These ladies are not afraid to rage against the machines

Kiwi Asian women poets have strong opinions. [Part one]

Malaysia at dusk.
Malaysia at dusk.

I was completing a chapter in the forthcoming 2019 book, English in the South, edited by Kyria Finardi and published by Eduel, Brazil, when I thought that I really must write a commentary regarding the influx of young Asian poets, who were born in Aotearoa New Zealand, or have arrived to live here for long periods. Why? Because my chapter is entitled Confronting the English language Hydra in Aotearoa New Zealand and bemoans the lack of recognition given to Asian languages in the country because of the domination of English language exponents and their monolingual expectations, and the concomitant definite lack of deference to Asian peoples per se  despite the fact they will be the second largest cultural demographic here by 2026.

This resolve further strengthened when I read poems in a chapbook provided me by Renee Liang, and entitled Tasting Words (2017)  in which there was considerable strong emotion displayed by these younger New Zealand women poets, of Asian heritage. The excellent Poetry Shelf postings, which Paula Green so wonderfully provides, further highlighted other poets, whom I had not been aware of, or insufficiently aware of. This is no arbitrarily superimposed grouping either, because their voices and verse are distinct. They need to be heard.

More than this, my own family, which is Asian (Chinese and Filipina), was forced to learn English —  or not (!) when at school in both Hong Kong SAR and Philippines  while I have observed them somewhat caught between cultures at times. When they came to live in this, the skinny country of New Zealand, they were compelled to adjust. (Just as I tried to do when living in Brunei Darussalam, PR China, and Hong Kong SAR for so many years, in a sort of reverse diaspora. In fact, I spend considerable time in Asia nowadays and feel more comfortable there, by the way.)

Indeed dislocation/alienation from both their heritage and host culture was a theme running through many of the poems of the generation of poets I interviewed; there was anger too  often barely disguised  toward not only the ignorance of many Kiwis (New Zealanders) but also towards the perceived demands from members of their own family. In some cases, ironically, both cultures expected the poets to learn English, albeit for slightly different reasons.

All of which provided for powerful work, which does require considerable recognition and respect. These poets are here and now and their lived experiences, as reflected in their poems, need to be accepted as viable and valuable contemporary components of New Zealand literature. The country is multicultural  increasingly so, after all. Our poetry is too.

I asked several of the poets a set of questions and also asked for a poem which reflected these themes  their words express far better anything I can. [Part two will highlight their poems more.]

Vanessa Crofskey

Do you ever feel that you are compartmentalized into a certain category of Kiwi writers, because of your heritage? If so, what is/are such arbitrary categories? Does such compartmentalization affect what you write? I am privileged with having a European last name. That’s helpful in hiding my full heritage, so I feel less immediately affected than others in terms of my writing being seen under the lens of the Other. That being said, I’ve definitely been asked to write around my cultural backgrounds without feeling like I have been able to dictate the terms of that engagement. There’s this pressure to write an authentic poem, to write about racial trauma that you havent really processed, and a pressure to have your writing exist solely around these markers of identity. It feels like people are obsessed with how my heritage might relate to a news item or to a storyline much more than they would assume that of a white man. Part of Orientalism is the myth and mystery of the exotic East  there is a point where you just can’t be bothered explaining that you’re a normal human being that sometimes writes around identity instead of just feeling like every story is swallowed by your ethnicity.  

It makes me nervous writing about heritage. I feel a pressure to be the sole news reporter of an experience, when these stories, joys and pain don’t solely belong to me. I have to be wary of who Im speaking for. There are so many ways to be Chinese, and so many kinds of mixed ethnicities  mine is one small slice of an experience and I get very wary at being asked to speak for more than I can.

How about any dislocation from both the culture of your heritage and from mainstream New Zealand culture? I have noticed quite a bit of dislocation/distancing, even alienation from both sets of culture in several of your works, with the poet sometimes caught somewhere in between. Is this a factor in your own work? I grew up as a mixed-race kid in Aotearoa New Zealand, at the helm of the digital era, with a Chinese mum who was raised in Malaysia. There is definitely a sense of dislocation I’ve felt in my identity that I speak to in my writing. I grew up with a racist Pākehā dad and without a super close connection to my Chinese family as they live overseas. I couldn’t speak Mandarin, let alone Hokkien, and couldn’t look in the mirror without dizzily trying to disintegrate myself into portions.   

Writing was a way of bridging those gaps for me in the first place, in naming the hollow thing that I was feeling and realizing that many other people had felt the same way. In some ways I’m working on changing that relationship between writing and alienation  there are so many stories on unbelonging that can make people feel close, but I also don’t want the only story about belonging to a diaspora to be one where you feel unable to connect. I recently went back to Kuala Lumpur to visit my grandparents, just me and my brother, and I realized how obviously loved we were, even with the geographical and communication barriers. I have two facial piercings, multiple tattoos, no job stability, no boyfriend with an engineering degree, strong opinions and very little money in my savings. My wai po still loves me. I realized I belonged to my family without question, which means I belong to my heritage and multiple countries without question either.

                                                            Vanessa Crofskey

Relatedly, what about anger at not only mainstream Kiwi culture and its (still prevalent) stereotypes, but also ire towards some of the (still prevailing) attitudes of your heritage cultures? Again, I have noticed this aspect in several of your works. Is this a facet that impels your writing? I think that anger toward cultural attitudes, whether directed at mainstream xenophobia, or from antiquated notions of respectability feel right to unpack through writing. Belonging to both Chinese and European cultures, I feel able to access both audiences. Speaking publicly on issues of how migrants are viewed with mistrust, being fetishized, or how hard it is to talk about depression within an Asian context are equally important to me. We can’t change the culture without changing the conversation. I think that writing around politics you feel sad or angry about comes from an energy and desire to change the playing field for someone else. It’s a way of saying, I’m here, I still belong, and I disagree on these points, so you can too. You can expand someone’s identity a little more or make them feel more accepted. I write to say that being authentic in your identity is to struggle with cultural junk from generations past  but you don’t have to keep anything thats not useful.

Finally, what would you really like to see in Aotearoa New Zealand poetry? I would like more work to be published by Māori, Moana and Asian storytellers. I would like degrees, connections, money and qualifications not to be the gatekeepers of the literary industry. I’d like to see inequalities addressed and to champion the domestic and confessional. Id like to see smart, sexy, hopeful poetry. Poetry as a vehicle for change, poetry that challenges form, poetry that reimagines how we could all live on this tiny blue world together.

Wen-Juenn Lee

Do you ever feel that you are compartmentalized into a certain category of Kiwi writers, because of your heritage? If so, what is/are such arbitrary categories? Does such compartmentalization affect what you write? On the one hand, yes. I worry that what I write about  and what other people think I write about  can only be seen with the lens of ‘oppressed minority talking about their experiences.’ On the other hand, I don’t think this way of worrying/thinking is particularly helpful. My experience and background shapes who I am and what stories I tell, so I would still be interested in exploring migrant identity and the diaspora, even with the awareness that other people might compartmentalize me in this way. Compartmentalization only happens when it becomes reductive.

How about any dislocation from both the culture of your heritage and from mainstream New Zealand culture? I have noticed quite a bit of dislocation/distancing, even alienation from both sets of culture in several of your works, with the poet sometimes caught somewhere in between. Is this a factor in your own work? I tend to write about being Other because dislocation was an important part of my growing up. I assimilated pretty well into New Zealand culture, but of course, I didn’t look like I was from New Zealand. Meanwhile, there was always a lingering sense of guilt, that I couldn’t speak Mandarin, that I wasn’t a ‘proper’ Chinese. Take, for example, my mother. I think I write about her a lot because she symbolizes that tension between the motherland and the thing I can never belong to. In all outward appearances, she has assimilated to Wellington society, yet she will talk about it as an outsider, as someone who has a very strong Malaysian-Chinese identity. I think these sort of things make concepts of belonging and the homeland very potent themes for me.

                                                   Wen-Juenn Lee

Relatedly, what about anger at not only mainstream Kiwi culture and its (still prevalent) stereotypes, but also ire towards some of the (still prevailing) attitudes of your heritage cultures? Again, I have noticed this aspect in several of your works. Is this a facet that impels your writing? It’s hard not to be angry at prevailing attitudes and stereotypes people bring towards Chinese culture  especially when my sense of identity is so fraught with tension already. One of the first things I wrote was a short nonfiction about my time growing up in Christchurch, where I first discovered I had a race, and one that brought with it cruel stereotypes and prejudices. Anger defined that piece, but I don’t think it motivates all my writing.

Finally, what would you really like to see in Aotearoa New Zealand poetry? To be honest, I’m not sure what I would like to see! I love reading Joan Flemming, Ruby Porter, and Nina Powles. I’ll always want more voices like that in New Zealand poetry.

[NB. A note on the photo headlining this commentary, as supplied by Wen-Juenn. “This is a photo of Malaysia that I took on my most recent trip back with my parents. What I like about this are the colors of the buildings, the shadowy figures in the forefront. There is something both specific and vague about the shot; a place that I have intense memories of, but also such a superficial and elusive grasp on.”]

Joanna Li

Do you ever feel that you are compartmentalized into a certain category of Kiwi writers, because of your heritage? If so, what is/are such arbitrary categories? Does such compartmentalization affect what you write? Yes certainly! I felt this especially a few years back  I wrote almost exclusively on my identity as a queer Chinese woman, and a child of immigrants, when I was about sixteen, however, in my last year of high school I started to branch out into more stereotypically teenage topics, because of what was happening in my life. I felt restricted by a lot of my peers who had come to know me as the writer who wrote about race. Its taken me a bit of time to be brave enough to put my other works out into the world, because it’s always been dismissed in favor of what I used to write. I resented that for a long time because it implied that I couldnt feel strongly about my identity, and still experience “normal” teenage experiences at the same time. It effectively played into the narrative that all children of color are already adults and should be denied the same young and dumb experiences that white children are afforded.

How about any dislocation from both the culture of your heritage and from mainstream New Zealand culture? I have noticed quite a bit of dislocation/distancing, even alienation from both sets of culture in several of your works, with the poet sometimes caught somewhere in between. Is this a factor in your own work? I think the struggle of identity is something that will always be a part of me  something that I am always redefining. Every person who is caught between two cultures will understand this. I recently went to visit extended family back in China, and even without the language barrier, it was difficult. I dressed differently and moved differently. The hairdresser asked me if my father was white (both of my parents are full-blooded Chinese). It was a reminder that even though I was in a country where everybody looked like me, I was still a stranger. Theres always a current of being “too Asian” or “not Asian enough,” which, obviously is bullshit, but that doesnt mean it affects my everyday life. 

Relatedly, what about anger at not only mainstream Kiwi culture and its (still prevalent) stereotypes, but also ire towards some of the (still prevailing) attitudes of your heritage cultures? Again, I have noticed this aspect in several of your works. Is this a facet that impels your writing? Poetry is often an outburst of my most intense emotions  so a lot of that stems from anger. My poetry isnt manuals for change, I save the reasonable, logical, and the critically evaluated for academic essays or articles. Poetry is for the moments where I feel helpless. It allows me a moment to just mourn, instead of always feeling the pressure of having to always be striving or doing something that will create change. I think in the current atmosphere, where there is so much urgency placed on working or making change, its important to step back and just feel what youre feeling. Poetry allows me to do that and gives me a moment of peace for myself.                                                      

ancestors

in a few months, i will fly

away from these streets, out of

skin. in a few months, i will spend

two new years in vegetable markets

and watching lazy susans

spin our chipped china plates around.

a whole month spread out

before me, drinking tea from

questionable vendors by

unsealed dust roads, more time

than all the past ten years combined.

a whole month in an apartment

with no elevator, third floor

and one guest bedroom i

will still share with my parents.

chicken that actually tastes like

chicken, and so much

time relearning this language.

next year i will relish in my

three birthdays, one with cake

and candles, the other two

with lai see. it’s no small blessing for a leap month

on your eighteenth, triple the luck, triple the money,

triple the blessings, and if nothing else,

triple the opportunity to drink. reclaiming my lost world

by seeing the gaps, slotting in the known with the

silent holes, twisting the facts around so I

can see myself linearly. two languages,

two countries. two nations.

one identity that may never add

up to anything that matters, a rubber band ball of colours

to bounce. resilient. ever growing, if only by

fragments. in a few months,

i will walk through

my history and feel the weight of

my ancestors on my skin. i will listen

to their stories. i will tell

them some of my own.

Joanna Li

Finally, what would you really like to see in Aotearoa New Zealand poetry? I would like to see a better appreciation of modern-day imagery that doesnt just stem from the landscape. I think a lot of poets still write about how nice New Zealand is, and while I do acknowledge that the scenery is beautiful, I would like to see poetry that is a lot more gritty, ala Tayi Tibble, author of Poūkahangatus.

Renee Liang

Do you ever feel that you are compartmentalized into a certain category of Kiwi writers, because of your heritage? If so, what is/are such arbitrary categories? Does such compartmentalization affect what you write? I have realized after fifteen years in the arts that much of my work is affected by the “white gaze.” This is not surprising, as most publishers, reviewers, judges, workshop selectors, programmers, and funders are white. They are inevitably biased (as we are all biased) by their cultural lens and choose my works depending on what they want to see, as a proxy for what they believe an audience wants to see. I of course respond by giving them what they want. What they want is for “cultural” works from the “other” perspective to “educate.” This is not the same as the response I’ve noticed from my audience who are from the same background as me, where it’s the shared experience that counts. There is no need for what we perceive as obvious cultural signaling. In recent years I have become more confident about writing for this audience, and not doing the obvious topics (racism, cross-cultural romance, updated Chinese fairytales, Asian grandmothers — all of which I have done in the past.  

How about  any dislocation from both the culture of your heritage and from mainstream New Zealand culture? I have noticed quite a bit of dislocation/distancing, even alienation from both sets of culture in several of your works, with the poet sometimes caught somewhere in between. Is this a factor in your own work? As a diasporic writer I am constantly caught between borders.  The borders shift and change as do the size of the cracks, but it is this unsteadiness which feeds and informs my craft. It is to be welcomed. It enriches and means I can never rest and stand still.

                                                Renee Liang

Relatedly, what about anger at not only mainstream Kiwi culture and its (still prevalent) stereotypes, but also ire towards some of the (still prevailing) attitudes of your heritage cultures? Again, I have noticed this aspect in several of your works. Is this a facet that impels your writing? As writers we have the tools to give voice to the frustrations experienced by anyone who doesnt “fit in.” We are the border-wanderers; it is inevitable that there will be times when we feel alienated. It is lucky that we possess the words to express this. Not everyone does.

Finally, what would you really like to see in Aotearoa New Zealand poetry? I think that in poetry, as with other arts genres, things are changing. At first this was slow but as the size and diversity of the group of Asian writers has grown, so our voice has grown louder also.  Where things need to change are at the top: funders, publishers, reviewers. We cannot hope to have accurate representation of our voices without a place at the table. People not from our cultures, no matter how experienced, sympathetic or informed, are still outsiders. They cannot see things as we see them; why then should they decide what others see of our work? As a group of people who have lived in NZ since the mid 1800s, and contributed so much, I feel we have earned our place. We deserve both greater exposure and better targeted funding. We need to learn from our allies and compatriots, Māori and Pacific writers who have successfully argued their case for a place at the table. As for our white allies  they need to stand aside so they can help us up. Not try to speak for us.

Also, the “Asian” ethnic group is extremely diverse and those of us who have been established for some time (especially Chinese and Indian writers) need to reach out, mentor, encourage and grow the next generation of voices. There are some very exciting writers and performers from more recent migrant groups such as Thai, Filipino, and Malaysian; there is also diversity in when people chose to come here, with a big difference between newly arrived and generations-old migrant families. There are also many writers with strong links and established reputations in their countries of origin — were missing out if we dont read their work. Finally, NZ and Auckland in particular is such an exciting melting pot of so many cultures  already we are mixing and matching ideas and creating some wonderful “fusion” writing!!
 

Aiwa Pooamorn

Do you ever feel that you are compartmentalized into a certain category of Kiwi writers, because of your heritage? If so, what is/are such arbitrary categories? Does such compartmentalization affect what you write? I cant say I feel compartmentalized into a certain category as I havent been on the literary scene for very long. Though I guess in this instance, I am being categorized as a Kiwi Asian writer. I do not mind it in this case but it is a form of othering for a white society to put the label Kiwi-Asian rather than just Kiwi. There is an expectation by white editors and readers that Asian writers produce work about their ethnic identity and educate them on racial issues. Aiwa Pooamorn

I do write about my Thai Chinese identity, but it is out of a necessity to tell my own story.

How about any dislocation from both the culture of your heritage and from mainstream New Zealand culture? I have noticed quite a bit of dislocation/distancing, even alienation from both sets of culture in several of your works, with the poet sometimes caught somewhere in between. Is this a factor in your own work? Yes, I do feel dislocated from both sets of culture. Firstly, I dont speak Thai very well. One Thai lady asked me the other day, Why is your Thai so bad? And I get confronted with how can you call yourself Thai when you cant speak the language? Sometimes, when talking with Thai friends and family, I use a mix of Thai and English words to survive the conversation. Also, having grown up in Singapore with a Chinese family, I learned Mandarin as a child but am no longer fluent in it. I have put in a few simple Thai and Mandarin words in my poems, as a feeble attempt to try to reconnect with my heritage. 

Also, even though Im Thai, I cant handle spicy food! It is a great source of shame for me to ask for less spice in my food. I do feel dislocated from Kiwi culture as well. I don’t gel with drinking as a form of socialization, unlike most New Zealanders.

Relatedly, what about anger at not only mainstream Kiwi culture and its (still prevalent) stereotypes, but also ire towards some of the (still prevailing) attitudes of your heritage cultures? Again, I have noticed this aspect in several of your works. Is this a facet that impels your writing? Yes, anger at both sets of culture is a theme in my work. I am strongly against the misogynistic aspect of Thai-Chinese culture. I write about how Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailands first female prime minister, was called a stupid bitch by a popular male politician.

Kiwi culture can be quite misogynistic as well. There is an expectation for women to go on the pill, so that men can enjoy sex without condoms.

And of course, there is the racism. From the use of the n-word to Phil Twyford’s Chinese-sounding names housing survey. There is an endless supply of racism to inspire writing.

Finally, what would you really like to see in Aotearoa New Zealand poetry? I would like to see more poets of color published.

Nina Powles

Do you ever feel that you are compartmentalized into a certain category of Kiwi writers, because of your heritage? If so, what is/are such arbitrary categories? Does such compartmentalization affect what you write?  Although its growing, Aotearoas poetry community is so small that it would be a little hard to separate us poets into groups. That said, I do see it happening: I see my Māori and Pasifika peers so often getting grouped together and talked about together. On a wider scale, I see that work by young writers from diaspora communities is largely ignored by our mainstream reviewing culture. I would love to see a more rigorous, lively, and diverse reviewing culture in New Zealand. 

I think Im pretty much always put into the young, female poet compartment, but this doesnt bother me so much. It depends whose gaze Im under, doesnt it? If a man said this to me, Id be rightly annoyed. But Im aware that (I think) the majority of my readers are women, perhaps because its mainly other women writers and readers who I connect with and share my work with online, both back in New Zealand and here in the UK, where I live now. I dont set out to write for women, but Im certainly more interested in discussing my work and my creative practice with other women. 

Its through Twitter that Ive been able to find a new kind of community of young Chinese diaspora writers and artists, including many who are mixed-race like myself, who live all over the world. But its important for me to note that Ive benefited all my life from the privilege of passing as white to most people  especially white people. I grew up in a white culture, in a (mainly) monolingual household. When I first started writing poetry I didn’t think about this much, but now Im really conscious that when many people might meet me or read my work online for the first time, theyll likely think Im white. Though I do hope as many people as possible might find something that chimes with them in my work, I think Im becoming less and less interested in appealing to everyone  or just explaining things to white people, basically  in my work. Im far more invested in writing for and alongside other women from mixed/diaspora backgrounds.

                                                                                                               Nina Powles
How about any dislocation from both the culture of your heritage and from mainstream New Zealand culture? I have noticed quite a bit of dislocation/distancing, even alienation from both sets of culture in several of your works, with the poet sometimes caught somewhere in between. Is this a factor in your own work? Dislocated, distanced, always homesick for somewhere else  this is pretty much my default state of being, wherever I am in the world. I have, and will always have, multiple homes: Wellington, Shanghai, Kota Kinabalu (in Malaysia, where my mum was born), Beijing (where my parents now live, so Im tethered somehow), and London. I feel so lucky to be connected to so many cities, though it can be exhausting. I recently did a poetry reading at The Old Shebang letterpress studio in Wellington when I was visiting in December, along with the poets Helen Rickerby, Vana Manasiadis, and Ya-Wen Ho. Vana, who partly calls Greece home, said something wonderful to me afterwards about how she has to make her world feel smaller than it really is. I think this is what I do, too. I spend more on travel than I can afford, simply so that my world feels smaller than it is. I collect things, I read endlessly, I spend a lot of time online, I write poems. 

Relatedly, what about anger at not only mainstream Kiwi culture and its (still prevalent) stereotypes, but also ire towards some of the (still prevailing) attitudes of your heritage cultures? Again, I have noticed this aspect in several of your works. Is this a facet that impels your writing? I always feel like a bit of an outsider. In some ways I feel the least like an outsider when Im in Wellington, maybe because I have a community there, whereas in Shanghai or London or Beijing, I dont. I am most obviously an outsider  外国人 — whenever Im in China, which is a funny feeling, but absolutely accurate; despite having lived there with my family when I was a teenager, and again as a language student, I am a foreigner. Im not totally fluent in Mandarin, I didnt grow up surrounded by this culture. But its also true that I never feel more at home than when Im eating a bowl of wontons alone in a hole-in-the-wall cafe in Shanghai in the middle of the night, surrounded by other people all eating alone.

I think any frustration simply stems from my own lack of understanding of Chinese culture and my own failures in language, rather than at any prevailing attitudes youre thinking of. Of course, these rotten patriarchal structures remain everywhere, not just in Western culture. My heritage is split between two former British colonies and my ancestors were two different types of settlers  the Chinese in Malaysia, the English in New Zealand. I always want to acknowledge how Ive benefited directly from the inherently racist power structures set up by British imperialism. I always want to learn more about my Hakka Chinese side, but I know I can never fully understand everything. I can only know what its like to exist in between. 

I dont know yet how to write about anger. Living in the U.K. at this particular point in time, I do find myself feeling angry a lot. Many people have never seem themselves as anything other than the dominant culture, the mainstream, the “normal” way to be, and it shows. Many come across as blithely unaware of the violent colonial history on top of which their entire country and national identity were built. Instead of writing about my anger, I channel it into actively decentering the white, male narrative  in my own small, quiet ways. I cover up books by white men in bookshop displays with books by women of color. I read. I plant flowers. I make dumplings. I write about my life. 


Finally, what would you really like to see in Aotearoa New Zealand poetry? There are already some vibrant, invigorating, radical literary and arts platforms, like Hainamana Arts and Migrant Zine Collective and the arts collective Fresh and Fruity. There will be so many more I dont even know about yet since Ive been living overseas. I would love for these kinds of things to take up more space. To me, these kinds of platforms, all led by indigenous and immigrant women, signify a safe space  a space where New Zealand’s multicultural, Asia-Pacific identity is truly celebrated. These organizations may be small, but they are actually expanding our traditional definitions and boundaries of poetry and art criticism and journalism and visual art. I would love for poets to be, in general, valued more in our society  and Im talking material value  so that a writing career could actually be a viable option for so many more people.

 
In part two we will visit several poems by these poets, reinforcing their rather strongly conveyed comments above.
  
I will add a further irony, however. All the poets write (well) in English, the language of the conqueror  not only of New Zealand. Which brings me back to the beginning of this piece.
 
Let us see not only more poetry written in my own reo (language) Māori, but in Asian tongues too … Ko te taima ināianei [The time is now.]
 

Kia kaha.