Cantonese pub

A Conversation with… Pediatrician and Playwright Renee Liang

Renee Liang wears many hats, and all of them well.

She is a pediatrician, playwright, poet, medical researcher and writer. She is also actively involved in community arts initiatives and raises her hand for roles as an assessor and judge of arts funding.

She is a MD from the University of Auckland and a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. She now works as a locum in hospitals across New Zealand.

She has acted in eight plays, written three collections of poetry, one book and regularly contributes to several publications with a passion for science communication.

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In 2017, she adapted her play The bone loader in an opera and has new musical collaborations in the works.

She lives in Auckland with her partner and two children aged 7 and 9.

After working in the UK and Australia, you moved back to Auckland in 2009 and say that’s where things got interesting – in what way?

I was burnt out in medicine and there was, unfortunately, a lot of harassment at work. I needed to give myself a break, so I enrolled in the Masters in Creative Writing program at the University of Auckland.

My goal was to write a novel. It was a classic first novel, a not very hidden autobiographical novel about the relationship between me and my mother. To distract myself through the struggles I was having with writing, I started exploring theatre.

My timing was perfect. There was a real appetite to hear the stories of Chinese New Zealanders on stage.

You are well known on the spoken word scene. How did you come to poetry?

I was a pub poet in Australia. When I returned to Auckland, I immediately joined the poetry scene. What happened in Australia, why I really touched poetry is that I lost my partner. We were both 30 years old. We had been together for eight years.

He passed away from a health problem very suddenly, so I came home to cry, but not before I poured out my grief in poetry on the open mic, basically using it to explore things.

How was the Auckland scene for you?

I posed as slam mistress Renee, wearing a leather bodice who was the ex-Xena.

I had to be attached to it and I also carried a whip and whipped poets for going over their allotted three minutes. So it’s something that apparently people still remember.

You described medicine as your first love and the arts as your best friend. Have you always explored both?

It’s actually a famous quote from Anton Chekhov. “Medicine is my wife and literature is my mistress. When I’m tired of one, I spend the night with the other”.

I wrote a poem that uses this quote.

The history of literature and medicine probably began before I was born. I am the first grandchild in my family. In southern Chinese tradition, the paternal grandfather decides the baby’s name.

My grandfather gave me my name – Yeh Yeh – which means literary flower. He kind of signaled that there were enough doctors in the family and it was time for someone to do some literature. Growing up, they always said, “Oh, that’s Renee, that’s the family writer.”

I loved to write and I was a real reader. I was that kid who went to the library and pulled out seven books. I had read all seven at the same time in different places in the house.

Why pediatrics?

My father was a pediatrician. He worked long hours so we had dinner at 10 p.m. when he came home. Mom would give us a snack and we would take an afternoon nap – which is what many Asian children do.

I knew my dad worked hard but he liked it. More importantly, he brought home chocolates from his patients and I thought, “I want to have chocolates when I grow up.” As a medical student, I noticed how young and dynamic pediatricians remained.

There are other advantages: you can tell jokes very badly; it’s the only specialty where it’s good to tickle your patients from time to time and sometimes I do my consultations on the floor playing with blocks.

You are very productive. How do you integrate all of this?

The idea that I’m very productive, I think I’m fooling everyone. It is a mirage.

I mean I have two children aged 7 and 9 and my family is the most important thing in my life. I’m grateful that my husband takes on most of this full-time parenting so I can do the rest. I actually have a theory that everything I do is the same thing: tell stories.

The skills I learned as a doctor—hearing the real story beneath the story patients tell me—is also a skill the fictional storyteller must use.

What is the power of stories?

One of the most powerful things I do as a doctor and as an artist is acknowledge someone’s story as true. When people are in control of their own stories and understand that they have a voice, they feel empowered and a lot of healing happens.

I’m blessed with storytelling skills, so I’m going to use them to highlight stories that need to be told. My community has given me permission to tell the stories of the New Zealand Chinese community, especially New Zealand-born Chinese.

The most important thing is that I will ask permission first. It’s number one. The sovereignty of history is increasingly recognized, especially with Maori and Pacific histories. It’s not as recognized with other communities, but the same principles apply: nothing about us, without us.

Where did you grow up and do you have any strong childhood memories?

I grew up in Meadowbank, Auckland, and remember the usual Kiwi things.

At home I lived in a very Cantonese environment but at school I was all Kiwi. I tried to fit in, speaking with a really obvious Kiwi accent. People still compliment me on my excellent English. I actually have a T-shirt my sister and I made. He says: Thank you. Your English is also very good. I will add that I am trying to reclaim my mother tongue, which is Cantonese.

Is this something you are also interested in for your children?

Yes. My children’s linguistic heritage is also Croatian. They have expressed interest in Croatian and Cantonese words, but they are not fluent either because their parents do not.

I think my own children are much more secure in their multi-inheritance than I was. It’s normal. Everyone they go to school with is multi-heritage and comfortable.