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Kōrero: Renee Liang, with a book extract and a poetry reading

Vaughan Rapatahana: Can you please tell us about your own background? Some reference to your Asian heritage would be great.

Renee Liang: My father is originally from Southern China, my mother from Hainan Island which is also in the South. Their families both fled war and they grew up in Hong Kong, where they met while at University. My dad came to NZ after he was offered a job training in paediatrics – he and my mother had honeymooned here and liked the open, friendly society which was less racist than other places they’d considered emigrating. Our home language is Cantonese and my mother’s prediction has indeed come true – the time has come when I truly value my mother tongue and wish I’d practiced more when I was young!

VR: Can you also please tell us more about your writing career and genres. Current projects? Just a bit of background…

RL: I’ve always been ‘the writer’ in my family – most likely it started with the name my grandfather chose for me, 文蔚 which means literary blossom – our family has always been top heavy with medics and scientists so he thought he’d signal a change with his first grandchild. But after doing pretty well as a student writer, I experienced a freeze when I started medical school – a common experience, it’s a very demanding course. It was only when I needed to deal with some pretty big issues in my 30s that I found poetry again. Pretty soon I was doing performance and slam poetry and MCing at Poetry Live (Auckland’s famous live poetry venue).

From there I started writing short and long fiction and then plays. I’m probably best known as a playwright and theatre producer having just produced my 8th touring play. Recently I’ve written 3 long musical narrative works, including libretto for an opera, The Bone Feeder, which was commissioned by Auckland Arts Festival, and I’ve become fascinated by long form essays, with my essay on Family Poverty (published Jan 2020 in North and South magazine) attracting a lot of interest. I’ve also collaborated with visual artists, game designers, musicians and now dancers on projects. I’ve taught, mentored, reviewed, and published anthologies of others’ work.

You can probably guess that I’m not particularly limited by genre – they feel like pretty arbitary divisions! I’m more interested in using whatever form fits the story I want to tell. Often this means doing lots of research and finding great collaborators and mentors to work with. I really love the arts ecosystem which is full of people working hard for love of words and stories. I wish we were better resourced, but I love how generous we all are in spite of / because of that.

VR: How can Aotearoa New Zealand encourage more Kiwi Asian authors to write/get publishers to publish them? Any ideas?

RL: For a start, acknowledge we exist! There are specific funding streams to support Māori and Pacific arts practitioners, arts awards from the government to recognise their work, and recognition within official policy documents that uplifting these stories enrich all of us. Chinese have been in New Zealand since the mid-1850s, with so many other people of Asian origin following us to call this place home. We have important stories to tell too, and they’re all different (note: not all Asians are the same!)

More importantly, having our stories recognised as stories of Aotearoa will enable us to stand on this land as manuhiri and feel connected, seen and heard. But guess who usually gets left out of any policies? Whose presence doesn’t even get mentioned most of the time in official speeches except in negative ways? Who even when there is ‘tagged’ funding often see it being taken out of our hands and ‘managed’ by non-Asian producers?

We are sick of having our stories stolen from us, or people assuming we are there to ‘educate’ or entertain them. If there were more people through the system – editors, mentors, publishers, reviewers, funders – who are Asian, they would have an inherent understanding of the issues: we want to be able to tell our own stories, in a way we want, and to people we want. Seems pretty simple, ne?

VR: Do you write much prose poetry or flash fiction yourself? Do you see these interrelated genre as significant ‘newer’ ways to write?

RL: I really love prose poetry, and in our memoir of parenthood, When We Remember To Breathe, my coauthor Michele Powles and I write miniature essays which could also be read as prose poems. I haven’t really tried writing within the ‘rules’ of flash (at least the ones used in competitions) but I do love the short form, both fiction and non fiction As mentioned earlier, I don’t see the point in having divisions between genres! If it works to tell the story, it should be used!


An extract from When We Remember to Breathe

A note to my baby: I’m doing my daily walk. Ten minutes to the shops, ten minutes back. The concrete path has a gentle roll to it. So do my hips. Inside, you loll in an amniotic sea, kicking a lazy foot out every now and then, to stroke across my abdomen. The scan lady said that your head was deep in my pelvis. So deep, we couldn’t see your face today. The only thing we caught was a wedge of nose: perky like your father’s, not snub like mine or your sister’s. Strange how I obsess about things like noses. Strange the things that become fixed beliefs, like the Liang nose is a dominant gene. Your nose could be a freak of nature. We’ll just have to see.

More extracts and to order book: https://www.magpiepulp.com/shop


Poem

The Naming

Listen.
let me tell you
the story of a man
I once heard of.
A man
an old man crouched
alone, over the phone
listening to the tin-pot tones
of his son, the tinny tin-pot lines
of transmission, translation,
transition,
magnified ten thousand times,
lines lined with words
to another country.
His son, in a savage white country.

Tropical noonday mist
mixes with truck fumes
mixes with old man bed smell
as the old man listens
listens
to his son speaking
from the other side
of the world, traces the curved stem
of a pure white orchid
on his Hong Kong balcony
as his son says, “Dad, the baby
was born last night.
Baby, the word, baby, delivered
out of the plain black hole
of the telephone,
born in a riot of blossoming blood,
born to stem the haemorrhage,
born to patch a leaking dynasty,
born. A baby born to bend
the world with his cry, to mark his patch
with piss from his thundering thighs,
to stand
ten thousand times
astride a whimpering world,
to stand there
and never once ask for directions.
A baby.
His first grandson.

The old man smiles
caresses his orchid.
His prize orchid,
the culmination of years of breeding,
blooms spilling slender and snowy
onto his small balcony.
The old man says,
so you want me to name my grandson?

The son says, Father, it’s a girl.
Our daughter. She’s beautiful.
We’d like you to name her.

The old man’s hand stills
in its caress. Light rain spatters
in through the window, falling
onto the cheeks of the old man,
the cheeks so thin you could
hold them up to the light
and trace the lines of yearning.
Light rain fingers his fingers
as his fingers tighten with a single

snap.

the head of the orchid, broken.
A snowy river, stemmed,
decapitated, disenfranchised,
disavowed, disinherited,
disabled.
All those years of work
wasted.

Father?
Father?
are you there, father?

The old man rides the waves
of his age, of his yearning, all those years of learning
now gone, filed away, defiled, defied.
He lifts his head to smell
the rain, the hot burn of tears
which start first, not in the eyes, but always
in the nostrils. The old man reaches into himself
and touches his heart,
feels his heart beating,
and he feels that
it still beats strongly, and that
the colour of the blood
is his own blood. The old man
tastes the warm salt tang
of his tears, and it tastes
like blood, and he puts
his hoping heart away again
quietly, and he lifts
up the broken flowers
and through the prism
of his tears he sees
that they are still beautiful.

The old man sighs.
He unrolls the family scroll
and draws two flower buds
that bloom
into a profusion
of characters,
and he adds
his own special stroke,
a lucky stroke, a sign.
The old man
speaks
down the line,
down through time.

“Call her Wen Wei,
the literary blossom,”
he says,

and the light rain falls
over my blossoming page.

Renee Liang is a consultant paediatrician and a widely published poet, short story writer and playwright. Her plays Lantern and The Bone Feeder have played to sold-out audiences. Her most recent book, When We Remember To Breathe, was written with Michele Powles. More at NZ Booklovers.

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