Working with Words: Isabelle Li

Isabelle Li grew up in China, has worked in Singapore and migrated to Australia in 1999. She has worked as a literary translator and recently released her first collection of short stories, A Chinese Affair. We spoke with Isabelle about pivotal career points, Life of Pi and risk and exposure in writing.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Photograph of Isabelle Li

Isabelle Li

A short story titled ‘The Floating Fragrance’ in Nine Tenths Below: UTS Writers’ Anthology 2005. I was ecstatic! The annual anthology is an excellent platform for new writers. I subsequently published another four stories there. All five are included in A Chinese Affair.

What’s the best part of your job?

Like any art practice, writing is its own reward. I find the process of putting words down on paper immensely satisfying. My head is often crowded with thoughts. Writing allows me to order my thoughts, give them a shape, and clear up space for more thinking and imagining.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Doubt and anxiety, because of the inherent risk and exposure. The moment one starts to write, one is exposed – if not to the reader, to oneself, as the work is always subject to judgement. There’s no safety, not even in standing still. Of course, the uncertainty is also part of the thrill.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

On 31 March 2015, I received an email: A Chinese Affair was accepted for publication. It was one of the pivotal moments in my life. I am infinitely grateful to Caroline Wood, my publisher from Margaret River Press, for saving the collection from the tragic fate of the bottom drawer.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

When I was small I asked my father what life is. He said, ‘Life is a struggle’. That’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever received, regarding anything, including writing – be it the life of writing, or the writing of life. It also sums him up as a person. He’s in his 80s now, still writing.

Painters and musicians spend years training for their art, and so should writers who paint and sing with words.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

I’ve received heartening reviews of the book. It’s amazing how different readers have different insights: some notice the characters’ inner world, others the language, or influence of Chinese literary tradition. When a book is published, it no longer belongs to the author but to the reader.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Writing makes me feel real, grounded, at home with myself. It’s my default state. If I weren’t writing, I’d be forever an impostor pretending to be someone I’m not. Life would be very painful. I also translate poetry, which is a literary pursuit in its own right. But nothing replaces writing.

Book cover: A Chinese Affair

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I believe in craftsmanship and good technique. Painters and musicians spend years training for their art, and so should writers who paint and sing with words. A Chinese Affair was part of my thesis from UTS, supervised by two distinguished writers: Delia Falconer and Debra Adelaide.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

The thing about writing is you can work under any conditions. So start right away, from where you are right now. You can do a full-time job and write. You can write at the breakfast table, write on the bus, write in bed before you turn out the light. Nothing need get in the way of writing.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. The two bookshops that I most frequently visit are Gleebooks in Blackheath and Lamdha Books in Wentworth Falls [both in the Blue Mountains, NSW]. I like meeting up with friends at bookshops, where we are gainfully occupied while waiting – and when we meet, we can launch into discussions about books right away.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

The grown-up Pi, from Life of Pi. He has a quiet sweetness and a profound appreciation of food. We’ll share something plainly cooked, and be moved by its simple goodness. Our conversation will be down-to-earth, humble. Most of the time, we’ll just eat in companionable silence.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

The first novel I read in English was The English Patient. I fell in love with it from the first paragraph. Prior to that, I had only read Western books in translation. I realised I could connect with English prose, even with a limited vocabulary. It started my journey of reading in English.


Portrait of Isabelle Li

Isabelle Li grew up in China, has worked in Singapore and migrated to Australia in 1999. Her short stories have appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, including The Best Australian Stories and Southerly

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