What I told Ciao….

Last month, I spoke to the lovely peeps at Ciao Magazine , a media stalwart in my local inner west about The Sydney Writers Festival, my upcoming book release, and they even managed to wrangle a cooking recipe out of me.

Transcript below or check it out on their site here.

Your book explores identity and place. How has living in Shanghai, the UK and Sydney’s Inner West shaped your personal narrative and your work?

A sense of place is really foregrounded in my work- each city is like its own character. Sydney is initially a battleground because of the childhood struggles I endured. London is where I trained as a dancer so that city is a collision of formalism and chaos, the tension of physical training with the physical pleasure of falling in love. But Shanghai is the strongest character. At the turn of the new millennium- when I moved over trying to make sense of my Chinese identity – I found a place that was just as conflicted about the past and present, East and West as I was, with an inability to stay still and hunger for constant reinvention.

You lived overseas for a long time in your adult life. What was it like living in those big global cities? And what is special about returning to this part of the world?

There’s a quote by the writer Roman Payne: “Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.” Like a lot of people, I set out overseas hoping to find something I felt was missing. And while I discovered a lot while I was gone, it wasn’t until I returned to Sydney again that I realized that what I was looking for was here all along. My reconciliation with the past wasn’t going to take place in China, where my grandparents had run away from. It had to take place where I had run away from. The battleground was actually a sanctuary, but it took a wild journey around the world to see it with new eyes.

What is your favourite part of Sydney’s Inner West?

I love the Addison Rd Community Centre Markets on a Sunday. My first real job was at a theatre company called Sidetrack in Hut 9 back in 2000 which made work inspired by the stories in the Marrickville community. It’s no longer there unfortunately, but it’s great to see organisations like The Bower, Ethnic Community Services and Radio Skid Row still standing with other great artist and community run initiatives, and local farmers and artisans amidst the creep of development.

Why are books and writing so valuable? Similarly, what has drawn you to the performing arts? Human beings have always used stories as a way to connect with each other. As a culture, it gives us an identity – it plugs our individual struggles into a collective voice. And this is what makes us more resilient and compassionate because we find ways to understand others through ourselves.

What are you looking forward to at the Writer’s Festival?

I’m excited to see the program. It’s Michaela McGuire’s first year as Artistic Director and I’m sure she has great things planned.

And just to be a part of this incredible celebration of books and writing and writers….if you’d told me I’d be part of the SWF a year ago, I would’ve told you to stop dreaming!

What was your favourite dish as a child?

I’ve got great memories of my grandmother’s water chestnut cake. It was a recipe that came from our ancestral home of Hunan in southern China – where we like our dishes heavy and spicy, but desserts cool and light.

My grandmother wasn’t much of a cook. She was raised an aristocrat, and never did embrace the culinary arts even after she had to start fending for herself. But she always went to a special effort for her grandchildren. Food of course, represented love. But looking back, I know now that her ability to feed us – and feed us well – was a potent reminder that she had succeeded in taking us as far away from the famine that had claimed the lives of others in our family, the ones who were left behind.

For a great water chestnut cake…

3 ¾  cups boiling water

1 ½  cups dark brown sugar

4 ½  cups canned water chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped

225g water chestnut powder mixed with 1 cup of cold water

Pour boiling water into a wok over high heat, add sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the chopped water chestnuts and mix well, then add the water chestnut powder mixture. Turn the heat to low and stir continually in one direction for 5 to 7 minutes, until the mix is thick and paste-like.

Pour the mixture into a nine-inch greased pan and place the pan on a rack over the wok. Add 8 cups of boiling water, then cover and steam for 40 minutes until it sets firmly and becomes translucent. Replenish the boiling water after 20 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the cake pan from the steamer and allow it to set for 4 minutes. Slice immediately and serve.

When freshly steamed and sliced the cake has the consistency of a firm jelly, but as it cools it becomes very much like aspic. To reheat after freezing, allow the cake to return to room temperature then steam it for ten minutes until it becomes more jelly-like again.

Sydney Writer’s Festival

The embargo’s been lifted, and I’m pleased to announce that I’m on the line-up of the 2017 Sydney Writer’s Festival. The theme this year is “Refuge,” and I’m on a panel called The Writer’s Habitat with some seriously bright lights on Thursday 25 May at 10am talking homeland, homesickness and the bittersweet ache of the wandering heart.

Speaking of which -reminds me of the song we used to play before the show every night in Shanghai:

Chinatown, my Chinatown

Where the lights are low

Hearts that know no other land

Drifting to and fro…

Hope to see some of you at the Festival.

 

Mao’s Last Dancer

Of course it would take a famous memoir to lure me back to the stage.

Mao’s Last Dancer is the story of a young boy plucked out of obscure, grinding poverty to train to become a ballet dancer a.k.a. revolutionary guard during China’s stormy Cultural Revolution era, where one’s weapon was also one’s art. Our protagonist Li Cunxin served both art and country faithfully until the fateful summer he was invited over to the United States to spend a summer with the Houston Ballet. it was during this overseas stay as an 18 year old that Li realised the veil of false propaganda he and all his compatriots had all been living under, and made a dramatic bid for defection. The rest, as they say – is history. Li went on to become a soloist with the Houston Ballet, principal dancer with the Australian Ballet and is today the Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet Company. But his new found freedom and international stardom came at a cost. Li was forbidden to ever return to China, and it would be seven long years before he was able to see his family again.

In 2007, Li Cunxin wrote The Peasant Prince, which was the children’s book version of his autobiography. Distilled to its purest essence, Li’s story is a rags to riches tale of what can be achieved through sheer determination, hard work, self-belief and love. Today, I am bringing his story to life for young audiences across Australia in a tightly woven stage adaptation by Monkey Baa Theatre. The production is a coming together of some of the finest theatrical minds in the business, with a simple yet spectacular set consisting of a giant wooden frame and scrim. The changing landscapes have been handpainted, and are back projected to convey a sparse village home, bustling Beijing train station, Houston Ballet Studio and the magnanimous gaze of Chairman Mao back when he was bigger than God.

It’s been five years since my last play, and this one was one I couldn’t say no to. When I’m standing behind in the wings, waiting for the audience to enter, I think of how different my life may have been had it not been for Mao and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. How my grandparents might never have been forced to flee their homeland, that their isolation might not have been filtered into trauma from one generation to the next. And I think of how important stories from that time and place are because they are part of not just mine – but the world’s- cultural DNA.

So 2016 is shaping up to be the year of returning to Cultural Revolution China – as if I had been there, inhabiting those who are part of one person’s journey to dream, to dance, to risk everything for love and freedom- and who triumphed.

My grandparents would have loved it.

 

 

Why Stories are Good for the Brain

One of my favorite stories growing up was of the day my grandmother met my grandfather. She was in her early 30s – resolutely considered the age of spinsterhood in the time the Communists rose to power in China in the 1940s. She came from an aristocratic family, which rendered her and all the eligible young men she knew the loathsome ‘class enemy’. But what grandma considered even more crippling was the birthmark she had been born with: a blue, vein-like tinge that crept from under her right eye and snaked its way down her cheekbone. She thought it made her look ugly, and no man would want her. But when Mao announced that all unmarried women over the age of 16 had to marry someone from the Communist party, suddenly grandma had no choice but to find a husband. She was introduced to a young man through a matchmaker who proclaimed insensitively, “I understand if this person isn’t suitable because of the mark on her face.” My future grandfather said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Something like that isn’t important.”

In the end, my grandparents were happily married for 60 years.

As I grew up and experienced knocks to my self-image, I’d remind myself of this narrative backbone through which I could filter and retain that all-important message: it’s what inside that counts.

That’s what a good story does. It reminds us that being alive is a shared experience, and invites us into the world of another to recognize our own humanity. Generations and cultures collapsed between my grandmother and I whenever stories were shared . They allowed me to imagine myself in her shoes – highlighting similarities, not differences. My most valuable lessons have come in the form of stories because stories tap into our intuitive, human impulse to empathise- the capacity we all have to be able to “feel oneself into the inner life of another person.”*

From a neurological standpoint, human beings’ sense of empathy can be mapped through our cognitive wiring- the way we connect with others is through mirror neurons. That is, your behavior and actions will fire off impulses in MY brain that recognize YOUR behavior and actions – which is the basic brain function of empathy. This function can also improve with practice when we train our ability to listen, to

digest, to interpret, to edit and to finally inhabit. When engaged in storytelling, we are searching something outside of ourselves to embody new meanings.

A simple and effective storytelling exercise I like to use as an ice-breaker is asking students to partner up in pairs and share short personal stories with each other, and then asking them to tell their partner’s story in the first person – as if that story happened to them. The purpose of this activity is to highlight:

–         The importance of listening and absorbing information not just in words, but also in the interaction of sharing

–         The role of editing in storytelling – how do you choose what information to tell?

–         The interpretive process to make something your own

–         How do you take on the responsibility of telling somebody else’s story, while maintaining its original essence?

What underpins the technique of storytelling as an artform is its power to enable you to learn even more about yourself than the subject – through the act of doing.

Where the ability to learn is concerned, fear of the unknown can be a stumbling block to receiving new and unfamiliar information. Stories make audiences of all of us, generating openness, curiosity and an embracing of the unknown. Consisting of characters with human flaws that are celebrated, and amongst whom conflict is under the microscope, it is this debilitating fear of the unknown that dissolves in the face of empathy as we engage in storytelling.

When faced with high-stakes moments and devices employed in serialised storytelling such as ‘cliff-hangers’, –we create for us and our audiences the appetite to know “what happens next?” rather than ‘I don’t want to know’ when unexpected life challenges are presented to us. In essence, this is an optimistic frame of mind that creatively drives problem-solving, critical analyses and their application in educational endeavours.

 

Through penning memoirs about more tumultuous times in my life, I am now extrapolating larger, universal resonances from intensely personal experiences. When I see them land on the page or out loud to a roomful of strangers, my stories can now exist outside myself and serve as a template for reflection in very much the same way that I learnt from my grandmother’s stories: that there exists alternative ways of negotiating the complex realities our brains are unable to process in isolation.

*Heinz Kohut

**This article was published in The Positive Times July 2014.

Australian Writers Week: the last leg

The first thing you notice about Beijing is the smog. Within minutes of landing, my whole body was working a bit harder just to breathe. The Australian Embassy staffer who had been with me since Mongolia gave me the stats: the day registered a 160 reading on the Air Quality Index on her Iphone. “What does that mean?” I asked. “It’s really not too bad. The World Health Organization’s recommended level is 50.”She smiled at my startled face. “Considering we hit over 700 at the beginning of the year, 160 really isn’t too bad.”

I had arrived in Beijing for the final leg of Australian Writers Week 2014, organized every year by the Embassy. Deigned as a celebration of contemporary Australian literature, and an opportunity to explore cross-cultural perspectives, I was about to meet the other eight authors selected to represent this slice of our national soundbite: magazine contributor and author Benjamin Law; stand-up comedian and author Oliver Phommavanh; young adult fiction writer Leanne Hall; investigative journalist Pamela Williams; writer and illustrator Gabrielle Wang; children’s writer Alison Lloyd; Iranian-Australian writer Ali Alizadeh; and novelist Dominique Wilson. Each writer had been given a different tour schedule –ricocheting to different parts of the country- and culminating in the climax of official duties that lay ahead in this final week in the smoggy but impressive capital.

Although united by the general theme of “Asian-Australian writing”, we were distinct in voice and practice. Being the only non-published writer (and feeling nebulously defined so) I felt embraced by this temporarily floating community. Each of our stories were held under the gaze of an interested but foreign lens in the overlap between politics and culture, bringing our essentially private acts of writing together into an embodied and public space. Being the performer in the group, I had my schtick down pat – more than comfortable with the extra layer of fiction the construct of performance provides to a set of words and ideas. But the trouble with speaking autobiographically is that it wrestles with the fluidity of personal memory to work and being back in China- and having just been in Shanghai, the theatre of my most dramatic recollections- the past and the present were colliding in a way that my pre-packaged story could no longer accommodate. As I searched for the truth in each moment of its re-telling, I realized that my research of being back was shifting –ever so slightly – the way I remember.

“Writing is like carpentry.” the Pakistani writer H.M. Naqvi told us that week – the grunt work of cutting, building and assembling blocks of information into something purposeful. And so, as I roll up my sleeves and get back to work, I’ve got my eyes firmly fixed on a changing landscape: my family history is no victim narrative, but one of triumph through adversity; my marriage may have been shipwrecked, but an indomitable friendship survives; and China in 2014 isn’t quite the same as China in 2008, though some things remain the same. It’s still the perfect backdrop of hedonism mixed with officialdom: where else would I have been met actress Bai Ling, pioneer of Asian erotic journalism (a.k.a. the first Asian woman to appear on the cover of Playboy) and Australia’s ex PM on the same trip?

Writing and Remembering

Being back in China as I recount what I know, and write more of what I remember, gaps and gaps of knowledge continue to reveal themselves, and I find myself running to catch up. At some stage, imagination will have to help me to the finish line.

What I do know is this: Grandfather fled China in 1949 during the chaotic aftermath of the Communists’ war victory. But he left his eight year old daughter behind. “We couldn’t bring her with us on the plane,” my grandfather would say, tears in his eyes even after the long passage of time.  “She was deep in the countryside and there was no time to fetch her.” My grandfather did not know that it would be another 43 years before be could contact her again because of the Government freeze-out.

When both finally realized that the other was still alive, their relationship became a closely guarded sanctuary where painful disclosures were revealed and emotional scars were healed through letters, photos and stories. Information was slowly drip-fed to me as I was growing up: My great grandparents perished during the Great Chinese Famine. My Aunt was married off at a young age to ensure her survival. The family suffered at the hands of the Cultural Revolution. In China this strand of my family story is tragic, but not uncommon. What is less common in China is openly sharing this story in front of an audience. The reactions I have encountered here have run the gamut from uncomfortably personal: (“Will you have children yourself one day?”) to intensely confrontational: (Q: “How do you feel about the life choices you’ve had when your aunt was trapped in China?”), propelling the louder drumming of my own self-enquiry: “Why tell these stories?” It is hard, and sometimes it hurts.

A fortnight ago, I met my long lost Aunt for the first time in Hunan–near the same village she was left behind in. She is now 75 years old. After I showed her our family story as I understood it to be, she said “You’re missing something,” and she returned with photographs of herself as a child. And I realized that she wanted my act of remembering and sharing to forever be fused with our meeting. She wanted a memento of her innocence to be preserved in the minds of the audience even as they discovered what happened next. She wanted me to remember better, and use my imagination more wisely.

The following week, I was in Inner Mongolia – where the collapse of a nomadic way of life in favour of rapid urbanization is one of the most stark in the country. At a meeting with the Mongolian Writers’ Association, I asked the same question I had been asking myself of late, and one of the writers replied “Our writing is characterized by our longing for our old way of life, our life in the grasslands, what is disappearing and what we need to keep close, by writing. I don’t want to forget. Our history must be known by the next generation.”

Hearing this, I felt fortified, knowing that deep down my real reason for writing is also to keep things close, to reduce the gap between longing and remembering and to extinguish the ignorance of forgetting. Even-or especially–if hard questions get asked along the way.

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Australian Writers Week 2014

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Take where I’m staying : a rickety laneway apartment I’m renting from a Swiss man with a penchant for tattoos that steps right onto Huaihai Lu, the city’s most prominent salute to luxury consumption where Omega, Prada and Hermes are my next door neighbours.

It’s one of the reasons why I love Shanghai – somehow, the most incongruous relationships make sense here, even as preconceptions are blown apart to force uneasy understandings.

It’s where I arrived in 2008 with a grant from the UK Arts Council to create a show about ancestral and cross-cultural ties, and ended up leaving 3 years later recovering from the lifestyle binge that came with working in China’s first Vaudeville and Burlesque Club.

And now I’m back – albeit for a tightly temporary stint- to steep myself back into the memories of this city as I take part in a series of literary and arts events that culminate in Australian Writers Week to present my story, promote Asian-Australian writing and engage Chinese and international audiences here.

After two weeks where I’ve endeavoured to write as much as possible in Shanghai, my official schedule has now officially kicked off for the Bookworm Literary Festival (Suzhou), the Jue Arts and Music Festival (Shanghai), followed by presentations in Inner Mongolia and then travelling to Beijing for the official “week” with the Australian Embassy and finally meeting up with the other 5 writers who have been chosen this year to represent the voices of the country.

One of the questions that have come up in the post show Q & A’s  so far have been asking about the difference between performing in Australia, and in China – and my answer has invariably been that it comes down to what the audience brings to the experience. In Australia, when I performed as a part of Performance 4a’s Stories Then and Now, commentators brought the relevance of our story collections back to the current climate of national debate around the asylum seeker issue. My first shows in China the other day were for international high schools – where a large proportion of the students are Chinese aspiring towards international prospects in their lives. “What you represent,” the foreign teachers kindly emphasized to me pre-show, “is the enormous potential of what can happen if they applied themselves to their English lessons.”

My audience the next day however, was composed mainly of the English-speaking population at the only multi-lingual bookshop/cafe/bar in a town known mostly for its classical gardens. As I rationalized the themes of my narrative, “…it’s about cross-generational and cross cultural issues…” a young African-English woman in the audience blurted out, “No – I think your story is about love,” And that’s when it hit me with clarity that differences between audiences cannot be divided by culture. It is differentiated by all the other stories in the room, and whatever is universal in the moment of sharing will surely reveal itself, or not.

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