I had a terrific evening last week in a cross cultural conversation with Professor Dai Fan who is Professor of English and founding director of the Sun Yat-sen University Center for English-language Creative Writing. The event was organised by Curtin University’s China Australia Writing Centre (CAWC), in collaboration with the Centre for Stories in Northbridge. Dr Lucy Dougan, who is the Program Director of CAWC, chaired the conversation.
I had read some of Dai Fan’s work before we met and was already impressed by her skill in writing creatively in English. Her novel, Butterfly Lovers, is a contemporary version of a traditional Chinese story very similar to the story of Romeo and Juliet. Fan has also written a number of essays and short stories in English, and published four books of essays in Chinese.
We discussed a range of topics including the ways in which we both started writing and teaching writing in universities, what drives our writing practice, and the relationship between reading and writing. I found it particularly interesting to learn that Fan has been writing in English for so long that she now feels that she is a better writer in English than in her native language. Having only about six words of Chinese and knowing I don’t even pronounce these really well I was in awe of her ability to move so fluently between the two languages, to make jokes in English, and confidently use English idioms.
I also particularly enjoyed the part of the discussion when we talked about the ways in which we both use real life events and experiences not only as the subject of essays, but in a variety of different ways in fiction. Readers often ask –‘where do you get your ideas’, the answer from most writers will be that we get them from life and from imagination. The things we, as writers, observe, experience, hear about and discuss with others, are all grist to the mill. They change in shape, form and identity, transforming into something that is unrecognisable to others and often also to the writer. Sometimes this is a conscious act, but often I find I become caught up in the momentum of writing and during that flow the sub-conscious draws on the great inner melting pot of things that have happened to me and to others, things I have read in newspapers or been inspired by in other books. So the raw material of life and experience is transformed into something unrecognisable to me and to others.
I think this alchemy is one of the most exciting elements of writing. It has taken me a long time to trust this process, which involves actually ‘listening’ to the characters that have emerged, and trusting their momentum and direction. As Margaret Atwood once said, “Writing fiction is like driving at night without headlights.”. That’s certainly how it is for me.
Talking with Fan, who is much younger than I am, and comes from a very different background, was inspiring. It was wonderful to discover that our similarities outweighed our differences. This is the magic of writing and reading – it enables us to know and understand others whose lives are so different from our own, and to find common ground. And sometimes too it helps us to recognise ourselves.
I hope to be able to meet with Fan again in the future for more conversations, and to read more of her work.
Many thanks to Lucy Dougan for her thoughtful chairing of the evening’s conversation, and thanks too to CAWC and the Centre for Stories for organising the event, and to all the lovely people who turned up to join us. And thanks to Paul Clifford for the photographs.