The Silk Road Post interviewed New Zealand writer Alison Wong at the New Zealand Consulate in Guangzhou on Nov 16. She came to Guangdong to participate in an international writers' residency program hosted by Sun Yat-sen University and also to conduct research about her family history in Guangzhou/Zengcheng.
Alison Wong (Photo by Wei Donghua)
Wong, who lives in Australia but grew up in New Zealand, is a novelist and poet of Chinese heritage. She has received numerous awards and writer’s residencies. Her first novel, “As the Earth Turns Silver,” won the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2010 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Wong’s poetry collection, “Cup,” was shortlisted for Best First Book for Poetry at the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and her poetry was selected for Best New Zealand Poems in 2015, 2007 and 2006.
Silk Road Post (SRP): Good morning, Alison. It is really nice to see you. I am so sorry to hear that a big earthquake hit New Zealand the other day. Are your family and friends ok?
Alison Wong (AW): Yes, they’re fine but it’s been quite stressful. A lot of my family is in Wellington. They have had to deal with the earthquake, floods and evacuations.
SRP: Good to hear they’re safe. Now you live in Australia but you grew up in New Zealand. Would you please share with us your experience as an ethnic child in New Zealand? How do you see your identity? And what kind of influence has this experience brought to you in your later life and to your novels and poems?
AW: People’s sense of identity can change throughout their life. I think that’s quite normal. Everybody has a different view of identity. I was very used to seeing people who didn’t look like Chinese. When I was young, I hadn’t thought about my identity. One day at primary school when we were studying Italy, the teacher read out that Italians have olive skin. One of my classmates asked, Is that like Alison? I suddenly realized I looked different from everyone else. I felt like sinking into the floor. I didn’t want to look different from others.
When I was 20 I became really interested in China and absolutely knew that I had to come here. Ever since China’s been a part of my life, whether I’m here or not. But I am very much a New Zealander, so my identity is a mix.
As for influence, my Chinese heritage does have a strong influence. Some of my writing is influenced by my Chinese heritage and some isn’t.
SRP: Why were you suddenly interested in China?
AW: It just happened. I knew in my heart that I had to come to China. Before 20, I hadn’t had that feeling. There was an exchange scholarship between New Zealand and China, and I applied for it and got it.
I’m Cantonese. My ancestral home is Zengcheng, Guangzhou. But I grew up only speaking English and I can only understand a little Cantonese. I have learned some Mandarin but am not fluent.
SRP: You’ve lived in many countries, like New Zealand, China, and Australia, but you have a special attachment to China. What aspects of China or Guangzhou attract you besides your root-seeking complex?
AW: I don’t think I can answer that. Because my sense of and attraction to China is completely because of my background. There are a lot of beautiful and interesting places in the world, including China, but only New Zealand and China attract me because of a sense of home and identity.
SRP: Did your identity and sense of belonging change in your first visit to China, say at Xiamen University?
AW: To begin with, it was a huge culture shock. You know New Zealand is a very small place and even Wellington is a very small and intimate city. It’s easy to get around. So the first thing that hit me when I arrived in Hong Kong and in China was “so many PEOPLE,” and the second thing was “so many CHINESE people”. I hadn’t seen so many Chinese people. Now I am used to it but back then it was my first time out of New Zealand and at the time New Zealand did not have many Chinese.
Back in 1983, when I first came to China, it was a very different place, and Xiamen was a very different place. It was like a sleepy rural town with no airport when I arrived. Old buses rattled around and you could see the road through the floor. You know, those long buses in two sections with a flexible crinkly bit in the middle like the body of a caterpillar. By the time I left, there were Hong Kong-style minibuses, discos, neon lights, fancy hotels and an airport.
SRP: Does that sense of belonging and identity deepen as you visit China more frequently?
AW: I think the biggest problem in the past was not being able to communicate properly. I wanted to communicate with people in a more intimate way rather than just saying hello and talking about superficial things, but even if you want to befriend people, it’s really hard if you can’t communicate meaningly. In the past a lot of people couldn’t speak English very well and I couldn’t speak or understand enough Chinese. Now more and more people speak incredibly good English in China, especially the young ones. Now I also have a smart phone with a dictionary on it and that has helped a lot. This is the first time that I have had enough time with people with good enough language skills to really get to know them.
SRP: Ok, now I would like to talk about your poems and novels. They are usually themed as family, identity and sense of belonging, which seemingly fit right in traditional Chinese family-country bonding, a part of the Confucius culture. Is it a coincidence or your intended inheritance of Chinese culture? I mean, after all, you were born and educated in New Zealand, soaking up western culture.
AW: Well, my heritage is very much a mixture. My parents are still very Chinese in terms of family, loyalty, etc. So it is really hard to know. I write out of who I am. I write what’s important to me. If it isn’t important to me, it won’t work. With a novel, if you don’t care enough, you won’t be able to finish it because it is hard work and takes a long time. If you don’t care enough your work will be lifeless and you won’t be able to move your readers. And if you are bored with what you are writing about, well you won’t be able to do it. My inspiration comes from my Chinese heritage and Chinese family upbringing and from my New Zealand background.
SRP: You stayed in Shanghai for two months in 2014 and wrote several poems about that city, such as “Autumn, Shanghai” and “The River Bears Our Name.” I read the Chinese version of the first poem, and the poetic lines are so wonderful. How do you feel now that you’ve actually come to Guangzhou/Zengcheng, your ancestral hometown? Does this place give you inspiration for poems?
AW: “Autumn, Shanghai” was a result of my residency in 2014. “The River Bears Our Name” I actually wrote 20 years ago. This is the first time I have spent a bit more time in Guangzhou/Guangdong and started to get to know people from Guangzhou/Guangdong. Over a long period of time in different parts of China, I didn’t have the opportunities to connect with ‘Guangdong ren' (people from Guangdong province). It’s really nice to connect here. Guangzhou/Guangdong does give me inspiration and will come into my writing.
The novel "As the Earth Turns Silver" by Alison Wang
SRP: I’m really looking forward to your new writing. And your first novel, “As the Earth Turns Silver,” is a bestseller in New Zealand and won the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2010 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. That is so incredible, can you briefly introduce this novel?
AW: The novel is a historical love story at a time when such relationships between Chinese and Europeans were not considered socially acceptable. It is written in an understated way, but it is an emotional and passionate story. It gives a good portrait of the city of Wellington, but it also includes some parts set in Guangzhou and Guangdong. It is written poetically and it shows cultural differences between Cantonese in New Zealand and New Zealand Europeans 100 years ago.
SRP: It sounds really fascinating, just like its name, poetic and romantic. All right, so much for the interview. Thank you a lot for taking your time and sharing these incredible things with us.
AW: No worries.
(By Zoe Xu, Carina Zheng, Louis Berney)