Nina Mingya Powles
All Who Live on Islands by Rose Lu (Victoria University Press, 2020), 240 pp., $30
All Who Live on Islands won the 2018 Modern Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize, and is the latest in a string of excellent creative nonfiction books published by Victoria University Press. Lu’s essays explore numerous subjects including her rural Whanganui childhood, teenage sex, travel and working in the tech industry. Her writing is at once tender and incisive, detailed and expansive, heated and brilliantly funny.
‘穷人店 、富人店’ is the title of the opening essay of All Who Live on Islands. Immediately, my experience of reading this book is made more complex, more intimate, as I work out the meaning of this title printed in one of the languages of my own family, with no English translation to help me along. My Mandarin is rusty but I can grasp it, though I don’t recognise the fourth character – 富 – straight away. So begins my slow, intimate journey into these personal essays, which are unlike anything I have previously encountered in the literature of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Language, dialect, isolation and intimacy are focal points in this first essay ‘穷人店 、富人店’ – Poor-person Shop, Rich-person Shop. This is a textured, multi-layered piece of writing, full of details that bring Lu’s world into sharp focus: a pair of slippers by the doorway, a white-fleshed peach held in her grandmother’s hand, a heavy winter coat left behind in China. Lu punctuates conversations with her grandparents with passages that explore how her Bu’ah and Kon-kon came to live in New Zealand, their loneliness, and their tenderness towards her. They speak only Chongming dialect, and can’t read or write Mandarin: ‘Outside of our family there is no one in Whanganui who can understand them.’ The isolation of those who move far from their homeland late in life feels like an issue rarely spoken of in our society, let alone in our literature.
In her rejection of the convention of italicising ‘foreign’ words, her inclusion of Chinese characters and dialect throughout, and the openness with which she writes of her adolescent years, Lu places immense trust in the reader – as if to say come closer. It’s the first time I have read a mixture of Mandarin, dialect, pinyin and English in a book published in New Zealand. I also grew up with a jumble of languages and dialects (Mandarin, Hakka, Cantonese, English), as have many other young New Zealanders. Lu writes in the note on languages at the back of the book:
All 崇明话 in this book is displayed in normal text. This was a deliberate choice to break the grammatical convention in which ‘foreign’ words are italicised. For those of us who have grown up with several languages, this signifier is meaningless.
I find myself questioning why in my own writing, until now, I have automatically italicised pinyin words and provided glossaries and translations to aid the reader. When we write of our experiences marginal to the mainstream, who are we really writing for? Who is the imagined reader, and do we even need one?
In the titular essay ‘All Who Live on Islands’, Lu confronts these questions and calls for a new Asian–New Zealand literature in which we unapologetically write for each other, for ourselves, holding the mirror closer to our own varied lives without trying to tell a more ‘representative’ story, and without worrying about linguistic accessibility or literary convention. American poet Cathy Park Hong echoes this sentiment in her recent book of essays, Minor Feelings: An Asian American reckoning:
… ever since I started writing, I was not just interested in telling my story but also in finding a form – a way of speech – that decentred whiteness.
In fighting back against the idea of the single immigrant story – the one socially accepted narrative that is assumed to somehow stand for all of diaspora – Lu’s writing follows on from works by Asian New Zealand writers and artists including Helene Wong’s memoir Being Chinese, Emma Ng’s Old Asian, New Asian, Alison Wong’s essay ‘Pure Brightness’ on the history of Chinese people in Aotearoa and the sinking of the SS Ventnor, and Kerry Ann Lee’s installations and collages drawing on her memories growing up as the child of parents who owned a takeaway shop. Until fairly recently, it was possible to account for the entirety of the New Zealand Chinese literary canon by counting on one hand. A recent brief search I did for a pre-1950s New Zealand Chinese woman writer came up with nothing until the 1990s onwards, though it is of course likely that private and unpublished writings by Chinese New Zealand women have existed for many decades, in Chinese, English and other languages and dialects.
Because our history of Chinese New Zealand writers is (or appears to be) short, it can be enriching to look elsewhere, as Lu does, for a contemporary lineage within which All Who Live on Islands can be placed – for instance, alongside exceptional British and North American contemporary writers such as Jenny Zhang, Jessica J. Lee, Chen Chen and Mary Jean Chan.
Thankfully a new wave of young writers is popping up in zines and online platforms such as Starling and Hainamana Arts, like Emma Shi, Jessica Lim and Vanessa Crofskey, whose work is included in AUP New Poets 6 forthcoming this year. At Verb Literary Festival in Wellington in November last year, I attended a panel event where, for the first time in my experience, three out of five panellists were writers of Chinese heritage – Rosabel Tan, founding editor of The Pantograph Punch, with poets Gregory Kan and Chen Chen. That festival felt like a groundbreaking moment for many of us, solidifying a growing feeling that there is indeed a small but strong community of New Zealand Chinese writers.
The personal essay is a malleable form these days. It is flexible and forgiving; it can be tightened, pared back, or splintered into scattered fragments. New Zealand poets have written some of my favourite personal essays tending towards the experimental – most recently Tayi Tibble, Lynn Jenner and Helen Rickerby. In All Who Live on Islands Lu experiments subtly, flickering between multiple places and timelines, all while guiding the narrative assuredly, never losing us. Her skill is such that she could have gone further with innovations in structure and voice.
In the episodic piece, ‘Yellow Fever’, teenage sexual encounters are interspersed with fragments on the cultural history of the colour yellow. Lu’s writing shines here, becoming precise and lyrical: ‘Yellow is the colour of the fifth season, the end of summer, and the emperor himself.’ Another essay that stands out is ‘Five-Five’, on hiking alone in Nepal, unusual in its use of the second-person ‘you’ which is difficult to maintain but succeeds here, conveying the isolation and quiet of being alone with one’s own thoughts for a long period of time. Short, direct sentences echo the rhythm of the climb:
You’re higher again now. The sky has faded slightly, like you’re looking at it through an Instagram filter. Trail markers have appeared, thin staffs of yellow and white. The path ahead dominates your view. In the background, a rocky mountain with a dollop of cream on top. Dirt gives away to pale silt. The colour palette is shrinking.
Travel is a privilege, as Lu reminds us in this essay, and popular literature about solitary walks through wild landscapes are often written by white men – explorers, adventurers, colonisers. As in British-Taiwanese-Canadian writer Jessica J. Lee’s memoirs about swimming in Berlin and hiking through Taiwan, in ‘Five-Five’ Lu writes specifically of being an Asian woman alone in a foreign landscape. Lu is an experienced tramper, and she observes the natural world with a rare sharpness and clarity, reminiscent of the descriptive style of American essayist Annie Dillard.
The final essay, ‘The Tiger Cub’, also takes on a new form, written like a letter to the writer’s younger brother. There are numerous gaps and silences between them, gentle failures in communication. This essay is an exercise in quiet empathy and openness. It lays bare the reality that sometimes we try to reach for the right words and fail, and that despite this, all is not lost.
In our family we lack the vocabulary to speak about things that are so delicate, to wade through the overlap in our mutually intelligible language to find the nuance for questions like this.
This book dwells precisely in these bright, delicate moments – between what is said and what is not said, between moments of physical touch or in a burst of laughter. In its exploration of the full complexity of being rooted in two cultures, Lu articulates what I’ve felt for so long but not known how to explain. For so many of us it’s not a matter of being Chinese or being a New Zealander, but both:
I became more assured about being from Aotearoa and being from China – something I repeatedly had to explain to my Pākehā friends, who saw my cultural identity as a needle wavering between the two places. At one point I had seen it that way too, but now I view it as a symbiotic relationship, two twinned vines growing in tandem.
I underlined and drew circles around this passage in pencil several times. There were relatively few stories or examples of contemporary Chinese New Zealand identity in all its variations and complications when I was starting out as a writer. Now, many young writers are writing into existence the books they wish they’d had when they were young. All Who Live on Islands is only the beginning.
NINA MINGYA POWLES is a poet and zinemaker from Wellington, currently living in London. She is the author of Tiny Moons, a food memoir published by The Emma Press, and Luminescent (Seraph Press). Her next book of poetry, Magnolia, 木蘭 will be published by Seraph Press in 2020. She is the founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a small poetry press, and is working on a collection of essays. Her essay ‘Tender Gardens’ shared first place in the 2019 Landfall Essay Competition.