Our cover girl Jenevieve Chang will be partaking in the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival and launching her memoir, The Good Girl of China, at Better Read Than Dead in Newtown on May 4
Your book explores identity and place. How has living in Shanghai, the UK and Sydney’s Inner West shaped your personal narrative and your work?
A sense of place is really foregrounded in my work – each city is like its own character. Sydney is initially a battleground because of the childhood struggles I endured. London is where I trained as a dancer so that city is a collision of formalism and chaos, the tension of physical training with the physical pleasure of falling in love. But Shanghai is the strongest character. At the turn of the new millennium – when I moved over trying to make sense of my Chinese identity – I found a place that was just as conflicted about the past and present, East and West as I was, with an inability to stay still and hunger for constant reinvention.
What was it like living in those big global cities, and what is special about returning to this part of the world?
There’s a quote by the writer Roman Payne: “Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.” Like a lot of people, I set out overseas hoping to find something I felt was missing. And while I discovered a lot while I was gone, it wasn’t until I returned to Sydney again that I realised that what I was looking for was here all along. My reconciliation with the past wasn’t going to take place in China, where my grandparents had run away from. It had to take place where I had run away from. The battleground was actually a sanctuary, but it took a wild journey around the world to see it with new eyes.
What is your favourite part of Sydney’s Inner West?
I love the Addison Rd Community Centre Markets [in Marrickville] on a Sunday. My first real job was at a theatre company called Sidetrack in Hut 9 back in 2000, which made work inspired by stories in the Marrickville community. It’s no longer there unfortunately, but it’s great to see organisations like The Bower, Ethnic Community Services and Radio Skid Row still standing with other great artist and community run initiatives, and local farmers and artisans amidst the creep of development.
Why are books and writing so valuable? Similarly, what has drawn you to the performing arts?
Human beings have always used stories as a way to connect with each other. As a culture, it gives us an identity – it plugs our individual struggles into a collective voice. And this is what makes us more resilient and compassionate, because we find ways to understand others through ourselves.
What are you looking forward to at the Writers’ Festival?
I’m excited to see the program. It’s Michaela McGuire’s first year as Artistic Director and I’m sure she has great things planned. And just to be a part of this incredible celebration of books and writing and writers… if you’d told me I’d be part of the SWF a year ago, I would’ve told you to stop dreaming!
What was your favourite dish as a child?
I’ve got great memories of my grandmother’s water chestnut cake. It was a recipe that came from our ancestral home of Hunan in southern China where we like our dishes heavy and spicy, but desserts cool and light. My grandmother wasn’t much of a cook. She was raised an aristocrat, and never did embrace the culinary arts even after she had to start fending for herself. But she always went to a special effort for her grandchildren. Food, of course, represented love. But looking back, I know now that her ability to feed us – and feed us well – was a potent reminder that she had succeeded in taking us as far away from the famine that had claimed the lives of others in our family, the ones who were left behind.
For a great water chestnut cake…
3 ¾ cups boiling water
1 ½ cups dark brown sugar
4 ½ cups canned water chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped
225g water chestnut powder mixed with 1 cup of cold water
Pour boiling water into a wok over high heat, add sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the chopped water chestnuts and mix well, then add the water chestnut powder mixture. Turn the heat to low and stir continually in one direction for 5 to 7 minutes, until the mix is thick and paste-like.
Pour the mixture into a nine-inch greased pan and place the pan on a rack over the wok. Add 8 cups of boiling water, then cover and steam for 40 minutes until it sets firmly and becomes translucent. Replenish the boiling water after 20 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the cake pan from the steamer and allow it to set for 4 minutes. Slice immediately and serve.
When freshly steamed and sliced the cake has the consistency of a firm jelly, but as it cools it becomes very much like aspic. To reheat after freezing, allow the cake to return to room temperature then steam it for ten minutes until it becomes more jelly-like again.