Que Minh Luu is an unassuming badass who co-created The Heights, a modern-day soap opera centred around the residents of a public housing tower. It’s excellent and I strongly recommend everybody stream it on ABC iview just as soon as you’re done reading this interview.
Que is Vietnamese-Australian and was born and raised in Sydney. Growing up, she didn’t see many people who looked like her on TV. It’s part of the reason she started making it herself.
18 months ago her husband died, the young gun radio producer Jesse Cox. As if raising a toddler isn’t painful enough at times without adding grief into the equation. I wasn’t planning on asking her about it, but it came up, and Que shared her experience the same way she shared everything else, with warmth and fearlessness.
She’s unfiltered, unsentimental and my new personal hero. Here’s Que.
How’s your day going?
Work is a bit nuts at the moment, but it’s okay. This morning began as it sometimes does, with a tantrum from my kid, but we got through it.
That sounds familiar. How old is yours?
Alfie is four and a half.
What’s he like?
He’s good. He’s a handful, but he’s really bright. He knows what he wants and has no problem saying so. He’s strong-minded, confident and can take a little bit of time to warm up. He’s a lot of fun and very funny, likes to crack a joke, but he does like things a certain way. He’s an angelic delight at daycare and around most other people, but around me… let’s just say he feels very safe!
The safe space of doom. He sounds cool. I watched a couple of episodes of The Heights, by the way, and I’m obsessed. I’ll be binge-watching it at some stage in the very near future.
I’m really proud of it, thanks for saying that. It’s really embracing the soap genre, like soap is not a dirty word. No one’s made a soap like this since Home and Away and Neighbours, except we tried to do something a little bit different.
It ripped my heart out, but in a good way. It’s set in and around a social housing tower, and I know you spent a bit of time growing up in social housing. How autobiographical is the show?
It’s not. The genesis of the show was very much what Warren (Clarke) and I had written. But since then, he’s led a huge team of writers working on it, the actors have taken carriage of their characters. Everyone’s brought their own experiences and stories into the room and it’s developed into its own thing.
I still connect to the social housing environment, although my time in social housing was when I was young and we didn’t live in a tower, it was an estate in south-west Sydney. I grew up quite poor. My mother was a single parent to four kids and she worked at Australia Post. The Vietnamese characters in the show really resonate with me, particularly Iris, the shopkeeper, played by Carina Hoang. The writers have made her their own, but I can get very specific about Iris’s trajectory, because a lot of how she began as a character references my mother, mixed in with the parents of my Vietnamese friends and people I grew up with.
Was it important to you to tell a more culturally diverse story than what we’re used to seeing?
Yeah. I’ve been working in TV for quite some time, and a lot of the shows I’ve worked on in the past are largely middle-class stories, because the industry is largely made up of middle-class people. I’m a middle-class person now, even if I came from something else. It can be problematic because it’s a difficult industry to get into if you don’t already have some money or connections. The rationale behind creating The Heights was that we didn’t just want diversity of ethnicity and culture, we wanted to really bring to the foreground what it’s like to be working class and living in a big city.
I feel like a better person just from watching it. I’m middle class too, and I feel guilty about it, especially because I was born into it. Do you ever feel guilty now that you’re middle class?
I think about it a lot. I try and do things to even the scales, but I don’t do enough. None of us do enough. I’m by no means any kind of role model. To a certain extent, I’m kind of just enjoying being middle class even though I’m aware of how lucky I am and feel bad about it. I’m very grateful for it, but I’m certainly not a golden child of activism.
You kind of are. You do a lot.
The thing that I can do is try to create more spaces for people who deserve and want to be where I am and help facilitate that, which is possible because of where my career has taken me. And then I try and enjoy my life as best I can. I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a good answer to that because we all could be doing more. I enjoy it then I feel guilty about it, which I suppose is a classic middle-class response.
What’s your experience with self-doubt? Any advice on how to not let it stop you doing The Thing?
I think age really helps. I’m in a job now that gives me some level of agency to make some kind of change, but for years I was highly anxious and full of self-doubt. I had a really great partner and he was my cheer squad, critic and fellow brainstormer. All through my 20s, I just couldn’t visualise where I wanted to be and how I was going to do it. He helped me to be strategic, rather than just focussing on whatever problem was in front of my nose. I spent a lot of time being afraid of looking like an idiot and now I’m okay with being an idiot.
Jess helped me crystallise what it was that I wanted and helped me work out what that path was. Now I’m just on the path, and I have the faculties to plan for it. I’m not doing it right all the time and that’s okay. As I grow older I just feel a lot more comfortable.
With making mistakes?
Oh I still freak out if I make a mistake.
I’m sorry you lost your partner… You probably don’t want to go into that.
I’m actually okay talking about it now. It’s been 18 months since he died. I read Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter a couple of months ago and that was the first bit of grief literature that I’d read in a while. It’s a bit rough, but I’m sort of okay with talking about it. I’ll stop if I need to.
No problem. So how are you coping?
Yeah it’s been difficult. In the immediate aftermath, I had a huge freakout: How am I going to do this? I have a two-year-old, what does this mean? I can barely open the mail and pay my bills let alone do this all by myself. But I have a really great community and great in-laws and family. I joined The Hot Young Widows Club for a bit of group wallowing and perspective. I understood I had it relatively easy. Also, I started anti-depressants and that fucking helped. There’s no denying that really helps. I’m able to separate all the anxiety, stress and grief into separate little bundles that I can deal with at a distance. Although I look forward to not needing them anymore.
Jess was a very organised person. When he got sick, I thought we still had years together and that we’d find the right treatment, all that sort of stuff, but he was thinking about what would happen afterwards and planning on our behalf. That’s how he got through it, by spending time with our kid and making sure we were going to be okay without him.
We’re unlucky, but also supremely lucky and incredibly privileged to have had him. And Jess made it so that Alfie and I had the space to be sad and grieve and miss him. And my in-laws are very present in Alfie’s and my life and they live five minutes away. My friends and family are incredible and I have a little community of friends with kids who we see multiple times a week. We invite ourselves to lunch and dinner a lot. That’s how we do it.
There was a period of time six months ago when I was going around saying, ‘I’m kicking grief in the dick!’ But then it changes. We’ve got our routine down, but then I’ll be unpacking the dishwasher and Alfie starts asking whether or not he’ll get cancer or I’ll get cancer. Where do we go when we die, all that stuff.
What do you tell him?
My approach with him has been factual, but age-appropriate. I tell him that everybody dies one day, but if you’re lucky, and you seem like a lucky kid, you’ll live a really fantastic life. And I don’t know where his Dad is. I actually have no idea. I’m not religious. I know what happened to his body, and where the feeling of him is, which is in our house and the neighbourhood we live in which is where he grew up. So that’s what I tell him. It’s nuts though. How do we do this? It’s nuts.
I used to freak out about my Mum dying someday and she’d tell me she would outlive me. It used to make me feel better.
It’s pretty amazing how much kids love you. Even when they’re punching you in the face, they love you.
Grief is so… ever-present. But I still laugh, have fun, have crushes. I’m still a thinking, feeling human. You still experience all of those things as you would, but grief is kind of like an irregular period, which is the worst, most flippant analogy, please forgive me. You know it’s coming, but you don’t know when it’s going to hit, but you’re kind of still grateful that you have it, because it reminds you that you’re you and your body’s doing what it’s meant to be doing. It may be unpleasant, it is sometimes profoundly sad and you have to deal with it in the moment. Sometimes it rears its ugly head and other times it’s more manageable. But thanks to Jess, his family and the people around us we’re able to get through it.
Jesse seemed like a good one.
He was a really, really good egg. Part of my process has been helping to set up the Jesse Cox Audio Fellowship, along with some of his close friends. We created it to help facilitate someone new to audio and continue the kind of work he did when he was alive. It helps to keep him present.