Each month we shine our spotlight on a member of the Writing NSW community to learn more about their writing journey, achievements and inspirations. This month we spoke with 2019 WestWords Western Sydney Emerging Writer Fellow, Annie Zhang.
Annie is a Chinese-Australian writer and editor who was awarded first prize in ZineWest’s 2018 Writing Competition and shortlisted for the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction in 2017. She currently edits Honi Soit, the University of Sydney’s weekly student newspaper, and is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.
Our membership intern, Lou Garcia-Dolnik, spoke with Annie about her literary success, projects on the horizon and where she finds her creative spark.
You were recently named one of Westwords’ Western Sydney Emerging Writers’ Fellows for 2019—congratulations! What do you intend to do with the Fellowship?
Thank you! With the fellowship, I’ve been working on several ghostly stories set in suburban Sydney. The stories take elements of traditional Chinese folklore and superstition and situate them in contemporary Western Sydney. Many aspects of diasporic Chinese-Australian culture also bleed through the pieces—my characters inhabit haunted granny flats and party it up with North Shore Asians at OPM nightclub. Fortunately, however, I haven’t had to persist through my poor drafts and plot problems alone. I’ve been developing my stories with the help of my wonderful mentor Chi Vu, who has been extremely patient and supportive.
Your piece “Dirty White” was also featured in Sweatshop’s anthology for diverse women earlier this year. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Dirty White is a poem loosely based on my favourite tree getting cut down when I was eight. My Mum called it the zoeng bei syu, which is Cantonese for ‘elephant nose tree’, because its branches were thick and grey like an elephant’s trunk. To this day, I still have no idea what that type of tree is called in English. Our neighbours didn’t like the tree at all (for extremely practical reasons, to be completely honest), and we had to cut it down as a result. Eight-year-old me was very upset about it.
The poem was published in Sweatshop Women, an anthology of work written by women of colour from Western Sydney. The very existence of such a volume has been super exciting for all of us. Winnie Dunn, the editor, had a brutally honest editing style which was both humbling and extraordinarily helpful. There is a ton of great work in the anthology—everyone should get themselves a copy here!
You cover a range of genres in your capacity as a writer and editor of Honi Soit. Are you drawn towards any particular themes when you write/edit?
As is the case for many writers of colour, my heritage and my personal experiences are very visceral starting points for my writing. These are often random memories—like climbing a favourite tree, hearing my Mum obsess about superstitions, or driving down the Hume Highway right after getting my reds. I am also drawn to surrealism. I love works that are a little bit fantastical, off-kilter or gothic. Fiction stories are my favourite medium, and I also appreciate the brevity and charged language of poetry.
In terms of editing, I’ve had the pleasure of editing a diverse range of content. My favourites are always perspective pieces. I love reading about the interior lives and experiences of our contributors. One thing I really appreciate about editing a student newspaper is that we don’t live for the clicks! That means we can publish work that is a little more niche or experimental, that might not typically find a home elsewhere.
Could you tell us a bit about a character you’ve written that you’ve loved or hated? Why?
A recent favourite has been a Chinese ghost mum who raids her daughter’s fridge every night, rearranges the furniture without permission, and drips blood from the bathroom ceiling to vent her disapproval.
Has editing other people’s work helped cultivate your own writing practice?
Editing and writing are separate skillsets, but they are complementary in many ways. Editing has helped me think more critically about how to use language in different contexts. I find myself noticing the weaknesses in my own writing more often than before. After working with other writers on their own pieces, I’m also becoming more acutely aware of style. I notice the style of other writers more frequently—the words and phrases they habitually use, the lengths of their sentences, the ways they play with grammar rules. In noticing theirs, I have also become more aware of my own writing style, which is something I usually don’t consciously consider.
What’s some advice you could impart to a young editor?
The best piece of editing advice I’ve received was given by Lamya Rahman, one of the Honi Soit editors in the year before mine. She told me, “Syntax is someone’s personality revealing themselves on the page. You want to help their voice shine, not change it.” Editors should always aim to respect the writer’s voice. I’ve received excellent advice to that end from Claire Cao, one of the current fiction editors for Voiceworks. She recommends always asking the writer what their intention is, particularly when dealing with sections that need reworking. An editor’s job is to then find solutions to clarify that intention and honour the writer’s authentic voice.
Aside from that, edit thoroughly and honestly—but always offer support and encouragement. Your role is to help them improve!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing?
Just write. Even if no one ends up reading it, every piece of writing you produce goes towards honing your craft!
If you could have dinner with any artist, author or fictional character, who would it be and why?
Probably Hiromu Arakawa! She’s the mangaka who created Fullmetal Alchemist, which is one of my favourite works of media. I am in profound admiration of Arakawa’s skills at worldbuilding and characterisation. She writes incredibly complex relationships and successfully juggles many different characters, while managing to make each of them memorable and unique. I would love to meet her, fangirl, and discuss the unresolved romantic subtext between my favourite characters.
About the writer
Annie Zhang is a Chinese-Australian writer and editor who grew up in southwest Sydney. She is a 2019 WestWords Western Sydney Emerging Writer Fellow. Annie won first prize in the ZineWest 2018 Writing Competition, and was also shortlisted for the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction in 2017. Her work has been published by Pencilled In, ARNA and Sweatshop Women, amongst others. She currently edits Honi Soit, Australia’s oldest weekly student newspaper. Say hello to her on Twitter @anniexyzhang.