Taking its title from Ya-Wen Ho’s translation of the Li Po/ Li Bai (李白) poem, A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa holds all the promise and possibility of its namesake, suggesting a clear way forward for new voices to be heard, and the dawning of greater representation, publication and recognition of a diversity of New Zealand writers.
In their fascinating and thorough introduction, editors Paula Morris and Alison Wong discuss the importance of an anthology at this point, when Asian New Zealand writers continue to be underrepresented in publishing houses and at awards tables, despite so many talented and influential voices emerging. The introduction reads as a potted history of Asian immigration in New Zealand — from poll tax to political apologies — and brings to light the continued racism faced by even fourth generation families, and the damaging stereotypes that persist in Aotearoa. Morris and Wong highlight not just the significance of Asian immigration to New Zealand culture and literature, but also the depth of connection that many Asian New Zealanders have to this land.
‘Asian’ is a rather limiting term that can be defined culturally, ethnically or geographically, and has itself been used as a dismissive generalisation for immigrants. For the purposes of this collection, Asia is defined as ‘from Indonesia to Japan, from the Philippines to the Indian subcontinent.’ Many of the writers in this collection are multi-ethnic and have lived in Asia, the Pacific, the Americas, Europe and the United Kingdom, and for some being defined as an ‘Asian writer’ or an ‘Asian New Zealander’ is problematic. As writer Rosabel Tan says in her introduction to ‘Paper butterflies’ which won the inaugural NZSA Asian Short Story Competition in 2011, and is included in this anthology, ‘The win felt like a complicated punchline. It was an honour to be recognised, but it felt like I’d lost an argument I hadn’t yet learned to articulate.’
However, Morris and Wong ‘embrace the word “Asian”, however general and imprecise it may seem’ and emphasise how the ‘anthology of New Zealanders living in Aotearoa and scattered around the Earth celebrates our diversity and shared humanity.’ It is about representation and shared experience, while recognising that ‘Explorations of culture and identity… have no ‘authentic’ point of origin and no fixed final destinations. The writers in this anthology roam.’
Naturally the diversity of writers leads to a diversity of content. It is an anthology of creative non-fiction, fiction and poetry, with excerpts from novels, previously unpublished works, and published pieces from the last decade. While some writers explore ideas about being Asian, being migrants, being torn between the traditions of family and discovering their true self, others write about being queer, being alone, being young, being old, revenge, jealousy and mass hysteria. It would be impossible to draw any major themes together, although some pieces do seem to talk to each other or nod knowingly in each other’s direction.
Chris Tse’s poem ‘I was a self-loathing poet’ feels like a humorous nod to all the otherness being felt throughout the collection, as he describes “coming out” as a poet:
There’s no such thing as the perfect time or the best way to tell loved ones about
your poetic inclinations. You need to muster up every ounce of courage in your
being and just say it: I’m a poet. You could say ‘I write poetry’, but there’s
something non-committal about that phrasing, like you only dabble now and then
and would prefer not to attach labels to your preferences. Prepare yourself for a full
spectrum of emotional reactions, from ‘You’re still the same person to me’ to ‘I
can’t be friends with a poet’.
The pieces in A Clear Dawn are ordered alphabetically by author name, which perhaps supports my feelings that major themes and links cannot or should not be drawn. Sectioning the works out into similar experiences would feel derivative. This chosen structure also allows the reader to flick back and forth without missing something in the careful ordering. Another interesting structural decision is having the author biographies at the start of each piece, rather than listed at the back of the book. In this way they become more than just standard bios, and tend to tie the writer’s identity much more closely to their own work, letting them introduce their piece and give the reader something to consider while reading.
Examples of these are Latika Vasil’s introduction to her story ‘River’ where she describes her childhood memories of India as ‘strangely disjointed images — sleeping on the rooftop of my grandmother’s house, looking at the stars through a mosquito net; a yellow and black snake floating in flood waters outside our house in Calcutta — and I’m not even sure these are real or imagined. New Zealand has been home for a very long time.’ A haunting description of memory, imagination and a distant, shifting sense of home.
The bio/intro also becomes a space for sharing the tension between politics and identity. Sherry Zhang asks ‘When does criticism of another country’s institutions and system turn into racism? How do you robustly question a system that has its own issues with censorship? How do you stand up for your cultural identity knowing it may not accept you?’ A perfect alphabetical coincidence means the entire anthology ends with Zhang’s poem ‘I cannot write about China’.
Reading this collection, I was struck by the brave, bold and talented younger generation who are often not just writers, but also activists and advocates, making space for other Asian artists, experimenting with language’s reach and purpose. They are also theatre makers, musicians, scientists, tech workers. These certainly are voices that should be heard and amplified by those who currently hold the microphone.
Highlights from the work itself include the experimental pieces by Akeli and Ki Anthony; Russell Boey’s gentle and heartbreaking ‘Pooh sticks’; the precise imagery in the poetry of Joanna Cho —
Odessa, who flits around like a grey warbler,
landing lightly yet meaningfully on conversations about munken paper,
one hand pushing back a short cut of hair
until it turns into a nest in the spring.
— and Vanessa Mei Crofskey ‘From my house you can see the windmills of Ma¯kara, jutting out like acupuncture needles.’ And Grace Lee’s award-winning essay on body image, ‘Body/love.’
Drawing on lived experiences, Himali McInnes shows the sinister misogyny of accusations of sanguma, or witchcraft, in Papua New Guinea in her fiction ‘Forest fire’; Cybella Maffitt expresses what it is to feel like a disappointment to older family members in her poem ‘But the onions won’t grow this year’, ending on the line ‘you were not meant to grow here.’ And E Wen Wong draws parallels between 9/11 and the horrors of 15 March 2019 in her poem ‘one world sleeps in an apple’.
In his essay ‘Seven mournings of the Chinese gooseberry’, Tan Tuck Ming describes how the Chinese gooseberry (which we commonly call kiwifruit) became so loved in New Zealand ‘because all fruit is to some degree easy to love: placid, forgivable, amenable. Some people take to its jam-making properties, others to its hardiness, demonstrating its proletarian sensibility. But most fall for its beauty, the shock of lucid green under the muddy, stiff-haired hide, a satisfying cross-section of a creature.’ This brought me back to Morris and Wong’s introduction, and in particular their notes on collaboration: ‘For this anthology, we came together as tangata whenua (Paula) and tauiwi (Alison)’ — a reference to K Emma Ng’s 2017 essay Old Asian, New Asian, in which she suggests reframing New Zealand’s understanding of biculturalism from a relationship between Ma¯ori and Pa¯keha¯ to one between tangata whenua and tauiwi.
Reading the diversity of works in A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa, it is clear that a change to our understanding of Aotearoa’s cultural and literary landscape is necessary. Representation matters, and the success of this anthology is not just in its one-off representation of such a range of writers, but in bringing to light those, who, I hope, will continue to be represented in anthologies not just limited to Asian voices. In embracing the vague and general term ‘Asian’, Morris and Wong have shown just how complex a word it really is.