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Arts Voices: A Clear Dawn

A new Asian New Zealand anthology brings a diverse range of personalities and opinions. TBI puts them in the spotlight.

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A new chapter in our literary identity begins today - with the launch of A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, the first-ever anthology of Asian New Zealand writing, edited by Paula Morris and Alison Wong, 

75 different writers from high school students to retirees, recent immigrants to generationally entrenched, experienced authors to those being published for the first time - from all genres of the creative fields and all over the Asian region.

The Big Idea posed the question... Is there increased visibility of Asian voices in the creative community? What challenges and opportunities—personal and/or professional—do you see for Asian NZ writers here?

Here are their responses.

 

Romesh Dissanayake, poet (Wellington)

Asian writers and creatives have been swelling in the margins for some time now. Our bubbling and gurgling fish-sauce farts have ponged no less but are now met with a double-tap and a like instead of the bricky disdain and distrust of the past. This is not to say that we have earned a spot at the table next to the mashed potatoes, the Brussels sprouts nor the boiled meat. Instead, we are allowed to congregate in stuffy under-funded alcoves to practice our craft. 

We owe a lot to writers like Alison Wong who have paved the way and continue to champion minority voices in Aotearoa so that one day we can be seen more than just fragrant exotic condiments to the main course. 

Maryana Garcia, poet (Rotorua)


Increasing representation is just one step forward. The goal is for the arts to truly reflect our people, our society as it is. Right now that “Oh” moment, the shock factor, is still there. We'll know the goal has been achieved when the faces, names, and voices we meet don't surprise us. Just like in real life they shouldn't surprise us. 

The challenge is to get out of our own way. The opportunity is for us to own the richness we have to offer each other. I think there's a temptation to homogenise our experiences to make them easier to understand. We need to grow together while growing ourselves. Diversity is about building unity with individuals, not a crowd of cookie-cutter caricatures. 

Luo Hui,  creative nonfiction (Wellington)

It is perhaps a little schizophrenic to feel excited about this anthology celebrating new Asian voices and then read Helene Wong’s recent piece on Stuff, ‘180 years of Chinese NZ history appear to account for nothing’. She was responding to the lack of a single paragraph on ‘Asian New Zealanders’ in the Ministry of Education’s draft proposal for Years 1–10 curriculum for Aotearoa New Zealand Histories. 

The problem seems to be top-down—Asian New Zealanders are still officially referred to as ‘migrants’, even after 180 years, even if you are fifth generation. 

Counting myself somewhere between first and 1.5 generation, I am almost not really here. I feel proud and privileged to be amongst the ‘new Asian voices’, but I am rather ambivalent about our various shades of ‘newness’. New should mean fresh, dynamic, not fresh-off-the-boat, perpetually emerging, or barely visible.

Feby Idrus, fiction (Dunedin)

There’s definitely more Asian faces and voices being presented to me now than when I was growing up here. Plays like Krishnan’s Dairy, TV shows like Creamerie, companies like Proudly Asian Theatre and journals like Hainamana prove this. But we still have a long way to go. I still sometimes feel handicapped by a sense that I need to ‘explain myself’, that my life still needs translating, and, possibly, is still seen as a static museum exhibit, a single specimen to be studied and extrapolated from, but which must still speak for all my people. 

That's why anthologies like A Clear Dawn are important; its variety is staggering. We are all Asian, and we are all different, with our own unique living experiences. Such anthologies, and their acknowledgement of our multitudes, makes way for future Asian NZ creatives to express themselves without the handicaps of the past. 

Angelique Kasmara, fiction (Auckland)

 

Asian New Zealanders don’t have any all-embracing commonality, aside from how we are perceived by others. With Pākehā voices dominant in mainstream screen/print content, Asian characters still tend to slip in as stereotypes, or as bland characters who could be swapped out for anyone else in the room (or the room itself). 

The positive side of this is that Asian NZ writers do have much opportunity to shape and subvert the current literary and cultural landscape. There are so many exciting voices out there: I’m going to namecheck Brannavan Gnanalingam, Rose Lu, Cybonn Ang, and Tze Ming Mok for now simply because I’ve read their most recent work and love what they do, however a ton of other writers are sitting on my to-be-read pile who I know are putting out equally bold writing.

Melanie Kwang, creative nonfiction (Christchurch)

 

I have definitely seen more Asian voices flourish across disciplines in the creative space over the last few years. The range of work out there proves it’s not only our culturally-specific stories that are valuable, but the talent and craftsmanship of Asian creatives are to be reckoned with. 

As a child of immigrants, there is a sense of immense pressure to honour the sacrifices of parents, and pursuing an interest in this field can feel like a risk or luxury not afforded. For those like me, what is vital is having those sharing the space with stronger footing walking alongside us, showing us how to navigate the landscape. 

Luckily, along with the rise of individual artists, I’ve noticed a culture of goodwill and collaboration, and am hopeful this increased visibility and togetherness will allow Asian voices to feel safe in entering the discourse and growing their practice.

Rose Lu, creative nonfiction (Wellington)

It’s a great time to be an Asian writer! When I did my Masters in Creative Writing in 2018, one of my motivations was the lack of Asian voices in Aotearoa literature. In the three years since, it’s felt like this community has now reached a critical mass and we’re able to be inspired by each other’s work, support each other, and have critical conversations without having to dilute for a Pākehā majority. 

I hope that the momentum we have now will continue, and that there will be sustainable careers in writing so our writing practices will continue to grow.

Anuja Mitra, fiction (Auckland)

Visibility is definitely growing. Seeing Asian New Zealanders getting work showcased in journals, being interviewed by mainstream media outlets, scoring nominations for major awards and making local bookshops’ bestseller lists is heartening. It’s a signal of the increasing recognition given to Asian New Zealanders, whether as poets, novelists, essayists or theatre-makers.

What we have is both a challenge and an opportunity: to continue breaking through those intangible, sometimes subtle barriers. To have our unique perspectives valued without limiting what we can create, so that an Asian New Zealander’s work can be appreciated regardless of style or genre or content—regardless of whether it is explicitly about the author’s Asian identity. To make sure we don’t feel the need to adhere to any narrow expectations about “Asian NZ Writers” (and to resist those expectations developing).

Aiwa Pooamorn, poetry (Auckland)

Visible to who? White people? We don't need their validation. I write for our Asian community.

We want fair pay for our work. Pākehā want to fulfill their diversity quota and yet they don't want to pay us.

Emma Sidnam, fiction (Wellington)

Being a writer of colour can be inherently difficult. I feel a constant pressure to represent my community, to pave paths for future generations. I also struggle between wanting to write about my racial identity struggles and fear of being pigeon-holed into only writing about race.  

However, I feel lucky. I’m entering the New Zealand writing scene at a time when there are already amazing Asian writers to look up to. They’re few enough that I can name them—but that’s also a benefit because it means I can reach out to them and ask them for advice. A beautiful feature of many Asian cultures is that the older help the younger, and I’ve felt an outpouring of warmth from experienced Asian NZ authors. They make me feel like I can belong here, that I can be heard too.  

Rushi Vyas, poetry (Dunedin)

The first question feels impossible for me to answer as a person relatively new to Aotearoa NZ. Increased in comparison to what standard? Visibility as measured and determined by whom? What I can say is that I am so grateful as a poet to be living in a place with mega-talented emerging poets from various Asian diasporas that I have encountered since moving here. Gregory Kan, Nina Mingya Powles, Chris Tse, Nathan Joe, and Shereen Murugayah in Dunedin are just a few of the names of folks whose work inspires me on levels of craft, vision, intellect, and heart. 

The anthology Alison and Paula have made feels monumental. Yet, even at the launch of A Clear Dawn, Paula noted on Twitter anti-Asian racism from Pākehā at the event. With those challenges, any opportunities we have as artists will continue to emerge from championing each other and building new platforms. 

Amy Weng, creative nonfiction (Auckland)


Increasingly, I’m noticing more opportunities for Asian New Zealand writers and storytellers to get their work in front of audiences. However, a lot of that momentum has been driven internally, by the Asian New Zealand community itself, or by Māori and tauiwi allies in positions of power. I think there is a healthy appetite from Pākehā editors and publishers for Asian New Zealand voices, but I also wonder whether there is a deeper understanding of diaspora experiences there to really nurture it. 

I don’t buy into the fact that we are all writers of ethnic autobiography, nor are our experience the same across generations. I would love to see the celebration of Asian New Zealand literature become more nuanced, less of a marketing strategy than a genuine place for critical discussion.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

20 May 2021

The Big Idea Editor

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