Is writing your favourite form of self-expression?
Yes, absolutely! I very much believe that the ability to tell your own stories, the ability to speak and to control your own story is a human right. I realise that a lot of people might not even realise that and some might not think that they have the skill, but everyone has the capacity to tell their own story. All you need is to be given the opportunity and some tools.
What age were you when you started writing?
My family story is interesting. I’m Cantonese, and in my culture the grandfather gets to name the grandchildren. I was given the name “Literary Blossom (文蔚)” because my grandfather felt that we needed a writer in the family- we already had scientists and doctors. And that is how people referred to me when I was younger – ‘this is Renee, she’s the writer’. I guess names are powerful.
I was about six or seven when I wrote and illustrated a children’s book in an empty scrapbook, “Debie the Dodo.” (Debie is a boy). I wrote a series of those books, my mum saved them so I still have them. I started to enter school competitions and win them and I also started to explore writing – that’s the first time I fell for poetry.
You were supported at home?
Yes. My family really value words and language. I have been reconnecting with Cantonese lately – which was my first language, I spoke it until I went to kindergarten in New Zealand and then English took over. English has been the predominant language for me to think in. I am confident writing in English but I have started to include Cantonese in my writing as well.
I might say here that I am an illiterate Cantonese writer, I can’t read or write the language but I can speak it (am wobbly but improving through practice). Keeping the language alive is in fact a political act because Cantonese is being suppressed in parts of the world where it is native, so it is important to me to be part of sustaining my mother tongue (and all its keys to our culture) through inclusion in new acts of diasporic writing. It’s imperfect, but it’s from my heart and an expression of my hybridity. It’s fascinating to me that Cantonese and Te Reo Māori (the native language of Aotearoa NZ) are similar in many ways – both are passed down through oral transmission, and both are intensely sensory languages where every expression is like a small story and holds collective memories, enshrined in language. Being able to access that, no matter how clumsily, is a privilege.
When does poetry become important?
Poetry was, in many ways, the first form of writing I fully explored. To me poetry is distilled feelings. It is a very pure form of writing and holds immediacy. I find myself returning to poetry whenever I need to express something essential, whenever I need a creative hit. If I want to express my thoughts quickly, get my feelings out, then poetry is the form that I go to.
You were part of the New Zealand underground poetry scene around the early 2000 period?
I actually started my poetry/ spoken word career in outback Australia. I was working in Broken Hill in New South Wales, Australia, as a doctor. I joined a writer’s group and this particular group would go to pubs, outback pubs, which tended to be pretty rough. So imagine this short Asian woman, showing up with her fellow poets to read and perform. As a Kiwi I felt it my duty to perform work that insulted Australians in these pubs but for some reason I never got in trouble.
And then I lost my partner – he died really suddenly. I started writing out my grief, and was using the open mics in these pubs as an avenue for grieving. I certainly felt that people were supporting me and that made a huge difference to coping. It was the start of my journey back to writing, something I’d let go a bit when I was studying at medical school.
Then you ended up back in Auckland?
When I returned to New Zealand, I found Poetry Live (Open Mic event in Auckland) and started performing there and I became an MC as well. There was a group of MC’s that were very close, very creative and we worked well together.
We ended up doing all kinds of things outside of Poetry Live, but always involving the joy of sharing words in public. One group was called the Guerrilla Poets – we would hit the streets late at night and chalk poems for people to find in the morning. We would go on daytime poetry missions to write poetry in unexpected places, like local parks or pavements in the city centre. I remember once writing a whole poem around a man that was asleep on a park bench.
We also set up a project called Metonymy, where the idea was that we organise creative ‘Blind Dates’- people we thought would be amazing if only they knew each other. We matched poets with musicians and visual artists and gave them a place to perform and to mount an exhibition. Over several years, hundreds of poets and artists took part. At least one pairing formed a real couple and they’re still together and still collaborating!
We were very creative group of people and many have gone on to continue working in the creative industries. Just recently a group of us got back together and we were discussing that period of intense creativity with no resources and no funding. We realised that it was the platform, that it laid the groundwork of hard graft and self belief and doing it ‘for the passion’, from which we all went on to produce the work we are doing now.
You did a lot more than just write poetry?
I used to run slams, I was a Slammistress, and I certainly went all the way regarding that name. I even had a costume, a full leather corset, which came from a costume sale for Zena the Warrior Princess (TV series). I had to get a buddy and we’d lock ourselves in the toilets so I could be laced into that costume before the show started. I would perform the sacrifice poem (that set the tone for the poets and performers) which was quite … suggestive. And of course I had the tight leather skirt and heels and high ponytail and whip, which I used to whip poets if they exceeded their three minutes. Apparently people still remember those events.
I was writing a lot of poetry and that was my main creative outlet for quite some time. And I was part of the slam scene which has grown considerably over the years. One thing I would say is that the New Zealand slam scene hasn’t developed only in one direction. There has always been a sense of the New Zealand poetry scene having a unique approach to writing so the Def Jam style hasn’t become the dominant style. We have lyric poets or intensely comedic poets win sometimes – it depends on the audience and the night.
You are also a playwright?
Yes, theatre has been my main form for a number of years. I’m known for my plays about the Chinese diaspora and early NZ Chinese history, but I’ve also written comedies, family dramas and even an absurdist style play about two fish in the tank of a Chinese restaurant.
The Artistic Director, Carla Van Zon, of the Auckland Arts Festival saw one of my plays and I was commissioned to turn it into an opera. So I moved into writing libretto and I enjoyed that so much I moved into writing words for musical narrative works – book + lyrics for musicals, rock operas and so on. I also write long and short fiction, memoir and essays. And I’ve recently tried my hand at stand-up comedy.
You have a Community Arts orientation as well?
Yes I do. About 15 years ago I was asked to teach a group of migrant women how to express themselves and when I started that I thought we should produce a book and publish it. That has led to 8 anthologies of migrant women’s writing which I have published under an imprint, Monster Fish (which is also the name I make chapbooks under) – I guess I’m also accidentally a small press founder.
Some of the women I have worked with have gone on to have their own writing careers and others have stayed as leaders within their communities and encouraged other women to express themselves and tell their stories.
Is there anything which comes out of that work?
I was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit through the work I did, and I still do, with migrant women.
I have quite a high profile as a senior New Zealand arts practitioner particularly because I advocate for, and write plays about, the Chinese New Zealander experience.
Where to now?
I met Tim Finn, of Split Enz fame, recently and I am working with him at the moment on an opera. I fangirled him at a Christmas party at NZ Opera and when I mentioned to him that I was a librettist he suggested working together. That will something that will be a lot of fun as well as another adventure to add to the work I have been part of over the years.
You can read more about Renee Liang at her wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renee_Liang