Norman Asks | Jessie Tu Answers

Erin Mason, Liam Maher & Serena Chowna
March 16, 2022

This time on 'Norman Asks' we have the pleasure of speaking with the amazing Jessie Tu!

If you’ve been around for a while, you’ll know that Jessie is a long-time favourite among our members, and it’s no surprise why. Jessie was already an award-winning writer – with work published in multiple journals – when her first poetry collection, You Should Have Told Me We Have Nothing Left, was published in 2018.

When she’s not receiving praise for her creative writing, Jessie also works as a journalist at Women’s Agenda and is a book critic at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

Norman the Bookworm brought Jessie to his nook to learn all about her novel, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing. This daring debut hit stores in 2020 and won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year 2021. It also made the shortlist for a myriad of prestigious awards and was longlisted for the Stella Prize 2021.

A meditation on the intricacies of female desire and the emptiness that follows growing up in a world where the pressure to achieve eats away at your sense of self, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing refuses to put a filter on intersecting ideas of race, sex and identity. The result is a glorious magnification of all the messy details and flaws that we might otherwise turn away from.  

Read some of Jessie’s retrospective insights on her debut in the interview below.

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Five Questions for Jessie Tu

Something really interesting about A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing is the difference between the way Jena presents herself in her public life (an astute and talented violinist) and her private life (burdened by loneliness and craving sex). How did you go about presenting this dichotomy in a way that allows readers to garner insight into the many different faces we show and hide from society?

Jessie: I think I just wrote how I felt. I’ve always been fascinated by the way we all have these different sides to us, and we show some side to a set of people, and some other side to other people. It’s like, all about context, isn’t it? Like, you wear your PJs to bed, at the home, but you’d never wear it to a work function, or an awards ceremony. You’d say some opinion aloud in certain contexts, and not in others. I think it’s like that. There are so many sides to us, and I tried to just allow Jena to have those different sides to her conveyed with the respect and dignity afforded to anyone else.

The idea of power and its many different forms was ubiquitous throughout the novel, particularly within the references to Trump’s election but also where the patriarchy was concerned more generally. Did you intend to mirror the control Trump had in the USA in the power dynamic between Banks and Jena and his attempts to infringe on her autonomy?

Jessie: That wasn’t intentional! But I suppose maybe you could make that link. I wanted to just write about power, in general, about someone who was terribly aware of her confined lack of it, and confined range of it. She has sexual power, and that was it. I think sometimes to know exactly the sort of power you have, and for women, realising how limited you have of it, can be very, very jarring, and like, there’s nothing else you can do about it.

I think many readers will be able to see part of themselves reflected in Jena’s desire for validation – one she feeds by balancing her ‘legs’ and ‘voice’ while performing gender in a world ruled by powerful men. Are the trade-offs Jena makes while walking this tightrope a reflection of your own experiences as a professional in the modern world?

Jessie: I think Jena is the person I’ve crafted through hindsight, meaning, yes, I think there are things you think about and make decisions based on as a young person, but you’re not as aware as her, I suppose. I think she’s just someone who is more aware of things, and of course, she gets to come across that way since I’ve crafted her into this fictional thing.

Jena has an almost obsessive streak in her relationships. We see this, for example, in her relationship with Olivia when she declares, ‘I want to go out and find her and carve her face off with a penknife and put her skin over my face.’ What did you want the contrast between Jena’s growing success and Olivia’s continued struggles to say about the lifecycle of unhealthy relationships?

Jessie: I think there was no direct comparison I was trying to make, perhaps just allowing a different kind of relationship to be portrayed. I think Jena is someone who believes that just because a couple have stayed together for a long time, they are happy. She’s very naïve in that sense.

The novel focuses on powerful themes and context, but you also managed to instil it with a sense of humour and personality. I’m thinking especially of Jena playing with Monkey in the Opera House, almost thanking him for not judging her. How do you strike this balance, and do you have a version of Monkey that helps you in your life?

Jessie: The greatest, hands down, greatest compliment anyone can give me, about myself, or my work, or my writing, is that it is funny. I’m not saying I want to be a comedic writer, or that I want to be a comedian, but I love funny people, there are so few of them around, in fact. Like, actually, funny people.  

I was waiting at an airport last year and a woman next to me was reading a book and at one point she chuckled, real loud and I looked over and saw the book she was reading and it was my book and I just was like, this is the greatest moment in my life. Being funny, just a tad, in an otherwise, rather serious and heavy book, is like, so important to me. Like, the saddest movies need to be threaded with elements or moments of humour. I don’t know if I did that with my book, but I would like to try to be, always, a little bit funny, or to just not take things too seriously. To take the piss out of things. Light-heartedness is the most valued trait, in my books.

I don’t have a version of Monkey in IRL, but I had a friend for most of my adult life, Barbara Robinson, who was around 80, 85 when I first met her, who sadly passed last year, in her 90s, and she was just the most remarkable, youthful and voracious human being I’ve ever met. She always taught me not to take life too seriously. She is someone I think of who changed my life profoundly, in more ways than I can even put into words. I credit her with shaping the way I think about my life, the way I move through the world, every single day. Writing can be a bit depressing and hard at times, so the most important thing I think, is to not take your vocation too seriously. I try not to take my creative work as a writer too seriously. I need to remind myself what I do is so small and insignificant, and that gives me a lot of playful energy to do something with light-heartedness.

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About the Author

Photo of Jessie Tu.

Jessie Tu trained as a classical violinist for more than 15 years. Failing to succeed as a professional musician, she taught music at Kambala, St Ignatius College, MLC Burwood, Kings School and Newington College. She's taught at refugee camps in the Middle East, volunteered with AUSAID in The Solomon Islands, travelled to complete residencies in the U.S and now works as a journalist at Women's Agenda. She's won several poetry and writing awards, and her first book of poetry was released in 2018. A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing is her first novel.

Find Jessie on her: Instagram | Twitter

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About the Book

Cover image of 'A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing'.

Growing up is always hard, but especially when so many think you're a washed-up has-been at twenty-two.
Jena Lin plays the violin. She was once a child prodigy and now uses sex to fill the void left by fame. She's struggling a little. Her professional life comprises rehearsals, concerts, auditions and relentless practice; her personal life is spent managing the demands of her strict family and creative friends, and hooking up. And then she meets Mark – much older and worldly-wise – who consumes her. But at what cost to her dreams?

When Jena is awarded an internship with the New York Philharmonic, she thinks the life she has dreamed of is about to begin. But when Trump is elected, New York changes irrevocably and Jena along with it. Is the dream over? As Jena's life takes on echoes of Frances Ha, her favourite film, crucial truths are gradually revealed to her.  

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing explores female desire and the consequences of wanting too much and never getting it. It is about the awkwardness and pain of being human in an increasingly dislocated world – and how, in spite of all this, we still try to become the person we want to be. This is a dazzling and original debut from a young writer with a fierce, intelligent and audacious voice.

Find it on: GoodreadsAmplifyAbbey'sBooktopia