The First Anthology of Asian Voices from Aotearoa: A Homecoming
“You alone have root access to your own identity,”
writes kī anthony in A Clear Dawn, the groundbreaking new anthology of Asian voices. Edited by Paula Morris and Alison Wong, the collection represents a new chapter in the canon of literature from Aotearoa. As Morris and Wong note in their introduction, Asian voices in New Zealand literature are underrepresented. Although ‘Asians’ – as a broad and imprecise category – have been present in Aotearoa for over 200 years, only a handful of Asian writers have been nationally recognised. This is changing.
A Clear Dawn is a response to the emerging hunger for Asian writing. Although Asian presence in New Zealand has been – and continues to be – perceived as a threat to national identity, the 2018 census revealed that those identifying as Asian make up 28.8 percent of Auckland’s population. There are also more second-generation self-identifying Asians than ever before: 23 percent of us were born in New Zealand. So why aren’t we treated that way?
The night of A Clear Dawn’s book launch at the Auckland Writers Festival was a mild one. A crisp breeze kept the city cool, so I clutched my tan coat as I walked into the Aotea Centre. It was busy, and the crowds were disorientating. I hurried up to the fourth floor – the event would be starting soon. I walked twice through the crowd gathered up there, scanning the room for my friends. It looked like they hadn’t arrived yet. I procured a glass of wine, clutching it like a life raft.
But I needn’t have worried – my friends came, and just in time for the speeches.
The readings that followed sometimes hushed the crowd, sometimes stirred us, sometimes made us laugh or hold back tears. But always, they connected us.
Aiwa Pooamorn embodied her father while reading her poem ‘rice’. With deceptively simple language, Pooarmorn laid out the problematic gender roles and body shaming prevalent in many of our communities. Her voice rang out through the venue, sometimes drawling, sometimes sharp, leaving a ripple through the audience like a warm breeze. But in tandem was Pooamorn’s impeccable sense of comedic timing – oh how we laughed.
“watch the carbs,”
mocks Pooamorn, and I hear my mother, who breaks my heart as she scrapes rice off her plate.
Of course, not all stories were immediately familiar – the term ‘Asian’ is as diverse as it is broad. But underlying every reading was the familiarity of human experience. Mustaq Missouri read an excerpt from his novel in progress, Displacement. In the excerpt, as the narrator discusses the trials of Ramadan, the room, composed of the diverse nationalities and religions that make up our new New Zealand, felt in tandem the faith, hope, struggle and triumph that underpinned Missouri’s words.
I shouldn’t have been nervous. After the readings, I found myself speaking to many of the poets and the literary community there tonight – people whose faces looked like mine. This had never happened before. It gave me a warm feeling deep in my chest. As an Asian writer, reading A Clear Dawn felt like a new manifestation of home.
Home itself manifests in many ways in A Clear Dawn. Throughout the anthology, there is a return to place. Spaces between ‘here’ and ‘there’ are collapsed in these writings. In ‘KL Sunrise’, Tze Ming Mok writes from Mt Roskill to KL to Singapore. In ‘Migrating tendencies’, Han Mei Nguyen writes from Auckland to Vietnam. Shriya Bhagwat writes to Mumbai, inspired by her time there during the floods:
“Are you coming home?”
Home. It’s a loaded word. It has many meanings. It can be many places, and one place, and no place, all at once. It has many forms in this collection. It is banana curry, it is a prayer, it is family. But most of all, it’s a feeling. One that’s instantly recognisable in its many iterations.
As I read these works, I am reminded of folding dumplings with my mother, on the kitchen island, gossiping. Of holding my father’s hand through a crowded Chinese food court, having phở and pork belly in Newmarket. Of napping on my Gong Gong’s big belly in the afternoon heat of Melaka.
Ancestry, tradition and connection are here too, reflecting the struggle and the passion of the Asian diaspora. Gaps between meaning and language are explored in poems like Nina Mingya Powles’ ‘Mother tongue / 母语’ and fiction like Eva Wong Ng’s ‘Kwong Tao Uncle’. But, equally, meaning transcends language.
“The ceremonial burning is passed down matrilineally – the line which carries water – the line estranged from luck – the line which walks hand-in-hand with demons … does it begin in the blood? / does it begin in the water? … Water lives in the interval between one piece of land and another … the thread is made of flesh.”
This excerpt from Manisha Anjali’s ‘the thread is made of flesh’ explores how heritage and ritual cut across national ties. It’s an expression of a desire to know ourselves.
The tīpuna of the writers are present throughout the anthology. From Wen-Juenn Lee’s ‘Love letter to my mother: a work in progress’; to Fei Fei’s grandmother preparing for the Hungry Ghost festival in Bernadette How’s excerpt from Fei Lou; to the grandmother in Nod Ghosh’s ‘The Knot in the Cream Sari’; a desire to understand where one comes from, and who we owe ourselves to, is present in A Clear Dawn.
For many Asian diaspora, questions of identity come up often when we are caught between worlds, between countries and between languages. But underlying these struggles is our immense capacity for connection. Our capacity for connection even after death, as Lynette Leong portrays in her poem ‘Qing Ming’, and as Luo Hui describes in ‘Ghost records’.
“In the part of the countryside where I grew up, children were taught to be mindful of the dead. The graves were right inside the vegetable gardens.”
Blood, water, tradition and food keep us together.
Food is explored here too. Gemishka Chetty connects banana curry to the “world of the priest’s blessing at the temple” in her poem ‘Two colours’. Joy Tong connects food to cultural identity in ‘little walnuts.’
“what can I bring back for you?
her smile like furls of steaming jasmine tea
amidst clamouring children …
I always ask for my little walnuts.”
When I finish reading these poems, I close my eyes and taste durian, dense, sweet and creamy. It is what my parents would call a ‘hot’ food, contrasting the radiating coolness of the tiles beneath me.
But not all poems carry themes of identity and heritage. Many deal with the realities of simply existing. Everyday life, human emotion, human relationships. Sigred Yamit struggles with her accent in the poem ‘The F word’, writing, “it’s ok to sound Filipino / if you’re Filipino.”
Some works looked insightfully at the cultural positioning of ‘Asians’ as an ethnic group. Wai Ho, Natasha Lay, Sherry Zhang, Vanessa Crofskey and Aiwa Pooamorn all deal with the sexual politics of being an Asian woman in a Pākehā-dominated society.
Works like Sherry Zhang’s poem ‘I cannot write a poem about China’, after Tusiata Avia’s ‘I cannot write a poem about Gaza’, explore how these identity politics can affect every aspect of life for the Asian diaspora. Our community shares this in common with many other migrant communities.
A Clear Dawn and its contributors have given a voice to our Asian whānau, who have so often been silent and silenced. Of course, there can always be more voices in the conversation. But poems like Han Mai Nguyen’s ‘Lorry heaven’ begin to uncover the depths to which the struggles of our communities have been underrepresented.
Not only does the release of A Clear Dawn coincide with an increased desire to know who we are as the Asian diaspora of Aotearoa, but it also coincides with a heightened awareness of the discrimination our communities face. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, the Asian community faces the alienation of our Indian whānau, violence against our wāhine, elders and youth. We are tired.
A Clear Dawn marks a renewed refusal to remain silent. Although diverse, we unite to give voice to injustice and see our experiences represented on the page.
“Our karanga opens the way … a new conversation begins.” – Paula Morris and Alison Wong, A Clear Dawn, 2021.