Stephen Pham is a nineteen-year-old writer from Cabramatta. ‘Holiday in Little Saigon’, which appears in the current issue of Overland, is his first published story. We talked to Stephen about his inspiration, influences and thoughts on writing.
What led you to write ‘Holiday in Little Saigon’?
Initially, I wrote ‘Holiday’ out of my hatred for Cabramatta and all that it was: the reeking smell of sewage wafting through every alley; the empty, broken people; the nothingness of it all that no-one should have to call home. But, for many years, it was my home, and out of that came ‘Holiday’ – something of a balancing act between my past and my future; between a place that houses my childhood memories and a place I never want to return to; between nostalgia and disgust. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it now, and I wanted that to reflect in my mimicking the objectivity of journalism in the story – no manifestoes, only observations.
In your piece, you describe some of the people and stories from Cabramatta that are largely unknown or forgotten. Do you think that part of the role of a writer is to uncover these stories, or to ‘tug at the loose threads’?
I don’t know if there is anything else that a writer can do. You find loose threads everywhere; when you tug at them, you hope that you can handle what is underneath.
For me, there is a deep well of stories to draw inspiration from. Drug abuse, broken families, domestic violence, self-harm, mental illness, poverty – most of my friends are affected by these things, so I’ve been given reason to believe that these are much more common than I had originally believed. It’s one thing to know that nearly one in four women in Australia experience violence in their relationships; it’s something else entirely to meet your friend for coffee and notice the bruises on her arm, the slits across her wrist. Just like that, you’re thrust into her world; only then can you understand how horrifying it is living in constant fear, pain, and helplessness. This intimacy is something that only a story can create, something that statistics fail to communicate to an outsider.
You wrestle with these ideas, you understand and interpret them, and you retell them as stories. You hope that the right people find them, so that victims don’t feel alone, so that outsiders can understand what’s going on around them and feel compelled to reach out. As a writer, you are given the immense responsibility and pleasure of connecting with people who need it most, and of connecting people together.
Do you have a favourite writer? Which authors are the biggest influence on your writing?
Authors who I consciously strive to write like include Hunter S Thompson, who has shown me that logic and facts are overrated in telling the truth; Cormac McCarthy, for his sparse, moving prose in The Road; and Neil Gaiman, for his skill in crafting entire universes where incredible stories take place. I’m awed by how they all use words to create realities truer than life – how wild life is in Thompson’s world, how delicate in McCarthy’s, how rich in Gaiman’s.
Of these, my favourite is Neil Gaiman, for his skill, wisdom, and humility. You only need to read his website and the advice he dispenses to see why.
What do you hope readers will take away from your piece?
The idea that there are people who start from the very bottom, those who are born to lose, where every day is a struggle in not giving up and becoming a dead-end of a human being. And that this final thing is something to avoid at all costs.