Writers from China's diaspora Imagine a woman living the first 30 years of her life in China, then migrating to the US and writing a book of English poetry. It was, perhaps, the sheer audacity of her life so far that prompted Shao Wei, now 39, to name her poetry collection Pulling a Dragon's Teeth - a little tougher even than the Chinese proverb 'pulling teeth from a tiger's mouth'. The book (Shao's third, after two Chinese-language books published in China) won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and was published in 2002 by Pittsburgh University Press. She says she drew her inspirations from life in New York City and a lonely childhood in Wanxian City. 'I'm an only child,' she says. 'When I was young, my parents divorced and I had to live with my grandfather, who was a strict, hard-working man and a follower of Confucius. I read a lot of books and watched Peking opera frequently, and in the process learned to appreciate stories about life and death, good and evil.' The books that Shao enjoyed included fairy tales and folk- lore, which inspired her book's opening poem, A Fairy Tale, in which she depicts a lonely six-year-old girl who 'still loves the world, with or without her'. 'When I was a child, life was poor and there wasn't much to enjoy,' she says. 'Legends are a permanent fire that comforted me and provided me with a hope for the future.' Wanxian was a beautiful, mountainous city by the Yangtze River, Shao says. 'I would see peasants travelling downstream or upstream as they carried their goods to other cities to sell. I often admired them for having that freedom to travel.' Shao left her home town for the first time at the age of 16, when she went to college in Chongqing. She'd always wanted to go to the US to study - her college major in China was English. After she finished her graduate study in 1991, she prepared for her Test of English as a Foreign Language and Graduate Record Examinations, and received a scholarship to study at New York University (NYU). 'At that time, living itself was a big challenge for me, so I'd wanted to forget about writing poetry and learn something more practical,' Shao says. 'Fortunately, my professor, Galway Kinnell, encouraged and pushed me along the way.' The result of attending NYU's creative-writing programme is a book that won praise from China-born author Ha Jin, who described it as 'an extraordinary debut' with poems that are 'daring and imaginative'. As a show of Shao's gratitude towards her mentor's guidance, Kinnell's name appears on the dedication page, just below her tribute to her grandfather. Even though Shao is a US permanent resident, she does not veer far from her Chinese roots. She still teaches and writes bilingually. 'Writing in Chinese is like writing to my mom,' she says. 'You are close to her, but you won't tell her everything. But writing in English is like writing to your good friend - you tell her or him everything, because the distance between you and your friend gives you a certain sense of freedom.' With the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, settlements along Yangtze River - including Wanxian - have disappeared. 'The last time I visited Wanxian was in July 2002,' Shao says. 'My grandfather's house and most of my childhood neighbourhood had been demolished and many residents had already relocated. Realising that everything is going to disappear very soon made me sad. To me, it would mean losing my homeland and my childhood memories.' So, on the subject of destruction and loss, what does Shao think is the relevance of poetry in today's post-September 11 world? 'Poetry doesn't change because of some specific events in the world,' she says. 'Just take a look back at human history - there have been many events that we've experienced, yet poetry stands firm on its own through the centuries. 'The more developed the world becomes, the lonelier we are. I believe that, as long as human beings exist, we'll still need poetry to warm our hearts.'