Interview with the creators of A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand
Some books read like confrontation. Others caress with familiarity. The experience of A Clear Dawn—the first-ever anthology of Asian New Zealand creative writing, published this week—feels like walking through a door bracing for a harsh spotlight on a cold stage and seeing, instead, an already-bustling room full of welcoming faces with no expectations of performance.
To call this a ‘landmark’ anthology, as reviewer and poet Chris Price writes, is no overstatement. Wide-ranging in genre, subject matter, and contributor demographic, the book is remarkable not only because of its quality but also because of the shift it reflects. Alison Wong, co-editor, says “Until now, many of our writers have often been writing and being published ‘on the margins’. It’s wonderful for them to get a bigger mainstream readership.” Hoping for a reconfiguration of the place of Asian New Zealand writers in the national literature: “I don’t mean assimilation. We all have our unique voices. But I hope we will no longer be ‘other’.”
Readers are ready for the anthology. The literary world is constructed in negotiation with the physical one—both are changing—and despite the very real risk of misinterpretation, I see an audience more capable of understanding, hungry for something substantial. No more exoticism! No more revelations about Asian complexity, which should be a given.
In this interview, writers Sherry Zhang, Anuja Mitra and Aiwa Pooamorn talk more about the topics of their anthology contributions and how they see and navigate community—insights into the landscape of the anthology’s release. To read their poems and prose, as well as that of the 72 other contributors, pick the book up on Thursday.
Sherry—I love the part near the end of your poem on your Grandmother’s old acting troupe. Tell me about your conversations with (or observations of) those of their generation.
SZ: I recently just came off tour producing a documentary theatre show on Chinese identity in Dunedin, where I translated and discussed questions around belonging and home with a group of old Chinese aunties and uncles. They are some of the wittiest, spiciest, most perceptive, and most intelligent group of people you’ll ever meet.
But they were also very nervous to understand where we got our funding, who we work for, and if we have a political agenda. I don’t blame them; they’ve grown up in a political system where saying the wrong thing can be distressing. They shared stories of political unrest in their hometowns, frustrations with gender roles, experiences of racism in New Zealand. But the concept of face is extremely important, and they were uncomfortable with sharing this publicly. Many are very careful of never wanting to appear ungrateful or like they’re complaining.
Relatedly, on the concept of face: in Aiwa’s third poem she writes “I air out my dirty laundry poetry”. Aiwa and Sherry—what are your own relationships to secrecy, shame and silence? How do you decide what to say and what to hold back?
AP: I reveal very intimate details of my personal life in my poems—I am something of an exhibitionist, I don’t hold back. Though, maybe I should. I grew up with secrecy, shame and silence, coming from an unconventional family—my dad is polygamous; he’s got three wives.
SZ: I’m well versed in the performance of face. On one hand, I get mouthy and will pick fights with racist uncles at the dinner table without a second thought. But I’ve also hid my struggles with mental health for years from my family. We’ve started to have more open conversations around this in the last few years, and they’ve become a lot more understanding. But it’s taken a lot of teeth pulling, tears, bitten angry words, time and distance.
There are some things I still struggle to come to terms with: the shame, secrecy and silence that comes with being queer in a conservative/homophobic family. It is what it is. And I’m still on my journey. I don’t see it as a weakness to picking your battles, and to hold back who you share to for personal safety. I’ll send the articles I get published on The Herald to the family Wechat. My poetry isn’t making an appearance.
Has your approach to political disagreement with family you love changed over the years?
SZ: I think I’m less aggressive in my approach and have an appreciation of how long and tiring it can be to change someone’s opinion. Especially if they’ve grown up in a system so different to your own.
You can try your best to educate your folks. They also exist in an ecosystem of the media they consume, and the opinions of friends and family. My mother listens to a lot of Chinese-New Zealand radio, and it’s not the most sophisticated when it comes to understanding of colonisation and te Tiriti. But I guess that’s the same for any talk-back radio station. And they are trying to learn! I see that they’re trying to read more, my mother’s always borrowing books and magazines from the library. My father’s doing his thing on WeChat… I don’t know how great the fact-checking is on that platform. Next stop: taking my parents to an Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga meeting?
Anuja—You’re the co-founder of Oscen, a theatre reviewer and one of the “new mavens” described by the editors in the book’s introduction. Now, in your busy schedule, what drives you to keep finding the time to write?
AM: I’m a big fan of ‘The New Mavens’ as a potential band name (despite my profound lack of musical ability). To answer your question, though, it’s definitely something I’m still puzzling over now I’m working full-time. Many creatives I know are natural hard-workers and perfectionists, which manifests in a lot of productivity-pressure and guilt when they’re unable to find the time or headspace to write. Though I often lament that writing is in fact a deeply unrelaxing ‘hobby’, I couldn’t really imagine ceasing to scribble in my notebook or not littering my iPhone notes app with lousy metaphors while I’m on the bus. As someone who loves words, it’s satisfying to create something with them for myself, and it’s nice when it gets read or heard by others too! Poetry readings have been a great way to remind myself to keep writing and sharing work. Having friends who write, whether it be poems or fiction or play scripts, is also motivating and I’m grateful for the inspiring conversations I can have with those friends.
The beginning of ‘The Ivory House’ (a house that “has forgotten to be a home”) reminds me of the hostile, consuming environments of Shirley Jackson’s writing. I know you’ve read her work too and I hope you don’t mind the comparison, but I am interested in how rather than the horror of her endings, your story moves towards a kind of tentative warmth. Could you speak to that?
AM: Since I do love 19th and 20th century Gothic literature and especially the elements of psychology, character study and atmosphere in Gothic fiction, I wouldn’t be surprised if that influence crept into ‘The Ivory House’. One of the things I was experimenting with was the blurring of boundaries and mingling of opposites, so within the ‘house’ the narrator feels both unsettled and comforted by its walls: isolated from others, and yet tied to them through these unspoken relationships. I would say there is a sense of both warmth and distance running throughout the story, though at the end it definitely does move from exile to the possibility of connection, the possibility of community.
Aiwa and Sherry—You’re both also thinking about and fostering community in your respective fields: Aiwa (and Gemishka Chetty)’s Creative Creatures arts collective, theatre and workshops; Sherry’s journalism, newly-created The Agenda Zine and the aforementioned tour with documentary theatre show OTHER [chinese]. What’s important to you about creating these communities, and what has the experience been like?
AP: The experience has been challenging at times—we’ve had to change who we let in to join our discussions—but it’s important to us to create a space to unpack collective trauma and build solidarity.
SZ: It’s been a learning curve of separating the topics I want us to focus on and what the community needs. And to remove myself and ego. We can shape and shift the discussion in these workshops, but ultimately, it’s an act of co-creation, [and] the people we meet shaping the themes we explore. These participants aren’t actors. Many of them have never been on stage. We’ve really just pulled them from the community through word-of-mouth, flyer drops in yum-cha restaurants, community group outreach and ‘yes, please bring your cousin along!”
There have been tensions because being Chinese isn’t a singular thing. There is disagreement and there are differences, and it’s important for us to ensure one perspective isn’t overpowering another.
A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Alison Wong and Paula Morris, is released on Thursday the 13th of May 2021 by Auckland University Press.
Attend the free launch event as part of the Auckland Writers Festival on Saturday the 15th of May, 5:00pm-6:00pm at the Balcony Bar, Level Five, Aotea Centre, with selected readings and a complimentary glass of wine.
Article title from ‘A Clear Dawn’ by Li Po/Li Bai (李白), a Tang-dynasty poem from which the anthology takes its name, translated by Ya-Wen Ho.