Writing in a Year of Snakes
What happens to the dead after they’re buried in the history books? On the eve of the publication of his first poetry collection, Renee Liang asks Chris Tse about writing, life and being an Asian writer in NZ.
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Lower Hutt poet, Chris Tse, releases his first full-length collection of poetry this week. How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes exhumes the story of Joe Kum Yung, an elderly man randomly gunned down in a Wellington street in 1905 by a Pakeha man who wanted the resulting murder charge to draw attention to his racist ideals. In examining this story, Tse lays out the tangled threads of culture, history and memory, questioning his own role as watcher and historian.
Renee Liang chatted to Chris about writing, life and being an Asian writer in NZ – and he turns the tables at the end.
Renee: So, how long have you been working on your collection?
Chris: I started writing about Joe Kum Yung towards the end of 2005, when I was completing my masters in creative writing. It was the 100th anniversary of his murder, so there was quite a bit of activity around commemorating his death. I've been working on the manuscript on and off since then.
Renee: You have Joes on one side of your family? Is he any relation?
Chris: My Mum's maiden name is Joe, but there's no direct relation. He might've been a ‘village cousin’ though!
Renee: Reading through the book, I'm struck by how deeply you've gone into the psyche of both Kum Yung and Lionel Terry, his murderer. Did you know you'd be spending nine years in such dark places?
Chris: When I first started writing these poems, I envisaged them as a short sequence of a dozen poems or so. I didn't think that this story would still be with me in nine years time! It took me a long time to realise (and accept) that this story needed more time and space than I was allowing it.
I never felt that I was spending my time in dark places. The story is concerned with death and murder, but I didn't want to be trapped by or preoccupied with the heaviness that can come with that territory. I wanted to focus on Joe Kum Yung's search for light. It was important to me that the book carry a sense of hope, despite the life he had lived.
Renee: I do sense that hope towards the end, although it comes in glimmers. Do you think that you have helped him on his journey?
Chris: A part of me does hope that by telling his story and giving him a voice I have set a place for him in history. He was always a footnote to Lionel Terry's story; I wanted to reverse that and show another side to the aftermath of murder.
Renee: You seem to focus very much on giving Kum Yung a voice. At times you seem to let your frustration be seen, at how difficult it is to 'find' him in the reports of the day. What do you think about the role of literature to investigate historical events, where the voices of the original perpetrators are no longer able to be heard?
Chris: Unsurprisingly, the news reports of the murder weren't very detailed and didn't say much about Joe Kum Yung. Lionel Terry murdered him to prove a point, and in a way his turning himself in was just an extension of his theatrics – he had a point to make and he made sure people heard him. I didn't want to focus too much on Lionel and his so-called message. It's always been clear what he was trying to achieve. For better or worse, his voice still lives on in the news reports of the time and the way in which the story has been told up until this point.
Writing this book was a chance to give Joe Kum Yung a voice, but that became just a small part of it. As the book took shape, it was the importance of remembering our dead and acknowledging the darkest moments of our history that began to emerge as the major themes.
Renee: You reference Chinese history and traditional beliefs (about the dead, about how those who cannot go home are compelled to wander as 'hungry ghosts'.) As a fellow Chinese I'm familiar with these concepts. Did you find, in discussing the book with those outside our culture, that you had to explain these more clearly?
Chris: Not really. I guess the few people that have already read the book just accepted that they were aspects of our culture or just went ahead and googled things themselves!
Renee: Did you find out things you didn't know? And how much did you rely on Dr Google and how much on the 'aunties' in our community?
Chris: There was so much that I didn't know before writing the book. I did research quite a bit, but also drew from personal experience. My Por Por passed away when I was nearing the completion of the manuscript. It was the first time that as an adult I had lost a close family member, so a lot of the grieving process, including the rituals and customs, made its way into the final poems written for the manuscript.
The Chinese attitude to death is very different to Western cultures – the idea of celebrating someone's life after their death goes against the solemnity and responsibility of the living to make sure that the dead find their way to their next life. My research for this book reinforced and expanded on the way I've been taught to think about death and honouring my ancestors.
Renee: How about other Chinese traditions? There were moments when the formality of your verse and the structures (often a series of couplets) reminded me of Chinese forms.
But a modern version. You don't spend much time gazing at the moon with a cup of wine....On the other hand, you have an eye for beauty, and beautiful phrases, that is very traditional.
Chris: At one point I did want to borrow from and appropriate traditional Chinese forms, so the moments you've spotted might be remnants of those earlier experiments. But I soon felt that trying to follow those forms wasn't letting the story and poems to breathe and speak for themselves. The search for beauty was important – the romantic belief that death can provide what life can't was something I really wanted to explore.
Renee: How have you changed as a poet through this first collection? It's a huge project!
Chris: I feel like a weight has been lifted! There were plenty of times when I wanted to put this story aside and focus on other projects, but I simply couldn't let it go. Writing this collection has taught me a lot about empathy and, to an extent, restraint. There were so many possible directions in which this story could go, so for me it was about finding that focus and sticking to it without letting politics or my own personal anger overshadow the story.
I do feel like this is the end of the first part of my career as a writer. I'm now focusing on more personal stories and themes outside of Chinese culture.
Renee: I was going to ask you about that. Did you feel an expectation to write on certain themes because of your ethnicity and gender?
Chris: Yes I thought there was an expectation, and I resisted it when I first started writing. It was a mixture of fear of being pigeonholed and thinking that it was too obvious, but I think a lot of it was a product of my own anxieties. I soon realised that I had to get over it, and that if these stories were to be told then I had a point of view to offer. I've had writing published that isn't Chinese-themed and it's been well received, so I don't feel like there's this expectation that I have to write about certain themes. However, I acknowledge that there are certain voices missing from New Zealand literature and I have a responsibility to speak up when appropriate.
Renee: Well said!
Chris: Is it something that you've struggled with as a writer? Just turning the tables for a bit! Haha.
Renee: Yes, and in much the same way as you. I resisted it, yet at the same time it was being honest to myself, as the questions I was answering as/for my characters were the same ones I had come across in my daily life.
It kind of bothered me that I was being seen as some sort of 'voice' for the community, but at the same time, I figured that, well at least they were reading it from someone who knew and not someone from outside the culture. So I was really pleased that you were writing too! I think the drift towards less 'coloured' stories is a pretty normal one too. You see it with other writers, like Alison Wong and Lynda Chanwai Earle. And with Maori and Pacific writers too.
Chris: That responsibility of being a "voice" is troubling, because who can ever truly speak for an entire community?
Renee: Hear hear!
Chris: And if they purported to, I wouldn't trust them!
Renee: I guess what we're doing is wearing a path through the grass. It's up to others to follow, or make their own paths.
Chris: Sometimes I feel like I've left the grass and ended up knee-deep in a river.
Renee: Yes and I don't like the stones underfoot....But in a way, the interest is what's kept me writing.
It's surreal that only a few years after I decided I was serious about writing, my work is being taught in schools and uni, and analysed by academics. More for my timing (being one of a select group still) than for the quality I suspect...
Chris: Typical Chinese trait, talking yourself down! Even if that were true, this only shows that there's a need for our stories and voices.
Renee: Aw shucks… Why did you choose poetry as the best form to explore Joe Kum Yung's story?
Chris: I never entertained the thought that this book and story could be anything else other than poetry. The fragmented nature of the story, of what we knew about Joe Kum Yung's life, seemed tailor-made for poetry. It just felt right to me – it was the perfect form to play with a variety of voices, and to explore those contrasting ideas and images of light and shadow, life and death, beauty and destruction. It was also an opportunity to test my ability as a poet to sustain my intentions over the course of a book-length sequence of poems.
Renee: I admire how you have resisted the urge to showcase your 'best' poems to instead take a journey. One last question: what are you working on next?
Chris: I did feel a sense of responsibility to finish what I started, and that meant a lot of what I've written in the past nine years that wasn't for the book has had to wait in the wings. As for what's next, I've been writing poems that a lot more personal. At the moment I'm exploring how music and memory are intertwined, as well as the role of music in contemporary society and a conduit for shared experience.
Renee: It sounds amazing! and of course music and poetry are natural partners.