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Interview with rising literary talent, 17-year-old Joanna Li

Talented 17-year-old Joanna Li came first equal in the Open Junior Section of the New Zealand Poetry Society’s (NZPS) 2017 International Poetry Competition with a poem entitled Hidden Figures.

Her poem has been published in the newly released New Zealand Poetry society anthology, and is copied below.

Joanna has a long list of awards and prizes for one so young. This is the second time she has been recognised by the NZPS following her 2015 win for the Junior (under 17) Gallipoli section.

Her considerable successes also include winning the Secondary School Division of the Sunday Star Times Short Story Competition in 2016, and the Christine Cole Cattley Award for Prose Writing in both 2015 and 2016.

Heidi North-Bailey talks to Joanna about her hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future as a young writer.

How long have you been writing? And what do you write?

I’ve been passionate about words and writing stories for as long as I can remember! I don’t think I’ll ever stop. I write poetry, short stories, essays and speeches.

What interests you as a writer?

My writing is focused on bringing attention to social issues. I want to shine light into the darkness. For example, at my school, Diocesan School for Girls, I wrote a speech last year about white feminism. I want to give voice to things that sometimes live on the margins.

What does it mean for you coming first equal in the 2017 International Poetry Competition?

It means a great deal to me, as I never expected my poem to achieve it. I’m glad that my writing is out there in the world for people to enjoy.

What are some of your writing achievements and how have they shaped you as a writer?

I was awarded a New Zealand Society of Authors’ Young Mentorship in 2016 with Renee Liang. It was a transformative experience. Renee, who is also of Chinese heritage, is a prolific writer who balances her creative work with being a GP. It was very inspiring, and also Renee was realistic about how hard it is to be a writer full-time.

Her heritage resonated with me, as I’m a first-generation New Zealander. My parents migrated here from Southern China, and I do feel like I have my feet in both worlds. It’s a blessing and a curse. But it’s also just who I am and I think it adds to my writing because I can see things from different perspectives.

Who have been some of your supports in writing?

I started at Diocesan School for Girls in Year 9 in 2013. My English teachers, Ms Hart and Ms Woods, have been great cheerleaders along the way! They encourage me and always send details of writing competitions my way.

I’m now completing my final year at school. I decided to do the IB diploma at Dio, which has been wonderful for my writing. We read such wide texts, I am finding such inspiration in reading things I may not have otherwise.

I also focused on writing in the self-directed study component (CAS) I choose slam poetry and competed with a team in the Auckland regionals.

We didn’t place and we didn’t expect to – it was our first time. But it was great fun and a great opportunity! That’s how I feel about writing, you just have to give it a go and have fun!

Also, my parents have always been very supportive of me.

What are you reading right now?

Currently I’m still reading YA fiction novels. Over summer, I also plan to read a few classics that I haven’t had the chance to read before. I’m about to start Emma by Jane Austen.

What advice would you have for young writers out there?

Write, write, write! Keep writing, keep reading. Read widely and diversely, read books that you normally wouldn’t read, read books that aren’t set in places similar to your own life. Learn how to write convincing dialogue. Readers are interested in character and relationships – so learn to write dialogue that is meaningful and reveals something about the plot/ characters.

Who are your favourite New Zealand authors/books?

One of my favourite NZ books is The Chimes by Anna Smaill, however I also thoroughly enjoy Eleanor Catton’s work, and the poetry of Chris Tse.

What’s next for you writing wise?

I’m just finishing my final exmas at Dio now. Next year, I hope to get my debut poetry collection published and begin a conjoint Law/Arts degree.

You can read Joanna’s poem below.

hidden figures

Joanna LI

i think the problem with black history

is that we already know how this song and dance

goes, glass half empty.

i watch three black women put a man into space

and i’m always waiting for the punchline, the

moment where the perfect illusion dissolves

and we get thrown back to square one.

i’m so cautious of the happy ending

because somewhere along the way i

learned that people like us don’t get them.

the white astronaut puts his faith in her brilliance,

looks past her skin,

her white boss removes the coloured sign

off the bathroom,

the music swells,

and i’m still holding my breath,

where’s the catch? where are the terms and

conditions for this one act of human decency,

the oppressed are never handed anything

without having to fight for it.

i’m sitting in the movie theatre, crying

at the story of three black women who won,

and still i am thinking

this cannot be real.

The 2017 NZPS Anthology, after the cyclone, edited by Gail Ingram, is available here

Heidi North-Bailey


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