Dr Renee Liang - The Power Of A Good Story

Posted 4 September 2013

400x255 Dr Renee Liang

Dr Renee Liang is a highly regarded poet and a member of Westpac’s external stakeholders sustainability panel.

When I was six I became a published author.  I wrote and illustrated my own book called Debie the Dodo, published it in a crayon-stained, stapled edition of one, and took it proudly home to show off.  It didn’t matter that (as my sister said) Debie was a girl’s name and my character was a boy, or that (as a classmate even more unkindly pointed out) dodos were extinct and anyway Debie looked like a duck. I was the creator. I had the final say.

Many years later, I worked as a doctor in Broken Hill, deep in the Australian outback. I was finishing the final part of my training as a paediatrician. I got a phone call to say that my boyfriend was dying – had died, suddenly – of a brain aneurysm. I flew to Sydney to watch them turn the machines off. I flew to Auckland for the funeral. And then, numbly, I flew back to Broken Hill to continue my work. The poetry came in a flood.  I filled up notebooks, then went to the pub. I found a microphone.  I let my grief and love pour out. I wanted to make a monument to him out of words. I wanted to say what I would never again have the chance to say.

Fast forward two years. I was now active on the Auckland performance poetry scene. I was writing poems – new poems. New love poems. Political poems. Identity poems. Suddenly, I had a lot to say. I remembered what my mother had told me, after I had already started Med school – “your grandfather thought there were too many doctors in the family, so he named you ‘Literary Blossom.’” I wrote a poem called ‘The Naming’, a fictionalised account. And with that, I fulfilled my grandfather’s prediction.

Someone wise once said, “We are the stories we tell about ourselves.”  Google that and you’ll soon see that not one, but many people have said this.  We are a walking anthology of the stories – great, inane, funny, sad – we carry, that are told about, by, or remembered by us. I remember a teenager I once mentored in South Auckland.  He was a gifted rapper and poet, but his rhymes aped the imported American gangland rubbish. Then something changed. He told me at the end that the best thing he learnt was that he could write about himself. I was stunned. It had never even occurred to me that some people might not be able to write about themselves.

Stories give us power.  If we can define ourselves by the stories we tell, we can also change our stories – and ourselves. And if we can tell stories about ourselves, we can also tell stories about our communities, our families, our countries – the stories that need to be told. 

In my work with migrant women writers, I have come across many such stories.  Whether they expose harsh government injustice, reveal a character’s sexual orientation or bear witness to an act of love within a family, they record what needs to be recorded and out what needs to be outed.  In doing so they traverse geographic, cultural and language boundaries, empowering and creating communities. One person’s small act of writing their truths can open doors to conversation and new understanding.

Debie, my dodo, ended up having many adventures after I turned my first book into a series. I was lucky enough to know the power of creation at an early age. I hope others may also know this, and in so doing, they will tell the stories that need to be told. Stories that change things. Stories that eventually, change the world.

 ×           What’s your story?  Is there something you say about yourself that you plan to change for the better?