Conversation/Kōrero: Alison Wong and Aimee Phan
ANZL member Alison Wong is a fourth-generation Chinese New Zealander living in Geelong, Australia. She haswritten a novel, poetry collection and been widely published in a multitude of journals and anthologies. Her debut novel As the Earth Turns Silver won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Her poetry collection, Cup, was shortlisted for Best First Book for Poetry at the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Aimee Phan is the author of the story collection We Should Never Meet and the novel The Reeducation of Cherry Truong. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies by the National Endowment of the Arts, Hedgebrook, MacDowell Colony and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Salon and The Rumpus, among others. She currently chairs the Writing and Literature program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, California.
This conversation took place via email over March and April 2016.
I was reading Beattie’s Book Blog – it’s one of the ways I keep in touch with what is happening in the New Zealand and international literary worlds – which lead me to this feature on Literary Hub and this one in Brooklyn Magazine and I was thinking of you and your perspective and experience of diversity or its lack in the US literary world.
I wonder how this compares to New Zealand and Australia. I am aware of how small New Zealand is – its entire population is maybe 4.6 million, not a lot more than the population of Melbourne or of Los Angeles. I grew up in Napier – a small provincial city – in the sixties and seventies when New Zealand’s population was not particularly diverse. New Zealand’s indigenous peoples, the Maori, were and are accepted as tangata whenua, their language and culture inseparable from the sense of New Zealand national identity and their rights enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi and legislation, something I am acutely aware of because of the contrast with Australia’s first peoples. And New Zealand’s culture feels very much part of the Pacific with many Pasifika peoples, particularly in Auckland and Porirua. When I was growing up the Asian population was small and largely Chinese or Indian, already with a long history of living in New Zealand. Within the Chinese community it seemed like everyone knew each other.
My generation was the first where large numbers of us had the chance of university education. So there was the expectation that we would make the most of that education with respectable high-earning careers, such as in medicine, dentistry, accountancy, business … the arts were not on the radar. We had no mentors or exemplars. It took me until my mid-thirties to realise that the reading and scribbling I had done as a child pointed to where my heart really lay.
New Zealand is behind the US, Canada and Australia in terms of a body of home-grown literature by writers of Asian backgrounds, but I think this is because for so long there were so few of us and because the racism that my great grandparents, grandparents and even parents faced made the previous generations of Chinese New Zealanders keep their heads down, work hard and assume the role of conservative ‘model minority’. Immigration from Asian countries really only got going in the eighties and nineties and now New Zealand’s Asian population is much more evident, especially in Auckland. As writers we are just beginning to blossom. And we are now very diverse. I realise that my experience as the descendent of some of the early Chinese settlers is very different from that of newer immigrants.
But my experience has not been of being marginalised as a writer or of being dismissed as unmarketable or being of no interest to New Zealand readers. Probably publishing is dominated by white people or, as we say in New Zealand, by Pakeha – I wouldn’t have a clue about the stats – but we do have fine Maori, independent and university publishers and, I think, the big publishers are also interested in diversity. After my novel, As the Earth Turns Silver, won the Fiction Award at the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Awards [now the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards], the chair of the judging panel, Stephen Stratford, wrote in Quote UnQuote that his ‘wife observed that the winning authors and books represented four of New Zealand’s major ethnic groups: Maori, Pacific Island, Chinese and Southern Man.’ And I do wonder whether having a slightly different story to tell is an advantage.
Many fine Maori and Pasifika writes are published in New Zealand, several of whom have just been shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Chris Tse’s debut poetry collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, has also been shortlisted, along with Coming Rain, the novel by Stephen Daisley, an expat New Zealander living in Australia. (Given that perhaps a million New Zealanders live overseas and more of them in Australia than anywhere else, does this make Stephen and myself minority New Zealanders? Ha ha.)
Gregory Kan’s first poetry collection, This Paper Boat, has just been published and I’m looking forward to getting hold of it when I get back to New Zealand. Renee Liang writes plays, poetry and essays and her sister Roseanne has written, directed and produced various films and TV shows. I’m waiting for Mo Zhi Hong’s next novel. (His first won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book, South East Asia and South Pacific.) There’s fiction writer Ann-Marie Houng Lee, and Sandor Lau who works in many media. Lynda Chanwai-Earle writes poetry and plays and works for Radio New Zealand. Helene Wong is a film critic, memoirist, and scriptwriter/script consultant. For some years the book editor of the New Zealand Herald was Gilbert Wong; we have had columnists, Tze Ming Mok (also an essayist, poet and fiction writer, now overseas) and comedian Rayon Kan, and self-described ‘book junkie and armchair critic’, Karen Tay – so it does not appear that there are gatekeepers keeping ethnic minorities out of journalism. Nina Powles (half-Chinese, like my own son) has put out a chapbook, Girls of the Drift, and I look forward to a full collection. And there are writers whose ancestry is from the Indian sub-continent, including Jacob Rajan, whose plays are fabulous and hugely popular. I see Chinese and Asian names being mentored through NZ Society of Authors programmes and on the shortlists for school poetry and writing competitions, which makes me optimistic about the future.
I don’t know much about diversity in children’s publishing. I know the School Journal, which goes to schools, does try to include diversity. And Scholastic New Zealand put out the My Story series which included Eva Wong Ng’s Chinatown Girl, but I don’t know how many children’s books are published in New Zealand with diverse characters. I wonder whether when I was young, if I had read books with Chinese characters and seen normal Chinese characters on TV whether it would have made a difference growing up, whether I would have felt more comfortable in my own skin. I agree that there are not enough roles for ethnic/minority actors, that they should not have to only play characters that are ‘ethnic’, but be able to also portray mainstream characters where ethnicity/ancestry is irrelevant.
In Australia, as well as the national non-commercial TV channels (ABC), I enjoy watching the multicultural TV channels (SBS) and the indigenous channel (NITV), where I also get to watch New Zealand/Maori programmes. I enjoy the cultural diversity, even though I know that only a small percentage of the Australian public watch these non-commercial channels. I am seeing a growing number of TV programmes here with indigenous and ethnic characters, including the recent and very popular mini-series based on Benjamin Law’s memoir, The Family Law, and the comic mini-series, Maximum Choppage, (about a nerdy Chinese budding artist whose mother thinks he’s a great martial artist, much to his detriment), many of the episodes written or co-written by our very own New Zealand novelist, short story and screen writer, Duncan Sarkies. There are many crossovers and relationships between New Zealand and Australia.
About New Zealand publishing, though, I wonder what would happen if/when we suddenly had half a dozen or a dozen excellent novels or poetry books submitted to publishers by Asian writers. Would they be considered differently from a dozen novels or poetry books by Pakeha writers? Would they still be marketable? It reminds me of a woman in a liquor outlet here in Geelong who upon looking at the shelves of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, said to her partner that she was tired of Sav Blanc, that it was overrated and she wanted something else. I’ve got to admit I felt like defending my home country!
This issue about diversity and creative writing has become a prominent, and at times, ugly debate here in the United States, which I suppose is better than what it was before. Writers of colour feel justifiably discontent and frustrated with not only publishing opportunities, but critical reception and recognition. They want to move beyond tokenism, which has been happening for some time now, where only a few writers of each ethnicity seem plucked out of the pile to represent an entire community. They want diversity that feels more meaningful and complex and layered.
More literary organizations and writers are starting to take count. VIDA regularly keeps track of women writers in media outlets compared to male writers, and the results are dispiriting, but not surprising, Weneeddiversebooks is calling for more diversity in children’s publishing.
This is not to say there hasn’t been progress. When I was an undergraduate at UCLA twenty (!) years ago, there was only one Vietnamese American novel published by a mainstream New York publisher. Now there are many more Vietnamese writers publishing in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, playwriting and screenwriting. I think this flourishing has happened for many other communities of colour, who previously hadn’t been represented in literature.
But the way we, and other writers of colour, are received in the literary world can be upsetting. I’ve heard many stories from fellow writers about getting pigeonholed by literary conferences and workshops, often expected to only speak about their experience as “the other,” and rarely asked to speak only about their writing as a craft.
What I find interesting is that writers are choosing to speak up about it more, to call out organizations and writers who are not being inclusive, and challenging them to do better. I wrote this piece for Salon a few years ago about the critical response to writers of colour, and I think it still applies today.
I am very aware that we can be pigeonholed. Because I was one of the first Asian New Zealand novelists, the first to win the national book award for fiction, and probably the first to be read so widely by Asian communities and the wider public – because what I wrote about was so different from what had gone before, then that difference was often what received the most attention.
I chose to write As the Earth Turns Silver more or less equally from Chinese and European/Pakeha perspectives because, with such a long family background in New Zealand, I identify with both cultures and because in the time period of the novel (late 1800s to early 1920s) Chinese most definitely had no mainstream voice and were generally viewed either as exotic or with prejudice. So I wanted the generations of my great grandparents and grandparents to have a voice and to be portrayed, not as stereotypes, but as real characters that mainstream audiences could care about.
I have always felt that I could easily write a novel with no Chinese characters at all because I am completely comfortable in the Pakeha world – it is also my world. None of the partners/boyfriends in my life have been Chinese New Zealanders, though one was mainland Chinese. In fact my husband, who is Pakeha, is an old family friend and of all the men I have been with he is the one I am most at home with in every sense of the word, including culturally.
There is a sense in which I feel some responsibility to write about the worlds which few other New Zealanders can write about as an insider, but I do not feel limited to this. Probably As the Earth Turns Silver, because of its historical setting, will be my most Chinese novel. Though the memoir I am writing about New Zealand, Australia and China does have strong Chinese New Zealand and New Zealand content. Some of my poetry has a Chinese influence; most of it doesn’t. Mostly my poems are about common human experience.
Interestingly, living in Australia has reset my coordinates. Growing up in New Zealand I chafed when I felt limited by some people’s perceptions because of my Chinese appearance. I could be identified as Chinese rather than as a New Zealander by those who did not know me. But when I moved to Australia I moved straight into my husband’s existing world, and because he is also a New Zealander (he’s a dual citizen and longtime resident of Australia who has always gone back to New Zealand frequently), I am almost always perceived here as a New Zealander, including by Maori. There are a lot of New Zealanders here and a lot of Chinese New Zealanders. My strong accent always gives me away. Only occasionally do people, at first meeting, marvel at a Kiwi accent coming from the mouth of a Chinese.
My half-Chinese half-Pakeha son does not see himself as either. He is not interested in ethnicity. It is irrelevant to him.
I believe that your motivation to give voice to your great grandparents feels very similar to what I tried to accomplish in my own works – the need to articulate and put down in print the experiences and perspectives of the people who are important in my life, and deserve to have their stories told. Even if my books never get a huge readership, at least there is a record of my effort, along with other writers who spend their lives doing the same thing.
There was an interesting essay in Buzzfeed a few weeks ago (it had a strange, misleading title) that observed how easy it is for readers to consider the American Caucasian perspective to be the blank norm. Everyone can relate to this perspective. But to read a person who is non-white (or even non-heterosexual male) is to constantly be reminded of this difference. I assume I could write about white characters, but that is honestly not my interest, at least not in my past projects nor in my current ones.
My first book, We Should Never Meet, was inspired by my interest in Vietnamese foster children in southern California. My mother had worked as a social worker, and had been preoccupied with most of her career with their welfare, so I in turn, thought about them for many years. For my second book, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, I wanted to explore a multigenerational Vietnamese family resettling in America and France.
Both books employed multiple perspectives that allowed me to inhabit as many voices as I could fit into the narratives. I remembered as a child watching my grandparents watching us kids play, often silent, because we couldn’t understand Vietnamese, and they didn’t speak English. And I wondered, speculated, on what they’d say to us, if they could speak to us, which I think is the motivation of why I love writing about older Vietnamese characters.
I have two children, a seven-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. They both go to a school that has a lot of mixed children, so they don’t see their mixed race as anything odd, which I love. They are taught by their teachers and family to be proud of it. I don’t know how long this will last, but here in the liberal bay area where we live, I’m optimistic. They both know they are half-Vietnamese, though what that means is still up in the air. They don’t speak the language. They eat a little bit of the food, but not on a regular basis. They stare at my parents curiously, as I stared at my grandparents. They love getting their red envelopes on Lunar New Year.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really know my grandparents. Three of them died when I was very young and I did not see my maternal grandmother very often as we did not live near each other. I remember once visiting her as a child and there being so much frustration that we were unable to communicate. She suggested that I go to live with her so that I could learn Cantonese. There were other elderly relatives I saw more often, but again I could not communicate with them.
When I was researching my novel I interviewed one of them with my parents interpreting. I would ask a question and she would give an answer of several minutes but my parents would only give a sentence or two of translation. Sometimes even they struggled to understand what she was saying.
Part of my motivation to write from the perspectives of that generation and earlier was not necessarily because I was close to them but because the little that I read about those generations, whether in newspapers or in New Zealand literature (including in the stories of New Zealand’s revered writer, Katherine Mansfield) was so ‘other’, and more often than not, very negative and stereotypical.
My son’s perspective on his ethnicity and heritage has changed throughout his life and mine has as well. Whether one is of mixed or minority heritage, we all have our individual take – whether we embrace our heritage or feel limited by or even resentful of expectations.
Sometimes I am amused/bewildered by commentary/analysis of my work which presupposes that everything I write is a deliberate political act. Yes, in my novel I consciously chose to write from multi-ethnic, multi-generational perspectives, but much of what I write is intuitive and arises out of experience or what is important to me, or out of a sense of beauty or form or the music and complexity of language – this, especially with poetry. I have read people discuss why I wrote As the Earth Turns Silver as a love story rather than some other kind of story. I did not choose a cross-cultural love story as a political act. It is what came upon me from my own experience as well as stories I heard, some of which may or may not have been true, but which I knew could make a compelling novel. I write about what I care enough about to write. And I have to care deeply to go the distance with a novel because everyday life’s busyness, distractions, relationships and urgent and important matters – often life and death matters – make it difficult to sustain the focus of the writing over the days, months, years.
I also didn’t know my grandparents very well. Even though they were present at family functions, we went to church every weekend together, the language barrier was huge. Most of our communication was through our eye contact and the occasional hugs and kisses, but it was incredibly limited. Now that I’m an adult, I imagine it must have been frustrating for them, to have these grandchildren who only spoke English, and who showed no interest in them, or their language, and culture.
I imagine my children will go through the same spectrum of interest in their heritage. Right now, my seven year old daughter is interested, because she is interested in everything. She’s such a sponge. She has not yet experienced any shame or embarrassment from any perceived difference. I have no idea how long it lasts, but I remember being a teenager, and wishing my parents were more Americanized like everyone else in our neighbourhood and school.
Since my children are the products of two writers, I’m also hopeful they will also love literature and writing. My daughter loves to pretend to write books, and my son always wants us to read to him. They find such pleasure in books, and I hope this feeling will last for both of them.
I’m always fascinated by interpretations of my writing, similar to your experience of being amused/bewildered by various commentary of your work. I think readers pick up on the social and political themes much more acutely than we are aware of when we are in the act of writing. I think I come off much angrier and forceful in my writing, so that when readers meet me in person, they are a bit surprised at how cheerful I am. And perhaps I am channelling a part of my personality into my writing that I normally repress with people when I meet them face to face.
And I absolutely agree with your need to care deeply with your writing in order to the distance. We remember these matters, process and write about them, so that they can last, so they can have a record of importance.
It reminds me of one of my favourite books that we read to our kids, called Frederick. It’s about a mouse who seems to be daydreaming while his fellow mice are busy collecting food for the winter. They think he’s lazy. They think he’s not productive. But in the deep of winter, when everyone is hungry, cold and feeling dispirited, they ask Frederick to tell them what he remembers, what he sees, what he thinks about. And Frederick’s words comfort them, and they call him a poet. This is what I think we, as writers, hope to do.
Your daughter could very well become a writer, just as I used to write as a kid and I presume you did as well – though our children may or may not choose the same media/art forms to express their creativity.
My son’s father is also a poet and his stepfather, my husband, is a great reader of books with a library just as extensive as my own. My son adored reading when he was young, he has a very good sense of story and he is very creative. He is a very different person from me with very different tastes and interests and he’s of the tech-savvy, social media-oriented generation. Despite having been an early reader and having come up with excellent characters and narratives for stories and scripts, my son, who is now eighteen, is absolutely not interested in being a writer. Instead he’s interested in producing his own electronic dance music.
New Zealand has a highly influential and successful young singer-songwriter, Lorde, whose songs I am told are usually shaped by her lyrics, which are in turn influenced by the short fiction narrative. Her mother is a fine poet, Sonja Yelich, who encouraged a love of words and reading.
Whether it is with our own children, other people around us or our readers, I hope we are able in some way to encourage, inspire or contribute something in this world. For some reason I see a ripple among many ripples moving across water.
My daughter loves Lorde, as do I. It’s great to know she is the daughter of a poet.
Last week was also my college’s spring break and I was supposed to be writing, but instead I did more reading. I am currently reading the final book in the Neopolitan series by Elena Ferrante, which I have really enjoyed. Many writers have already been raving about her so I’m a little late to the party.
But as I try to talk to colleagues and friends about her, I’m also surprised by the reading preferences and choices of my friends who are prolific readers/writers. Both women and men seem to enjoy her but I’ve had several friends who said they stopped reading because they were not interested in the characters’ struggle (young women growing up in Naples, Italy.) My friends said they are more interested in reading about characters dealing with ethnicity issues rather than gender issues. I’m not articulating this as well as I’d like, but basically, if they had to choose, they’d rather read stories/novels about ethnically diverse characters, rather than simply female. But for me, I find the issues, characters and choices equally compelling. And I find many aspects of Ferrante’s depictions of misogyny and femininity to cross over ethnic and racial lines, so that her characters’ concerns and struggles do feel truly universal and fascinating to me. I understand my friends’ perspectives, since here, the literary discussion has turned to being more racially inclusive and diverse, and that means choosing to read works that have in the past been neglected.
I hadn’t specifically thought about reading in terms of gender or ethnicity issues. Are all your friends who want to read about ethnicity issues from ethnic minorities themselves? Of course I am interested in reading and getting to know Chinese and Asian and other ethnic writers – there are certain commonalities and also aspects where we are very diverse – but I am probably more interested in books with other key qualities. And the qualities I particularly appreciate are personal to me.
Language is very important to me, whether poetry or prose. I want to appreciate the actual language and style of the writing whether poetic or idiosyncratic/idiomatic, spare or fulsome. I don’t want to feel as I read that I am constantly editing in my head. I love to be astonished by the power or beauty or imagination of the writer, by a turn of phrase or a passage that transports. With poetry there is wonder, landscape, place, relationship, exploration and discovery.
I want to read stories I care about. Some of your friends care deeply about ethnic issues. I guess I want to care for or feel engaged with the characters, whoever they are and whatever their situation. I can appreciate an intellectual or technically clever book, but if the characters don’t move or engage me then it will not be satisfying. Perhaps this is like a steak that has been perfectly cooked but which is served without salt or pepper or any condiments or flavour.
Perhaps what you are talking about is related to character and the human condition. I want what I read to be meaningful – to matter. What matters to me – and I think you are also saying this – is much wider than questions of ethnicity. I want the whole gamut of humankind to have a voice, to be heard. That being said, I know that I am not personally interested in reading every voice – e.g. I’m not particularly interested in reading books championing money, materialism, power and self-interest …
I agree that it is a problem if the normative situation is seen to be the white male heterosexual or the white female heterosexual or the American or the Brit or anything else. But when I read beautifully written books by a white American mostly about white Americans (Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, for instance – yes, I know there are black characters and issues, particularly in Home) it doesn’t occur to me that these books are not ethnically diverse enough. I just love and admire the writing. Just as I love Louise Erdrich’s novels and Michael Ondaatje’s and Robert Hass’ poetry and Li-Young Lee’s. And the poetry of New Zealanders Bernadette Hall, Dinah Hawken and Hone Tuwhare, and Australians Anthony Lawrence and Mark Tredinnick … I could go on and on.
I am partway through reading the latest novel by a friend of mine. Stephen Daisley’s Coming Rain. Stephen is also originally from New Zealand, but has lived in Western Australia for more than 20 years. His first novel, Traitor, won the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction and this second novel is shortlisted for the upcoming Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. We met at the Byron Bay Writers Festival in 2011 and we’ve kept in touch.
This is his Australian novel. As I read it I’m struck by how much he knows about Australian flora and fauna and landscape, whereas I am still struggling to identify so many trees, plants, bird calls. But then I’ve only lived here just over six years and I have always been a city person, even if a small city person, whereas his has been a much more rural life – he has a more intimate understanding of the land and of working on it. Even when we write fiction and we research and create a world, we are still so influenced by our own experience.
The novel I read prior to this was A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. He’s American and the novel is set in Chechnya during the war – 1994–2004. I have just opened it again at random and I read, ‘At the kitchen table she examined the glass of ice. Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this is how a loved one disappeared.’ This is what I look for when I read. Recognition of something I did not know before. It does not matter where or when a book is set and who it is about, we all share the same joys and sorrows and struggles, just with our own characteristics. (I laugh to myself as I write this. There’s a phrase I heard way back in China – ‘with Chinese characteristics’.)
The last poetry book I read was How To Be Dead in a Year of Snakes by Chris Tse (AUP), also a friend and shortlisted for the Ockhams. [Note: this book went on to win Best First Book of Poetry.] It’s about Joe Kum Yung, an elderly lame Chinese man who was murdered in Wellington in 1905 by a white Brit as protest against Chinese immigration. (The murder is also a minor story in my novel.) Chris’ book is wonderful. It begins: ‘No one asked me to speak, nor took the time to fill a moment with my presence. We cannot hide from ourselves in the dark. I crouch down in the damp void and listen as they pass words about me between themselves like borrowed scandal. The loudest, hungriest voices drown out all reason.’
I am looking forward to when I can get back to New Zealand this year so that I can buy books, including Gregory Kan’s poetry collection Paper Boat (AUP) and John Dennison’s poetry collection, Otherwise (AUP/Carcanet). John’s also an old friend from way back whom I’ve lost touch with. As you can see, I love poetry. And I’ll be buying Helene Wong’s memoir, Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story (BWB). And I’m waiting for your novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong.
I’ve just been attending the AWP [Association of Writers and Writing Programs] conference. Fourteen-thousand writers, four days. It was pretty overwhelming. I go for my school, but it’s also a chance to catch up with friends, classmates and colleagues I’ve met over the years. The first day is fun, but by the last day, you are tired and just want to go home. It’s hard to be in the company of thousands of writers. You feel like a tiny fish in a very very big aquarium, drifting by people you vaguely remember, or think you remember. It’s a hard event to get over actually, because you’re reminded of so many versions of yourself in the past: who I was in grad school, who I was as a teacher in other cities, so that by the time I get home, I have to remember who I am, and then I am glad.
I’ve been a writer for almost twenty years and it’s already felt like such a rich journey.
I only have a few friends who make the intentional decision to focus on ethnic writing, and yes they are writers of colour. I do know of other writers who’ve made the public initiative to read only women for a year, or read only writers of colour for a year.
I agree with your attraction to reading engaging characters. I think there is this drive to read about engaging characters who can be both diverse and compelling. So the best of both. I know I do try to write characters who have more to them than simply their ethnicity. It can be central to their character, but so can many other things.
It’s ironic isn’t it? So much of writing itself is quite solitary, that is writing fiction and poetry (research may or may not be solitary) – not so much scriptwriting or playwriting – yet attending conferences and festivals, doing readings, interviews and other publicity is the opposite. For those of us who are more introverted and/or intuitive, it can be very stimulating and exciting to meet and/or catch up other writers and share together what we’re passionate about, but there can come the point where we are exhausted by the social and/or sensory overload.
I have been thinking about your question of what I have been reading. I realise that since I have been in Australia I read quite a bit online – poems, articles, interviews, essays, news. Partly this is because this is the way the world has gone and also it is so much easier with broadband, which I couldn’t afford when I was in New Zealand. It is also one of the ways I keep in touch with New Zealand (and the rest of the world.)
I think because New Zealand has such a small population far from most of the rest of world, we have our own community in a way that perhaps larger nations like the US don’t have? If there are six degrees of separation between people in the world, it feels like in New Zealand there might only be two. Or maybe three. So while we read a lot of American and British literature and varying amounts of other literature from other English-speaking countries and of literature in translation, I do tend to read quite a lot of New Zealand literature. And living in Australia I am becoming more familiar with Australia writers and literature. Perhaps this is a bit like American or British writers reading more ethnic writers or female writers or LGBTI writers…
There is a real sense of pride when one of our own does well on the international stage – like Eleanor Catton or Lloyd Jones or Anthony McCarten, or Keri Hulme before them – though New Zealand culture likes heroes/role models to be down-to-earth and understated, someone anyone could easily share a beer, wine or latte with. And I think, if a New Zealander does well on the world stage – golfer, Lydia Ko, for instance – then they embraced. I must admit I rather like the fact that Lydia has Korean heritage. She gives a broader public image of what a New Zealander is.
I am encouraged and excited by all the new voices, including from quite diverse backgrounds. I first came across Ya-Wen Ho in the New Zealand-themed Pacific Highways Edition 43 of Griffith Review. I was struck by her translation of Li Po’s poem, a transformation into the New Zealand landscape. I am reading her essay, Dear You, which she wrote as a result of receiving one of the Horoeka reading grants set up by Eleanor Catton.
I can only read a very small number of Chinese characters, and the ones I learned were the simplified ones now used in China, not the original ones used in Taiwan and elsewhere – so I cannot read much of the Chinese script she has mixed together with English in her essay (not unlike the struggle with the Chinese language I explore in my poem Autumn, Shanghai (in Best New Zealand Poems 2015), but I find her experimentation and exploration interesting and those of us from ethnically diverse backgrounds will certainly find resonance.
Your novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, has arrived. I know that this is fiction and that this is not your own family, but I wonder, given that the story is set within the same general time period and history of your own family’s migration from Vietnam (when so many people fled Vietnam, including a huge number to Australia), did you have any difficulty with your family/community about writing the story? Did people worry that you were telling their personal story or that others would think that you were writing about them? That you were revealing family or community secrets or portraying them in an unfavourable light? Did any of these considerations influence how you wrote the novel or affect you as you wrote?
I am curious because I am very aware of these issues as I work on my memoir and on my second novel. My first novel was made much easier by being sufficiently historical. But for quite a while I was concerned not only about my ability to write a novel – and yes, I know there are things I could have done better – but also specifically about my ability to write a historical novel about the Chinese in New Zealand and about how it would be perceived by the community. But then I thought, what the heck, just do to it.
I have finished your novel. It’s a wonderfully complex intergenerational story exploring the fallout of war and family dysfunction; the impact of the choices we make; issues of duty, loyalty and love; and our sense of identity, belonging and home. Relationships suffused by bitterness, grief, anger, disappointment, sadness, but also tenderness and some kind of hope.
As I read about refugees escaping by boat and ending up separated in different countries, I thought about our four ‘boys’ – asylum seekers here in Australia – who have become part of our family. Their families have also been scattered across the world. Australia resettled a huge number of Vietnamese after the war. They are a much more noticeable presence in Melbourne and Sydney than in New Zealand, many having become very influential and successful. (I read in the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (Te Ara) that by 1998 a third of those who settled in New Zealand had moved on to Australia for better work opportunities and to become part of the bigger communities.)
What continues to resonate with me, two days after finishing your novel, is the longing to understand the past and how it has shaped us – particularly when others may have tried to forget – and the need to belong. To find home.
These boys of yours – is this part of your husband’s work as a minister? How their perspectives must open you up to so many different backgrounds and stories of new beginnings.
I am amazed by our boys. Despite everything they have been through they are so good-hearted and gracious. There isn’t an iota of bitterness in them. And they work so incredibly hard. I call them our ‘boys’ but they are actually young adults. We are now their Australian family (although all of us – me, my husband and my son – come from New Zealand.)
And yes, my husband’s work as a minister and his involvement in the community here, does bring with it exposure to the whole gamut of human experience. Late one afternoon nearly two years ago, we got a phone call from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne asking if we would take in four asylum seekers for the night. Otherwise they would be on the street as all refugee accommodation in Melbourne was full. They now have their own rental flat, but that phone call was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Now I cannot see advertisements on TV for charities in Africa without putting very personal faces to them. I have seen our boys’ cute baby photos. And I have a much more personal understanding of the plight of asylum seekers and refugees.
Not so long before we met our boys, there was a young Sri Lankan asylum seeker who lived not far from us. He was not in detention or in one of Australia’s highly controversial off-shore detention centres (where many New Zealanders and other foreigners with prison records totalling a year or more have also been sent before being deported – many of these deportees have lived in Australia almost all their lives, all of their families and friends are in Australia and they don’t know anyone in the countries they are being deported back to, but they don’t have Australian citizenship.) Anyway, this young asylum seeker was not allowed to work, though he did volunteer work, and people have told me he was a lovely person. But he had been waiting so long and despaired at being deported back to Sri Lanka like so many others before him and ended up killing himself. His family were refused visas to attend his funeral.
I do think that getting to know people from other cultures, countries, ethnicities, backgrounds, abilities, sexual orientations, etc – becoming friends with those different from us, is the best way to break down prejudice. As long as we don’t take the common attitude that these kind of people are no good, oh, but you my friend, you’re OK, you’re not one of them.
My residency with the Shanghai Writers’ Programme in 2014 was invaluable not just for its literary value and for my writing, but also because I became friends with writers who came from countries where I’d previously had no close personal contact. So for instance, when I hear Donald Trump say something racist about Mexicans, I am not only outraged because I theoretically value all human life, but also because I can replace his polemic with the face of friends.
I’m not sure if this controversy has made it your way yet, but it has many Asian American writers speaking up. An established New Yorker staff writer Calvin Trillin published a poem that was meant to satire the trendiness of Chinese food. It’s called ‘have they run out of provinces yet?’ You can read more about the controversy on NPR and The Guardian. Many Asian Americans, especially Asian American writers are frustrated, and have written an array of response poems such as this at the Establishment. Writers are coming out on social media with a range of responses: from criticizing the poem, rebuking the author for cultural ignorance or straight up racism, to defending the author for his attempt at satire (he is 80) and accusing his critics of overreacting and being too sensitive and politically correct.
My position? The poem is terribly written, groan-inducing, racist, and disheartening since it is published in the leading literary publication of the country. I recognize that the poem may be attempting satire at the American cultural trend to find the next best cuisine, but the poem also is produced in an atmosphere where Asian culture is easily/readily ridiculed, and the people are largely ignored. I am proud of the clever and smart response poems of my fellow writers, and disappointed in the response of some older, more established writers have been.
I hadn’t heard about the Calvin Trillin controversy and thought I hadn’t heard of the man, but after a little investigation I realised I had heard at least one of his humorous quotes. I find the whole affair rather sad and the publication of his poem problematic, not least because the poem isn’t well-written and doesn’t work as good satire. Which could suggest that editorial decisions are sometimes made because of who the author is rather than because of the quality of the writing. Given the frustration of so many American writers of colour at being marginalised, tokenised and ignored, I understand why the poem has angered so many – especially Asian Americans.
I have never been to America, but it does seem to have more serious problems with prejudice than New Zealand. When trying to understand a country or organisation it is insightful to look to its beginnings. The traces of the original DNA. New Zealand, Australia, Canada, America, Britain – none of them can be proud of their historical treatment of the Chinese (you will see something of this when you read my novel), but both America and Australia’s treatment of their black/indigenous peoples have been shameful. Trump’s popularity and divisiveness only showcases how different America is to New Zealand.
The closest New Zealand gets to Trump is Winston Peters and he pales into insignificance, without a show of ever becoming Prime Minister. I think New Zealand has a more unassuming, low-key approach than both America and Australia, but as I say this I am also very aware that due to its geographical isolation and ‘relative unimportance’ in the world, New Zealand does not face the same migratory and refugee pressures. I say all these things as a way of explaining, that although in New Zealand I occasionally face minor racism and I am acutely aware of historical and also contemporary prejudice, I don’t feel marginalised as a Chinese New Zealand writer or as a Chinese New Zealander.
Having read a few old interviews/articles about Trillin and a few of his quotes, he appears to be a nice guy who is often very witty and funny, who enjoys food and is knowledgeable enough to distinguish and enjoy the many varieties of authentic Chinese cuisine; and as a reporter for Time in the early sixties covering the Freedom Rides and desegregation, he does not come across as racist. I found a quote of his online which seems to wittily put down the racist and commend those who are being excluded: “The food in such places is so tasteless because the members associate spices and garlic with just the sort of people they’re trying to keep out.” After reading this in the Washington Post and Debra Spark’s response to the controversy in the Huffington Post, I think Trillin is probably more naïve than racist. Yes, his usage of ‘we’ and ‘they’ in his poem is problematic, but I think he is a product of his time. The world has changed on him.
In a 1995 Paris Review interview , Trillin was asked if there were any subjects that the humourist should avoid. He replied: ‘It’s not so much that certain subjects are out of bounds because of rules set down somewhere or because of a policy that a writer has decided on. It’s that writing about certain subjects wouldn’t be funny. I think that if the goal is to be funny, the subjects sort themselves out naturally. Also, the passage of time makes some subjects OK.’ I think the subject he chose in this case wasn’t funny, or at least his execution of it wasn’t funny.
I also think the passage of time can make some subjects not OK, or at least certain ways of handling them can become controversial. We no longer think it’s OK to use corporal punishment in schools and in the home; we don’t accept domestic violence; we don’t judge people for leaving unhappy marriages (I hope.) Despite a persistence of problems, discrimination by reasons of gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, etc, are no longer considered acceptable.
There are risks for any writer or commentator covering material where they are not insiders. I don’t think that only insiders should write about those worlds and characters, otherwise all books would only have white characters or only Chinese characters or whatever. And there are many great works of literature written by outsiders or people who have had contact with the people they write of without being one of them. However, an insider writes differently from an outsider. The perspective, the details, are different. An Asian American would not have written Trillin’s poem.
The interviewer in the Paris Review ends by asking Trillin, ‘Have the targets, the victims of your humour ever coming knocking on the door?’ Trillin replies, tongue in cheek, I think: ‘That has never happened. Where have I gone wrong?’ Unfortunately for him, victims have now come.
The story you shared about the Sri Lankan refugee, his despair over his situation and his suicide, is heartbreaking. It reminds me that the refugee narrative of dislocation and alienation, continues to endure in this world, despite the many kind people who reach out (especially your family with your strong connection to your adopted boys.) My mother was a social worker in California and worked with many Vietnamese and Southeast Asian refugees, and their stories always resonated with me, and made me value my family and support network even more.
Your thoughtful and thorough research on Calvin Trillin is commendable. I did not take the time to read and consider the context of his past work, though I’d known about it. I wish more writers and readers would do such research before making judgements on writing. With the internet and social media, people tend to react much more quickly, and without the necessary information that would allow wiser, more considerate analysis. I agree that he probably is a kind man, but I think more writers were angered about the context of its publication: the New Yorker editors and staff read it and agreed to publish it. This poem can continue to exist in a high profile magazine and many readers will not bat an eye.
Last night, I went to a burlesque show with a friend. I usually never do anything like this, and I was very curious. It was fancy since the headliner, Dita Von Teese, is quite famous here in America. And it was lovely to watch all kinds of body types and gender perform these sexy, provocative and beautiful dance numbers to an audience that was appreciative (but not leering or predatory, if that makes any sense.) Everyone felt welcome and included, people of all genders and sexualities. But the finale was a disappointment: a problematic Orientalist themed sequence that seemed to mash up the Chinese dragon lady and Japanese geisha fantasies.
And almost immediately, my friends and I felt dislocated from the experience. If any other audience members felt offended, they didn’t show it. And just like that: after feeling so included and safe and excited about the diversity of the evening, we were marginalized. I’m still processing it this morning, still glad I went, but rethinking so many of these ideas of what is considered attractive and appealing, and how Asian cultures can be appreciated without being objectified or exoticized.
But in better news for Asian American literature, Viet Thanh Nguyen, who I’ve known for many years, won the Pulitzer yesterday for fiction. His book is called The Sympathizer, and it’s fantastic: a novel told from the point of view of a half-Vietnamese spy after the Vietnam War. It’s also a scathing critique on past narratives of the Vietnam War and its focus on the American perspective. Asian American and Vietnamese American writers are celebrating: it’s a huge milestone and Viet definitely earned it and deserves the accolades he’s been receiving. I feel like Viet kicked the door open further for writers of colour, so his victory is one we can all feel proud of and share.
Yesterday we had a funeral. Pat was 2013 Victorian Senior of the Year, and as her children described her life, they remembered her interviewing Vietnamese refugees and being incensed when they suffered discrimination. Afterwards a man asked me if I was Vietnamese as he had Vietnamese friends. Of course, I thought of you.
Today I went to Melbourne to see the Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria before it closes Monday. Interestingly, despite my family having first migrated to New Zealand – a ‘western’ country – almost 140 years ago, I related much much more to Ai Weiwei’s work than Warhol’s. There were photos from eighties New York of someone who’d come to my place for dinner when he held a residency at Victoria University of Wellington – the composer, Tan Dun. And having lived in China at disparate times over more than thirty years, there was so much that was familiar, though of course Ai subverts everything. In the Letgo Room, pictures and quotes of various Australian human rights advocates were constructed from Chinese plastic bricks (fake Lego.) The walls, ceiling and floor of the room were all made from three million plastic bricks and as we walked on these tiny bricks, the movement seemed to make the floor whisper like hundreds of hushed voices.
I am looking forward to reading The Sympathizer. It sounds incredibly interesting, a needed alternative perspective to what has gone before, and I understand your celebration. When I was awarded the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago in 2002, I received letters of congratulation from Chinese I’d never met from all over New Zealand. The same when I won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction. I got letters, phone calls and emails from Chinese, from part-Chinese (including one who completely identified with my fiction because it seemed so similar to her grandparents’ story) and other Asians who had read the novel.
Before the Burns Fellowship I felt like I didn’t quite belong in the community. I felt different and alone. Almost no other Chinese New Zealanders seemed interested in literature. But then I realised that it mattered. That the community did want their stories told. And that they identified with any success I had.
In Australia, Nam Le’s The Boat won the 2009 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction as well as many other prizes. I met him at the Awards when my novel was shortlisted in 2010. Australia has a lot of literary prizes and I do notice quite a few writers of colour who have been shortlisted for and/or won literary awards, including Alice Pung, whose Chinese parents fled the Pol Pot regime. New Zealand has a wealth of literary talent, but unfortunately, few awards. Since the GFC there has been a decline in funding for the arts, but we are very glad to have new sponsorship and funding which has saved our national book awards.
It’s rather ironic that the New Yorker has just become the first magazine to win a Pulitzer. Two in fact, for feature writing and for criticism, with another to a staff writer’s memoir. Yet despite the quality of its writing, it still published Trillin’s poem. I cannot imagine a prestigious New Zealand journal publishing Trillin’s poem. I wonder whether it points to a difference between America and New Zealand, and why writers of colour and minorities might be more frustrated in America than in New Zealand. (Not that I would presume to represent the views and feelings of anyone but myself. I know some minorities in New Zealand do feel aggrieved.)
I was reading a column, ‘The Price of Liberty’, by Bill Ralston in the New Zealand Listener (February 13-19 2016). Ralston says that inequality in the US throws up politicians that, by New Zealand standards, sound barking mad, that even Hilary Clinton sounds far to the right of the most conservative parties in New Zealand, and that Bernie Sanders is possibly the closest thing you’ll find to a New Zealand politician. He refers to David Hackett Fischer’s 2012 book, Fairness and Freedom, which contends that Americans prize liberty and freedom, i.e., the freedom to succeed or fail in the American dream (and if you fail, it’s your own fault), while New Zealanders tend to emphasise fairness, justice and the egalitarian dream.
Viktor Frankl believed that freedom needed to be balanced with responsibility. He dreamed of a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast to correspond to the East Coast’s Statue of Liberty (which I saw referenced today in Warhol’s work.)
Your dismay and dislocation at the Orientalist exoticism in the show you went to is another example of why it is so important to encourage and support diverse artists, to counter stereotypes and assumptions with alternative and more authentic visions. Being marginalised ourselves does not necessarily make us immune to conscious or subconscious prejudices against other marginalised peoples. At the time of my novel for instance, women, who were still fighting for fairly basic rights, did not necessarily have any empathy for the Chinese. Similarly, those advocating for the poor.
And we have recently had the sad case of a young Melbourne mother, Sofina Nikat, reporting that she was pushed to the ground by a six-foot-tall man of African appearance, who then abducted her fourteen-month-old daughter, Sanaya Sahib. When I heard the story I knew something didn’t add up and I was fearful that our boys might be subjected to vigilante attacks. When Nikat was later arrested and confessed to killing her own daughter, I wondered why she had specifically concocted a story of a black kidnapper.
Before I came to Australia I remember hearing about two sets of identical CVs and job applications being sent out to a range of New Zealand companies. The only difference between the CVs was that some had Chinese names; others had Pakeha names. There was a huge disparity in responses, with significantly more offers of an interview for those with Pakeha names. Here in Geelong (Australia) I recently met a Singaporean woman who after graduating from the local university nearly a decade ago, could not get a job. The recruiting agency could not understand why. Then they suggested she replace her Chinese given name with an English one. She immediately got a job.
Although it was only a few years ago that polls suggested that Asians were the most discriminated against group in New Zealand, I suspect that may have shifted. Certainly in Australia, Muslims now seem to be facing strident discrimination, with some people unable to distinguish between ISIL/’terrorists’ and ordinary peaceful Muslims. The Grand Mufti of Australia is now suing Newscorp for defamation.
I think it is possible for anyone to feel marginalised or to feel somewhat like an outsider. Bill Manhire, New Zealand poet and founder of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters, marvellously wrote in the title poem in his collection Milky Way Bar, ‘I live at the edge of the universe, like everyone else.’
The story about your recently departed friend Pat, and your memory of her empathy with Vietnamese refugees and the discrimination they faced, reminds me that the most empathetic and compassionate people hardly ever make the news. We are usually so focused on the transgressors, the offenders, the detractors, and not the people who listen and help.
However you do bring up a good exception with Ai Wei Wei, who also recently had an exhibit here in the SF bay area on Alcatraz Island, which is famous for its now-closed prison. The exhibit used Lego (maybe they were fake, I’m not sure) to build portraits of prisoners of conscience from around the world. We’d taken our kids to see the exhibit as well, and I found myself spending most of my time making sure the kids didn’t trample over the Lego or pull down the art work. Last year, my daughter didn’t really understand what a political prisoner was, but now she is asking so many questions with the upcoming election.
I think you are spot on about the politics of the US, which is currently giving my seven- year-old daughter nightmares. The kids at her school basically parrot what their parents say to them at home, and now she’s afraid Trump may become president and that he will deport all the immigrants. I wish I could say he’s exaggerating, but the man thrives on such vitriolic statements. It reminds me of the 2000 and 2004 elections when I wondered how people around the world thought of the US when we elected Bush. It’s easy to forget, especially where we live where it is pretty progressive, that there are many, many people who mourn the current Obama presidency, who want a wall between America and Mexico, who don’t believe that this is a country founded by immigrants, etc.
I’m gratified to have this chance to talk out these issues that are occurring so quickly around us, and get replaced every day with another distracting media story. With the internet and social media, I feel like I’m always reacting to the news, whether good or bad, and this conversation has allowed me to think more deeply, and consider things more carefully.
The US Presidential nomination seems to reveal a country deeply divided. Compared to the US – and also Australia, where we’ve been changing Prime Minister pretty much every year since I’ve been here – New Zealand seems very stable. (Sometimes boring is good.) I think most of the world is watching Trump disbelieving. If he does become President, then we will all have something to fear.
As for your daughter, I suspect that she is a highly intelligent, sensitive and imaginative child, which could make her more susceptible to fears. When my son was young, he also had terrible nightmares. His powerful imagination made him more vulnerable than other children who were completely unaffected by the same events. Is your daughter picking up fears about Trump only through kids at her school or is she also seeing Trump on the news?
I ask because recently there was an article in The Age where Dr Wayne Warburton, deputy director of the Children and Families Research Centre at Macquarie University, said that there had been a huge increase in Australian children’s access to the news, whether on TV, tablet or Smartphone, and that nearly half of them had been upset by it. Half of young adults remembered a news item that had frightened or upset them as a child, with seven percent still affected by it. Dr Warburton has different suggestions for handling the situation depending on the child’s age, though your daughter’s fears seem to correlate with what he describes for children over eight-years-old.
I was thinking about what you say about who makes the news, and realized that fiction writers, poets, playwrights portray people’s lives – and not just the kinds of the people who receive media attention, but also those who are often overlooked or considered insignificant. I see this in your novel. This is part of what we do.
My husband, Kevin, talks about the ‘hidden years’ or ‘hidden time’. This is a crucial period when someone or something is formed. While no one else notices. Kevin gives examples: Jesus living unnoticed in the backwater of Galilee before bursting onto the scene aged about thirty; Nelson Mandela reformulating his ideas in prison before leading his country towards healing and unity; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Human Rights Arts & Film Festival is about the start in Melbourne. One of the films featured is Maya Angelou And Still I Rise, and I think of Maya not speaking as a seven-year-old for five-and-half-years, but at this time reading voraciously and precociously. Kevin says we sow seeds in this ‘hidden time’ that become the forest of the future.
I am not a prolific writer. People may wonder what I am doing – seemingly not writing, not publishing constantly in the journals, not putting out more books. I don’t blog, tweet or participate much in social media. I’m an introverted intuitive – unlike my son who is more extroverted and thrives on social media – and being a minister’s wife with all its demands, if I was constantly, publicly reacting to the latest news, I think I would be overwhelmed. I need my hidden space. To contemplate and process. Then hopefully I’ll have something to write from.