Michele Lee was a child of two Hmong refugees from Laos. Photo: Supplied
The first thought that pops into Michele Lee's head when she thinks of her childhood in Canberra is the gardens of her first home in Ainslie back in the 1980s.
From the front yard to the tall stalks of corn growing out back, surrounding the home was a veritable playground and a sanctuary of innocence for the young daughter of two Hmong refugees from Laos.
"The thing that jumps to mind immediately was just growing up in Ainslie and our beautiful backyard with these really mature trees that you could have a tree house in one of them; then there were other trees that you could easily climb up. My mother had a chicken coop with lots of chickens, and we had big rows of gardens," Lee says.
Melbourne-based author Michele Lee grew up in Ainslie. Photo: Supplied
Jump ahead more than 20 years to 2009, and Lee was living in Melbourne, getting close to turning 30 and leading a life speeding along at a frenetic pace.
Far from her childhood in Canberra, Lee was trying to make a name for herself in the world of theatre as a writer, and was preparing to leave for an arts residency in Laos, all the while dealing with the impending cultural milestone of the end of her 20s, social anxiety, and a "crazy period" of multiple sexual adventures.
Her debut book, Banana Girl, published in November, is the end result of her journey from growing up in the nation's capital to finding her place as a 30-year-old writer in Melbourne. Part memoir, part present-tense narrative, Lee says the book was prompted by a letter she wrote to herself when she was a teenager growing up in Canberra's suburbs.
Canberra-raised Michele Lee's book.
"I wrote a letter to myself when I was 15 to open when I'm 30. So when I was a year 10 student at Calwell High School I wrote to the Michele Lee of the future, not knowing where she may be, beseeching to her what came of my aspirations as a 15-year-old," she says.
"I can't remember what the motivation was. I suspect it was me being filled with some young angst about things not feeling right and not being right, and looking to a different version of myself. Maybe I stole the idea from the Baby-sitter's Club or something, I'm not sure.
"It's kind of in the vein of writing tortured poetry as a 15-year-old, where you have to pour your heart out in a diary or in a poem, which I did those things as well, but what I recall is also writing this letter."
Lee began writing Banana Girl before she even found the letter. When she finally read it, memories of schoolyard dramas came tumbling back in, reminding her of where she'd come from.
"It wasn't a jolting recollection because the names mentioned in the letter, some of them are on Facebook anyway. But certainly it was kind of tenderly embarrassing to read that and to hear what I was concerned about," she says. "I'm assuming teenagers these days still would have a sense that their world is not so big, so all those social relations, they are your world … That was really significant [for me back then] because that was the scale of my lived experience. It didn't really extend beyond Tuggeranong."
Like any teen, Lee's family life shaped her youth in Canberra. Lee's mother was a humanitarian refugee from Laos, who was repatriated with her father who was already studying in Canberra when he applied for asylum. They were Hmong, from Laos, who had ended up on the wrong side of the Vietnam War. Lee believes she was the first Hmong person born in Canberra. Her family lived first in Ainslie, then relocated to the then-new southern suburbs where Lee spent most of her formative years.
Her parents were strict in the way many migrant parents are, Lee says. But they didn't talk much about their experiences as refugees. It wasn't until later in life that Lee heard her mother's harrowing story of escaping across the Mekong River with a young child and another on the way just to make it to a refugee camp. She almost drowned.
"It was really full-on stuff that was sharply contrasted by my first-world type of problems in my 20s. I think that stuff innately shapes you as a parent and what you expect of your children, but they weren't vocal about that legacy," she says.
But the child of two Asian migrants was very much an Australian child too.
"I'm only one step away from a village life, so I can understand why there were very overt renderings of what that culture was in my childhood. Like the food that we ate, and some of the cultural customs that were practised, yes, that was a part of me growing up and part of who I am now," she says.
"But at the same time as soon as we stepped outside the door, as soon as we turned on the TV, I was exposed to the kind of mono-culture of the broader white-Anglo, and often at times American culture. Like lots of other Australian children of my generation, regardless of what background they were from, that kind of shared, murky, being-Australian experience is part of my identity."
While Banana Girl explores her ethnic background and cultural angst - the title is based on the idea of being "yellow" on the outside but culturally white on the inside - Lee says it is just as much a coming-of-age memoir about confronting life on the cusp of 30.
"It is about being Asian, because I am. But also it's about being a young female. I talk about my life as an emerging theatre artist and my insecurities around what kind of accomplishments I might be able to make," she says.
"And there's a lot about my sex life at the time because I had this crazy period where there were lots of hook-ups happening in that period leading up to Laos, which kind of goes to the heart of maybe myth-busting around perceptions of Asian women's sexuality."
Lee's parents haven't read the book yet. But her sisters have, as have many of her friends. So far, the reception has been positive, which Lee is thankful for given the inherent risks of writing about one's own life, particularly in such intimate detail, and especially when it comes to revealing elements of friends' and families' lives too.
"When I was writing it, it didn't seem to be so exposing because I wasn't looking anyone in the eye," she says.
"I let people who I'm close to and who are in the book read it, and if they had some really valid objections then of course I would change things. But I think there is a history of writers who write autobiographically, they take a risk in potentially losing or damaging relationships, because there is a sense as a writer that you want to tell a story the way you want to tell it."
Lee comes back to Canberra a few times a year to visit her family - her parents still live in their family home in Tuggeranong. She says she was never desperate to leave the city, but was drawn away at the end of her studies by the bright lights and bigger arts scene in Melbourne.
But her return trips home have since revealed an culture slowly bubbling away beneath the surface of the capital's otherwise sedate exterior.
"I think I've seen more of an underground type of arts scene occurring, I just sense snippets of that. And there even seems to be more festivals that weren't around 10 years ago," she says.
Melbourne is home now for Lee, where she's building her profile as a playwright and author. Life has calmed slightly since the frantic years on which Banana Girl was based, but Lee says her memories of playing in that backyard in Ainslie will always hold some nostalgia.
"[I went] from this idyllic, gentle childhood garden to this kind of inner city life where I made choices that made it very busy," she says. "Whether it was the sexual adventures, or it was professional and artistic lives colliding and the countdown to going overseas - it was quite hectic, and manageable at the time, but now I just think 'oh my gosh, I couldn't return to that type of pace in my life'."
Banana Girl, by Michele Lee (Transit Lounge, $29.95)