I’m a storyteller. I tell stories. But every writer is different, so rather than telling you what it means to be a Christian fiction writer, let me tell you about myself.
I have a Chinese dad and an Australian mum. I grew up in PNG and Singapore. I’ve always been into books and writing – it was just the way I expressed myself. I loved to create worlds and characters, but I also used it as a way to resolve or at least express how I was feeling about life. Although I write fiction, there is a lot of me in my work – and I’ll come back to the importance of this.
I grew up going to various churches – Brethren, Baptist, Anglican – because we moved around so much. By the time I got to uni I would have said I was a Christian, but there was little evidence of it in my life.
I came to UNSW to study theatre and English. I wanted to work in the theatre so much, yet words kept pulling me back. No matter how much I wanted to be an actor or a director, these scripts kept pouring out of me, and creative writing was my favourite course.
I graduated, still deluded that my future lay in the theatre. I was probably about as far away from God as I’ve ever been. It’s a stereotype, but there is some truth in the perception that artists aren’t Christians and in fact must reject everything to do with the shackles of religion. At uni, the theatre group I was giving all my time to was diametrically opposed to Campus Bible Study – so it’s kind of ironic that I ended up working at AFES!
Life on the whole wasn’t going too well for me, and after a number of personal crises, God graciously rescued me. I recommitted my life to him. So began a bit of a stocktaking time all round, looking at my life and my choices and wondering what God’s plan for me was. The more I thought about the gifts he’d given me, the more I realised that writing was not just something I was good at, it was a blessing from God.
So I decided I would pursue writing properly. I enrolled in an MA in creative writing and now have almost finished my first novel. It’s taken a long time for me to call myself a writer, even though it has always been a part of who I am. It might seem odd, but I guess I thought it was like bragging or bignoting myself.
I’ve come to realise though, that being a visibly Christian writer is important. This leads me into the first of three points I want to make.
- We need to be Christian writers
By that I don’t necessarily mean that our fiction writing should be about Christian things, or, as Tony said, feature a conversation where one of the characters spontaneously presents Two Ways to Live. But we need to be unashamedly Christian in our focus, in the moral framework we set up for our characters. The truth of what we believe will shine forth, even if we never explicitly talk about Christ. Someone else can step into our Christ-centered worldview and we have the chance to influence how they see things.
We also need to be known as Christians. Christians need a more visible presence in the arts world. I don’t know if you’re the same, but I suspect you are: I always find it encouraging when I learn that some author or musician or director who is acclaimed by the secular world is openly and unashamedly Christian. It’s a spark of recognition that there’s someone else like me out there.
- We need to see ourselves in fiction
My book, Undragon Stories, came about when I was writing a thesis about Asian Australian identity. I had noticed that amongst all the novels I had read on the subject, I couldn’t find myself in any of them. There were stories about migrants, or children of two migrant parents, but none about people from a mixed cultural background. I couldn’t understand why, as there must be so many people like me in our country with its diverse mix of cultures. So I started to write about what it was like to grow up in an Asian Australian household.
In the same way that I had a hunger to read about Asian Australians, I also want to read about real Christians, want to see them as more than caricatures. I don’t see a strong portrayal of Christians in contemporary fiction, and I think it’s important to have Christianity presented in fiction in a positive light, not as something that is only there to be mocked, parodied or torn down.
- We need to support Christian writers
After finishing my thesis I went through a period of severe depression and didn’t want to write at all, especially not the book. I was lamenting this to a Christian sister. She wanted to know all about the book, and we talked about it and the Varuna house, a place that offers writing retreats, to which I had always wanted to go. She prayed with me, and encouraged me to submit an application to Varuna. So I did. And to my great surprise I won a three week fellowship, and my writing life was given a real boost. But without her encouragement I don’t think I would have even tried.
There are lots of things that make writing difficult, for me they include lack of time, lack of energy and the problem of not being taken seriously as a writer. I think this is because when you work full time, writing is seen by other people as being a bit of a hobby because it’s not how you make your living.
Another problem is when your worldview clashes with people who are dealing with your work. In my case, my editor/supervisor was adamant that I should put in a sex scene and couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to. “But everything is leading to that! They have to have sex!” And to my mind, no, they didn’t! So it’s important to be clear about the direction you want your work to go, and to defend that.
So I would encourage you to support Christian fiction writers. You may not be able to support them financially or in practical ways (although if you can that’s great), but you can pray for them. You can ask them how they are going, and encourage them. Knowing that people are supporting what you do is immensely helpful and important.
So those are my reflections on being a Christian fiction writer – I’m going to hand over to the panel now.