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. In 2005 she won the Scotsman and Orange Short Story Award with The Enemy Within. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Gutter, GQ and Harper’s Bazaar, and been broadcast on BBC Radio 4.
NAW- Please tell us about your prize winning story, The Shrine. How did you get the idea for it?
I was brought up in an area in Papua New Guinea in which the debris of the Pacific War was all around, abandoned airstrips, ammunition dumps and rusting army jeeps. We found spent cartridges as we played and ‘Old timers’ still talked about the terrible conflict with the Japanese in the skies and jungles of PNG. Many years later while I was working in Japan I was invited by a friend to his home. His father, a former Japanese prisoner of war in PNG, talked about his experience. But it was his old wife, who sat silently before a very impressive family shrine, saying not a word, who intrigued me. So often we don’t hear about war from a woman’s perspective.
NAW- Writing a short story with diverse racial characters is a tricky thing but you’ve balanced it very well in your works. How difficult is it writing as an outsider?
I have always been to an extent an outsider, although I didn’t realise it at first. I left Britain when I was three-months old and returned when I was a teenager. It was only when I had to leave PNG suddenly due to a state of emergency that I understood that it was not my home. In truth, I don’t think either my brother or I ever felt completely ‘at home’ in the UK and like him, I have spent extended periods living abroad. Having said this, when I write I am not aware of placing myself in relation to the story or the characters, I simply write about people and places. Perhaps this is a naive attitude, but this it is.
NAW- You are also an active member of the writing community. Many young authors especially in developing countries do not have much access to writing residencies and the opportunity of interacting with established writers is non-existent. While such interactions can shape a writer’s career, they can also provide an exalted sense of belonging to young writers who are a part of it while leading to a sense of inferiority for the ones who are left out. How important a role does mentorship with an established author play in an amateur writer’s life? Have you benefited from any such mentorship from established authors?
I worked with Sri Lankan author, Romesh Gunesekera, for a year. This was a paid mentorship through an organisation called Gold Dust. Romesh is not only a beautiful writer, but also a deeply reflective and intelligent man. He questioned me about what and how I wrote and pushed me, I believe, to become aware of the areas of my craft that were weak. He also provided me with very good advice (and perhaps courage) when I found myself unsure about whether to continue with my first agent.
He has never publicly championed me and I never expected this from him, but I learned a great deal about both the craft of writing and the realities of a writing life.
NAW- There is a growing recognition for short stories with many literary prizes dedicated for promoting the genre. In a sense, they can help in leading to more visibility for your work but can also sort of typecast an author. For a writer, it’s equally important to be known by his work but winning a prize sort of labels you as the winner of such and such award. How important are literary prizes important to you as an author?
I have been lucky enough to win a number of high-profile prizes. While they have been extremely important in helping me to establish a profile and the attention of literary agents, my first short story win was perhaps something of a double-edged sword. I won what was at that time the biggest short story prize in the UK, the Scotsman and Orange Short Story Award, for my first short story ‘The Enemy Within’. I immediately had the interest of publishers and agents, but instead of rising to the situation, I found myself intimidated by the attention and unsure of whether I could live up to expectations. After all, I had written only one short story. The result, unfortunately, was that I didn’t write for well over a year. The upside was that the prize money allowed me to do a MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow and develop more confidence.
NAW- Tell us about your writing career. It’s almost impossible for young authors to get their work published these days. How did you break into the literary world and how did you manage to persevere?
I came to writing by accident really. I was a busy single working mother trying to care for two terminally ill parents. When my parents died within a short time of each other it was suggested by a nurse at the hospice that I try to find a creative interest to help adjust to the situation. I saw a travel-writing competition for BBC Radio 4. Although I had never written before I had travelled, so I entered and won. The prize was a week on a writing course and it was during this week that I wrote my first short story. This as I mentioned previously then won the Scotsman and Orange Short Story Award. After my MLitt I have just worked when I could on my stories and over the last couple of years have won a couple more competitions. I am now represented by Victoria Hobbs at A.M. Heath, the literary agency who also represent Romesh Gunesekera. He had no part in this, but it is lovely to be amongst writers I admire.
NAW- Do you have a day job? How do you find time for writing?
I juggle various jobs. I am Writer in Residence to a community arts project, which works primarily with children. I also facilitate writing workshops for organisations such as Write Now in Vienna and do some copywriting. I am mostly writing when and where I can. At times it’s frustrating and I don’t feel I’m making enough progress with my novel, but I also derive a good deal of pleasure from my other work. Working with young children especially reminds me of the power of imagination and I am constantly inspired by them.
NAW- What is on your reading list this month?
I tend to juggle a couple of books at the same time. I reread books many, many times. This month I am rereading Rohinton Mistry’s ‘Tales from Firozsha Baag’, I’ve just started ‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’ by Daniyal Mueenuddin and have ordered ‘Somme Mud’ written by Ted Lynch and edited by Will Davies.
NAW- Tell us about your upcoming projects.
I’m currently writing a novel set in a small Japanese fishing village during the Pacific War. I’m looking forward to reading the prologue of this in December at Vanguards Readings, a salon founded by Richard Skinner, Director of Fiction at the Faber Academy.