Monday, September 15, 2014

How to Write in a Year of Snakes

So, this week I'm the Tuesday Poem editor. Pop over to the post to check out this amazing poem by Chris Tse, then read this interview which will also shortly be published on The Big Idea....

Renee:  So, how long have you been working on your collection?

Chris:  I started writing about Joe Kum Yung towards the end of 2005, when I was completing my masters in creative writing. It was the 100th anniversary of his murder, so there was quite a bit of activity around commemorating his death. I've been working on the manuscript on and off since then.

 Renee:  You have Joes on one side of your family? Is he any relation?

Chris:  My Mum's maiden name is Joe, but there's no direct relation. He might've been a ‘village cousin’ though!

Renee:  Reading through the book, I'm struck by how deeply you've gone into the psyche of both Kum Yung and Lionel Terry, his murderer.  Did you know you'd be spending nine years in such dark places?

Chris:  When I first started writing these poems, I envisaged them as a short sequence of a dozen poems or so. I didn't think that this story would still be with me in nine years time! It took me a long time to realise (and accept) that this story needed more time and space than I was allowing it.

I never felt that I was spending my time in dark places. The story is concerned with death and murder, but I didn't want to be trapped by or preoccupied with the heaviness that can come with that territory. I wanted to focus on Joe Kum Yung's search for light. It was important to me that the book carry a sense of hope, despite the life he had lived.

Renee:  I do sense that hope towards the end, although it comes in glimmers.  Do you think that you have helped him on his journey?

Chris:  A part of me does hope that by telling his story and giving him a voice I have set a place for him in history. He was always a footnote to Lionel Terry's story; I wanted to reverse that and show another side to the aftermath of murder.

Renee:  You seem to focus very much on giving Kum Yung a voice. At times you seem to let your frustration be seen, at how difficult it is to 'find' him in the reports of the day. What do you think about the role of literature to investigate historical events, where the voices of the original perpetrators are no longer able to be heard?

Chris:  Unsurprisingly, the news reports of the murder weren't very detailed and didn't say much about Joe Kum Yung. Lionel Terry murdered him to prove a point, and in a way his turning himself in was just an extension of his theatrics – he had a point to make and he made sure people heard him. I didn't want to focus too much on Lionel and his so-called message. It's always been clear what he was trying to achieve. For better or worse, his voice still lives on in the news reports of the time and the way in which the story has been told up until this point.

Writing this book was a chance to give Joe Kum Yung a voice, but that became just a small part of it. As the book took shape, it was the importance of remembering our dead and acknowledging the darkest moments of our history that began to emerge as the major themes.

Renee:  You reference Chinese history and traditional beliefs (about the dead, about how those who cannot go home are compelled to wander as 'hungry ghosts'.) As a fellow Chinese I'm familiar with these concepts. Did you find, in discussing the book with those outside our culture, that you had to explain these more clearly?

Chris:  Not really. I guess the few people that have already read the book just accepted that they were aspects of our culture or just went ahead and googled things themselves!

Renee:  Did you find out things you didn't know?  And how much did you rely on Dr Google and how much on the 'aunties' in our community?

Chris:  There was so much that I didn't know before writing the book. I did research quite a bit, but also drew from personal experience. My Por Por passed away when I was nearing the completion of the manuscript. It was the first time that as an adult I had lost a close family member, so a lot of the grieving process, including the rituals and customs, made its way into the final poems written for the manuscript.

The Chinese attitude to death is very different to Western cultures – the idea of celebrating someone's life after their death goes against the solemnity and responsibility of the living to make sure that the dead find their way to their next life. My research for this book reinforced and expanded on the way I've been taught to think about death and honouring my ancestors.

Renee:  How about other Chinese traditions? There were moments when the formality of your verse and the structures (often a series of couplets) reminded me of Chinese forms.
But a modern version. You don't spend much time gazing at the moon with a cup of wine....On the other hand, you have an eye for beauty, and beautiful phrases, that is very traditional.

Chris:  At one point I did want to borrow from and appropriate traditional Chinese forms, so the moments you've spotted might be remnants of those earlier experiments. But I soon felt that trying to follow those forms wasn't letting the story and poems to breathe and speak for themselves. The search for beauty was important – the romantic belief that death can provide what life can't was something I really wanted to explore.

Renee:  How have you changed as a poet through this first collection?  It's a huge project!

Chris:  I feel like a weight has been lifted! There were plenty of times when I wanted to put this story aside and focus on other projects, but I simply couldn't let it go. Writing this collection has taught me a lot about empathy and, to an extent, restraint. There were so many possible directions in which this story could go, so for me it was about finding that focus and sticking to it without letting politics or my own personal anger overshadow the story.

I do feel like this is the end of the first part of my career as a writer. I'm now focusing on more personal stories and themes outside of Chinese culture.

Renee:  I was going to ask you about that. Did you feel an expectation to write on certain themes because of your ethnicity and gender?

Chris:  Yes I thought there was an expectation, and I resisted it when I first started writing. It was a mixture of fear of being pigeonholed and thinking that it was too obvious, but I think a lot of it was a product of my own anxieties. I soon realised that I had to get over it, and that if these stories were to be told then I had a point of view to offer. I've had writing published that isn't Chinese-themed and it's been well received, so I don't feel like there's this expectation that I have to write about certain themes. However, I acknowledge that there are certain voices missing from New Zealand literature and I have a responsibility to speak up when appropriate.

Renee:  Well said!

Chris:  Is it something that you've struggled with as a writer? Just turning the tables for a bit! Haha.

Renee:  Yes, and in much the same way as you. I resisted it, yet at the same time it was being honest to myself, as the questions I was answering as/for my characters were the same ones I had come across in my daily life.

It kind of bothered me that I was being seen as some sort of 'voice' for the community, but at the same time, I figured that, well at least they were reading it from someone who knew and not someone from outside the culture. So I was really pleased that you were writing too! Description: )I think the drift towards less 'coloured' stories is a pretty normal one too.  You see it with other writers, like Alison Wong and Lynda Chanwai Earle. And with Maori and Pacific writers too.

Chris:  That responsibility of being a "voice" is troubling, because who can ever truly speak for an entire community?

Renee:  Hear hear!

Chris:  And if they purported to, I wouldn't trust them!

Renee:  I guess what we're doing is wearing a path through the grass. It's up to others to follow, or make their own paths.

Chris:  Sometimes I feel like I've left the grass and ended up knee-deep in a river.

Renee:  Yes and I don't like the stones underfoot...But in a way, the interest is what's kept me writing.

It's surreal that only a few years after I decided I was serious about writing, my work is being taught in schools and uni, and analysed by academics.  More for my timing (being one of a select group still) than for the quality I suspect...

Chris:  Typical Chinese trait, talking yourself down! Even if that were true, this only shows that there's a need for our stories and voices.

Renee:  Aw shucks… Why did you choose poetry as the best form to explore Joe Kum Yung's story?

Chris:  I never entertained the thought that this book and story could be anything else other than poetry. The fragmented nature of the story, of what we knew about Joe Kum Yung's life, seemed tailor-made for poetry. It just felt right to me – it was the perfect form to play with a variety of voices, and to explore those contrasting ideas and images of light and shadow, life and death, beauty and destruction. It was also an opportunity to test my ability as a poet to sustain my intentions over the course of a book-length sequence of poems.

Renee:  I admire how you have resisted the urge to showcase your 'best' poems to instead take a journey.  One last question: what are you working on next?

Chris:  I did feel a sense of responsibility to finish what I started, and that meant a lot of what I've written in the past nine years that wasn't for the book has had to wait in the wings. As for what's next, I've been writing poems that a lot more personal. At the moment I'm exploring how music and memory are intertwined, as well as the role of music in contemporary society and a conduit for shared experience.

Renee:  It sounds amazing! and of course music and poetry are natural partners.

Chris:  Exactly!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Three Poems

I'm doing a MOOC (Massive online open course) in poetry from the legendary University of Iowa. The first exercise, in 'sketching' taught by Robert Hass, led to these three small poems:

The words drop like minutes
rain in ever-expanding pools,
knit and purl the pavement’s verse.

There is singing
inside of me. Small voices.
The pitter patter
of tiny fingers
wet handprints
on the glass.

A box a boat a pirate’s nest
A bird a bee a seed.
A book a song a quilted bed
A kiss, then eyes at rest.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tuesday poem: 水調歌頭


This is the last verse of a famous poem by Song Dynasty poet, Su Shi (1036-1011 AD).  I did my own translation a few years ago by asking my friend to read the poem to me in Cantonese and Mandarin (so I could hear the music of it) and then explaining the meaning.  The poem features in my play Lantern, on this week in Auckland.

Happiness and sadness comes for us in parts
The moon sometimes clear
                 sometimes clouded
                 sometimes swelling
                 sometimes declining
Since time began, it's been that way.

All we can hope for is life enough to see
that though a thousand leagues apart,
we all look on the same moon.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Of Cabbages and Kings

It's the time of year for reflection, it seems.  I don't know why journos and bloggers feel like they have 'sum up', pick 'the best of', or, most annoying of all, recycle the same old tips on 'surviving Xmas'.  If we wanted to make lists or look back, maybe we should have done it mid year.

shredded words
lie pleading
in the gutter

I think the most special part about this time of year is that it feels like summer has finally arrived, and most people can now kick back for a few weeks at least.  It's gorgeous, even in Wellington. We've been here for 4 months, the first three spent shivering in our eyrie up in the Korokoro Hills.

 the wind
rattles moody fingers
under our roof
rolls cloudy marbles

One month to go here, and just under a day until Christmas.  As I write, I am sitting in a trendy rented cottage in Petone, staring at a punnet of strawberries I am planning on eating all by myself.  My husband at this moment is in Auckland, most likely persuading a small but determined 17 month old that she *does* want to go to bed. I am not alone though.

there's a monkey
climbing the playground
of my ribs. Fiddling
with plumbing.
Sometimes I see a face
pressed against 
the window of my belly.

If I was going to make a list, I'd start with this event - the baby is due in late March - and work backwards to now.  There's so much to do and yet every day I continue to procrastinate.  Work is busy but not hectic, but sometimes/often I find myself checking the paper, Facebook, email - anything except what's on my mental to-do list.  Is this pregnancy brain? I don't think so.  I can't afford to slow down, not now. Soon -

two little mouths
four little hands

This year, my daughter 'gets' Christmas a bit more.   My husband and his sister drove up north and hiked into a forest (well, a tree plantation) to kill a tree, dragging it home modern caveman-style in a trailer.  Sofia thus discovered she loves Christmas trees, or more specifically, decorations. But destructiveness isn't her game.  With the persistence of a small dog she regularly fetches baubles, fairies, candy canes - anything within her fast-growing reach.  Her gifts are offered with the air of a job well done, such that you can't do anything except thank her politely.

Santa, on the other hand - excuse the pun - leaves her cold.  She's met him twice so far; easy when he's everywhere from shopping malls to community parades to daycare Christmas parties.  (No wonder he can visit all the rich houses in the world in a single night.) Both times she's been nonplussed as to why a colourful and elderly gentleman wants to have his photo taken with her.

pineapple lights
and tinsel -
so tasty!

I find the scent of dying pine nostalgic, even though my parents only had a plastic tree - every year more of its branches disappeared, no matter how carefully we disassembled and put it back in its box.  Eventually we gave up putting it up altogether.

My parents have always been ambivalent about celebrating Christmas.  They tend to do it only if there's a lot of family around. I remember Christmas parties all squashed into my aunt's apartment in Hong Kong, where my aunty donned a Santa hat and gave out presents, and a Christmas concert by the kids was compulsory. This performance requirement persisted well into my gawky adolescence, despite protestations that I was no longer a 'kid'.  Home karaoke systems came out around this time which only made it worse. Despite since accumulating a wealth of embarrassing moments on stage, I still cringe at these memories.

do that once more
for the camera -
aww, how cute!

These days, we celebrate Christmas twice.  On Christmas day we're with the Croatian side, digging into ham, turkey and the traditional baked treats - raffiola, hrstule - that are made laboriously by hand for feast days. This is one of the only times in the year the men are welcomed into the kitchen to help. A day or two after we're with the Chinese side, stuffing ourselves on steamed crayfish, giant crab, and salmon sashimi.  My dad gets up early to go to the seafood market so he can bag the liveliest targets, then spends the rest of the day imploring my mum not to overcook/overclean them as she bends her back over the sink, ignoring him.  As the afternoon wears on and the adults adopt positions of increasingly horizontal somnulence,  posses of rugrats tussle for space on the trampoline.

Christmas day is when the ostentatiously costly presents are distributed; a few days later, it's red packets.  I prefer the Chinese way.  Best not to feel the need to give anything, but if you're going to give, give money. That way the giftee can choose what they want.  In the case of babies, the gift is banked for the future.

if only
we could bank
time, taste, summer -
if only
nothing would change.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Herald Interview

The NZ Herald is profiling one Sir Peter Blake Leader each week and this week it was my turn.
I send people difficult questions by email all the time (mostly for interviews for The Big Idea) but it's not so easy when the tables are turned! I had 31 questions... had a go at most of them, but there were quite a few I didn't answer (including the good old "so if you were stuck on a desert island what four people would you pick to be stuck with you?" - that question reminds me far too much of a certain, very brief, date which felt more like a job interview....)  But it was a pretty interesting exercise. Suspect my answers now would be very different to even 5 years ago!

Note: file photos at the Herald are held forever, apparently. The glam, slightly smug photo of yours truly was taken in pre baby days....
Describe your childhood (where you were raised, family life, education etc)

My parents came to NZ from Hong Kong for a job opportunity in the 1970s and have lived in Auckland ever since.  I have wonderful memories of walking a bush track to Meadowbank Primary School, and later trudging up our steep street to bus to St Cuthbert’s College. My parents instilled some key values in me: always work hard; never give up the first time; think very hard before you complain; and always eat good food.

What was your first job/paid employment?

I had a few tutoring jobs at university, but my first full time job was as a junior doctor at Rotorua Hospital.  It was a great place to work – small enough to know everyone, but large enough to offer some very interesting cases and challenges.  The down time was great too – in that year I played canoe polo, touch rugby (against some very large and fast hospital orderlies who took pity and didn’t tag me as often as they could have!) and started a BA by correspondence at Massey University.

What is your first memory of being a leader?

I was 17 and had just finished the Science Summer School, which brings senior school students from around the country together in the summer holidays for two weeks of intensive study at Auckland University.  Of course, being teenagers, we also held pizza parties, stayed up late, played as many practical jokes as we could and made lifelong friendships.  Norm Winterbottom, the convenor, who’s still very active in Rotary, called me up afterwards and said he thought I had potential and would I come back the following year as a Science School leader.  I nearly burst from joy. It was the first time anyone had called me a leader. I ended up being with the Science School for two more years and meeting some amazing students. Many of them are now leaders in science and many other fields.

Tell us about someone who has been a mentor to you

There are so many! In every field I go into, whether it’s science, medicine or arts, kind people seem ready to offer their help and mentorship. It’s the way NZ is I think, and how we tend to grow our leaders – through informal assistance and talent spotting.  One person who has really helped guide me in my arts career is writer and poet. Siobhan Harvey.  She’s both formally and informally mentored me, and as often happens, we are now good friends. She encouraged me to keep writing when I was just a beginner poet, helped me put my work forward for anthologies and also mentored me with my (yet to be completed) first novel and poetry collection.

What does a typical day at work look like?

It depends on the day and the time!  I don’t think I’m unique in having many careers.  I’m a writer – I write a lot of my own stuff, and also freelance and volunteer as an arts journalist; I produce plays and community arts events; I work around the country as a paediatrician; I work at the University of Auckland part time as a researcher; and I’m mum to a very feisty toddler.  Needless to say I owe a lot to the support of my wonderful and patient husband, and have a clever phone that reminds me what I’m supposed to be doing!

How would your colleagues describe you?

That’s a bit like asking me to look in the mirror, isn’t it? I’d like to think that people find me friendly, approachable, energetic and maybe a little mad.  I tend to be passionate about lots of things, but I also try to take other people’s ideas and feelings into account before I bowl ahead with a plan.

As a leader, what’s the secret to getting people to support and share your vision?

Passion.  People won’t believe unless you believe it.  Also sharing information and involving people as early as possible, so that they ‘own’ the project as much as you do.

What has been a highlight of your career or leadership journey?

I don’t think I could just pick one – and I feel that I’m only just beginning, at any rate. Each time I’m asked to do something – whether it be joining a committee, giving a speech, teaching, or organising events – I feel that I’m the one learning and benefitting the most.   It’s also a great opportunity to watch other leaders in action.

What was a low moment or failure and how did you deal with it?

I was bullied when I was a junior doctor.  It was by a professor that I regarded highly and had hoped to learn from, so it was a particularly challenging time for me.  I decided to walk away from the specialist career path I’d set my heart on – and it was then that I discovered that when one door closes, many others open, often in unexpected places.  I’ll thank that professor for the rest of my life, because her actions pushed me to discover other things that I could succeed at – general paediatrician, writer, researcher and community advocate.

What was the best piece of career advice you ever received?

Professor Tania Gunn, a leading neonatal researcher at National Women’s who mentored me when I was a student, told me that ‘the most successful people have at least five careers.’  That was 20 years ago and I’d say that has gone up to 10 or even 20 careers now. It taught me never to be satisfied and to keep chasing my passions.  If a need exists, maybe you can be the one to make it happen.  It’s amazing how many times I’ve ended up doing something rewarding (and being rewarded for it) out of just following my instincts.

What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

It’s pretty crazy to give up a full time job in medicine and enrol in an arts degree.  But as a result, I now have three jobs that I love. My passion for medicine has been reignited, I love the challenge of groundbreaking research, and my writing allows me to explore the questions about identity, family and culture that fascinate me.

What annoys you?

Lots of things, all the time!  But I’ve learnt from my parents – to think before I comment or blame.  Annoyance is also a wonderful driver for creativity. If something annoys me enough I’ll write a poem or play and boom! Suddenly it’s a shared annoyance and you can start exploring it constructively, hopefully with a lot of laughter.

What do you think will be a significant business or societal issue in the next decade?

I’m worried that people, and especially business and politicians, don’t understand the role of science and how scientists explore the big questions.  For example, the so-called debate around the climate crisis.  Science is objective but not necessarily black and white – evidence is always accumulating and scientists have to shift their thinking to accommodate all the new data and all the complexities.  Challenge and debate is part of good science – if we didn’t question accepted wisdoms we’d never learn anything new -  but that doesn’t mean there isn’t consensus once the evidence is there. Scientists can’t always give answers in neat one-liners that are easy to digest - but then, our world isn’t black and white. People need to learn to think in shades of grey, examining all the angles, and on a global scale, and demand that their leaders do the same, otherwise we won’t have much chance of keeping the world as we know it.

Where do you see yourself in ten years time?

I have no idea. If you’d asked me that ten years ago, when I was still making ten year plans, I would have been incredibly, woefully wrong.  So now I’m happy to just try to recognise my passions and to try to follow them – wherever they lead.

What is your favourite way to relax and unwind?

Spending time with my husband and baby. They know how to push my buttons, but I guess that’s part of the fun!

Who is a leader (NZ or global) that you admire and why?

Helen Clark.  She’s stayed true to herself and her beliefs, but she’s also not afraid to follow her passions to do something different, and she does her research and considers the opinions of others before deciding on a course of action. She then sticks to her guns even if under pressure.

 What is a big dream/goal/aspiration that you have currently?

I’ve been writing plays for a few years, getting more ambitious with each one, and it’s my dream to write something – whether it be a play, film, or novel - that will make the world pause and think.  Even if it’s just for a few seconds.  But isn’t it everyone’s ambition to stop the world?

And for New Zealand’s future?

I’d like to see us leading the world more in terms of the environment. It’s easy to write a slogan ‘100% Pure’ – much more difficult to make that a reality by putting in place the relevant policies and protections, despite the fact that there will always be some groups that will be unhappy.

If you could give your 15-year old self some wise advice, what would it be?

Actually, when I was about 14 I started a little notebook of ‘advice to myself as an adult’.  I soon forgot about writing in it, but one of the pieces of advice my earnest 14 year old self recorded was to ‘always keep your friendships.’ I’d stand by that today.

What is your biggest regret?

Right now, that my busy life, and the time and distance that seems inevitable in my generation, means that I can’t see my friends or even talk as often as I’d like.  But I know that they are there whenever I need them, and I’d do the same for them.

What is one item of technology that you can’t live without and why?

My Macbook Air!  I admit it – I’m addicted to macs. I’m one of those terrible people checking email and social media all the time.

When you look back on your life, for what are you grateful?

I’m grateful to have family and friends who are not only supportive, but demanding. They demand that I be the best that I can be and that I continue to push myself, but that I also recognise and fix my weaknesses.

What is the best part about being a Blake Leader/Blake Medallist/being involved with the Sir Peter Blake Trust?

It’s been an amazing journey so far.  They call you an ‘emerging’ leader for a reason – they expect you to emerge! Since I was named a Blake Leader all sorts of challenges and opportunities have been thrown my way. Right now I’m learning about governance by being thrown in the deep end, by serving on various boards. It’s a wonderful opportunity, especially as I’m meeting so many people who come from a different background, and we can all learn from each other!!

Monday, October 21, 2013

First Asian AB returns next week - and all shows are free! Also a scriptwriting workshop.

The First Asian AB
Written and directed by Renee Liang. Starring Benjamin Teh and Paul Fagamalo with music by Robbie Ellis and lighting design by Sam Mence
October 29th November 1st

What would you do to represent?
Willys a homestay Asian student. Mooks Samoan and hes been here for ages. Theyre best mates at Timaru High. But when Willy decides his dream is to try out for the All Blacks, mateship and everything else is up for grabs.
A comedy (mostly).
At breakneck pace, Ben Teh (The Bone Feeder, Odd Socks) and Paul Fagamalo (Pollyhood, Where We Once Belonged) capture multiple characters including a Samoan aiga, a bored class of thirteen year olds, two entire rugby teams playing each other, and one sassy girl called George. Directed by Renee Liang with live music by Robbie Ellis and lighting design by Sam Mence. Running time 75 minutes, suitable ages 9-99. FREE (bookings recommended).

Dates & times:
Tue 29 Oct Te Tuhi Gallery, Pakuranga     11 am & 1.15 pm
Wed 30 Oct Te Tuhi Gallery, Pakuranga    1.15 pm
Thu 31 Oct Hawkins Theatre, Papakura      1.30 & 7.30 pm
Fri 1 Nov  Auckland Museum                   11 am & 1.15 pm
8th show to be advised 
Booking: contact venues direct (details below) or go to
Te Tuhi 09 577 0138, Hawkins Theatre 09 297 7712, Auckland Museum 09 306 7048

Scriptwriting workshop

Date: Saturday, Nov 2
Time: 10 am – 2 pm
Cost $15
Location: Mangere Arts Centre, Corner Orly Ave and Bader Drive, Mangere Town Centre
Bookings Phone: (09) 262 5789, Email:

Ever thought of writing a script for film or theatre? Join playwright Renee Liang (The First Asian AB) and screenwriter Padma Akula for a half day workshop.
Perfect for beginners or those with some experience of writing in another genre.  Bring: pen, paper, your lunch (shops are also within easy walking distance) and a will to write! You'll leave with the start of a new short script for film, TV or the stage, tips and tricks to enter the industry, and lots of ideas and exercises to keep writing.  

Registration essential. $15 fee (payable in advance to reserve your place.) Limited to 15 participants.  15 years and over.