Jessie Tu: 'When you don't see yourself on the page, you literally don't exist'

Katie Cunningham

“I’m someone who has too much to say,” exhales Jessie Tu.

She is explaining her roundabout path to becoming an author but it feels like an evergreen statement. Tu began her career as a classical violinist, then quit because she “fucking sucked”. She worked for years as a teacher, but “couldn’t help but bring my feminist perspective into the classroom”. Later she studied law, until realising that profession wouldn’t allow her to speak her mind – but writing would.

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Tu’s debut novel, A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing, tackles some of things she thinks are important: race, sex and loneliness. “I’m just excited about the conversations that hopefully the book will inspire,” she tells Guardian Australia.

There’s plenty to discuss. A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing follows Jena Lin, a former child prodigy who, as a young adult, now uses men to fill the void left by fame. Like Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women or Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, the novel wrestles with the power politics of sex and why, as Tu puts it, women sometimes “reach for sex in order to be seen”. But Tu wanted the character who narrativised this exploration to be different to what readers are used to. Tu – like her protagonist – is the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who has keenly felt the absence of Asian characters from Australian stories.

“It’s just such a lonely place for BIPOC people when you don’t see yourself on the page, because you literally don’t exist,” Tu says. Growing up, she explains, that lack of representation meant “I felt ineligible for anything, like an adventure, or love. I was so yearning for a story about a young woman who looked like me, who struggled with loneliness and the shame of loneliness.”

Tu says she could “talk forever” about the ways sex, power and loneliness interact. “I really wanted to write a story that can broaden the conversation around what sex really means and the power of sex to damage each other,” she says. “When you’re in your early 20s you’re very much trying to play with this idea of – how much power do I have as a person? And how much can I hurt the other person?”

With Jena, she set out to write a character who “feels like she’s playing by her own rules but in actual fact is playing by the rules set by men, historically”.

Throughout the book Jena conducts a relationship with a man named Mark, a stand-in for the many bland but swaggering barristers and finance guys Tu encountered when she worked in a law firm.

“I think because Jena feels so unworthy of love, she’s looking for validation from the most obvious place for a woman, which is gaining the romantic, sexual approval of a very powerful man. He’s this older guy, he’s white, he’s a fucking douchebag, but … she’s convincing herself that, ‘Oh, I have this love with a conservatively successful guy, that means I must have value in this society.’ I think a lot of women feel that way, and it’s horrifying.”

Tu isn’t trying to say that heterosexual women can’t have agency in sex – “I think definitely [we] can,” she says – but that “the whole conversation about sex between a man and a woman is so hard to unpack because we don’t have the language for it”.

I probably will never read another fiction book by a straight white male author

“Feminism really is still very new and the terms upon which sex operates in this society are still very much determined by old, mid-century masculine tropes about ‘the more that a woman gives away, the less she is valued’. Because it’s only been in the last 80 years that women have been allowed to have any analysis of themselves.”

Jena is a classical violinist, as Tu once was, but Tu says her character is not autobiographical. “She’s so fucking badass, I wish I was like her. I really wanted to write someone who would have inspired me to lead my own life and question stuff that people tell me. I feel like if I had read more characters that were Asian women when I was younger, I would probably be a more confident woman today.”

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And to that point: “I probably will never read another fiction book by a straight white male author and I’m happy for you to publish that, even if that pisses people off,” Tu says, laughing. “Those guys are always going to have readers … I’ll spend the rest of my life reading black writers and BIPOC people and LGBTQA people, because there’s so many books out there written by these people who don’t have the platform naturally that conservative straight white male guys have.”

For Tu, it’s about changing who gets to define what is worthwhile. “Every single book I read at school was by a straight white male author. Every piece of artwork or piece of music I studied was by a white guy.

“The questions of who has value and what is important in this society have always been framed by a white male. And it’s time that women and people of colour really challenged that.”

A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu is out from 2 July through Allen & Unwin