An Enticing Affair – In conversation with Isabelle Li
Life can be puzzling. And yet, it’s often while we’re at our most fragmented that a writer comes along and articulates things much better than we could ever hope to. Isabelle Li is that kind of writer. Her debut collection of stories, A Chinese Affair, pubilshed in July, 2016, is one of the best, most mature collections you’ll read in 2016. It’s what she does: write lyrically of longing and truth in ways that will surprise and enliven you. We spoke to Isabelle about her work, and ways of seeing the world…
Do you consider more general motivations when writing your stories, or are they subject specific? What threads surface (or resurface) often, do you find?
I take great interest in people. Once I stumbled into a room full of elderly ladies, and the first thought springing to my mind was ‘Wow, a space filled with stories!’ So I’d say people are my primary motivations for writing, to know them, to picture their lives, to understand the truths behind. Inspirations often arise as an image, a voice, or a line and I make stories to bring them to life. For example, ‘A Chinese Affair’ started with a real dream, and while writing it down, I found a voice, which took me to the story. ‘Amnesia’ started with the passage of a man driving through traffic in the evening drizzle. But I only found out it was Ben, the neurologist, seven years later.
There are indeed threads that surface and resurface. English is my second language, and for my mother tongue, Chinese, I feel an eternal nostalgia. Language is therefore one of my preoccupations. My mother was a gynaecologist and I spent much of my childhood in and around the hospital where she worked. So the body, particularly the female body, has always been one of my primary concerns. Another theme is forbidden love. When I was growing up in China, early love affairs were prohibited. Even in my university, students sleeping together were named and shamed. So I find myself intrigued by secrets, desires that must be censored, repressed, sometimes by others, but mostly by oneself.
In addition to your most recent short story collection, A Chinese Affair, you’re also writing a novel. Are there differences in the way that you’ve approached this latest work? Do novels apply a different set of skills to the writing of short fiction?
I feel like a traveller who’s been on short journeys to various places now making a long pilgrimage. Compared to short stories, a novel takes more considered grand design. I can afford having multiple themes alongside the heart of the novel, but I must find sufficient fuel to fire up the narrative engine and keep up the pressure. Experience helps. It gives me faith in the process of writing. I’ve learnt that although skills are transferable, no skill replaces effort. Writing takes time. My own eighty twenty rule is that whenever I think I’m eighty percent there, I must be only twenty and I just have to wrestle with myself and keep writing.
Who are your own touchstones when it comes to your fiction? Which writers speak to you, in terms of their plots, themes and characters?
I’m interested in the poetic novel, and my most favourite book is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. The plot is at one level very simple: in an abandoned Italian villa towards the end of World War II, four people briefly share their lives. But it’s also very complicated, because each character has to deal with their respective losses: doomed love affair, deaths of lovers, parent, and parental figure, loss of body parts and bodily functions, and ultimately, the loss of one’s identity.
Ondaatje uses many recurring images to abstract events into symbols and metaphors and unify the chronologically tangled narrative fragments. In the novel, desire presents itself as repeated utterances like haunting dreams that cannot be shaken off. It starts with a voice, and takes on the dimensions of geography. It can be as intimate as a close-up of the indentation at the throat or as minute as a patch of skin. One of the accomplishments of the book is its flexible, inventive use of imagery, which transports us across space and time.
Prior to the publication of A Chinese Affair, you’ve had single stories published by Margaret River Press, Sleepers Publishing, and in the Black Inc. Best Australian Stories series of 2007 and 2008. How important were these publications for your development as a writer, and your ongoing commitment to the craft?
I owe my collection to all the anthologies and journals that have published my work. The publications were enormously rewarding. They anchored and propelled me, turbocharged my literary ambition and effort. I studied writing at UTS and was fortunate to have five of the stories in this collection published in UTS Writers’ Anthology. I’m grateful for publishers like Sleepers Publishing and Margaret River Press who are staunch supporters of the short story form. And my thanks to Black Inc., for producing the iconic annual ‘Best’ series, and to Southerly, for maintaining a prestigious literary presence against all odds.
If you met someone, who, heaven forbid, was not yet acquainted with your work, what would you say to them, to prepare them for the road ahead?
I’ll ask if they like reading, and if they do I’ll show them the cover of my book. I’m sure they’ll find it beautiful. But since one can’t judge a book by its cover, they’ll have to read it! I’ll tell them that A Chinese Affair consists of sixteen short stories, exploring the experience of recent Chinese migration to Australia – what it means to leave behind one’s homeland and establish a new life, the struggle to survive and thrive, the triumph and compromise, failure and resilience, love and heartache. The characters are well-educated, aspirational, and are keen to be part of the contemporary global order as they deal with a complex past. The early stories are shadowed by nostalgia, where the characters cannot embrace their new country, yet their remembered home no longer exists. Midway, they start to break away from the conventional trajectory imposed by history and society. Towards the end a sense of optimism develops as the characters carry forward their Chinese heritage while engaging with their adopted land. I’ll read them the opening paragraph: ‘I dream of my mother again. She is sitting in front of the sewing machine, crying.’
Isabelle Li grew up in China, worked in Singapore and migrated to Australia in 1999. Her short stories have appeared in The Best Australian Stories, Southerly, Sleepers Almanac, UTS Writers’ Anthology, New Australian Stories, and Cha. ‘Red Saffron’ was highly commended in the Margaret River Short Story Competition 2014 and included in the collection. Her script MOONCAKE AND CRAB was made into a short film and premiered at the Melbourne Film Festival. Isabelle is a recipient of 2014 Varuna Fellowship. Having completed the manuscript for a collection of short stories, A Chinese Affair, she is now working on a novel.