A chat with… paediatrician and playwright Renee Liang

Renee Liang wears a lot of hats, and all of them well.

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

She has a medical degree from Auckland University and is a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. She now works as a locum in hospitals across New Zealand.

She has toured eight plays, written three chapbooks of poetry, one book and is a regular contributor to several publications with a passion for science communication.

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In 2017 she adapted her play The Bone Feeder into 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 a stint working in the United Kingdom and Australia you returned to Auckland in 2009 and say that’s when things got interesting – in what way?

I was burning out in medicine and there was, unfortunately, quite a lot of workplace bullying. I needed to give myself a break so I enrolled to do the Master of Creative Writing program at Auckland University.

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 that I had 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’re well known on the spoken word scene. How did you get into poetry?

I was a pub poet in Australia. When I came back to Auckland I immediately joined the poetry scene. What happened in Australia, why I really hit the poetry hard, was I lost my partner. We were both 30. We’d been together for eight years.

He passed away from a medical condition really suddenly, so I came home to grieve, but not before pouring out my grief in poetry on the open mic, essentially using it to explore stuff.

What was the Auckland scene like for you?

I styled myself as slam mistress Renee, wearing a leather bodice that was ex-Xena.

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

You’ve described medicine as your first love and the arts as your best friend. Did you always explore both?

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

I wrote a poem that took that quote.

The literature and medicine thing probably started before I was born. I am the first grandchild in my family. In Southern Chinese tradition the paternal grandfather decides on the name for the baby.

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

I loved writing and I was a real reader. I was that kid who went to the library and took out seven books. I’d read all seven at the same time in different spots around the house.

Why pediatricians?

My dad was a pediatrician. He worked long hours so we’d have dinner at 10pm when he got home. Mum would give us a snack and we’d have an afternoon nap – something a lot of Asian kids do.

I knew my dad worked hard but he enjoyed it. Most importantly he brought home chocolates from his patients and I was like “I want to get chocolates when I’m grown up”. As a medical student, I noticed how the pediatricians stayed young and bouncy.

There are other perks: you can tell jokes really badly; it’s the only specialty where it’s OK to tickle your patients occasionally and sometimes I’ll do my consultations from the floor playing with blocks.

You are very productive. How do you fit it all in?

The idea that I’m highly productive, I feel is me hoodwinking everybody. It’s a wonder.

I mean I have two children aged 7 and 9 and my family is the most important thing in my life. I’m grateful my husband takes most of that full-time parenting load so that I can do the other stuff. I actually have a theory that everything I’m doing is the same thing: storytelling.

The skills I got as a doctor – to hear the real story underneath the story that the patients are telling me – is also a skill the fictional storyteller has to use.

What is the power of stories?

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

I’m lucky enough to have some skills to tell stories so I’m going to use them to highlight stories that need to be told. I have been given permission by my community to tell the stories of the Chinese New Zealand community, specifically New Zealand born Chinese.

The most important thing is I go and ask permission first. That’s number one. Story sovereignty is becoming a little bit more recognised, especially with Māori and Pacific stories. It isn’t so recognized with other communities, but the same principles hold: nothing about us, without us.

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

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

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

Is that something that you’re interested in for your children as well?

And it is. My children’s language heritage is also Croatian. They’ve expressed interest in Croatian and Cantonese words but they’re not fluent in either because their parents aren’t.

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

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