BOUND FEET BLUES – THE YANG-MAY OOI INTERVIEW PART I

Our Papergang Matinees are to be staged at the Tristan Bates Theatre thanks to our partnership with Yang-May Ooi and her Bound Feet Blues team, who have donated their matinees to us.  We had an interview with Yang-May as she prepares for her opening night, and here you can read Part I:

15896245311_439dbd8745_zHello Yang-May, could you please introduce yourself?
I’m a writer/ performer but I see myself as a creative artist, which opens up possibilities for creativity beyond specific genres or media. I’m originally from Malaysia but now live in London – my fusion heritage plays a strong role in my creative imagination. My bestselling novel The Flame Tree re-imagines the John Grisham style legal thriller with a Chinese Malaysian heroine as its protagonist and the urban landscape of Malaysia as the setting rather than the standard white male hero in a US city. My next novel Mindgame is probably the only Malaysian lesbian thriller with a James Bond ending – again, subverting the action genre. My latest project, a solo theatre piece, Bound Feet Blues – A Life Told in Shoes reworks the trope of the “3 generations of Chinese women” saga into a lesbian coming out story.

You did a TEDTalk about small acts of rebellion and breaking out of your comfort zone; so let’s set the scene, born in Malaysia, how did you become a London lawyer?
I had always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a child. But coming from a practical Chinese family, I was encouraged to do something “useful” so after I read English at Oxford, I studied law and started my career as a lawyer. But I would always be writing stories in my spare time and tinkering with ideas for novels. They never came to anything much at first – largely, because I did not take myself seriously as a writer at that time. It also became more and more difficult to find the time to write as my law career became more and more intensive and I found myself on the partnership track.

Then you became a writer: what triggered the change?
I had always imagined that I would have had my first book published by the time I was 30. Then suddenly I was 31 and I had not fulfilled my childhood dream. I realised I had to do something drastic in order to take myself seriously as a writer.

I resigned from my high-flying law career – at that time, I did not have any idea what book I was going to write, I had no agent, no publishing contract, nothing. It was a leap in the dark. All I knew was that I had to try to become a writer.

My inspiration was my partner Angie Macdonald who had come over from South Africa to London with nothing but a backpack and £200 to start a new life. I thought: I don’t even had to leave home to have my adventure as a writer so what am I waiting for?

My first novel The Flame Tree came out of this adventure and it was snapped up by Hodder & Stoughton who offered me a two book deal.

And breaking out again, you turned into a performer – how did that come about?
After my two novels, I got into a creative rut. I was thinking of myself as a novelist within the thriller genre and I had writer’s block. I then tried to write a family memoir in the genre of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans but I was getting nowhere. I couldn’t work out what the problem was.

Then when I turned 48, I thought about my Grandma – she was 48 when I was born. She used to tell us stories about her childhood in China and about our family heritage. I had always thought that I’d have children and grandchildren and pass on our family stories to them. But although I was in a civil partnership with Angie, we do not have any children. I felt sad that I would not be able to pass on these stories. But I suddenly realised that I could still tell the stories – if not to my biological family, then to a wider “family” out there in the world.

So I told a few stories at storytelling clubs like Spark London and The Story Party. This led me to develop the long-form story that became Bound Feet Blues, which evolved into a theatrical performance that has been hugely exciting and also challenging. I am not a professionally trained actor and have no theatre background so this evolution from writer to storyteller to performer has been an amazing and exhilarating experience!

In addition to the theatre show Bound Feet Blues, I have also written a memoir of the same name in book form. It tells the stories that I could not fit in to the hour long show and is finally the book about my family that I had always wanted to write. It was only by busting out of the limitations of specific genre and media that I was able to bring into being the work that I had only been able to half imagine. The book is not a conventional memoir but takes its form from the show, building up the narrative with layers of stories, fairy tales and discussion on the themes of female empowerment and desirability.

Was it easier to make that change, having already made one major career switch?
It wasn’t so much a switch as an evolution – or perhaps an expansion. I’m a performer now but also still a writer. Which is why I prefer to use the term “creative artist” which allows me to be many different things. I think that too often, we need to pigeon-hole people – and ourselves – as that makes it easier and quicker to get the concept of what someone is about. But actually for many people, we are more than one thing and if we can allow ourselves to explore and express our myriad selves, our lives – and the world – would be a much richer place.

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Part II about Yang-May’s approach to stories and her show Bound Feet Blues to follow soon!

Yang-May Ooi is a bestselling novelist, award-winning TEDx speaker and acclaimed writer/ performer. www.BoundFeetBlues.co.uk

Her solo theatre piece Bound Feet Blues – A Life Told in Shoes is on at the Tristan Bates Theatre 24 November to 12 December 2015. You can find out more and buy tickets via bit.ly/bfbtickets.

Her memoir of the same name is published by Urbane Publications in November to coincide with the show. For more info and to buy direct from the publisher – see bit.ly/bfbbook

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