Brannavan Gnanalingam reads Rose Lu’s groundbreaking essay collection – overlooked by the Ockhams judges – and finds it full of elevating yarns that make him feel seen.
The question many non-white people dread is, “where are you from?” The question is loaded – obviously, people have noticed your skin colour as different from the outset. But this question is particularly complex for people who are “1.5 generation New Zealanders”, those who immigrated when they were young kids.
From the late 80s, Aotearoa started accepting more immigrants from the Asian continent. Many of us kids came over at an age when we were too young to remember the countries in which we were born, but too old to feel comfortable saying “we’re from here” about New Zealand. Yet we know all the local pop cultural references, speak with a “Kiwi” accent, and are perfectly capable of navigating most Kiwi environments. As kids, we’d be far too easily embarrassed at our parents’ ways or views. Many of us disavowed our parents’ culture and language in order to try to fit in better here. And as we got older, many of us realised how much we’d been shaped by what we thought we’d disavowed.
Rose Lu’s debut book, the collection of essays All Who Live on Islands, captures what it was like to grow up caught between worlds in almost painful detail. The book floats between China, Whanganui, Christchurch, Palmerston North, Auckland, and Wellington. It’s remarkably assured for a debut collection – each essay perfectly formed and capturing a sense not only of Lu’s own idiosyncrasies, but those of her family.
From the outset, we get a perfectly banal but specific cultural description: a changing of slippers from the lounge pair to the house pair to the shop pair. From this, you get a real sense that the essays are true to Lu’s life. There’s no sense of compromise in the writing for a presumed Pākehā audience. This is made even more clear when Lu refuses to translate sections of her book (including the title of the first essay itself). But the confidence is compelling. It’s like listening to a great friend yarn about their life, perfectly sure that their life is interesting. And they’re right.
The essays often turn on a single fulcrum point: in the first, she’s to take her grandparents to Pak’n’Save. Around this, each essay is populated with little pieces of colour. Her grandparents are sitting on La-Z-Boys covered in sheets (so you don’t know what colour the La-Z-Boys actually are). Even that little detail felt too real to someone like me, who similarly grew up with their couches covered in tatty sheets (to protect them from the sun and spills, of course). My Pāhekā friends just didn’t get it. Or the observations of Kiwi life that stood out, such as “how odd it was that the [Western] parents bought themselves Magnums but gave cheap Popsicles to their kids. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” But by the conclusion of the essay, Lu makes clear the distance from her parents and grandparents by where she goes to shop (the bougie Chaffers New World) or her casual attitude to discretionary spending. In these subtle details, Lu traces the changing dreams and expectations of three generations.
In ‘Hustle’ she looks at why her parents moved to Aotearoa and their subsequent hustle to make ends meet. Lu muses on what the end game might be, and as she becomes involved in recruitment at her job, the ways her family’s struggles have affected her. The recognition of the hustle. There’s also solidarity with people who may otherwise be unsupported. This perhaps is key to why the collection never feels alienating despite its breadth and at times, uncomfortable rawness – there’s a real warmth and empathy here.
Lu is also unafraid to examine her own behaviour and her own intolerances. ‘Alphabet Game’ explores a particularly difficult friendship. ‘Five-Five’ looks at the way the solidarity you feel as a minority when travelling overseas may not be easily reconciled when you examine your own privilege. Bodies and sex also feature potently in the collection – notably in ‘Yellow Fever’ where Lu examines her own history of relationships and those she witnessed around her (although a metaphorical juxtaposition to the imperial court in this essay felt a little forced). There’s a real fearlessness in the prose.
The collection’s title hints at borders, at fixed meaning. But these are shown to be unstable, elusive. ‘Cleaver’ humorously undercuts a treatise on Chinese cooking with the realities of learning how to cook. It’s often the way the part of your culture you try to hold onto can often be slippery – and if they’re slippery for you, they were probably slippery for your parents and their parents. I suspect in response to the question, “where are you from,” the answer almost becomes “that place can’t ever really be defined.”
While this book is easy to recommend to any reader, there are also the details that I wonder would resonate as strongly for non-immigrant kids. The essay ‘All Who Live on Islands’ is full of the confusing details that immigrant kids had to navigate, like the tension between your parents’ world and your peers’ world. The sheer flavourless horror that was camp food – but you’d sure as hell not complain about it because none of the other kids seemed to mind. The absolute terror at having to use a knife and fork in front of Kiwi kids. General bafflement at Pākehā kids’ idea of punishment. The invisibility of people like you in the popular culture you consume.
Yet Lu concludes the essay by describing the stories she eventually found that spoke to her, the moment she started to recognise herself. It’s hard not to think that there’ll be immigrant teenagers or young adults – hell, even reviewers in their mid-thirties – reading this superb collection and having the same grateful feeling of being seen.
All Who Live on Islands, by Rose Lu (Victoria University Press, $30) is available at Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.