Excerpts from an Aotearoa anthology of Asian voices, edited by Paula Morris and Alison Wong
Feby IDRUS is a writer, musician and arts administrator living in Dunedin. The following is from her short story ‘Monster’:
January. Look back on how your mother raised you, shake your head, and think, Well, that’s not going to work with your new blond step-kids.
Accept the four-year-old’s hugs awkwardly but with gratitude. This is a nice thing. Right? It’s supposed to be a nice thing?
Lie down at night beside your new husband in your new shared bed and listen as his breathing slows in the dark. Think about tomorrow, when all your boxes will arrive containing the movable remnants of your old apartment. Start listing everything that will have to be stowed away somewhere safe, so they don’t get broken by the kids. Goodbye, tea set from your grandmother in Wenzhou. Goodbye, precious law degree in a far too breakable frame. Goodbye, old life.
Start reading Frankenstein.
February. Brace yourself. The eight-year-old has just returned from school, torn off her school jersey and trainers and tossed them all over the lounge. Try not to think about what your mother would have done if you’d ever just chucked your things all over the floor. Hide your bafflement when Ryan enters, looks at the discarded uniform, then keeps blithely walking, spinning his key ring around his finger. Is this a white person thing? Is this how white folks raise their children?
Or is this just how people raise their children, when those people are not your mother?
Realise later that you don’t know the answer to those questions.
April. Invite your parents over for dinner with your in-laws. Wince when Ryan’s mother reveals the meal she’s specially prepared for your parents. Of course. It’s a stirfry. Continue wincing when the kids turn their noses up at it, literally shoving their plates away. Instead of insisting that they eat what they are given, Ryan boils some poisonously red saveloys and parks the pot in front of them with the tomato sauce bottle. ‘Eat up,’ he says. Watch your mother chew on a burnt green bean. Her polite smile conceals nothing from you. You let him feed them that? Mummy’s smile says.
Do not react. He can feed them whatever crap he wants, because they’re not your kids. You are just their father’s wife and have no jurisdiction here.
Yan Tan Danny LAM is a state sector legal worker, poet and fiction writer living between Tāmaki Makaurau and Te Whanganui-a-Tara:
Whenever the day comes
I’m overwhelmed. everything is so bright, so hearty. I smell food everywhere, the fragrance changes with each step over ashy tiles, I move through the market to the coal fired kūmara, and round to pots of sticky stock bubbling over stoves, quickly evaporating and caramelising onto the metal.
I used to think that everyone was as edible as I was.
Until I discovered that I couldn’t blend all of those ferric fluids with my saliva nor digest them at all, I swallowed and swallowed but it would adhere to the palate, forming stalactites of iron and oil on my uvula.
Nothing could have made it any better. Nothing would have given me as much joy.
One night I came home to find the kitchen emptied itself. All of my appliances, my knives, pots pans and elements had been pulsed, and excreted through the anal drain. It left me only food.
What was I to eat that night?
Cybella MAFFITT is writes poetry and is studying English literature at the University of Auckland:
Việt Nam Departed
Come summer and my grandmother is five-spice again.
She is the bà ngoại
whose vowels bow deep
into pork fillings and star anise
last of us to understand the bloom
of a mother tongue whose consonants clatter dry as the river-bank.
She is the worshipper to displaced gods
to that fresh-pressed promise in linoleum gleam.
Under the neon lights of a foreign land
the kettle whistles out immigrant prayers
for her cháu gái, khác nhau
in words folded crescent-moon.
Peel back into yesterday, the blossoming
sound to think how language curdles so swiftly
and one hundred days roll to an end.
Fish-catcher, water-whisperer, little lotus girl far from home
teach me how to speak.
Janna TAY lives in Auckland. She writes poetry, creative nonfiction and plays and is founding editor-in-chief of Oscen magazine. The following is from the personal essay ‘Return to places unknown’:
Auckland, New Zealand. 2000s.
Sometimes the dream doesn’t take the way you wanted. My parents met while studying in New Zealand, returned to Kuching to have my brother and me, and then moved to Auckland, away from their families. I was four; he was seven. It was in Auckland that he was diagnosed with autism. My parents struggled alone, and we grew apart in a way that happens when autistic children divert entire lives and make secondary parents of their siblings.
Although we visited Kuching every few years, I never got to know most of my relatives. I would never see Dad’s mother, my Ah Ma, again. That tiny, enterprising woman who felled trees and dissolved sugar over watermelons to sell them sweeter. In photos, she holds me on her lap, covers my hands with her own, bodies which have lost those memories, as pillows do, springing back with no knowledge of the night. But she lives on in the way she has marked her children — in their resemblances, in the ways they laugh, in my aunts and uncles who open their homes to me, not because they know me but because of who I am. Brother’s daughter. Son’s cousin. Mother’s granddaughter.
How strange to exist in the possessive, to have provenance. How strange to never have stood alone and known it. When I was little, I thought flat world maps neglected the other side of the sphere. I turned one over and found it blank. How had so many intelligent people forgotten to chart the rest of the world? No wonder we’d lost so many cities. And then I learned it was all there, that the ends wrapped around to meet one another. So when you run in a straight line away from any given point, you’re also running back towards it again.
Sigred YAMIT lives in Christchurch and writes poetry:
The F word
is an abominable word
and abominable is a hard word
my Asian tongue can’t keep up
with my half-white mind
trying to recite Byron
with a mouth just
fresh off the boat is
an arduous task
like a broken dam
with no water gushing out
like a cow escaping the
factory only to find another
my mother heard
herself on the phone
and hated her accent
You sound okay, Mama
she sounds like every other
elephants and whales
are shamelessly fat
it’s okay to sound Filipino
if you’re Filipino
A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, Paula Morris and Alison Wong, editors, Auckland University Press, 2021
Editor notes by Alison Wong
Paula Morris and I started work in early 2019 as coeditors of A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, the first-ever anthology of creative writing by Asian New Zealanders. We took up K. Emma Ng’s challenge, from her 2017 long-form essay Old Asian, New Asian, reframing our bicultural social and political contract not as Māori and Pākeha, but as tangata whenua (Paula) and tauiwi (myself). It’s been a rich and rewarding partnership with me mostly based in Geelong, Australia, and Paula, in Auckland.
Even before the pandemic unfolded, working trans-Tasman, we were regularly emailing and meeting by Zoom. When I flew to Auckland in March 2020 so that we could work together in person, there were only a handful of Covid-19 cases in both countries. In ten days everything changed. I flew back to Australia as both countries were closing their borders.
Auckland has been the most affected in Aotearoa, and I live in what has been Australia’s worst-affected state, Victoria. Not in Melbourne, but very close. We’ve had months of wearing masks every time we walked out the front door, of not going more than 5km from home and only for permitted, essential reasons, of having no or few visitors or gatherings. Paula had surgery and spent months in a cast; I broke my foot. We were working such long hours on the anthology – seeking submissions; asking everyone we could think of to pass on the word; reading, selecting, editing, writing a substantial introduction about Asian NZ history, writers, literature and our hopes for the future – that we were both more locked down than lockdown.
We selected seventy-five writers of poetry, fiction and memoir/personal essays from diverse Asian ethnicities and backgrounds, from teenage through to their eighties, from those whose families have lived in Aotearoa since the 1800s through to more recent immigrants. Literary quality was paramount, but we also looked for diversity of style, voice, theme, subject matter and geographic location. We selected ‘emerging’ writers who, at the time of selection, had not had more than two full-length books published and who were not already ‘established’ in other literary fields such as playwriting. For some it is the first time their creative work has been published in book form; others such as Gregory Kan, Sharon Lam, Rose Lu, Mo Zhi Hong, Tze Ming Mok, Nina Mingya Powles and Chris Tse are already acclaimed.
Now our beautiful baby has been born, and yes, it looks and feels gorgeous with its almost velvety, bright, hopeful cover. Something deeply appreciated during a pandemic. Thank you, Auckland University Press.
I flew over in April one week after the trans-Tasman bubble opened, grateful that I was able to cancel my spot in MIQ. With no cases of community transmission in either Victoria or Aotearoa, the highest risk of catching the virus seemed to be in hotel quarantine, or perhaps after that on planes or in airports. Knowing that I’d be visiting my elderly mother and mother-in-law, I had a pre-departure COVID-19 test. I sanitised everywhere, didn’t have any airline food or drink. I had another COVID-19 test five days after arrival so that I could visit my mother’s rest home maskless.
Because of shipping delays, we only had airfreighted copies for the launch at the Auckland Writers’ Festival; the Wellington launch had to be postponed by a week. At the Auckland launch, a Pākehā woman asked Paula’s husband why he was there — she’d only come for the wine, not for the bad Asian poetry. We had a ball despite her. The audience of a couple of hundred loved our contributors’ readings. We don’t have any bad poetry.
In Wellington we celebrated at a crowded and appreciative Unity Books. The readings were interspersed with music played by contributors Rupa Maitra on violin and Luo Hui and friends playing fusion. At the same time Victoria went into lockdown. A man had caught the virus in Adelaide hotel quarantine and then flown home to Victoria prior to testing positive.
I met for yum cha with a group of Asian Wellington writers. There were two large tables of us – a number that would have been inconceivable twenty years ago. Then I flew to Napier, the place where I grew up, where I visited my mother-in-law. I did an event with contributor A L Ping before 60 people at the library. We discussed his writing and read the work of various contributors. His delivery was riveting, as I knew it would be. A woman came up afterwards. ‘Remember me?’ She was my namesake, though spelled differently. Not a nerd like me at intermediate. With my poor eyesight, I’d had to sit at the front of the class to be able see the blackboard. Allison said she’d tried to copy my work when she sat next to me in mathematics. She’d tried to annoy me so the teacher would move her to the back of the class again. It hadn’t worked. I remembered her. She was very pretty. She was vivacious.
After Queen’s Birthday thanks to Asian New Zealand Foundation funding, Paula and I toured Wanaka, Arrowtown, Dunedin, Riverton and Invercargill along with various combinations of contributors and musicians from Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. It was just after the Ashburton floods and we were grateful that virtuoso erhu player, Jeffrey Zhao, managed to drive over the bridge to join us from Christchurch.
I caught up with friends in Dunedin. It had been such a long time, but time and distance mean nothing when you’re with old friends. It was like settling into favourite, comfortable, old clothes. Meanwhile, Paula chaired an anthology event with contributors in Matakana.
During my nine weeks in Aotearoa, I had WhatsApp calls with my husband in Geelong two or three times a day. ‘How many times have you talked to Kevin today?’ Paula asked while we were on tour. (Yes, even ‘oldies’ like us can be ‘hopelessly devoted’.)
I flew in and out from Wellington, visiting my mother, sometimes staying with my brother, mostly with my sister. She and her partner have better eyesight and hearing than me. They put a light beige rug down on the dark carpet so I could see my bags, my clothes, my shoes. If my sister couldn’t find her black socks on the carpet for a couple of days, I’d have no show until they went up the vacuum cleaner. They laughed and laughed when I couldn’t get the footrest back down sitting in their oversized La-Z-Boy. (Ok, so it’s not just my eyesight and hearing…)
My last weekend in Wellington was with Paula at the NZ Society of Authors Regional Roadshow. We taught workshops simultaneously. We hung out like partners do. She’s the hare and I’m the tortoise. It was a race together to meet deadlines; we were both exhausted. That evening at the NZSA dinner we ended up at different tables and in different teams for the literary quiz. Together with my team I leapt to my feet, for the bonus point, singing the chorus of ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’. Paula’s and my team ended up equal first – because of the superior knowledge of my team members, I might add, not because of my own. Paula said she was just competitive. She gave me a goodbye hug, her last words, knowing my difficulty getting vaccinated: ‘Don’t get COVID.’
Aotearoa extended the pause on the travel bubble with Victoria. My direct flight from Wellington to Melbourne on the Monday was cancelled. When I rang Kevin, his whole face fell. When would I come home? The next day when I rang to say I’d been rebooked, that I was still coming back Monday, I could see his inner happy dance. Only now I had to get up at 3:30am and catch a flight to Auckland, then another to Melbourne. Then the 90-minute drive to the outskirts of Geelong. My sister’s eyes were damp saying goodbye.
It was only after I got back that I heard about the Sydney case that had spent the weekend in Wellington. I’d left Wellington the same morning but, because of the rebooking, I was at the airport long before. I hadn’t been to any of the same sites.
Now it appears Wellington and Aotearoa have dodged a bullet, still with no apparent cases of community transmission. The Sydneysider had already had one dose of the vaccine. He’d still caught the Delta variant but was he less transmissible? As Victoria records no new unisolated cases, 12 million Australians are locked down. There are outbreaks in NSW, WA, SA, NT the ACT and Queensland. Borders are shut between states.
Two of our Melbourne-based contributors are reading at the Wheeler Centre on 19 July, but audience numbers are currently severely restricted. Other upcoming events include WORD Christchurch (25-29 August), Going West Auckland (September-October), Nelson Arts Festival (24 October), Ladies’ Litera-Tea Auckland (31 October) and Verb Wellington (3 November).
All going well, Victorian restrictions will ease in a few days and Aotearoa will open the bubble to Victoria again, though not to the states with outbreaks. Will the bubble be open so I can come across again? I can only be philosophical, grateful that no events so far have been cancelled or made online, that I could come home at least this time to be with family and friends, to meet contributors and celebrate the publication of A Clear Dawn. In a world of such uncertainty, I can only be thankful for small joys and freedoms.
Alison Wong, 1 July 2021
Paula Morris MNZM (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Whatua) / Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand is an award-winning fiction writer and essayist from Auckland. She is author of eight novels, the long-form essay On Coming Home and two collections. She is also the editor of The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories (2009) and co-editor of the 2020 anthology Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand. An Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, where she convenes the Master of Creative Writing, Paula also teaches creative writing at festivals and in schools. She is the founder of the Academy of New Zealand Literature, and serves on the boards of the Coalition for Books, the NZ Book Awards Trust, the Māori Literature Trust and the Mātātuhi Foundation.
Alison Wong (born 1960) is a New Zealand poet and novelist of Chinese heritage. Her background in mathematics comes across in her poetry, not as a subject, but in the careful formulation of words to white space and precision. In 2002 Alison was the Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. Her poetry collection Cup was shortlisted for the Jessie Mackay Best First Book for Poetry at the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Alison’s debut novel, As the Earth Turns Silver, was over a decade in the making. The novel achieved instant success overseas, with international rights and foreign language editions being sold in the UK, Australia, and parts of Europe and Asia. At home, it was shortlisted for the 2010 Nielsen BookData Booksellers’ Choice Award, and won the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction, and the 2009 Janet Frame Award for Fiction, establishing Alison as a major new voice in contemporary New Zealand fiction. She lives in Geelong. Australia.