October 19, 2017

UK’s biggest short story prize winner blossomed out of adversity

An interview by Vinita Kinra (@VinitaKinra)

Kirstin Zhang

Kirstin Zhang

Kirstin Zhang was raised in Cyprus and Papua New Guinea. Following studies at Keio University, Tokyo, and the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, she completed a MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as the Scotsman, GQ and Harper’s Bazaar, and been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Kirstin is currently Writer in Residence to a community project on the west coast of Scotland. She is represented by Victoria Hobbs at A.M. Heath, London.

 

Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Kirstin. You have overcome personal adversity to channel your energy towards writing. Has healing come with creative imagination?

Kirstin Zhang: Writing has been like a wonderful, secret room to which I could retreat during a difficult time. Creating something requires being active and I think this allowed me to move forward more quickly than I might have. Writing also brought me into contact with people, either through attending writing classes, or via online forums. While I might not have shared my personal life with these people, they provided a sense of community and connection with the world, and that was comforting.

Vinita Kinra: How important is it for amateur writers to win literary prizes to get noticed?

Kirstin Zhang: They have certainly been important to me; both in developing my writing confidence and in securing the support of people who can help me take my writing forward. For example, when I won an international short memoir competition in 2014, I was contacted by agents not only in the UK, but in America and Hong Kong.

I would certainly encourage all aspiring writers to enter competitions. There are many which offer not only a cash prize and publication, but mentorship by an established author or the chance to have work read by an agent or publisher.

Vinita Kinra: Your background and experiences in different parts of the world have shaped your writings. Could you have written equally well if you hadn’t had those experiences?

Kirstin Zhang: It’s impossible to say, but perhaps being able to draw on diverse places and people has given me flexibility as a writer. Having lived and travelled widely has certainly encouraged me to read widely. Literature is a fantastic way to learn about places and people. Stories allow you to draw close to people, understand the history and culture which has shaped them and have a vested interest in their future. The writers who have inspired and influenced me most have been from Japan and India, two quite different cultures.

Vinita Kinra: Most contemporary writers have day jobs. Has it become increasingly difficult for artists to sustain themselves solely by their creative pursuits?

Kirstin Zhang: I think it’s always been difficult to make a living exclusively as an artist and many if not most writers in the past, unless they had independent means or a patron, had a day job.  Even day jobs which are related to writing or literature, such as university teaching which I’ve done in the past, can be few and far between and are often poorly paid. But I also think of Primo Levi, who chose to continue his work in the laboratory of a paint factory for nearly thirty years after the publication of his first book, feeling that it inspired his writing. Perhaps it is no bad thing for a writer to keep a foot in the ‘real’ world.

Vinita Kinra: How much of your forthcoming novel is autobiographical where characters reflect your personal experiences?

Kirstin Zhang: On the surface nothing is autobiographical. The story takes place in a small fishing village in Japan during the Pacific War and explores a longstanding feud between the inhabitants. However, perhaps the challenge faced by the twelve year old protagonist is one I can appreciate. How do you reconcile yourself to the sudden loss of the only home and family you have known and find a way of integrating into a new one?

When I was twelve a state of emergency forced us to leave Papua New Guinea suddenly. We went to Scotland, which was ostensibly our homeland, but which I didn’t know. My grief and sense of isolation were exacerbated by the fact that the father I adored could not join us for over a year.

Vinita Kinra: What set the backdrop for your award-winning short story, The Enemy Within?

Kirstin Zhang: I first learned about the massacre of nearly one million communists during the failed 1965 coup d’état in Indonesia from a fellow student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. As ethnic Chinese, her parents had suffered years of harassment from the police and military. It wasn’t, however, until I saw two articles about Indonesia in the Guardian newspaper, one about the return of the communist party to politics after thirty years, and the other about dengue fever, that I found a way into the story.

Vinita Kinra: Your winning story for Radio 4’s Excess Baggage Programme talks about your personal life. Were you comfortable dissecting your private life for the public?

Little Kirstin Zhang in pink dress with her siblings and mother

Little Kirstin Zhang in a pink dress with her siblings and mother

Kirstin Zhang: The competition brief was to write about a journey which made a personal impact, so I was required to share something of my personal life, but in truth I didn’t feel entirely comfortable doing so. However, it was my first piece of writing, and perhaps the reason it was successful was because it contained an emotional truth, which I might not have had enough skill at that point to produce in a piece of fiction.

Vinita Kinra: Does the journey of seeing an idea develop and flourish into a full-fledged book teach you something about yourself or make you a better person in any way?

Kirstin Zhang: Ha, yes! It has taught me that by nature I am extremely lazy, but with the help of a lovely, but straight-talking agent, I can learn to change my ways.

Vinita Kinra: Aside from writing, what are your other passions?

Kirstin Zhang: I love working with people to help them develop their talents and sense of self. I have been very lucky to be employed for the last four years on a community project I set up for a local school. It’s called Creative Communities and we have worked with writers, artists, architects, etc. to introduce children to new skills and knowledge.

Vinita Kinra: Our readers would like to savour a sample of your writing.

The following is from a short story called ‘In Their Song’:

Hara had rolled up the sleeves of his khaki shirt to keep the cuffs from smudging the ink as he worked. It was the height of summer, but the wooden paddles of the fan lay silent above him. ‘Luxury is the Enemy’ was taped to the wall opposite his desk, just as similar slogans hung on the walls of every office and home throughout the country. In the early years of the war, luxury had meant drinking foreign-brand whisky or wearing an ostentatious kimono, now it meant using the electric fan in August or soap when one washed. Occasionally a slogan of his own composition, such as ‘Victory Smells Sweet’, might slip into his head as he worked, but he tried to dismiss it by reciting from memory a sutra. He couldn’t, however, suppress the idea that doubt was the real enemy.

Although the window was open there was barely a whisper of wind to disturb the telegrams, which lay in two piles before him. He sweated and copied the details of each into a ledger, big as a tombstone.

 

Hinobi Kanda, 21, killed, Manchuria; Juntei Tanaka, 18, killed, Rabual; Hitoru Muto, 36, missing in action, Guam…

 

The room grew hotter still. Rosella parrots lit in the cherry tree outside his window and the cicadas grew shrill. Several times Hara made a dash when he meant to make a dot and vice versa. Finally, he pushed aside the ink stone and put the telegrams into a canvas satchel ready for delivery.

 

Sometime after two he emerged from the lane between the cannery and the ironmongers, the satchel nearly empty.  Then he continued past the grounds of the elementary school, over the bridge spanning the river and up towards the little homesteads with their straggly crops of melons and tomatoes and eggplants, and he did not meet a single man under the age of forty.

As he approached the temple, through which he meant to take a shortcut, it began to rain. Taking shelter beneath an old camphor tree, he took off the black, rubber plimsolls, which were part of his uniform and made his feet sweat in the heat. As a child of the temple and former acolyte he’d spent many hours beneath these branches, contemplating a misdemeanor or practicing a sutra.

According to legend, it was under this same tree that Ninzo, the prophet prince, was meditating nearly nine hundred years ago when he realised that the dark, elusive warrior he had been sent to kill was his own shadow.

But it wasn’t this dilemma with which Hara was now wrestling as he gazed down at the town huddled along the narrow strip of beach. “Soon,” he thought, “I will be the only young man left.”

Vinita Kinra, featured among 150 most remarkable Canadians, is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. She is also a contributor for India’s largest English daily, The Times of India.

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