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Interview: Yen Ooi


We're delighted to be joined on the blog by Yen Ooi, who was the featured author on our Book Club in August. Yen is a writer-editor-researcher whose works explore East and Southeast Asian culture, identity and values. She is a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London looking at the development of Chinese science fiction by diaspora writers and writers from Chinese-speaking nations. You can read an extract from her non-fiction book Rén: The Ancient Chinese Art of Finding Peace and Fulfilment (Welbeck Publishing Group, 2022), on the Book Club. And Yen has been kind enough to take the time to answer some of our questions!

How did the idea for Rén: The Ancient Chinese Art of Finding Peace and Fulfilment first emerge?

When I started working on my PhD in 2016, I had decided to research ancient Chinese teachings like Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Growing up in Malaysia as a Chinese diaspora meant much of it was ingrained in my upbringing, but it was difficult to apply ‘lived knowledge’ onto academic research.  And on a trip to Guanghwa Bookshop in London then, I picked up my first copy of Confucius’s Analects, which kicked it all off. 

Studying Confucius’s teachings brought up a lot of relatable references. Often, I would be surprised by how modern Confucius’s thinking comes across and occasionally, I would find that some of the teachings have been (inevitably) changed through the passing of time and through inheritance through oral tradition. 

Having spoken about my research with my literary agent, she connected me with an editor at Welbeck publishing who was interested in a more mainstream non-fiction book on the topic, and the idea for Rén emerged from our discussions.

Although the book might be seen as fitting into the self-help genre, do you think it diverges from the genre in some ways, as well?

In the past, I had found Confucius (and other ancient Chinese teachings) to belong in history books or referred to somewhat superficially. I think (and hope!) that Rén can show readers that Confucius’s teachings still have a place in our modern world, in fact, more so than ever. The socio-political changes that we are facing through adapting to digital means of communications in our technologically infused lives have often brought up moments of uncertainty in our own behaviours or in interacting with others, and the forthright and simple principles of ancient teachings can support and bring clarity during these times.

The illustrations in the book, by Sinjin Li, are really striking. Can you tell us more the collaboration between author and illustrator?

Sing Yun Lee (who goes by the moniker Sinjin Li for their creative work) and I met at an academic conference in 2018 and we connected over conversations of cultural traditions among diaspora communities. They often mention the paper that I presented at that event on mapping cultural influences in mainstream science fiction work today to influences from ancient Chinese traditions, while I was taken by their design prowess in expressing deep meaning behind what seemed like simple and clear illustrations, which echoes much of Confucius’s teachings to me. 

When I started discussing illustration options with Welbeck, I immediately thought of Sing and was extremely pleased that they were chosen, after we deliberated the work of a shortlist of illustrators. During the book development, it was a really easy collaboration with Sing, who understood and related intimately to the connotations of the book and Confucius’s teachings. We clicked in our interpretation of the application of Confucius’s teachings today.

I am also very pleased that the drawings have futuristic elements that speak to both our love for science fiction, which is important to the visualisation of a (near) future that is wholesome - with space for personal, cultural, and social growth. 

What has the reception of the book been like? Has anything surprised you about how people have responded to it?

In the interactions I’ve had with people over social media and at book events, I’ve been surprised by how engaged readers have been with the concepts introduced in the book - occasionally taking it further still. The practice of Rén is a long-term commitment of self-awareness and improvement, and many whom I’ve spoken with are embracing these concepts with open minds and hearts. 

I’m also pleased that the book has opened up conversations around Confucius’s teachings that have been misconstrued through time (and thus had inadvertently created questionable traditions), to allow for space to reflect on the interpretations and realignment of the principles of Rén to the foundation that was proposed by Confucius in his Analects.

It has also been warming to learn that Rén is reaching readers of Italian and Spanish too.

Have you found the lessons of Rén to be helpful to you in your own creative and academic work, as well as in daily life? And related to this, do you find that the different aspects of your work (fiction, non-fiction, criticism, etc) feed into one another?

In able to create cohesion across genres and formats, I’ve found the need to have a strong foundation in my work, and Rén is a wonderful addition to my core practice. While my critical research centres around culture, identity and values, being able to draw from Rén for my personal and emotional well-being provides another layer of cultural recognition. Though it might be silly to say this, there is comfort to be taken from knowing that my culture is accepted in the mainstream and has value in modern society. 

Ultimately, all my work brings together my love for reading (thus, writing!) and my curiosity around people, especially in how we define and express ourselves to the world.

Can you tell us anything about what you're working on at the moment?

In the next year or so, I’m concentrating on writing up my PhD thesis on Chinese Science Fiction, Identity and Culture, and completing a science fiction novel that is set in a slightly futuristic Southeast Asian island. I’m currently also working with So Mayer through the What the Water Gave Us programme - run by Lucy Writers and supported by Arts Council England - to develop a poetry memoir collection. I love collaborating on events and projects, and I tend to share upcoming information on Twitter - @yenooi.

Thank you, Yen!