Anni Leonard is a Chengdu-based writer who, for the moment, mostly publishes her work on her own blog. She heads the Chengdu Bookworm Creative Writing Group and was a managing editor and translator for the Bookworm’s literary journal MaLa (Issue 4). Her flash fiction piece “Underworld” will appear in the first issue of Spittoon Magazine (Beijing). She is active in the literary scene in Chengdu, and hopes to see much more come of current collaborations with Beijing’s Spittoon.
Loreli's Kerryn Leitch sat down with Anni to talk about her own work and the state of the Chengdu scene.
KL: Let’s start with you introducing yourself. Tell us a little about what type of writing you do.
AL: I’m one of those who has been writing ever since I was a kid; journals, telling stories. I read lots of fantasy and sci-fi so that background really influences what I write. I like writing young adult fiction, sci-fi-esque background (Wikipedia only gives you so much information) and fantasy when the mood strikes me. Mainly what I focus on in my writing is interactions between people and how people react to certain things in certain situations.
KL: How much does living in Chengdu influence the writing that you do?
AL: That’s an interesting question because—and I’ve talked to other writers and I know they say the same—there’s sort of lag in what you write about. Especially if you spent a lot of time moving from place to place—you write about a couple of steps ago. So, in my life, I grew up in Michigan then I moved to Shanghai with my family when I was 16, I was in Hong Kong for two years by myself and then I did my university in Manchester and right now, while I’m living in Chengdu, very rarely will a bit of Chengdu come into my writing. But I do write more about things that I did, or feelings that I felt in reaction to friends that I made or relationships that I had when I was in Manchester. I find that coming into my writing more now. Occasionally it does seep in. There is a story that I’ve been meaning to finish, actually, it’s really cool, set in a Chengdu xiaoqu apartment building, an older one. That was really cool but I never got around to finishing it.
KL: Maybe you do still need that distance. When it comes to writing fantasy and science fiction, so often it’s used in a subversive way. Do you ever feel tempted to do that, living in a Chinese environment? Knowing what’s good, knowing what’s bad but also knowing the restrictions on sometimes being able to reflect those stories for the people here. Is that ever a temptation?
AL: I can say for sure that I’ve finished writing a novel recently, my first one. It’s a sci-fi thing and I can definitely say that there’s an influence of my own observations of the Chinese government and that sort of wanting harmony and peace for all its people but also being a little bit controlling and darker and trying to find a way to put that into a young adult novel in a way that the reader can feel it there without being really obvious. I don't write essays. I don’t write a lot of commentary and that sort of thing. This is how I really feel. This is the truth of how it is in China, but always, observations about my life here and the way I relate to people, government or society will always find a way to seep into my writing, for sure.
KL: Do you tend to lean towards the dystopian or do you think because it’s relationship based it’s much more about human needs and values rather than great flaws with society?
AL: Now I’m thinking specifically of the novel that I finished writing. This is still a very juvenile novel. I started writing it so long ago. In that one I was only able to finish it when the focus was the relationship between the two main characters and not this world that I was creating, which is pretty bleak. Basically the great world wars destroy the Earth so all of humanity is living in space stations. It starts off in a high school in a space station and the whole story is about them having a field trip to Earth and then getting caught up in the bigger picture of warring factions and dissatisfaction with the government and they’re all involved in it but they’re teenagers. It’s more about “I’m a teenager and the world is suddenly blowing up and it’s not what I thought it was” and it’s all about them dealing with their feelings.
KL: While they’re full of hormones.
AL: Yes. Absolutely.
KL: Tell me a bit more about your choice of genre. I was a high school librarian for seven years so I have read an awful lot of young adult fiction. Why does that genre appeal to you?
AL: Besides having spent a lot of time reading it as a young adult myself, it is that you are able to influence a young mind and sort of show them a world that where young people are capable and teach them things without being overbearing. Show them an interesting story but then show them how to be independent – how to take care of themselves, how to deal with a hot guy who is treating them bad. Something like that just as an example.
KL: We’re still trying to work that out ourselves, right? Tell me a little bit about the Chengdu scene but specifically how it impacts on you as a writer. Is it a collaborative environment? Is it something that inspires you?
AL: The biggest part of literary scene in Chengdu is the Bookworm writing group which I am currently the moderator of. That wasn’t always the case. I came to it two years ago without any clue what I was getting into—just knowing that I like to write and this group of people like writing. Since then, in these two years, the feedback people give, week on week (we meet every week), and the things that you learn about writing craft, I know I have improved so much as a writer thanks to this group. It’s a very diverse group with people from different countries and different age groups: this person did their Bachelors in creative writing but this person never did that ever, their background is in engineering or psychology or biology or something like that. Everyone has something different to bring to the table so I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without the writing group.
KL: Does being the moderator ever put time constraints on you from doing your own writing as much as you’d like?
AL: The day to day of running the group doesn’t but my day job and little side projects that I get involved in does sometimes take away my personal writing time… But there are a few people in the group who meet up outside the Wednesday meet up. We meet up in a café like Comrade Chilli. We’ll put a little ad up in here for Comrade Chilli [Loreli aside: Comrade Chilli was excellent and we highly recommend checking it out if you’re down Chengdu way and your digestive system begs for a break from hot pot]. Not a Starbucks necessarily but somewhere with a nice environment. We’ll get our laptops out, sit there together and work on our stuff and in that way we force ourselves to make time to write.
KL: How many opportunities do you think are offered to people in the Chengdu writing community?
AL: For getting published, you mean?
AL: No opportunities are ever offered, as far as I can say, unless you want to do travel or opinion pieces for one of the local magazines. There’s also Spittoon. I would say the single opportunity that we have is the Mala Literary Journal. With the literary journal, the focus has shifted to more Chinese work in translation rather than the laowai writing about China sort of thing. Which is how it started. The literary journal had started as a writing group project but then evolved into what it is now and now that it is like that, there is less of a space for us to put our work out there for people to see. In general, there’s just not as much of an infrastructure for publication within China in general, I think, for foreigners who are writing and happen to live here.
KL: I have to follow up on the whole “laowai writing in China” thing, because just the way you said it as well, it’s somewhat stigmatised. Do you think that’s fair? There has been a lot of bad writing and there’s been an awful lot of semi-racist, very misogynistic writing of laowai and their Chinese experiences. Do you feel that there is an extra pressure about China that somehow you have to be better and you have to represent things in an honest way? When you’re writing about Manchester, do you feel less precious than when you’re writing about China?
AL: I think the answer to that is that I almost—not censor myself when I write about China—but I don't often write about China. I do, general, try to shy away from journalistic writing and blog writing in my creative writing. I’m not going to write, today I was sitting in my apartment and I wanted to go out but then I’d have to speak Chinese. I’m not interested in writing that sort of thing which is, to come back to what you said about it seeming unfair, sometimes it feels very unfair to be a writer living in China because I feel the expectation is that you have to write about China if you’re going to be coming out of China. It’s like, well that’s not true. I write science fiction, I write fantasy, I write weird stories about anthropomorphised goats in journalism.
KL: I want to read that one!
AL: It’s up on my blog! You know, I just want to write weird stories and happen to be here and that makes it a little difficult because it’s harder to find a network of where do I submit? You try online places and then there is thousands of submission every day so they are just like, who are you? They don't care, you know. It’s a frustration that I’ve always felt since I’ve been here.
KL: Do you have something you’re working on right now? What’s the passion project?
AL: I just finished a story that I liked a lot. It’s a 3000-word story and I was trying out writing a sequel to it but it wasn’t working. I had finished the novel and I also want to write a sequel to that but I have to digest some of the things about it. I always have half-finished projects going. Always. You caught me at a time when I’m not really working on anything in particular very passionately. I’m trying to shift my focus from getting an idea and thinking this is going to be a novel because those are hard and take a lot of time and I don't have a lot of time but I do have time to write 3000-4000 word stories. That was basically finishing that project. I had an idea. I wanted to write it. I wrote it and I think it’s done then I gave it to the writing group and they’re like, Yeah, I just think it’s part of something bigger. So I thought, yeah, let’s try this out, see if it goes anywhere. So, I’ve written a few scenes with the characters but they’re not really going as well as the first one.
KL: You feel satisfied with the journey they’ve taken?
AL: Yeah. Especially because, if I write anymore, I have to research and figure out things about how their world works whereas when you write short stories, and I think that’s why short stories is an excellent medium for science fictions because you can present a really hard-hitting concept and it’s consequences without having to go into too much detail about how the rest of the things work. If you’re writing a novel you have to make sure that the logic and the physics of your world function properly. If you have magic in this world you have to make sure it’s consistent how it works throughout the story. There’re a lot of things you have to be thinking about.
KL: What is your fantasy future as a writer? What is the ideal outcome of your career?
AL: The ideal outcome is that I can be in a place where I can produce writing and have people reading my work and liking it. I think that’s what I really want right now. I don't want to dream too big because I’m still developing myself as a writer right now and I feel like, not that it won't happen, just that there has to be a process to it. You know, I want to be able to build my readership myself. It’s really nice to be thinking of what’s my dream as a writer because, for me, that’s not something I ever actively thought about. It was on the backburner. I teach English here and it pays the bills and all that sort of stuff and I enjoy imparting knowledge on my students and all that sort of stuff but I’ve always written and I’ve always told stories and I know I’ll never stop doing that.
KL: Is China the future for you?
AL: Not to get into personal things but my boyfriend’s Chinese and so definitely looking to stick around and be here, doing whatever. Honestly, if I get married and I can be on a marriage visa and not work then I’d just spend all my time writing and have way more time to spend on finding ways to get published but that’s very far in future now.
KL: That’s about it but is there anything I’ve missed that you really want to get off your chest?
AL: No, I’m okay.
KL: Then we’ll look forward to the wedding.
AL: Yes. [Dissolves into laughter]