17 Oct 2016

Kiwi writer returns to the Shanghai rain

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 17 October 2016

Heidi North-Bailey is the second New Zealand writer to undertake the prestigious Shanghai Writer's Residency.  Heidi talks with Lynda Chanwai-Earle about returning to Shanghai 12 years after her first visit to write a novel inspired by a true-life love story.

Inspiration literally fell from the sky for Heidi while walking along the iconic waterfront area, The Bund, in Shanghai.

Heidi and her family were visiting the historic area in the depths of winter when a sudden and heavy downpour drenched them.

"It was actually really beautiful. A strong memory. All of a sudden it just poured with rain. It felt like we were swimming... in the city."

The torrential shower sowed the seeds of her novel-to-be, which has the working title In the Shanghai Rain.

The residency is all at once a chance for Heidi to research and draft her novel, and return to China which she describes as the “country of culture shock” and her first big overseas experience.

It represents an exchange and partnership between the Shanghai Writers’ Association (who provide the funding), the Shanghai People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, the New Zealand China Friendship Society (NZCFS) and the The Michael King Writers Centre (MKWC).

Lynda Chanwai-Earle joins Heidi on the eve of her departure for Shanghai at an afternoon tea by delegates from the Chinese Embassy and representatives of the NZCFS. The venue is the MKWC in the historic Signalman’s House in the Auckland suburb of Devonport, which was established in 2005 in memory of the historian and biographer Michael King.

The chair Catriona Ferguson warmly welcomes everyone and walks us through the beautiful sprawling homestead into the living room. Its striking centrepiece is a portrait of Michael King by painter Annette Isbey from a photograph by Marti Friedlander.

The centre boasts a long and illustrious line-up of writer's-in-residence, including Eleanor Catton, who drafted The Luminaries in the "writer's shed" out the back.

After formalities, Ka Meechan, the Executive Director of the Centre, excitedly shows me around and tells me why she thinks the residency is so important.

"An exchange is excellent because it works both ways. So for a New Zealand writer it's a phenomenal opportunity to go to a completely different culture and to be supported and welcomed, and to meet other writers. And the return of that is that we are privileged to host a Chinese writer here, to introduce the writer to the literary community here and to have connections with the Chinese community here."

Ka tells me that Michael King would have been thrilled by the opportunity for international exchanges;

"I often think Michael's keeping an eye on us. He would've been delighted, to see his dream for having a place for writers to work, to have grown so much to enable this exchange, he would've been so proud."

Literary bonding over afternoon tea

Literary bonding over afternoon tea Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

George Andrews (President of the Auckland branch of NZCFS) explains that the Shanghai residency came about because of the deep and historic connections between the two countries. The New Zealand China Friendship Society was founded in 1952 and is a long-term supporter of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

"Inspirational New Zealander Rewi Alley became an advocate for China - our society was one result" says George."On our 60th birthday (in 2012) we recognised this and a grant was made in honour of Rewi."

George tells me that author and journalist Geoff Chapple (the first writer-in-residence at the MKWC) and colleague Geoff Steven had filmed Rewi in China in 1979 for the documentary Gung Ho - Rewi Alley of China. When George mentioned the grant, Geoff suggested that, as Rewi himself had been a writer, why not use it to set up a writer's exchange?

The first New Zealand writer to undertake the prestigious residency was Alison Wong in 2014.

Consul Zhang (head of the the Cultural Division of the Chinese Consulate in Auckland) tells me that the exchanges between New Zealand and China deepen ties between our two countries.

"I think it might be a very good experience, it will be very good for the kind of exchange between people and people."

Interviewing Heidi in the garden at the MKWC

Interviewing Heidi in the garden at the MKWC Photo: Sean Shadbolt (NZCFS)

In the quiet of the centre's gardens next to the "writers shed", Heidi explains her desire to go back to Shanghai.

"[The memory is] a shadowy place, so it will be very interesting to go back and gather material."

Heidi's late adopted grandmother Peggy was the real-life character behind the narrative, and the source of the book's true-life love story. Peggy was British, born in Shanghai and lived in the city before the Second World War. Peggy was heartbroken when she was sent away to boarding school in England and was determined to get back to her birthplace.

Peggy shared such evocative memories of Shanghai that it prompted Heidi and her family to travel to the city in 2004, to walk in her footsteps. Incorporating nostalgia, history and a romance of sorts, In the Shanghai Rain will be set between Shanghai and Wellington and cross time in a non-linear way, Heidi tells me.

The residency is two months in duration, "long enough to get under the skin of a place" she says.

The only thing Heidi is apprehensive about is leaving her two-year-old-daughter Clara for the duration - but unlike in Peggy's time, these days there is Skype.

Heidi is currently in Shanghai attending the International Writing Programme with nine other writers from across the globe. She returns to New Zealand at the end of October to continue work on her novel.

Heidi North-Bailey writes to the MKWC from Shanghai:

..I've just had a post about writing here in Shangahi & about the program published on the academy of NZ literature http://www.anzliterature.com/

I'm having a marvellous, stimulating and productive time. The Shangahi writers program has organised some thoughtful activities for us including visiting a writer's home, and we have participated in several stimulating cross cultural literary discussions. 

But I am also having plenty of time to put hands to keyboard and write. Being here is such a gift.

Heidi North-Bailey and the Shanghai International Writers Programme participants, Ningbo, China

Heidi North-Bailey and the Shanghai International Writers Programme participants, Ningbo, China Photo: Heidi North-Bailey