Monthly Archives: December 2012

Writer Kuen Shan: The cat who loved me

Kwong Kuen Shan talks about the cat who banished her feline phobia and inspired her to start writing.

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The artist and writer Kwong Kuen Shan is a self-confessed former cat phobic. “I feared everything about them,” she tells me brightly, over a cup of morning tea in Waitrose. “It was a very serious phobia and I spent most of my life trying to avoid the beasts.”

The irony is that this same woman is the author of the recently published book, The Cat Who Loved Me. It is an account of the path her life has taken and the unexpected intrusion of a farm cat called Healey – who not only cured her of her phobia but also inspired her to begin writing.

“Without this cat, I would never have started to write books,” Kuen Shan says. She leans forward, giving a little smile. “You know, Healey adopted me and I hated him. I ignored him, chucked him out, that sort of thing. But then, he won his way into my heart.”

And it didn’t stop there. The more Kuen Shan saw of Healey, the more intrigued she became. “He tenaciously adopted me; he was just there all the time. I realised, ‘Hey, cats are very philosophical animals’ and so I began linking cat behaviour with Chinese philosophy.”

Cats began to appear in her artwork, too. “I never paint cats I don’t know because it’s cold,” she says. “Every cat I’ve painted I have met.”

Background

Kuen Shan grew up in Hong Kong where she studied Chinese literature and philosophy. She is a professional Chinese brush painter and often combines her artwork with ancient Chinese quotes and sayings.

After a period of living in London, she moved to Monmouthshire in 1994 where she found artistic inspiration from her surroundings. But she is very clear about her identity. “Although I have spent most of my life living and working in London, and now Wales, I am essentially Chinese – nothing is going to change that,” she says.

Art and writing

Kuen Shan has been an artist for many years but it is only the past five years she has been writing books. In spite of this, her desire to write surfaced at an early age. “Language is fascinating, it’s absolutely fascinating,” she enthuses. “As soon as I could hold a pair of chopsticks, I had to learn to write.”

I ask whether her art and writing are closely linked. She is thoughtful, and concedes that they are both creative. But there is a difference. “With painting, the visual feedback is instant,” she explains. “You know straightaway if you’ve got the brushstroke right or not, whereas with writing it’s different. It’s very slow.”

So how long did it take her to write The Cat Who Loved Me? Stirring her tea, she tells me that she started jotting down ideas five years ago. “And how many times did I review the book, tighten things up? I can’t even remember!” she laughs.

Future

I ask about her future plans and she assures me that her writing is here to stay. She has the bug now and she’s certainly not going to stop. But it looks as though there may be something other than cats on the horizon.

“I have an idea about my next book – my mother. My mother was a fascinating, very traditional Chinese woman … her life story warrants a book of its own, so that’s something I’m thinking about,” she says.

Further info:

The Cat Who Loved Me – And Made Me Love Him is available from Amazon for £6.99 (paperback edition) and £3.08 (Kindle edition). Kuen Shan’s other book, Happy in My Shell, is available to buy from Kuen Shan’s website for £8, including p&p.

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Coming up …

So the festive season has arrived, bringing seasonal cheer and merrymaking in its wake! Happy Christmas, one and all.

But don’t forget to watch out for some exciting upcoming posts on here over the next few weeks. In the line-up, we have:

*an interview with the Welsh poet, Rhian Edwards

*a chat with David Ambrose, director of Wales’ international storytelling festival

*a conversation with Kwong Kuen Shan, a Chinese artist and writer based in Wales

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Cardiff Somali poets take to the stage

National Theatre Wales’s De Gabay will connect the streets of Butetown with the global Somali diaspora over a three-day performance.

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Poets Ali Goolyad, Ahmed Yusuf and Hassan Panero have written a play about their experiences growing up in Cardiff as young Somalis

De Gabay (The Poem) will be performed over three days in the Butetown area of Cardiff, focusing on the lives of its young Somali poets and the generations that preceded them.

Beginning on Friday 1 March, audiences will be invited to move from busy streets to private living rooms to watch both intimate and large-scale performances, including two magnificent parades. Films produced by members of the community will connect the production to a wider audience across the world.

John McGrath, National Theatre Wales’s artistic director, says: “This is a hugely ambitious project that is very close to our hearts, and we want to share the experience of making it – and the joy of experiencing the finished project – with as many people as possible.”

The production is being directed by Jonathan Holmes, the director and founder of Jericho in London.

But the ideas for the performance were borne from a group of young Somali poets based in Cardiff with no prior background in theatre. Hassan Panero, Ahmed Hassan, Ali Goolyard and Ahmed Yusuf approached National Theatre Wales 19 months ago with a joint vision to write a play about their experiences of growing up in Cardiff as young Somalis.

Catrin Rogers, Media Officer for National Theatre Wales, speaks about what makes De Gabay special and the concept behind participatory performances:

Sandals to boots

I meet 25-year-old Hassan Panero to find out more about De Gabay’s lifecycle. Warm, intelligent and quietly spoken, writing has always been a hobby for Hassan. But it is only over the last 19 months that it has also become his career. I ask him to tell me more about the story behind De Gabay.

He speaks eagerly: “So basically it was National Theatre of Wales, they do participatory performances. We said, ‘We would like to write a play’, so they said, ‘Write one and bring it to the office’, so we did, and they loved it”.

The charitable foundation Calouste Gulbenkian awarded National Theatre Wales funding of £175,000 to develop the production over a two-year process. Now, with only three months to go until the performance, the excitement has not waned and Hassan speaks passionately about its themes.

De Gabay’s about the stories that come, that develop, in-between, from the sea to the land, and from sandals to boots,” he says. “Expressing it through theatre, others will tune into your frequency and feel that you are on the same wavelength and you feel that you’re finally not on your own.”

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Poetry has always been a hobby for 25-year-old Hassan Panero

Oral tradition

The Somali language has a long, rich tradition of oral poetry. The subject matters of the poems are endless, ranging from love to loss, sorrow to joy, victory to defeat and hardship to revolution. Hassan explains to me that the very nature of Somali poetry is multi-dimensional.

“Without downgrading poetry in other countries, it would have one angle, whereas Somali poetry would have 50 angles,” he says. “People will think it’s a love story – but really, it’s a revolutionary story. There’s hidden messages within the poetry”.

The layered depth of Somali poetry is linked to the oral culture. It wasn’t until 1972 that Somali was given an official written form, using the Roman alphabet.

Poetry may be something the De Gabay script writers are familiar with, but Hassan points out that sharing their personal poems was not easy at first. “We’re all friends and family and we’ve grown up together and it was like, ‘I didn’t know that person wrote poetry’, until we all opened up and showed each other and we encouraged each other,” he says.

Culture remix

De Gabay has become a tool for exploring and expressing the sometimes uncomfortable cultural space occupied by many young Somalis. Hassan tries to explain: “Us being young Somalis in the history of Wales, we feel like we’re in-betweeners. When we go back to our country, we’re foreigners and when we’re here, we’re foreigners”.

I ask how important their cultural backgrounds were in writing De Gabay – and Hassan replies that culture is the anchor of the performance.

“It’s what needs to be understood, by us first and foremost,” he explains. “Because we are not in sync with our culture – we’ve got a different culture to the Somalis in Somalia, and our culture is a mix of Welsh culture and Somali. So it’s expressing that – it’s like a remix of two songs”.

Building bridges

As well as being a cultural exploration, De Gabay also maps the relationships between the young and old, bridging the different generations.

Writing the play has been a participatory activity, engaging all the different age groups and segments of the community. “We conducted workshops, assemblies, idea exchanges – it’s a hands-on project, focusing on the present,” Hassan emphasises.

All of De Gabay’s writers felt that the good history of the Somali diaspora was unheard of unless people searched for it.

Hassan leans forward, looking earnest. “And what we decided to do, we could talk about the old stuff, but we think it’s more important to emphasise the new stuff because that needs to be documented, so instead of bringing out a revision, let’s bring out something new.”

Cardiff’s Somali community from past to present:

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In conversation with Richard Gwyn

Richard Gwyn is a novelist, poet and academic. His latest book, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, charts his personal memoirs of vagrancy around the Mediterranean in the 1980s and a recent chronic illness which culminated in a liver transplant. It won the 2012 Wales Book of the Year Award for creative non-fiction.

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I meet Gwyn in his office in Cardiff University. The shelves are overflowing and the surfaces are littered with piles of books, papers and magazines. He offers me a seat, apologising in advance for his inability to remember names.

“I can do faces, but just not names. It’s really dreadful – friends, family … I always forget.”

After reading The Vagabond’s Breakfast, I had formed a distinct mental image of a wild-eyed, long-limbed and erratic individual, but this small-framed, well-spoken man could not be further from what I was expecting.

I look harder, trying to spot left-over signs of his turbulent past and recent near-death brush. Two missing fingers on his left hand and a slight weathering around the eyes are all I come up with.

Illness

Settling down, I ask if he could tell me something about the process of writing The Vagabond’s Breakfast. He nods, looking pensive. “I never set out to write an autobiography,” he muses. “To have a chronic medical illness completely turned my life inside out. It made a very profound impression on me because as a writer I’ve always been interested in modes of perception and altered states of consciousness.”

He pauses, and I recall that in 2006 he was given a year to live unless a suitable liver donor were found.

“I didn’t do much writing at the time, but afterwards it seemed worth recording, almost as a reporter on the inner process of what that type of inner deterioration felt like.”

In order to present his illness in a coherent narrative, Gwyn felt that he had to link it in with autobiographical information as to why he was in this condition in the first place. This inevitably brought him back to his years of down-and-out vagabondage around the Mediterranean during the 1980s and, later, to his decision at the end of that decade to go back to college, study, and become an academic.

Memory

I interject that writing a memoir must have been an emotional process and ask how close he felt to the narrator of The Vagabond’s Breakfast.

“Yeah, that was the first lesson I learnt,” Gwyn says. “I think I started writing it in the first person in which the written ‘I’ was myself in memory and I got terribly stuck. I had to conceive of myself as a third person. Because unless you detach the persona of your subject from yourself then you inevitably get caught up in digression; you lose the story.”

Transcribing the past, particularly one’s own past, is surely not easy. I ask how he went about doing so, to which he replies that memory is only ever a version of events.

“Memoirs raise the question: How much of it is actually memory and how much of it is what you think happened or what you like to think happened? And without trying to consciously deceive the reader, how much of it can be trusted? And I quite like that idea.”

Survival

In spite of a decade of poverty, homelessness, alcoholism and hospitalisations, Gwyn has come out the other side.

“What you got with The Vagabond’s Breakfast was a very chopped-down version of somebody trying to assess their state; why they came that close to death, why they got into that situation and why they survived it.” He labours the last point, looking deeply thoughtful and slightly troubled. “Why they’ve survived it, because it inevitably begins to, you know … however atheistic or agnostic you are, there’s always a question of why you’ve survived when most of your friends have died or got lost along the route.”

When I read The Vagabond’s Breakfast, I was struck by the narrator’s tempestuous yet graceful journey to a sort of self-accepting realism. Was the process of writing it a way of coming to terms with all that happened in the past?

Gwyn shakes his head, admitting he doesn’t really like The Vagabond’s Breakfast to be labelled ‘redemptive’, although many reviewers brandish this term around. “I don’t think you can write a redemptive story unless you’re dead. And, to be honest, I’m far too concerned with living to see my life purely retrospectively.”

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The Vagabond’s Breakfast is available in most good bookshops for £9.99

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