the pandemic. The daily phone call became both scaffolding and ritual, giving a fleshiness to the work. It grounds Lee’s parents, Chu and Koua, in the materiality of their own voices and the comforting mundanity of everyday life: getting a car serviced, gawking at the bill, sweating through the summer to save money on electricity. It highlights all the coaxing and cajoling that happens within families as adult children slip into middle age and the power dynamics and care responsibilities between generations somersault in freefall.

The intimacy and baggage of the relationship made the process more challenging than researching Single Ladies or Rice, a quippy two-hander on class and global industry for which Lee won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama in 2018 and the Australian Writers’ Guild award for Best Original Stage Play the same year.

“There’s the stuff that’s probably true across different Asian cultures of filial respect and the downwards hierarchy, like the dutiful child returns home,” says Lee. “At times it’s like, well, why don’t you come and see me, why don’t you come into my world? So there’s that shit underneath. And then making the calls, that’s me trying to go, let’s be equivalent – ask about me, I’ll ask about you.”

Ultimately, the calls forced her to let go of her own expectations of what her relationship with her parents should be – and what stories were worth telling. “There are certain stories about older people and migrants that might come to be more templated or valorised,” Lee says. “They’re not community leaders. They don’t have anything about them that you might say is exceptional and worth profiling, because they are ordinary people. But in the ordinariness, of course, there are extraordinary details.”

The result is a play that is very different, both thematically and tonally, from works that might ostensibly wrestle with similar topics, such as the SBS limited series Hungry Ghosts, for which Lee is credited as a screenwriter on one episode. Lee jokes she got the role because she’s “Vietnamese-adjacent” but was soon taken off the project because she couldn’t “write about ghosts the way they want me to”.

Questions of power and equity play out differently in television compared with theatre, Lee says. “Historically, whether it’s theatre or screen, the people who have been greenlit to have ideas don’t look like me and don’t look like you,” she says. While there’s a growing appreciation for the voice of a playwright in theatre, in television the stock response is that “we should diversify our stories but the storytellers are not ready”. Creative control is usually held by powerbrokers outside the community, who valorise particular tropes within the abundance and contradiction of migrant experiences.

“These are not the shows I would make,” Lee says bluntly. “The attempts are usually sincere but if you’re not from within the community, you can be drawn to dig into the trauma and the pain, and maybe lose some of the lightness and other textures of the human experience.”

Pressure can come from within the Hmong diaspora too. Lee is aware her and her family’s experiences are atypical and that others see the artist’s duty differently. She remembers being pulled aside at a conference by a Hmong person who urged her to write about the Laos war. Her relationship to the politics of representation has shifted somewhat since she wrote her first play, See How the Leaf People Run, nearly 15 years ago, a debut that she now feels has many of the hallmarks of migrant writing.

“At the time, the political commitment to represent the community maybe eclipsed some of my individual experience,” she says. “Over the years I’ve just become more comfortable that there is a tension, that I don’t know everything. Things can be contested, and I don’t have to be right.”

The pressure to represent a community faithfully – whatever that means – is exacerbated for Lee as one of the most prominent Hmong Australians practising in the arts. There are only about 4000 Hmong in Australia, a number Lee describes as “statistically insignificant”, especially compared with the Hmong diaspora in the United States, which is nearly 100 times that number. Lee’s family in America alone is about the size of the entire Hmong community in Australia.

The heightened visibility of Hmong in the US creates a different context for artistic production. There are Hmong-specific services, Hmong studies at universities, a critical mass to push for institutional power and representation, and far more everyday exposure to Hmong language, people and culture. “You’re walking around Walmart and hearing people speak Hmong, and they’re not related to you. Things are translated into Hmong, and Hmong are visible in negative and positive ways in the community,” says Lee. “Whereas in Australia, it’s just like a lifetime of having to explain what Hmong is.”

In How Do I Let You Die?, Lee leans into an explanatory mode, enjoying the “PowerPoint-slidiness of it”. But she stresses that not knowing and not getting everything is part of the experience for non-Hmong audiences.

Two other Hmong artists join Lee on this project – visual artist Vanghoua Anthony Vue, who is the production’s set and costume designer, and Lee’s nephew Rafe Yang, an emerging composer who is the attachment to sound designer Elissa Goodrich. The trio bring different artistic and cultural viewpoints to the work, as Yang grew up in the US and Vue lives in Queensland. Vue speaks Hmong more fluently and recently joined Lee for a radio interview with the SBS Hmong program. Director and dramaturge Sepideh Kian, filmmaker Ari Tampubolon, lighting designer Rachel Lee and production manager Reis Low round out the creative team alongside producer Bureau of Works.

“The team is mostly Asian–Australian artists. Everyone on board, I’ve asked either because I’ve worked with them before or because I think they’re gonna bring a different kind of lived experience, a sense of being at the margins, in how they approach putting the work together,” Lee says.

Lee’s identification with a broader coalition of diasporic creators is both a deliberate, ongoing political commitment to anti-racist solidarity, and a consequence of Hmong invisibility in Australia that renders it virtually impossible to be “specifically Hmong”. Growing up in that vacuum of representation, Lee fixated on the handful of proximal Asian characters who appeared in Australian film and television. Now, sharing her platform with other racialised artists has become a core part of her practice.

“In general, because I don’t look distinctly different, I just blend in with other Asians,” she says. “So that means I have to do more work in some ways to think about identity. And maybe that’s why I write about it so much, because I feel like I’m so unseen.”

She hopes that How Do I Let You Die? will give audiences more insight into the Hmong community, challenging assumptions without professing to be a representative or authoritative account.

“I hope we’re not objects or curios,” she says. “This is not a museum piece, it’s not for a gaze of ‘Oh this is so interesting, look at people over there and how they experience the world’. I hope it brings them closer and gives more dignity to people like my parents and other people who feel they don’t get seen in an equivalent way.”

The play is also a not-so-subtle call to do your filial duty. Lee hopes it prompts audiences to reflect on the dynamics within their own families as they age. “You know, so they go, ‘Oh, I’m also a kid,’ ” she says. “And maybe I’ve got a great relationship with my parents, or maybe I don’t. And maybe I just need to go call my parents.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "Close calls".

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