Author and performer Yang-May Ooi will present her one-woman show, Bound Feet Blues, at the Tristram Bates Theatre in Soho in November and December. I saw the showcase version last year, which was terrific. I asked Yang-May about the journey to create the show and to tell me more about the shoes that have shaped her life.
Q: What took you from being a self-described ‘introvert’ author, to becoming a performer?
I had always wanted to tell the stories passed down by the women in my family about my forebears in China and how they migrated to Malaya (as it then was). As a Chinese-Malaysian now British and living in London, it felt important to me to keep alive my heritage. On my 48th birthday, I thought about my grandma telling us these family stories and about how I didn’t have any children or grandchildren to pass on these stories to.
I had been trying to write these stories down for many years in the form of a family history – like Wild Swans! But I wasn’t getting any traction. That day, when I thought about my grandma, I realised that the stories I wanted to tell had been told to me out loud by her. I began to think about how I could re-tell these stories out loud instead of in book form. And it didn’t matter that I didn’t have any children or grandchildren of my own – these stories just needed to told.
That led me to tell stories live at cult storytelling clubs Spark London and The Story Party. There was an energy and vitality to live performance that invigorated my creativity. That eventually led me to develop Bound Feet Blues, a personal and family memoir as an hour long story performance. It is terrifying to think about stepping on stage in a theatre in London’s West End to carry the show for 5 nights a week over three weeks – but I feel called to do this project, as if I have a burning purpose, that I have to do right by Grandma. And this sense of purpose gives me a courage I never thought I had!
Q: What have you learned about writing for the stage as opposed to the page? What’s different about it?
You need to be much sparser when writing for the stage. I kept cutting and cutting the original text. Even now, in rehearsals with director Jessica Higgs, we still find the need to strip the words down. Every word counts – it’s like poetry. Because extraneous words distract from the impact of the moment on stage.
On stage, you hold a moment of silence with actual silence. On the page, to create silence, you have to fill up the space, slow down time, create suspense with words.
For performance, the language also needs to be more conversational – more spoken. I’ve had to adjust little things to make some sentences sound more natural. For example, in written text, it makes perfect sense to write: “In my family, there is a story that everyone knows”. But said out loud, it feels clunky so I’ve changed it to: “There’s a story in my family that everyone knows”.
After creating the show of Bound Feet Blues, the memoir suddenly became easier to write. I ditched the linear narrative that had got me stuck in previous versions of the family history and used the same narrative style of the show – building up the book through layers of family and personal stories, fairy tales, discussion and reflection. I also wrote it in a more conversational style so you get the feel that I’m there speaking to you as I speak to the audience in the show.
Q: The story you tell is very personal, weaving your own romantic life with your family history. Did you worry about feeling too exposed?
Absolutely! But I think that it is only by allowing myself to be vulnerable on stage – to reveal my naked soul – that I can invite the audience to connect with their own softly beating hearts in a truthful way. We live life within a small range day to day and the creative arts – books, theatre, music etc – offer us a safe space to re-connect with our emotions and humanity. In some ways, although it feels like I’m exposing myself on stage, it is actually the safest place to show emotion and vulnerability.
It’s also important to me to show the moment I came out to my mum – because it shows to the world her love for me. Her love and acceptance of me – and the love and acceptance of my friends and family – gave me the freedom to become all that I could be: a daughter, a sister, a friend, a lover, a writer, a performer and more. I hope that it can inspire others to accept those in their family or friendship circle who may be gay or be in some other way different from them.
Q: Foot-binding in China was horrific, but it was accepted until quite recently. What things do you think we do now, that people in future will look back on with horror?
We in the modern West with all our abundance of food and nutrition and health, we who seem to have everything. And yet some of us starve ourselves to look thin. We “distress” our clothes to make them look threadbare and worn. We have strong, healthy bodies and yet some of us do surgical violence to ourselves because we hate how we look. We can live to a ripe old age and yet we are horrified by the old. People without wombs want to control and keep down those with wombs. We have an obsessive fear and hatred of skin colour and will do unspeakable things to each other – and sometimes ourselves – because of that feeling. Some people share the same skin colour and still revel in violence against each other. Need I go on?
Q: Describe your favourite shoes when you were 20 – and now!
When I was 20, my favourite pair of shoes was a pair of black stilettos – the pair I describe in the first scene of Bound Feet Blues. They were my favourite because they made me look sexy and feminine and powerful – but I also hated them because they were so uncomfortable and I was always afraid I’d twist my ankles in them.
Now – gosh, it’s difficult to pick just one pair. All my shoes are low heeled and sturdy. There’s a pair of black brogues and black ankle length lace ups, biker boots with a turn down cuff and lots of lovely studs. I have brown cowboy style boots with tassles, sleek Chelsea boots in black and brown…. But if I had to choose, I’d say I love my pair of black biker style boots from Ecco. They have very low heels and I can stride about them with a vengeance! I wear them every day. They make me feel empowered and confident and fully who I am.
Yang-May Ooi is a bestselling novelist, award-winning TEDx speaker and acclaimed writer/performer.
Her solo story performance Bound Feet Blues – A Life Told in Shoes is on at the Tristan Bates Theatre 24 November – 12 December 2015. You can find out more and buy tickets via bit.ly/bfbtickets.
Her memoir of the same name is published by Urbane Publications in November to coincide with the show For more info and to buy direct from the publisher – see bit.ly/bfbbook