Maeve: Hi I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week, Mary Duong is a filmmaker and video artist. She created and co-wrote queer drama web series, ‘TWO WEEKS’, which premiered at Brisbane Queer Film Festival 2018, and won Best Web Series at the SAE ATOM Awards 2018. Through the Screen Queensland/SBS Unscripted initiative, she produced and co-wrote ‘BANANAS’, which was an official selection into SXSW Film Festival and Inside Out LGBT Film Festival in 2020. In 2019, she was selected to the Screen Producers Australia Ones to Watch program.
Mary: The first time I saw William Yang speak was at the Powerhouse in 2019 as part of Melt Festival. Listening to him share his stories, I felt something deep inside me that I couldn’t describe. Looking at his work, I connect with his practice of storytelling and writing, particularly in his portraiture – that, to me, feels like an empowering way to write your own story, to take ownership, and to document on your own terms.
So I’m here to tell you a story that I’m well-versed in, one I’ve told myself in one form or another for as long as I can remember. But, I’m trying to play with it. My filmmaking focuses on reimagining narratives, celebrating queer joy, and playing with well-worn, tired concepts. Tonight, I’m bringing that approach to the stories I’ve told myself.
Growing up, our little family of five lived in Brisbane’s outer West, which was mostly white and middle-class. As a kid, I felt so awkward in my body, hyper-aware of my differences, and incredibly confused about sex and sexuality. My sisters and I would kinda talk around this stuff but I had so many questions that I felt weird about asking. My family – I believe we all tried our best, but there’s a lot that goes unspoken between us, even now.
My parents met at an Indonesian refugee camp in the early 1980s after the Fall of Saigon. They both escaped Vietnam by boat, something I can’t even imagine, and they spent several months in that refugee camp. When they came to Brisbane, they worked hard, kept to themselves, went to church, and built a life for their family within the Vietnamese community. They wanted their children to have a better life, an easier life, a life of opportunity.
I remember feeling strange whenever Shania Twain’s Man I Feel Like A Woman video would play on Rage, or there was one time when I was in primary school, one of the older students performed a solo dance routine to CeCe Peniston’s Finally and I don’t know, I felt something confusing as I sat in the school hall watching, and I played that performance back in my mind for weeks to come.
Something about these moments felt formative. I knew that I had to keep them to myself, though I couldn’t really articulate why.
Maybe it was the way my dad talked about the woman at his workplace who was in a lesbian relationship like she was the punchline in a joke. Or of course, I’m sure it has something to do with going to church every week, especially when the priest would give his homily on marriage as a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Or, it could’ve been the countless statues or prints of Jesus, Mary, and/or Joseph that make up my family home’s decor.
So for me to talk about seeing and being seen, I have to talk about hiding, because I learned to hide from a very young age.
When I was around 13 or 14, we moved to a little house in Indooroopilly with one bathroom. I’d started putting the pieces together by this point, but I couldn’t say the words out loud. It was too scary. Writing something down, saying something out loud – in my mind, there’s a permanence to externalising stuff and that freaks me out.
I used to lock myself in that one bathroom we had, bulk shampoo and conditioner bottles keeping me company because my mum believes in stockpiling sale items. I didn’t know much about the environment back then so I do feel very bad about this, but I let the shower run to escape suspicion. I used to write all over my body in biro, along my arms and on my legs – “I’m not gay”, “it’s not true”, “make it go away,” both externalising my greatest fears and thinking, hoping, praying I could exorcise them. Then I’d climb into the shower and scrub it all off, shamefully hiding from myself again.
There’ve been the times in my life when I’ve laid in bed next to someone I’ve held dear and felt intense loneliness because I was hiding – hiding difficult feelings I struggled to process, things I wanted but couldn’t ask for, parts of myself I didn’t like. I believed that hiding would maybe make me easier to love.
I now know the opposite to be true.
In 2019, I met someone who I saw as full of life, confident in her own skin, supportive, generous, and incredibly kind. She met me where I was, while being open and clear about where she was. I wanted to know everything about her and more importantly, I wanted her to know me. I struggled to find the words, I struggled to talk about what I wanted – but when I got there, I was proud to call her my girlfriend.
But, the stories and patterns I grew up with were hard to shake.
Last year, in April, at the height of our COVID-lockdown, I was mucking around with my friend, Ella – my then-girlfriend’s sister – out front of their house in West End. I was cycling, she was skateboarding – it was all very wholesome. I’d just come out of 14 days of home isolation after rushing home from America so I was grateful to spend some time outside.
A man walked past us and called me a ‘chink’. At first, I couldn’t really believe it, then my stomach sank and I froze. He quickly became aggressive, telling us we were spreading disease and that we needed to go home. From what I can remember, we tried to reason with him, or Ella did because I turned into a potato, but he just kept yelling at us. There were so many things running through my head – things I wanted to say to him to make him stop, things I wanted to yell back because I was so angry to have been made to feel so small. But I couldn’t externalise any of these things because I was scared.
He threatened us – “get inside or I’ll bash you.” He charged at us a number of times, getting closer and more aggressive each time until he was right in our faces. Not very socially-distanced, by the way. He moved towards us once more, then his face shifted. He saw us differently – “oh, you’re girls!! I was gonna bash you because I thought you were dudes.” I was stunned, angry, but also just tired. I wanted to stand my ground but I felt unsafe. Shame washed over me when I turned into the house, hiding once more.
That was the first time I’ve been racially abused in a way that threatened violence. But it wasn’t the first time someone has felt that they could verbally attack me, to physically intimidate me, to invite themselves into my space, and to comment on who I am.
The thing about what happened with that man, for me, is that it brought up all this stuff, stuff that comes up every time I’m in a situation like this. It reinforces the stories I’ve been told by others and the ones I’ve told myself for years. I feel othered. I feel less than. I feel unworthy.
And just like the times before that, I internalised what he said and the story I told myself about it.
That weekend, curled up with my then-girlfriend, I shared concerns about her being with someone like me – coming purely from a place of insecurity, from a place of being told I didn’t matter as much. In response, she told me she loved that I was Asian. I was crying my eyes out but in that moment, I couldn’t stop laughing because it sounded, like I could imagine someone fetishising me and saying those exact words but I knew her and I knew that wasn’t what she meant. And she told me, “I mean that I love everything about you”.
I don’t think anyone had ever said that to me before.
While things didn’t work out between us, I know she meant it. Being in our relationship really shifted things for me – it shifted how I saw myself.
In January this year, I made a piece of video work for Shandy Party’s Big Summer Blowout, a big queer dance party here in Meanjin, created by my dear friend Thomas. It was one of the wildest and freest shoots I’ve ever done. I had no idea what to expect, there was a loose schedule but nothing was really planned. We just had a bunch of fruit, ice creams, water guns, and a group of people happy to turn up.
What we created together was something truly special and a big part of it was due to our beautiful cast. I gave them a concept and they fully ran with it. For me, the beauty in the work is that it’s showing our community as we are, as we want to be seen – in this context, we were playful, sensual, and powerful. The camera’s there to document a moment in time but very little of what we made that day was constructed. My little heart jumped for joy when the video screened on stage at The Tivoli. I stood back, amid 800-odd people dancing along with the work we made, at an event my friend created, where he’s fostered a beautiful space for countless queer creatives, performers, and DJs to play in.
At one stage that night, I was watching the performances backstage, both separate from the crowd yet so in the moment with everyone there, and I was dancing and jumping and I took my shirt off for maybe the first time ever in a public club context, and that was one of the purest moments of joy I have felt in my life. I had never felt so in my body. I had never felt such a strong sense of community. I had never felt so comfortable with myself.
People will see what they want to see, but they can also only see what you show them. That man that verbally abused me saw what he wanted to see and he filled in the blanks with aggression. My ex saw what I let her see and she lovingly gave me what she could.
But I’m the storyteller in all this and for a long time, inside, I was still me at 13, hiding in that bathroom externalising things to myself and then erasing them. I’m learning to take ownership over my own story and to see myself as I am – thanks in part to the people I have loved, my friends, the communities I’m lucky to be a part of, and my creative work.
Thank you for coming tonight and meeting me where I am.