A Clear Dawn: New Asian voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Paula Morris and Alison Wong (Auckland University Press, 2021), 340pp., $49.99
The first thing I notice is the weight. This anthology of 75 Asian writers, the first significant assembly of our voices in Aotearoa, is a hefty tome. In my wondering hand it feels like a statement: we have arrived. The book is covered in a glorious silky matte fabric designed by Keely O’Shannessy, its depiction of sunlight falling on waves reminiscent of a Japanese woodblock print. Later I discover that the fabric wipes clean easily. Practicality and beauty in one: how very Asian.
But even the concept of ‘Asian’ and who is defined by this label is fraught. As the editors note in their introduction, it’s an imprecise term that doesn’t communicate the diversity and political complexity of the countries making up ‘Asia’ and yet, it’s a term that can be embraced by people of many backgrounds precisely because it is so waffly. Writers of East Asian, South Asian and Southeast Asian descent are included, as are Pacific, European and North American writers of Asian ancestry; missing are voices from Middle Eastern countries. It is clear that editors Paula Morris and Alison Wong set themselves a difficult task. As they note, all anthologies must have limits.
What are ‘voices’ defined as? This is a literary anthology: the selected works cover poetry, short fiction, extracts of longer fiction and creative non-fiction. Missing are graphic novels, plays, media scripts and fiction genres such as fantasy, children’s literature and romance. (They do perhaps deserve their own anthologies.) Although this is an anthology of Asian writers, only works primarily in English are included. Morris and Wong acknowledge in their introduction some of the NZ writers who have written primarily in other languages or created in the role of translators: the title of the anthology is taken from Ya-Wen Ho’s translation of a poem by Tang dynasty great Li Bai. Both Ho and translator and academic Luo Hui are included in their own right as poets writing in English.
Early on, Morris and Wong also made the decision to focus on ‘emerging’ writers—defined as those who had not more than two full-length publications, and who had not achieved prominence in another writing field. This doesn’t exclude writers who have already won awards and accolades—writers such as Chris Tse, Gregory Kan, Rose Lu and Nina Mingya Powles may be recognisable names, while many others such as Malinna Liang and Saraid de Silva have established careers in film or theatre.
To the writing, then. It’s a book for browsing and discovery; pick it up, breathe in the work of one or two writers; put it down again to let the words be carried through your body. The work ranges from vibrant spoken word through to intellectual essays and, due to the arrangement by alphabetical order of (anglicised) surnames, you never know what you’re going to get next. Morris and Wong let each author introduce themselves at the start of their section; the biographies are sometimes as revealing and crafted as the writing itself.
It would be tempting to use food metaphors like smorgasbord or feast to describe this (delicious) experience. But that would be too obvious when describing Asian writers. I’m more drawn to the idea of a forest and its layers, each organism unique but growing from the same soil. Pause and as your eyes adjust to the filtered sunlight, you’ll notice the plants hidden in the undergrowth and the tiny forms that escape notice at first. Perhaps we have not so much arrived as been here for a long time, just unseen except by those who know where to look. The editors preface the book with a meticulous dissection of Asian migration and literature in this country. They point out that a 1100-page Anthology of New Zealand Literature published in 2012 featured just three Asians among 200 writers. We’re good at keeping our heads down because we’ve had to—maybe too good.
Multiplicity is another word I could use. There is a multiplicity of identities explored; movement, migration and blending of bloodlines is the norm, not the exception. Our roots have reached under the soil and woven together with Māori, with Pākeha, with many others who live here. Not every writer featured lives here now; but all have drawn sustenance from Aotearoa at some point. There is much that is familiar and much that is new. I moved from pangs of recognition as Eva Wong Ng wrote of relationships among older Cantonese—the way they speak to each other, the unspoken love in a casual nickname—to new discovery as Rushi Vyas described the ritual of Durga Puja.
I feel envy, too, as I read. Many writers flow seamlessly between languages: Ya-Wen Ho flips between Mandarin and English text as if assuming everyone can (and should); she even adds footnotes explaining Chinese literary proverbs. Rose Lu brings us into the room as her grandparents trade barbs in Chongming dialect, simultaneously celebrating their presence and mourning the eventual loss of language when the older generation dies. Janna Tay captures what it feels like to live between languages:
In Auckland, our house was the only place I’d hear the turbulent mix of Hokkien, English, Malay and Mandarin; here, it’s the lingua franca. It’s the only place I don’t feel ashamed to hear my parents speak it. Instead I feel shame at my inability to speak it back to them … as if there are pipes in my brain that lie unconnected.
There is multiplicity of thought, too. Tan Tuck Ming’s scholarly essay weaving together the evolution of the Chinese gooseberry with the assimilation and rejection of Chinese migrants at immigration contrasts with Grace Yee’s esoteric poem, also about an immigration interview. Here are writers exploring the familiar pangs of otherness and othering; of not knowing oneself or rejecting other people’s view of you (usually your parents’). In Belinda Wong’s haunting short poem, immigrants to New Zealand practise singing Chinese love songs along with unintentionally racist pop songs from America: culture is certainly complicated.
Family members crowd through these stories, sitting in kitchens, teaching recipes and games, telling good news and bad. They yearn for the past while stretching out for the future, beyond limits they can hardly bear. They forbid some relationships while encouraging others. As with families in any culture, people look past each other without seeing the truth: it takes the skill of the writer to illuminate, to draw the reader in on the secrets unspoken. Although these topics have been well explored by many migrant writers, each story feels like a fresh take; I found myself constantly stunned at the originality and insights.
In selecting the work to include, Morris and Wong focused on quality. At the launch of the book in Auckland, Morris spoke of how they tried to keep an open mind, combing through print and online journals, asking contacts for recommendations, doing an open call-out, looking for voices that were only just coming to the fore as well as those who had been steadily working for years. The breadth and depth of the work featured is testament to the editors’ persistence and determination. The range of sources they cite—journals and online sites such as Oscen, Signals, Starling, Hainamana, Blackmail Press, NZ Poetry Shelf, among many—is evidence that we have a thriving literary undergrowth tended by many people working cooperatively and now building more formal links through organisations, workshops and conferences. We’ve been here all along, if only you know where to look.
It’s a testament to editorial skill, too, that despite the number of writers featured and the range of their writing experience, none of the writing feels clichéd. There is an earthy authenticity to much of the writing; one writer lingered on my favourite subject of farts for some time. Lynette Leong’s depiction of an old Chinese man imitating Elvis is particularly vivid:
He was old man belly-dancer,
throwing out eyefuls of yellowed singlet,
he was a braid of
a turning crack of gunpowder and light.
There is sex, of course, unabashed and awkward and full of unspoken conflict. Sex is sometimes violent and often political. Performance poet Aiwa Pooamorn’s ‘Thai-Chinese stay-at-home mother’ explores the conflict between her feminism, bisexual longings and the impacts of racist microaggressions:
Why don’t you go on the pill
every other woman in nz does
spare our kiwi men the indignity
of wearing condoms
Once in a while
I air out my dirty laundry poetry
in the town square
never mind they might make me
squat in the corner
drown me with their spit and cum
Speaking of politics, there is plenty here: we are writers after all. But we’re also Asian, so most of it is hidden, breathed out silently in empty clearings. Racism and colonisation are commonly brought up, but so too are the biases that exist between different Asian cultures, and sometimes within the same person. Racism is most commonly found on the inside. As Vanessa Mei Crofskey writes:
Us, the youngest, we’re tangerines
our tonsils stamped shame enough ’til tongues broke open
Sometimes I think I’ve forgotten how to speak
my heart a storm of swarming locusts
How hard it was the first time I told my mum
I think I need help
how easy it is to disregard
the small moment when silence held its breath
and unpeeled an answer
This is such a familiar pain: we can’t change the world unless we first know ourselves. Saying the words, asking for help, can be difficult. But not for everyone. Some of the most illuminating pieces come from newer writers such as Sherry Zhang, who navigates the multiplicities of her existence with sure-footedness and wit:
I cannot write a poem about China because I am an Asian Baby girl with money, false lashes, fast car and a muscle boyfriend.
I am what they call a banana.
I cannot write about China because my father hates the clothes I wear and I’m actually quite in love with girls and Taiwan just legalised same sex marriage and it gives me the dangerous hope that my family might accept me too.
This is an anthology made with love and hope, for us. Our writers speak directly to our community: insider to insider, we get it; we feel and cry and pulse. We are happy and grateful that at last—after 200 years of being present in the NZ landscape—there is a physical manifestation of our voices and we can feel the sunlight on our faces. But the pairing of Wong, an insider, with Morris, of tangata whenua and Pākeha descent, also ensures that A Clear Dawn invites other readers in, to sit and breathe in the smell of the forest in all its layers, in this moment. As Luo Hui translates of the words of Chinese millennial poet Cao Seng: Each leaf sings an opera.
RENEE LIANG is a poet, playwright and essayist. She has toured eight plays and collaborates on visual arts works, dance, film, opera, community events and music. Some poetry and short fiction are anthologised. A memoir of motherhood, When We Remember to Breathe, with Michele Powles, appeared in 2019. In 2018 she was appointed a Member of the NZ Order of Merit for services to the arts.