Following are the images and words from my presentation at the NZ Book Council Pecha Kucha night in Feb. (It's taken me ages to get around to typing them out). It was the second one I’d attended, the first I’d presented at. I wasn’t prepared for what I found at Galatos –a long queue of punters at the door (some were ended up being turned away), and inside the place already packed to capacity with chairs, floor space, walls and stairs all being used as places to sit or lean and people squashed elbow to elbow. Luckily Suzanne of the Book Council spotted me and pushed/pulled/dragged me through the crush to the reserved sanctuary near the front, and I felt rather small when I saw who else I was speaking alongside. It was like taking a huge hit from a wall of energy when I stood up to speak – I’ve hardly ever seen a NZ audience so engaged. Hurray for rock star moments!
NB: What I've posted below are my notes. In reality it went so fast I had no time to look down, so here's what I actually said....
I have a split personality. Sometimes I’m a poet, sometimes a short story writer, sometimes a performer, occasionally a novelist. Sometimes I’m a paediatrician and sometimes a researcher. You might think it’s difficult doing all these things but actually they support and enhance each other. I think of each skill as an item in a toolbox – so for each story or situation, I pick the best tool (or two.). Today I’d like to share a few waypoints on my personal journey, and show you some of my favourite tools.
1. My career as an artist is only three years old. Three years ago, I experienced an awakening – of sorts. Like many, it was triggered by a personal tragedy. After a period of numbness, I responded by trying to find the stories in my life that would hold me together.
2. So this is my crazy family – like all families, they are beautiful, mysterious, demanding, frustrating and energising – often all at the same time. This picture was taken by me on the day my nephew took his first steps. It was also a day when my family came together to celebrate the impending marriage of my youngest sister. And for me as a writer, this is where my stories start – the family.
3. And the female relationships in my family are often the most interesting. This is a recent photo of my aunty feeding my grandmother, who’s in her 90s. On my aunty’s lap is my grandmother’s great grandchild. In the background is my younger sister. So there are four generations of women in this photo. I’ve found that again and again I’m drawn to exploring interrelationships and the ties that bind – willingly or unwillingly. The bloodlines and what draws us together, as families, as humans.
4. So the first tool I discovered was poetry – on the page. I started making small chapbooks. This one was a family affair – with drawings by my sister and nephew, and poems about my family.
5. And I also found poetry – in performance. This is Tim Heath, one of my friends, in full performance mode at Poetry Live. He’s competing in one of the regular Poetry Slams. Poetry Live has been around in Auckland for thirty years and isn’t going away anytime soon! Currently it’s on at the Thirsty Dog in K’Rd on Tuesday nights starting at 8 pm – I’d encourage you to go along.
6. So then I discovered theatre. Here’s Jin Wenxin as the Daughter in Mask, the first of my short plays to be professionally produced in the Manawatu Festival of New Arts in 2008. As the playwright, I was inspired by the storytelling traditions of traditional Chinese Opera, although my knowledge of this is still from the position of an outsider. It helped me understand how to explore intergenerational relationships through the language of vision and movement as well as words – a new tool for my writer’s box.
7. This led to Lantern, my first full length play, produced in 2009. Unsurprisingly, it’s a family drama – based on a NZ-Chinese family. In the process of writing this play I was able to play with a multistranded, multicharacter approach to storytelling, over a longer period of time. I learnt ‘on the job’ how to construct narrative which benefited the novel I’d begun in 2007.
8. I also learnt about collaboration, in this case with a director and actors – leaving the space for others to ‘complete the gesture’. Here, Andy Wong and Li-Ming Hu embody a young NZ couple. I learnt how rehearsal needs a collaborative approach, but with recognised roles.
9. Collaboration also happens with the audience in theatre – in fact community involvement in storytelling is one thing that makes a story more powerful. This picture is of the Lantern Project, in which members of the public were encouraged to leave their own poems written on paper lanterns. Eventually over 400 small lanterns, with poems, covered the walls in The Basement theatre foyer. It was easy to get that many poems – stories need to be told.
10. There’s also a lot of collaboration within the arts community. This picture is from Metonymy, an “artistic blind dating” service dreamed up with fellow poet Christian Jensen and artists Hannah May Thompson and Makyla Curtis. We matched 33 pairs of artists and poets in both our first and second years, resulting in two well attended exhibitions, several new books, and a number of enduring partnerships.
11. Workshops and teaching have been another new skill set. Whenever I’ve been out at schools and the community to teach, I’ve found that the learning is two-way. Here some kids at the Glen Innes school holiday program at Youthtown do “visual poetry” in the form of chalking stories about themselves.
12. And there’s also performance in collaboration. During the People in Your Neighbourhood (2009) project organised by the British Council NZ, I had a brief moment as a rock star while performing with ghuzheng player Yao Chen and the UK-based Urban Soul orchestra. Here’s a picture of me performing at WOMAD to a crowd of over 5,000. The track – spoken word, traditional Chinese instrumentals and Western orchestrals – features on a CD and album downloadable free from the British Council website.
13. I find writing in collaboration very satisfying. Here I am with Robbie Ellis, Catherine Norton and Frances Moore, at the Bay of Islands Arts Festival a few weeks ago. Robbie set some of the poems from Banana, the chapbook I showed earlier, to music. Just to show we’re into mixing it up culturewise: the premiere of Seven Banana Songs took place in an 140 year old Anglican church, with a Chinese-kiwi poet and western composer and singer.
14. In my most recent project, I’ve found all these ‘tools’ coming together. This picture from historical archives shows survivors from the SS Ventnor, which was wrecked off the coast of the Hokianga harbour in 1902. The ship carried an unusual cargo – 499 coffins of Chinese who had come to NZ to work but had died before they could be repatriated to their home villages.
15. When I was exploring the strands of this story, I found myself back at the bloodlines – the ties that bind and connect us. This is an image used for promoting The Bonefeeder which is by Nagpuhi, Irish and Scottish artist Penny Howard – who traces her bloodlines back to the Hokianga. Penny and I met on Metonymy.
16. The Bonefeeder is the story of a young man who travels to the Hokianga in search of his great great grandfather’s bones. The play was first produced at the end of last year at Auckland University, and this picture shows Mike Ginn in the title role with Ben Teh as his much older relative…
17. …and the ghosts of dead miners haunting their every (mis)step. This project added another tool to my toolbox – direction. I was able to experiment with the traditions of Asian theatre and European forms such as Greek theatre, as well as physical theatre.
18. Doing this, I found out how to write poetry without words. Theatre is poetry on stage as well as on the page – working with all the elements – lighting, costumes, actors’ bodies.
19. I also collaborated with live musicians – a group called New Nature who I’d met through the People In Your Neighbourhood Project – and composer Andrew Correa. We’re currently excited about rehearsing for an outside ‘promenade’ version of the play, to be performed at the Hamilton Summer Gardens Arts Festival.
20. And this is my last image – a new baby awakening the stories and memories of her great grandmother. It’s a reminder that all the tools of a writer are no use without a story that matters. These are (for me) all family stories at their heart - The Bone Feeder is a ghost story that turned after several rewrites into a family drama.