Oliver Phommavanh: ‘I don’t get girls’

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When I was a teenager, I used to read Girlfriend magazine. I thought it would help me get a girlfriend. I wanted to do some research because I don’t get girls. My favourite pick up line was, ‘What’s better, Nintendo 64 or PlayStation?’ Yes, I grew up in the pre-smartphone era. Back in my day, you couldn’t hide behind Snapchat or Instagram. You had to talk to girls, like face-to-face. It was ugly. I mean, that’s why there’s no emoji with pimples everywhere.

So when it came to writing The Other Christy, I finally had a ‘female protagonist’. Now I know this girl is in Year 6, but it doesn’t make it less complicated. I used to be a teacher of a Year 5/6 class and girls took their fights undercover. I mean you couldn’t set up a hotline to report any fights between girls, because you wouldn’t suspect a thing.

I remember a girl burst into tears in my class and it was because of something that another mean girl said. I later discovered that this was not a one-off incident, but something brewing over the last few months. It was like starting Game of Thrones at the beginning of season six. How did I miss this mean girl’s behaviour? Why didn’t anybody tell me? What’s the big deal with Jon Snow anyway?

So I drew from my teacher observations to get inside the Other Christy, Christy Ung’s head. She’s a quiet girl with loud ideas. She’s a little misunderstood. She just wants to be heard. No, her middle name is not Carrie. But she does kill people with kindness, shaped like cupcakes and muffins. Christy Ung is every shy girl that I used to teach in class. The ones who didn’t have many friends and felt a little left out. Kinda like Pluto. He can’t hang out with the other planets anymore, so he’s just floating around on the edge.

Christie Owens is a queen bee in the same class as Christy. Christie borrows a lot from other popular girls in my classes. They had their cliques. They had their besties. But in The Other Christy, Christie’s besties turn to beasties and she gets kicked out. Christy starts to befriend her, but the question remains, can you be friends with your rival? Of course you can. Look what happened with Mario and Sonic.

I’m a little part of Christy Ung too. The insecure kid who wants to be one of the popular ones, know all the latest trends, have the coolest things. I see this all the time when I visit schools as an author. I’m always overhearing conversations, trying to get in tune with what kids are into. I’ve witnessed the rise and fall and resurrection of Justin Bieber. I’ve lived through fads, trends and viral dances and memes that fade quicker than whatshisname, you know that guy who did that thing. Yeah, him. I know friendships that can be fickle things, if you’re hiding behind masks. Be yourself and find your tribe or LAN group. Yeah, I don’t get out often these days.

I’ve had a lot of fun writing The Other Christy. It’s a different tack for me. It’s a story made up out of all those things I’ve seen in the playground and in class. How can I make these characters up? I’ve seen them up close. When people ask how me how I know Christy Ung, I’ll tell them, I’ve taught her. I’ve seen her come out of her shell and make a genuine friend unexpectedly. So I know a little about girls. But I still get all awkward around them. Just ask my wife. She thinks I’m weird. But she gets me. Even if she doesn’t know what a Nintendo 64 is.

The Other ChristyThe Other Christy by Oliver Phommovanh
For the last two years, Christy Ung has been in the same class as the loud-mouthed Christie Owens, and now it’s third time unlucky in 6C. Christie Owens is the popular one so everybody calls Christy Ung, the Other Christy. When Christie is ditched by her besties, the two girls who share a name strike an unlikely friendship, but Christy soon realises that she and her new friend are worlds apart. Will the two girls ever have more in common than just their name?

Being political

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I’ve wanted to write something about marriage equality and the election for some time now. Whenever I attempt to write a piece, though, a voice in my head tells me not to be so political. It’s a neat trick. Conservatives politicise the way I live and the way I love, then make me feel as though it’s inappropriately political to speak from my own experiences.

As a result, I’ve written nothing.

And when you write nothing, you relinquish the pen to somebody else. Somebody who says that he, as a heterosexual white male with “very strong religious views”, encounters the same “dreadful hate speech and bigotry” as LGBT Australians.

With the Coalition’s expected return to power will come an expensive plebiscite over whether marriage equality should be granted. Yes, a federally funded opinion poll asking whether two consenting adults should be allowed to marry is ludicrous, but the plebiscite will be so much more. It will be about the validity of homosexual love, the acceptability and quality of homosexual parenting, and a whole load of other homophobic concerns.

It will finally put a numeric value on the disdain some people have for same-sex-attracted people. See, even if it is overwhelmingly successful … Like, let’s say 70% vote in favour of marriage equality, it will still stand as a reminder to every gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexual, questioning person, adult or child, that 30% of Australians disapprove of them.

I might not ever get married, but I want marriage equality. I do not believe in trickle-down economics, but I believe in trickle-down morality. So long as our politicians debate and bicker over whether LGBT Australians ought to have equal rights under the law, the homophobic fringes of society are vindicated.

Marriage equality will change attitudes, and … Sorry, Fred Nile, but it will also change schools. Male and female teachers will have husbands and wives respectively. More kids with same-sex parents will enrol. Kids who’ve been to gay weddings will know that they can be just as boring. ‘Gay’ will eventually lose its meaning as a slur.

And let’s be honest, schools do need to change. My heart shouldn’t skip a beat when I hear a teacher say something about respecting the LGBT community at an Anglican school assembly (last week). I shouldn’t have a librarian tell me how much she enjoyed The Sidekicks and boast about encouraging teachers to borrow it because it was on their ‘Adults-Only’ shelf.

We’re being left behind by the rest of the world. I feel it now. I felt it last year, when I toured with a gay author from the United States. Having read their bio, a teacher at a secular school approached us and delicately implied that it would not be appropriate for this author to talk about certain things, because “there were square parents at their school”. Having seen this author speak for a few days, I was beginning to feel inspired to come out professionally myself – that incident alone pushed me back into the closet until earlier this year and … we all know what happened then.

My heart breaks just thinking about the students who are affected by those same … “square parents”.

On the other side, Bill Shorten has said that marriage equality will be the first law Labor passes if the party wins the election. It makes me deeply uncomfortable that a party that was in power three short years ago is now dangling equal treatment under the law as some eleventh-hour sweetener in a marathon election campaign.

If the alternative is a divisive plebiscite, on top of the parallel importation of books and the general feeling that our parliament is some unfunny Benny Hill skit, I’m game.

Are We Friends?

Snapchat RevolutionI wonder if I’d be as engrossed in social media, as willing to share, as excited by engagement stats, if I didn’t have something to sell. Or is, “I’m an author using social media to build my personal brand,” really just my way of excusing a need to be followed, favourited, retweeted by as many people as possible?

I’m told John Green became massive because of YouTube. Not certain I believe it, but the YouTubers with massive book deals for memoirs about overcoming the adversity of not knowing how conventionally attractive they are? Yeah, they’re massive because of YouTube.

We’ve watched, in recent years, the commodification of identity, and more specifically, friendship. People who we feel close to online have turned that feeling into profit.

Coming to social media as a professional first, person second, I am suspicious of oversharing online, of courting the attention and adoration of people I will likely never meet, seemingly for no personal gain. It’s empty celebrity, building a brand with no product to sell.

A friend ramped up his social media game recently, friend in the we-saw-each-other-naked-once kind of way. He started snapping about coupled life more, recipe how-tos, workout tips (yeah, like we all follow personal trainers on social media for the stellar advice). It had nothing to do with his profession, and I wondered what he had to gain. Why he would even bother. Was he pivoting into a career in personal fitness? And then … the why happened.

He shared a story on Snapchat, a photograph with his partner, barely clothed, with a website link. It promised them, “unlocked”.

For “only $2.99 a week” (billed monthly at $12.99, a $0.03 loss over the course of a calendar year), the service promises exclusive Snapchat content. You get “instant and unrestricted access” to “experience life through [their] eyes” and “private message [them] any time”.

At first, it made me laugh. I admire people who can outrun satire. Then I recognised the sadness running through it. It’s friendship as premium content. It’s the gay Sydney equivalent of Tidal nobody asked for (kind of like the music equivalent of Tidal, Tidal). It’s a case of the cool kids clique charging others for the friendship experience, and like Tidal, people will subscribe, because they want to be closer to Beyoncé, to Rihanna.

It’s a tale as old as t… en or so years ago: Build content, attract a following, whack up a paywall. But surely, “What do you want to know about us? Ask us … ANYTHING!” is a bridge too far.

I intended this piece to be a call to arms, a plea to stop this before it takes over, but who am I kidding? I’m paying a premium price for concert tickets tonight so that Brandy poses for a photo with me after the show. I stay with my personal trainer because he asks about my day, and when he calls me buddy, my teenage self thinks, The sporty kid likes meBut it comes with a fee.

And I say this all, neck-deep in hypocrisy, blogging on a website I set up in the hope you’ll like me enough to click the links to the right and buy my books. I’m the problem too.

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT [Review]

Whiskey Tango FoxtrotWhile Whiskey Tango Foxtrot releases in Australia today, it’s been out for two months in the United States. An Australian review is pretty much moot at this point. There’s nothing I can say that the internet hasn’t already: It’s a great film; it hits its dramatic beats and lands plenty of laughs; Tina Fey carries the film as Kim Baker, the journalist whose memoir The Taliban Shuffle the film is based on; and Margot Robbie is aces.

While it is a film about the absurd realities of war, what shines through most is its exploration of people whose livelihoods depend on attention, say, journalists who need their stories to make it to air. It fuels you, and it’s addictive, and you begin to do things you wouldn’t normally do to achieve and sustain it. It’s something I experienced first-hand as a celebrity journalist, and something I still have to keep in check when writing on social media. There’s always the urge to push the envelope further, for the extra favourite, the extra retweet. It’s easy to justify, you’re just doing your job, but you can lose yourself in it.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot says, “Don’t.”

Goodbyes and Good Wives

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I’m a big believer in endings. I won’t start a story without a final scene in mind, or at the very least, an inkling of where I want the characters to end up. Because endings change the way we look at everything that comes before them, and let’s face it, how many back flips you manage is far less impressive if you don’t stick the landing.

The Good Wife ended its seven-year run today, and it didn’t stick the landing. Creators Robert and Michelle King had explanations at the ready: in the end, their good wife became a little bad. In the series’ pilot, she stood by her husband during a press conference, then, in private, she slapped him as soon as they were offstage. In the finale, once again, she stood by her husband during a press conference, then, in private, she was slapped by a co-worker.

“The victim becomes the victimiser,” the Kings explained.

Visually, the show was suggesting Alicia had morphed into her corrupt husband, Peter, or at least, was morphing into him. The Kings often teased that the show was about “the education of Alicia Florrick”, and this is apparently what they meant. While yes, Alicia has hardened over the years, the show has never been about her Walter White-ification, and to suggest that in the final minutes is to retcon her entire character journey.

There are so many moving parts in television (read: actors) that it’s often hard for creators to realise their end-games as they first intend them. In departing the series, Josh Charles (Will Gardner) gave the Kings their greatest season (the fifth), but also, robbed the series of one of its main narrative thrusts: the love-triangle between Will, Alicia and Peter. At first, the series meandered, as Alicia struggled to come to terms with a world without her Plan B, and it worked. It was the truest representation of sudden, unexpected grief I have ever seen on television. Alicia withdrew. To me, her grief manifested in her distancing herself. The sixth season’s political plotline separated her from the rest of the cast even further. When it came time to put its pieces back together, the show was struggling to get its cast members in the same room without CGI and had resorted to throwing male love interests at Alicia hoping one would stick.

While the story beats are there to suggest a darkening of Alicia Florrick, she never really darkened. Sure, she drank a little more, she was a little more sarcastic, and she didn’t cry when she found out about her husband’s latest possible affair, but really, that’s hardly her ”moving in the direction where there wasn’t much difference between who [she] was and who her husband was”. I mean, just this season, we’ve had her forays in bond court, her creation of a small firm to pursue the cases that mattered to her … those were the pursuits of a woman damaged by a foray into politics, looking to do what she felt was right. The bad stuff inspired her to rebuild herself, to do good on her own terms.

That’s why it’s devastating that after seven years of her “education”, she abandoned her husband onstage for another man. No, the shadow of another man she mistook for her lover. A series about a woman rediscovering her agency, re-entering the workforce after raising children, and finding her voice, ended with her acting on the advice of a dead man (Ghost Will, who features prominently) to finally end her marriage to one man, to pursue a new man, while trapped in another man’s political web (Eli has been organising her political donors without her knowing!). Somewhere in the finale, there’s a story about a woman who, no matter how powerful she feels, is still powerless.

But with a slap, the Kings made it about her transformation into her husband, and the ending doesn’t fit the story they’ve been telling. Unfortunately for us, endings change the way we look at everything that comes before them.

The Vegetarian and the Meatlover by the BrigoPotatoes

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Today was my final day as Writer In Residence at Brigidine St Ives. I was sad to say goodbye, but as one last hurrah, the Year Sevens united to produce what they believed to be the best worst romance ever written. Selected at random, students contributed a sentence each, while I stood to one side shouting encouragement. I now present you with the fruits of their labour, The Vegetarian and the Meatlover by the BrigoPotatoes:

Victoria walked past the butcher with disgust, how could be so cruel, she would never go in in her life. As she was looking through the window she saw her reflection in the window, no it was gross. The boy in the shop was looking at her through the shop window. Her eyes melted as she gazed into his beautiful eyes. As she was taken back to reality she knew that she could never be with him. She wanted to go in now but knew she couldn’t. he watched as her curly orange hair disappeared into the distance. He would never see that georgeous face again. The reason she left was cause she literally puked on the pavement.She saw him chowing down on a piece of steak as he licked his lips in delight,YUK! As she glanced back at him she pondered ‘ could I ever become a meateater?’ but she pushed that horrid thought away. She started to walk away from the shop until she had a thought, “Do I love him”? She laughed at herself in disgust and ran away, the boy saw her and ran after her luscious locks. The next day, I walked arcross the carb shop and I noticed a familiar face and tall figure. He leans across the counter to grab hid big bread loaf that’s my favouriyte she said. He waved at her and she blushed at the sight of his biceps. “Hello, my name is Wayne!”
‘Wow, that’s an amazing name! My name is Victoria. She sighed dreamily without knowing it.
He pushed his thick blonde hair out of his face showing his tunning crystal eyes, how could anyone be as beautiful as the human infront of her? Maybe?
“why are you following me?”
“you dropped somemthin.”
“IM A VEGETARIAN!!!!! I DON’T EAT MEAT!!”
He thought about this for a minute in his head, now he couldn’t be more attracted to her than ever but suddenly his girlfriend came around and hugged him. Then suddenly, Victorias mum, a nun walked in, and stared at the three.
“whats gping on ere you lovebirds?” she said
“he is a meat eater I do not love him momma” Victoria said with a huff>. The disgust Victoria saw on her mothers face was absolutely hallarious, the thought of eating an animal was atrocious.
“come on darling we have to go home to feed your dog”
“don’t you mean Tiana-Kyle Umpa?”
She stared back in horroer as wayn and his girlfriend kissed. She thought to her self “ I thought I loved him” then she told him that she was ay to pretty to have him as her girlfriend!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Beautiful. Georgeous, even.

MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2 [Review]

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Writing has ruined reading for me. When I read my own work, I’m poring over sentences as my own harshest critic, making sure everything works, from the big-picture structural stuff right down to the individual word choices. I have trouble suppressing that critical voice when I read for pleasure, so it takes a special book or film to silence it.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is not that film.

I’m torn. The film is brimming with heart. There are moments that reflect my life back at me, and I wanted desperately to like it, but it’s just so lazy. It feels like a collection of skits, loosely tied together by a thread of Mana-Yiayia sight gags. It’s a film of As and Zs, with nothing from B to Y that make arcs work. There’s a lot of treading water between the introduction of problems and plot points, and their resolutions, if they’re resolved at all.

The worst is the bait-and-switch of Gus (Michael Constantine) and his ailing health. In a voiceover with zero chill, we learn Toula (Nia Vardalos) struggles with caring for her ageing parents. The film then drops this entirely, after a half-arsed callback to the original’s famous Windex gag. Instead of following through on a plot that’s painstakingly established in the film’s opening minutes, Vardalos reduces it to the set up for a joke we’ve heard before, an easy laugh. But by that point, we’re thankful for some plot resolution, because the film has introduced 600 other mostly non-essential plot strands.

The film tries to do so much — Estranged brothers! College! Gay secrets! John Stamos and Rita Wilson! — that its main plot — Gus and Maria’s (Lainie Kazan) remarriage — falls over flat. Maria driving her wedding planner to quit is genuinely hilarious, but we don’t see its climax. We’re simply told it happened because the film is too busy showing something else. And then it has the nerve to spin “the wedding planner has quit!” into “the wedding is off!” and one does not equal the other.

I had a half-hour argument with Mum about My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 this morning. She enjoyed it. She says I shouldn’t look at films with so critical an eye. They don’t have to be perfect. I’m not saying they do. I just really wish they’d try.

*I would define it working as it being the best I can make it, as the writer I am today.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE [Review]

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I know what you’re thinking — the only person in the world who enjoyed Zoolander 2 is back with another review! This time, it’s 10 Cloverfield Lane … And it’s pretty darn good!

A lot has been made of its development from a not-Cloverfield movie into a Cloverfield movie, and while conversations about its production history are interesting, having them now does the film a disservice. Director Dan Trachtenberg has crafted a film that treads the knife-edge between restricted-domain thriller and dark family comedy. The fact that it has the Cloverfield brand attached means more than increased box-office takings, it means viewer enter assuming a shared universe with the found-footage, alien-invasion romance Cloverfield. When Howard (John Goodman) tells Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), that he is keeping her prisoner in his bunker to protect her from an “attack” above ground, we think of Cloverfield. Even though Goodman’s shtick is transparent as all hell, we second-guess ourselves because we have seen Cloverfield. This may have evolved into a Cloverfield film, yes, but the belief it occurs in a shared universe adds a complexity to those bunker scenes (and that’s before you start to doubt yourself, as I did, and genuinely think JJ Abrams only had the title changed to mess with us for JJ giggles).

10 Cloverfield Lane is tight, claustrophobic and tense. It will make you squirm, thanks in large part to Goodman’s stellar impersonation of Sam Smith when you don’t return his texts. Goodman plays entitled-nice-guy to perfection. Winstead and John Gallagher Jr are given less to work with, but when the film calls on one of them to carry it in its final moments, they do it with aplomb.

See this one in theatres. The sound design deserves more than laptop speakers. There’s a scene with a set of keys that gave me a tension headache, thanks in large part to the sound choices.

For the moment, Cloverfield is an anthology series. JJ has said there is a “larger idea … [to] see through”, but until then, they’re stand-alones. Support this one, if only so we can see JJ’s plans come to fruition, and write catty think-pieces if it doesn’t meet the hype (Oh, hi, Super 8).

Vale #PTAChat

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Tonight at 7:30pm AEDT, Twitter is hosting the final #PTAChat. While I’m certain there’s amazing bookish stuff just around the corner, this is a bittersweet moment for me. It was the #PTAChat community who embraced me when I resurfaced with The First Third. Their encouragement was inspiring, and the book banter was always top-notch. My TBR pile is five times its usual size because of the recommendations I’ve accumulated over the years, and I just wanted to say thanks, not only to the awesome @PenguinTeenAus but to every author, reader, blogger who made #PTAChat the incredible beast it was.

We’re sad to see you go, Felicity (@FlossAus). You led the way, and made us so. excited. about. everything. Thanks for believing in me, @FlossAus. And for old times’ sake, here’s a collection of my greatest shirtless selfies, ordered by gym pump …