Isabelle Li talks “A Chinese Affair”

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This week, we’re chatting with writer Isabelle Li – author of A Chinese Affair. So, tell us Isabelle, for those who haven’t read your book, what’s it about?

A Chinese Affair consists of 16 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.”

Wow, so are there any links between the stories?

“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.”

How did the idea for this book form?

“While studying for n Master of Arts (MA) degree, I became interested in the form of short story cycle, or discontinuous narrative, for example, Dubliners (James Joyce), The Turning (Tim Winton). It’s effective at creating experiences with commonalities, and examining the different facets of such experiences. When I finished the MA, I had written 10 stories, some published. I went on to study a Master of Creative Arts (MCA) degree at UTS. It seemed natural that my project would be a short story cycle. And so came A Chinese Affair. Some characters appear in multiple stories, and incidents from one become memories in another, though the connection is generally elusive, as memories fragment, nostalgia fades and new hopes arise.”

Tell us a little more about your typical day – do you have a writing routine?

My ideal writing day involves reading, writing, walking and napping. It begins before dawn, when I wake myself up with an apple and a dose of poetry. At half past seven, I’m out of the door, taking my story for a walk. Or if I need to know my characters up close, I have them walking with me. I love the wilderness of the Blue Mountains. Some walks are quite strenuous, and they take me out of myself. When I’m back, my head is filled with ideas; my phone, voice recordings. I spend the rest of the day writing them out. That’s my ideal writing day, with long stretches of quality writing time.”

And the reality?

“In reality, I write whenever and wherever I can: before breakfast, after dinner, on public transport, on an airplane, at home or in a hotel!”

Yes, we hear ya! So what’s your next project?

“I’m doing a Doctor of Creative Arts (DCA) at Western Sydney University. My project is a poetic novel, the working title of which is The Intimate Reader.”

Nice. So finally, what advice do you have for those hoping to be a full-time writer one day?

“I identify myself as a writer. It’s my default state, although I work full-time in a corporation.

Writing has become my lifetime practice. I dream of writing shapely and elegant work, sentences that fly, words that travel, one good turn after another. But there exists a gap, between the dream and what I can realise. I keep reading to set the standard, keep practising to close that gap, and listen to the feedback from my teachers and fellow writers.

I want to tell aspiring writers that you can do a day job and still write. Nothing need get in the way of writing when you take it as your life’s art.”

Wonderful advice.

Check out Isabelle’s website here for more information on her book and other writing.


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