Wayne: How did your nomadic upbringing evolve into your interest in travel writing and photography? Who are your influences?
Nana Chen: In moving so much, I’ve come to long for things that hold still, that give me a sense of stability. I know this is unrealistic, however. Life is not still and wanting it to be so is such a contradiction towards what I do: living in foreign cultures, traveling and living the adventure of not knowing where my work will take me. I suppose work is my stability for now—when I finish something, be it a photograph, painting or story, it is there to return to.
I borrowed my parents’ Minolta X-700 around 1998. I’ve still got it. I studied the images of Cartier-Bresson most. I stood in awe of his precision, the composition, and in many instances, the humor and/or the strong emotions he captured. Later, I came across the work of Steve McCurry, and was very much drawn to his dark rich portraits. A photographer I like studying now is Shiho Fukada. Her work is so clean, her angles so interesting and mesmerizing. There really is so much to draw inspiration from. I only need to look and learn, even from images I don’t like, by asking why and how I’d do it differently.
Wayne: Who are your biggest travel writing influences?
Nana: Pico Iyer with his elegant speech comes to mind, as does Jan Morris. But for the most part, my writing influences come from reading Gustav Flaubert, Vikram Seth, Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Soseki Natsume, Rohinton Mistry… It’s important for me to be exposed to different voices. I also listen to audio books occasionally, just to give my eyes a rest. At any time, I’ve got a stack of books that I’m reading—this includes books to enhance my skills, book of poems, art history textbooks, and several novels. Occasionally, I’ve had bouts of digression in my reading path, taking me towards topics I don’t normally read about, [in other words], pandemics and epidemics, sociology, women’s issues, social linguistics, horticulture… I just know that everything I read is an influence on the mind, the writing. I’m merely a gatherer of words, sentences and expressions that, on good days, can be retrieved when I need them, and the broader the base of knowledge the better.
Like most things I do, I do them alone. Shyness has a great deal to do with how I’ve come to paint, write and photograph: the writing keeps me safe in my room and the photography forces and dares me to abandon it.