(Image design: Tina Tiller)
(Image design: Tina Tiller)

BooksFebruary 6, 2024

‘I learned that writing a novel is hard’: Grace Yee and Emma Sidnam in conversation

(Image design: Tina Tiller)
(Image design: Tina Tiller)

A conversation between Grace Yee (author of poetry collection Chinese Fish) and Emma Sidnam (author of the novel Backwaters). 

Grace Yee’s poetry collection, Chinese Fish, brings the lives of one Chinese New Zealand family to life. Emma Sidnam’s debut novel, Backwaters, follows fourth-generation Chinese New Zealander, Laura, as she deepens her relationships with ancestors near and far. Both books have been longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2024. In this two-way interview, they ask each other about why, and how, they wrote their books, and what they’re working on next.

Emma Sidnam: You wrote Chinese Fish whilst doing a PhD what was the academic section of your thesis? What was your research process? Is there anything you wish you could have done but didn’t do?

Grace Yee: The critical component of the thesis focused on settler Chinese women’s storytelling in Aotearoa. It considered the different ways that Chinese women are subordinated by the Pākehā mainstream, and at the same time, by patriarchal Chinese expectations. It was driven by the question of whether an autonomous space separate from these oppressive narratives is possible.

The research included interviews with acclaimed pioneer settler Chinese women writers Eva Wong Ng, Alison Wong, Lynda Chanwai-Earle and Helene Wong, and close readings of their work. The creative component of the thesis later evolved to become Chinese Fish. The research I completed for the book in the year or so leading up to publication was intensely focused on checking for cultural, historical and linguistic accuracy. I looked into meteorology reports, maps, birth stats, flight schedules, TV programme schedules, tourist souvenirs, food, fashion, cars, native flora, pop songs, slang and colloquialisms, news highlights, etc etc. It was enormous fun! I did a lot of interviews with people who lived in NZ from the 1960s through to the 1980s. I find it a bit jarring encountering anachronisms or mistakes in historical fiction, so I was thorough and obsessive (!) about getting the details right.

Out of all the characters in Chinese Fish who is your favourite and why?

Oooh that’s tough, they are my babies, I love them all – except maybe the MacAllister boys! Although the story is built around Ping and Cherry, their relationship and respective inner lives are pretty intense, and full of so much angst that neither could be my ‘favourite’. I feel like the minor characters, like Angie and Mrs A, are more fun, and I am fond of Delia because she’s a straight-talker and a free spirit, and Cherry feels safe to be herself with her. 

Chinese Fish contains a multitude of genres, forms, and structures. Why did you decide to write in this way?

First, the book was heavily influenced by my PhD research, which tattooed certain voices in my brain that I found hard to shake, so it was a matter of trying to accommodate them somehow, rather than block them outright. The very early draft poems were written in a single third-person-mediated voice, which didn’t feel right to me. It wasn’t until later that I realised that the tone was too… appeasing, model-minority, fake, ick. I had to experiment with different voices and play around with form, structure and text arrangements quite a lot before I felt happy with it. Each of the voices needed to be formatted in ways that portrayed the character’s sense of self and their relationships to each other and to the world.

So the poems narrated in Ping’s voice are set in narrow columns that reflect how settler Chinese women typically made themselves small in the public domain, and they’re in italics because the fact that Ping has a voice at all is significant. Cherry’s voice features either in conventional lyric poems – a way of reaching out to the mainstream reader – or in well-spaced/protective parentheses within the body of the ‘omniscient narrator’ poems. The poems narrated by what I term the ‘colonialist-orientalist’ voice are flush right, because this voice is, by nature, stridently self-righteous. The archival extracts and scholarly interjections in grey that are integrated throughout, are the social, political and historical narratives that inform the characters’ everyday lives.

Who are some of your biggest writing inspirations?

There are so many, but while I was writing Chinese Fish, I was particularly inspired by Anne Carson’s verse novel Autobiography of Red, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and anything by Bhanu Kapil. 

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on the final edits for Light Traps: A History, a collection of poems inspired by my research into settler Chinese Australian histories, which began during a creative fellowship at the State Library Victoria a few years ago. It’ll be out with Cordite Books this year.

Grace Yee: In Backwaters, the contemporary story of Laura is interleaved with that of her ancestor Ken. (Formally, it reminds me of Brian Castro’s novel Birds of Passage – set in Australia and published in 1983 – which also features a contemporary protagonist with a Chinese ancestor). Was this your original vision for the unfolding of the two protagonists’ stories, or did the idea for this approach come later? How did you arrive at the decision to interweave the stories? Did you consider alternatives, e.g., integrating and entwining Ken’s story with Laura’s story more intimately? 

Emma Sidnam: From the very first line of Backwaters (which was later deleted for being too flowery) I knew that this novel was going to move between past and present. I can’t exactly say how I knew, but the contemporary and historical sitting side by side just always made sense for me. Laura and Ken’s stories were always going to be interwoven, with their individual searches for their families and identities talking to one another. I did consider alternatives – there were moments I wanted to axe Ken’s story entirely – but luckily my friends convinced me not to do that and I’m grateful because Ken’s story contains some of the best prose I’ve written. 

You’ve said that writing the novel involved fictionalising elements of your own life – family, family history, personal life. Why did you choose to write Backwaters as fiction as opposed to memoir? What informed that decision? 

I chose to write Backwaters as a fiction book because that felt like the most natural way to write it.  I truly believe that we often tell the truest stories through made-up ones. Everything true I say – about race, identity, or family – can be said through fiction. Equally, truth is more easily accessed through fiction because it’s packaged up into a story, something entertaining. Trying to write about race through non-fiction (which I have done) feels a lot heavier and rougher, somehow, than writing through a fiction lens.

On a more basic level, I chose to write fiction because I’ve always written fiction and always want to. Fiction is my favourite. At the same time, writing fiction avoids the complications of non-fiction. Writing non-fiction is complicated because it affects real people and real relationships. In the brief period of time I considered ditching Backwards in favour of a book of personal essays, I realised that I didn’t want to have to deal with that.

What did you learn about yourself during the writing, revision, editing, publishing process? Did your perspective – on family, identity, writing, literature etc – change? If so, how? What surprised you the most during this journey?

During the process of Backwaters I learned a lot about myself and also about Chinese New Zealand history. I essentially went on an identity journey with Laura, my main character. While Laura was finding out all these family secrets and struggling with her Chinese identity, I was interviewing my grandma, researching Chinese market gardeners, and struggling with my own identity. In a way, Backwaters is a real-time coming-of-age story, even if the story itself is fiction. 

Furthermore – and this might sound stupid – I learned that writing a novel is hard. I’ve wanted to be an author as long as I could remember, but I had no idea how many drafts it would take for a publishable book to start to take form. So I learned a lot about writing while writing Backwaters and that made me learn about myself because suddenly my life dream started to look a lot more like hard work. In persevering on the project, I learned just how far I was willing to go to materialise my dreams. 

What have you read lately that you’ve found particularly inspiring?

I read some amazing books in 2023 – most notably the long-banned Thérèse et Isabelle by Violette Leduc, and Faultlines, the debut novel by Emily Itami. Thérèse et Isabelle was banned for its depictions of a high-school lesbian relationship in a French boarding school. I read the book after seeing the movie and was stunned by the gentle beauty and sensuality in the descriptions. A single caress could last three pages I’d never read anything like it. Part of what drives me to write about complicated relationships and sex is the search to find new ways of describing and communicating universal experiences. Thérèse et Isabelle does this most beautifully. Faultlines was my other favourite book of 2023. In a way, the story is simple following a Japanese housewife through an affair. And yet, it was a pleasure to read, a smart and empathetic exploration of the stifling reality of fulfilling a gender role, and a heady, exciting romance that the reader roots through despite its moral wrongness.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on a second draft of a collection of short stories! It’s very different from Backwaters and largely explores themes of desire, repression, and the search for fulfillment. I’m really excited about this collection because it’s allowing me to go to weirder, darker places than Backwaters. It’s a jumble of genres and characters and is inspired by the likes of Murakami, Bora Chung, Sally Rooney, Raymond Carver, and Han Kang. It has everything from women turning into cats to wannabe strippers to teenagers experimenting with open relationships. I’m hoping to finish the second and third drafts this year.

Chinese Fish by Grace Yee (Giramondo Publishing, $30) can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington; so can Backwaters by Emma Sidnam (Text Publishing, $38), from these links at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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