A Conversation with Tara Kenny

First published in Liminal, September 25 2017

Tara Kenny is a writer and editor whose work has been published in The Guardian, Overland, The Lifted Brow, Catalogue Magazine and numerous other independent publications. A true Gemini, on any given day she’ll be designing the personality for a virtual assistant powered by artificial intelligence, interviewing Asian-Australians about identity and belonging for Ladies of Leisure, or editing a culinary ode to Brad Pitt.

We spoke to Tara about writing as therapy, drawing inspiration from Sri Lankan culture, witchcraft and folklore, and her imagined future writing a Mills & Boon novel in a yurt.

You’ve applied your communications skills to all manner of creative projects—from Ladies of Leisure to publicity for an independent Australian film—graduated from a Master of International Relations this year, and are currently working in communications for social policy. What’s driven this trajectory?

All throughout high school, I was really set on being a journalist, but later realised it wasn’t my vibe, and fell into lifestyle and events writing alongside my personal writing practice. I decided to study international relations (IR) after doing an internship in the grant writing department of Amnesty International in New York a few years ago. I wanted to find fulfilling professional applications for my writing, and become more useful and knowledgeable in the social justice space.

My interest in IR is definitely driven by the desire to understand how people are affected by politics rather than the strategics of state behaviour, although the two are obviously intrinsically linked. I was desperately scrambling to catch up on the entire political history of the world when I started my masters, but I’ve now gained this wonderful working knowledge.

My current employer literally slid into my DMs on Instagram! My work for her is very diverse. Anything from a campaign for an organisation that improves the lives of people with disability, to designing a personality for a virtual assistant powered by artificial intelligence, to running a Byron Bay cafe Instagram. Artificial intelligence and the experiences of people with disability are two extremely important areas to which I’ve previously paid minimal attention, so it’s been interesting to learn more. I want to have a career where I apply and develop my skills towards interesting and meaningful projects with a greater social good. A wage slave with a conscience!

You’re also a prolific writer. Where does your writing practice fit amongst your other work?

I use writing to work through my feelings and life experiences in a way that’s (hopefully) widely relevant and interesting to people who aren’t me. How that fits into my career and whether to approach writing as my livelihood or a lifelong interest is something I definitely struggle with.

I would love to be able to support myself doing purely the kind of writing I enjoy most, but it’s certainly not as easy as Carrie Bradshaw made it look! Most publications pay less than a couple of hundred dollars an article, if that, and it’s hard to churn out good writing like some kind of sweatshop for words. All the writers I know have a separate job or take on advertorial and copywriting jobs to get by, and it’s a constant balancing act to prioritise passion writing.

The need to build a career and creative practice that’s fulfilling and also financially sustainable has become increasingly important to me in recent years. I worked full time for a while and that gave me the financial freedom to produce writing that I’m really proud of outside of work, without having to worry about monetising it too much.

For the next couple of months I’ll be mainly freelance writing again. I try to pursue projects and job opportunities that excite me and just work really hard. I figure I’ll end up in the right place this way (winky with bead of sweat). Maybe in the future I’ll move to a yurt to dedicate myself to writing my memoirs full time, who knows. I feel discombobulated if I’m not writing, so stopping doesn’t feel like an option.

How do you approach the task of writing something? Do you have a well-honed ritual?

Before actually getting around to writing an article, most of the time I’ve been mulling the topic over in the back of my mind for weeks, months, or even years!

I tend to use writing as a form of therapy, to make sense of or learn something from confusing and disorientating experiences. I’ve written about mental health struggles, remembering a less than ideal parent after their death and—on the lighter end of the spectrum—my complex relationship with selfies. At this year’s Byron Writers Festival, Kayla Rae Whitaker described our generation of writers as ‘more willing to confront our sources of shame than our predecessors’. That’s something I aspire towards.

As for the actual writing process, I like to be alone so I can really focus and I use the Pomodoro timer if I can’t stop scrolling. Every time I had to submit an essay for uni, I would hide from the world for a week, turn into a gremlin, become crippled by self doubt, then eventually emerge reborn. Luckily, self-directed writing tends to flow a lot easier.

One of my professors once said, ‘Writing is really hard and it never gets easier’. Unfortunately, I think she was right!

You’re living in Sri Lanka for a couple of months, which is where your mother’s family is from. What’s that been like and what are you learning?

It’s been a strange and unexpected but very important time. I was only planning to pass through Sri Lanka on a short holiday, but I’ve decided to base myself here for a couple of months. I’m fumbling through a Sinhala language course; even if nothing sticks, my Grandma is very happy. I’ve been visiting Sri Lanka since I was little, but it’s a very different experience actually settling in! I didn’t grow up within Melbourne’s Sri Lankan community, so I’ve had an atypical experience of the culture.

Some aspects are very confronting: it’s a crime to be gay, abortions are illegal, and I feel constantly on guard in public spaces. This country has endured a lot—colonisation by a number of countries, most recently the British, nearly thirty years of civil war, natural disasters—and the people are understandably traumatised. Unfortunately, that’s manifested in high rates of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and a government and wider culture that doesn’t support women to leave those circumstances. Widely speaking, the ‘good men’ are the ones who expect their wives to do everything, but mercifully don’t abuse them. It’s a depressingly low benchmark. Having said that, I’ve met a bunch of very inspiring people who are working hard to change and rebuild the society. They have Pride week, theatre and performance artists are challenging social conventions, and people tell me the younger generations are totally open minded.

Another really important aspect of this trip has been my relationship with my mum, who recently became a Tibetan Buddhist nun. Initially, I found it really hard to accept. But seeing the work that she’s doing here within its cultural context has been very helpful for me. It can be so hard to see your parents, partners and friends as three dimensional people with their own worlds going on, who are not obliged to behave in the way you want them to for the rest of their lives. Non-attachment, which is actually a very Buddhist teaching, has helped me with that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how Western, liberal, educated people often presume that in order to have faith, you have to be dumb or ignorant. I totally understand where contempt towards religion comes from when you look at the messaging coming out of the ‘No’ campaign against marriage equality and the abuse sanctioned by the Catholic church. Religion is used to push all kinds of self-serving and hateful agendas, but a lot of that is completely abstracted from the core teachings. I’m not suggesting that we all drink the Kool-Aid, but a greater appreciation and understanding of different religious and spiritual practices can be individually transformative and lead to greater tolerance in society. I met a Sri Lankan lady who told me she was raised as ‘intra-faith’, and went to church as well as Buddhist and Hindu temples as child, which I thought was very beautiful. I like how religion explicitly encourages people to serve and empathise with fellow human beings, whereas secular spiritual practices like meditation apps and yoga tend to be more self focused. Both are useful!

Personally, I’m currently veering towards the dark arts and learning about Sri Lankan witchcraft, folklore and astrology. Everyone has a story about voodoo or having a hex put on them, and politicians consult astrologists to set election dates. Mum even said we could go watch an exorcism! But apparently sometimes the evil spirit enters a bystander, and I’m not looking to get possessed.

In the last six months, you’ve spent time in Melbourne, Byron Bay, Colombo, and soon you’re heading to New York. Does location inform your sense of identity, and your work?

The extent to which my location informs my identity and work is varied. Right now, I just want to learn and understand Sri Lankan culture, and that will definitely come through in my writing. Byron was a really nice place to spend a couple of months, but it didn’t embed deeply into my identity, apart from incorporating smoothies into my personal brand!

Growing up in Melbourne, I’ve always been really fascinated by how people and communities relate to and adapt their cultures within an Australian context. When I was online editor at Ladies of Leisure, I worked with Ru Kwok on a series of interviews with Asian-Australian people called ‘Where are you from?’ Around the same time, i-D ran an article profiling a number of Asian-Australians. My immediate response was disappointment, as if we were in competition, which in retrospect was so off the mark. There has to be room for celebrating cultural diversity as more than a one-off gesture. During our photoshoot for this interview, Leah pointed out that white people get to dominate every other media outlet in Australia, so why should there only be one platform for us?

As for Sri Lanka, it’s really interesting to observe how shocked white people are when I say I’m treated like a foreigner here. They see me as Sri Lankan, whereas locals think I’m a total tourist and wouldn’t even guess I’m half-Sinhalese. I’m not fazed, similarly to how constantly being asked about my background when I’m in Australia doesn’t make me feel less Australian. I know that multiculturalism is the ‘real Australia’ too.

I’m definitely not backing out of Melbourne with my middle finger up and burning my life to the ground, but I’m so excited to lean into the craziness and energy of New York. When I was in Byron, a tarot card reader told me that my Melbourne lifestyle was making me sick! Maybe the hedonism of New York will heal me? However, I don’t agree with the idea that you have to be based in a ‘world city’ to create important work. Of course big cities have creative scenes of unparalleled scale, but I think isolation often results in equally interesting outputs. Australian youth media really pushes this ‘young Australians making it in NYC’ angle. Personally I’d like to see more reporting on weird and isolated experiences, but maybe that’s just where I’m at right now.

You published an article in The Guardian this year about having been a ‘token scholarship kid’ in the elite private school world that reinforces class and suppresses diversity. How do you think your diverse cultural background intersected with that experience?

My school was certainly not culturally diverse, and there was division between white kids and Asians. I was privy to both high key and low key racism, but it was rarely directed at me. I think kids presumed that because I wasn’t part of an explicitly Asian friendship circle, I wouldn’t be offended by their racist comments. What I did get were the most obscure aesthetic comparisons. Apparently I look like Eva Longoria of Desperate Housewives, and according to the principal of the school, Pocahontas. I mean, I’ll take both, but can you not compare me to the only brown people you can think of?

I’m not sure whether this was specific to the private school world, but when I was a teenager, beauty ideals were just so overwhelmingly white. In retrospect, a teenage obsession with Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie is funny, but at the time it was not ironic. Sorry, but an heiress and a proud Trump supporter are not the heroes teenage girls need!

One really amazing thing about social media is its potential to give diverse beauty a platform, where the fashion and beauty industries have overwhelmingly failed.

It frustrates me when people complain about how technology and social media are ruining our lives, when it’s so empowering to curate your own information channels to bypass some of the more damaging messaging that comes from traditional media, particularly around body image and beauty ideals. Some of my personal favourite accounts are @trustmedaddy, @swoonscream, and @roscoeramone.

For the avid consumers of Tara Kenny authored/curated content, what are you working on that we can look forward to?

I have a big, journal-style Google Doc of Sri Lanka notes that I’m hoping to mine for content later on. Now that I’m done writing essays for uni, I’m going to channel that time and energy into producing some lengthier personal writing. I’d like to write a personal essay about my mum, some fictionalised short stories about my family and early memories, and an article about Sri Lankan witchcraft. I’d also like to reach out to vocal members of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community, and talk to them about their experiences.

I’ve also been thinking about doing a feminist Mills & Boon romance novel, and a podcast with my boyfriend about adventuring into the occult, with a dose of cynicism. That should keep me busy for a while.

Do you have any advice for emerging writers?

Read widely! You can develop your writing skills along the way, but you’ve got to be continuously engaging and learning to have anything of value to say.

Also, set clear parameters about what you can afford or want to do for free, and make sure that you’re getting something out of that work. When I was a baby writer, I did an internship at this publication where the people in charge expected me to write for free long after I had stopped learning. I ended up emailing them to ask about payment, to which they replied ‘welcome to the payroll’. If I hadn’t brought it up, they would have been happy to exploit me forever. Profitable enterprises that are built on the backs of young people too bashful to ask for money are so exploitative and wrong. Never let people make you feel uncomfortable about asking for money if they’re running a business!

Having said that, my internship at Amnesty International was unpaid, but I learnt so much and they were constantly prioritising my learning and enjoyment. I also happily write for free for cute projects and publications; most of the time no one is making money from them anyway and being part of those communities is so valuable.

Who are you inspired by?

Princess Nokia and Munroe Bergdorf.

I’m obsessed with the lyrics of Brujas: ‘We is them ghetto witches, speaking in tongue bitches, fall on the floor, got sage on the door’. Princess Nokia is a true artist, and when she talks, it’s the most beautiful poetry. I love that she’s such a positive voice in the hip hop world, despite having really seen some shit in her life by the sound of things! If she started a cult, I’d totally join.

I’ve also been repeat watching this video of Munroe Bergdorf lately. She just makes so much sense, and I really respect how she fields basic and defensive questions with generosity and sincerity.

What are you currently listening to?

I’ve been listening to the SZA album for months, also Kamaiyah, Kelela, Jhene Aiko, Dej Loaf, and this cute Italian mixtape, because I’m going to Italy next month.

This young Sudanese rapper from Dandenong called Riak was mentioned in The Monthly the other day and I am vibing this song.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and now I’m reading a book of short stories called Tenth of December by George Saunders, both of which I’d highly recommend! I also recently read two novels by young Australians: Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour and Rajith Savanadasa’s Ruins. It was both inspiring and intimidating to know that those authors are vaguely the same age as me.

Also, Women Who Run With the Wolves and a book about tarot.

How do you practice self-care?

Doing yoga, getting cheap massages at shopping centres and watching quality telly like The Sopranos. I’ve also been drinking a lot less, and living a pretty healthy and horny life this year, which has had a massively positive impact on my mental health. Boring but true!

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?

Coming from a migrant background has without a doubt given me a more nuanced understanding of the world. I don’t feel caught between two worlds, I just feel lucky to have this rich, beautiful (and yes, very flawed) culture to explore and use to understand myself. Obviously it’s not just Asian cultures that allow this, but I almost feel sorry for my friends from whitebread ‘Australian’ backgrounds because that culture can be so bereft.

Mum told me that lots of Sri Lankan people who settled in Australia during the Sri Lankan civil war were really ashamed of their country because it had such violent connotations, and would even lie and say they were Fijian. Hearing heartbreaking stories like that motivates me to connect more with my heritage.