Spoiler Alert: If you have not read Laurinda and intend to, please don’t read this entry as it contains an important spoiler! If you have read the book, this post explains why I used a certain literary device in the construction of my character, Lucy.
The old adage of ‘Be Yourself’ is a cliché and sometimes the least helpful advice you could give someone facing a new situation. Sometimes, instead of clinging doggedly to this fixed sense of self you have, it is better to adapt to your circumstances. Sometimes, you have to be a different person to belong. Not all change means that you are compromising your essential 'self'. When I was a teenager, I read a James Maloney book called Gracie, about an indigenous girl who goes to an exclusive Brisbane Girls’ Boarding School. Gracie thinks the word shit is part of normal daily conversation, has no idea that to certain sectors of society it’s offensive, and only realises this when an adult points it out.
Laurinda is also about a girl, Lucy, who has to adapt to a very different set of rules in an institution with which she has no familiarity. Her friends from her former Catholic school have certain negative assumptions about girls who go to private schools, while her friends at Laurinda Ladies' College also assume certain things about those who live in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. That is why Lucy realises that in order to stay a part of the new school, she has to keep her true self apart.
She begins by changing the name by which her family and former friends knew her - Linh - and adopting the more Anglicised Lucy. So many of my friends have told me stories of how teachers, parents or they themselves changed their names in school to sound less ‘ethnic’, and make it easier for other people to pronounce. In 1996, during One Nation’s burgeoning rise to power, my friends who came here as refugees were ashamed and tried to hide this fact. Some of our parents ingratiated themselves to ‘society’ by becoming more 'patriotic' than the racists, decrying the recent un-Australian boat immigrants as free-loading ‘illegal’s to prove how much they themselves had assimilated, and to differentiate themselves as the ‘good’ migrants. I also started to notice more Asian teenage girls, like the character of Tully, dying their hair blonde and wearing blue eye contacts.
Those who have never been part of a minority race, culture or sexuality or had to live with a disability, may also have never had to develop a ‘status quo’ persona to fit in. They've probably never had to assume a different identity so that they would not stand out and be a target of other’s assumptions. They’ve never had to flick through a magazine and see that ‘beautiful’ people don’t really look like them. They’ve never considered that when we call a sector of society’s tastes and belongings ‘tacky’ - as we do with the things that poor people can afford - we are saying that they will never rise up to our ‘class’ even if they had money.
So my 'letters to Linh' approach was my way of addressing this issue, because essentially and undeniably, Lucy becomes a different person at Laurinda. She has to be polite and carefully watch her diction or - like Maloney’s Gracie - no one will listen to a word she says. She has to be a helpful and patient cultural ambassador in case she alienates the other girls and their parents, cementing their inadvertent racism. She wears pastel ‘designer’ clothes instead of the black garb with gold buttons she likes so much lest her classmates realise she’s bogasian trash.
And yet, she understands that even though these girls will always see ‘Linh’ as some kind of feral ethnic hooligan, those in Stanley knew her as a feisty, funny, kind and spirited girl and are proud of her. So of course she misses her old self but she can’t go back to being exactly that kind of girl. So instead, she writes letters to a self she once knew and admired, hoping that vestiges of Linh will remain with her.
The reality is that this is what it is like for first generation migrant kids whose parents want them to shift class - they also, inevitably, end up moving massive tectonic plates of their culture too.