Many artists and other creatives create art out of their personal obsessions and passions. They are drawn to question, explore, investigate themes from their own lives through music, words or art. In the process, they may or may not find the answers they are looking for. But the power of the creative process is that it transforms a personal obsession into a universal inquiry. So the artistic work invites us to go on a journey to explore our own lives and our own humanity.
I did not think that I had any special obsessions in my life. I wrote my two legal thrillers The Flame Tree and Mindgame (first published by Hodder & Stoughton) for the sheer exhilaration of telling stories and the pleasure of the creative act. I am currently developing my story performance Bound Feet Blues, many years later, and it seems to be completely different from those two novels – being inspired by my own life and the stories that my mother and grandmother would tell me.
But I re-read The Flame Tree last week and I am astonished to find that the themes in that novel reverberate through Bound Feet Blues.
Personal Themes in Fiction and Memoir
The fact that Bound Feet Blues is based on my own life has brought into the spotlight the personal obsessions that underpin the fictional story in The Flame Tree. I can see now that while I was writing about fictional events and fictional characters in that novel, I was really talking about emotions, passions, beliefs, values and relationships that are at the core of who I am and how I live my life. In stripping away the fiction and the high drama of the legal thriller genre, and turning to spoken memoir in Bound Feet Blues, I am now still talking about all those themes but with more simplicity and vulnerability.
I’ll explore these recurring themes in a series of essays over the next few weeks.
Today: living an authentic life.
The Struggle for Authenticity
The struggle to live an authentic life can be a hard one. It can mean stepping outside your comfort zone, being different from others around you, taking a stand against what your family or culture want you to be. But for those people who do try to be true to themselves, their lives can become happier, more meaningful and more fulfilled.
When The Flame Tree opens, my heroine, Jasmine, is living a seemingly successful life with a grand fiance and a world class career. But in doing this, she has betrayed her youthful ambition of being a people’s lawyer, speaking for those without power and wealth.
She tells herself she’s happy but it’s clear she isn’t. She is living in disguise and masks her true feelings, even from herself. She is literally living a lie.
The journey she must take is one of re-connecting with her inner truth and allowing herself to be true to her own values and passion.
In my own life – albeit less dramatically (I’m not chased by men with guns and haven’t had my world literally collapse on me in a huge landslide!) – I am constantly grappling with how to be true to myself.
Bound Feet Blues is my exploration of what authenticity means for me in my own life – and I hope invites the audience to also reflect on that theme for themselves through the questions I raise in the stories within the piece.
Being True to Myself – Novel versus Real Life
Here are some of the questions around being authentic that are embedded in Bound Feet Blues – and also in The Flame Tree:
# There’s a red cheong sahm (Chinese traditional long gown) in both stories, indicative of the main character’s female – and exotic – sexual power. Clothes can give us power, act as an armour, be a disguise – or be an expression of who we really are? What roles do clothes play in your life?
# In both stories, the protagonists pursue high flying careers to fulfill the ambitions of those they love and in doing that, set aside their own hopes and dreams. Out of alignment with their own values and the core beliefs that make up their true selves, they are unhappy and feel as if they are living a lie. How does what you do align with your values and your passion – and what is the impact on your happiness and relationships when they are in alignment, and when they are not?
# In each story, the main character tries to love someone who is “suitable” and who fulfills all the criteria that her family and culture would approve of. But her heart belongs elsewhere. She feels dead inside – and in Jasmine’s case in The Flame Tree, she is literally brutalised by this masquerade – until she is able to take the risk and allow her heart to love who it truly loves. What relationships in your life are unhealthy for you, hollow or insincere – and what is the cost to you in trying to maintain them? What happens when you can love freely and be loved in return?
How do YOU stay true to yourself?
I wrote The Flame Tree almost 20 years ago and the theme of authenticity was urgent and pressing for me at that time in my life. Even though I have taken care to live my life with greater truth to who I am since then so there is less urgency in the call, the struggle for authenticity remains present for me today. We are all surrounded by siren calls that lure us towards seeking others’ approval, extrinsic totems of success, the need to fit in and be accepted. It can be difficult navigating such pressures. But when we can stay the true course, we can find our way home to an instrinsic sense of confidence and worth.
So I think that is why the struggle for authenticity remains a theme in my creative work and in my life. It’s not just something I feel is important for me to grapple with but also I hope to inspire others to explore it for themselves in their own lives and relationships.
This essay is part of a storytelling project I am developing called Bound Feet Blues – A Life Told in Shoes. It is my first full length storytelling piece, bringing together stories from my family and from my own life. In Chinese tradition, women with tiny bound feet were desirable as wives and lovers, their delicate feet seen as objects of both status and sexual fetish. Drawing from my Chinese-Malaysian background, I explore themes of female desirability, identity and empowerment in this personal story told through the shoes in my life. In the work, bound feet, stillettoes, expensive Italian pumps, trainers, hiking boots and brogues tell the stories of our hearts, hopes and joys.
I will be performing an extract at the Going Solo event on 26 March, produced by The Centre of Solo Performance – tickets are now available