“Like writing, identity is an ongoing act of discovery. So is reading.”
The words that open the new anthology A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand are a promise for the rest of the book, the first-ever anthology of Asian-New Zealand writing.
“I think, you know, the name of the anthology - A Clear Dawn - is really a dawn. It's the beginning.” writer and co-editor of the book, Alison Wong, says.
Wong and author Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Manuhiri, Ngai Whatua) edited the collection, bringing poetry, short stories, novel excerpts, and creative nonfiction from 75 different people.
Their focus was on lifting new and emerging Asian voices in New Zealand – voices underrepresented in New Zealand’s national literature. Indonesian voices, Korean voices, Chinese voices, multi-layered ethnic voices all rolled in as the contributors were given an open invitation to write about whatever they wanted.
“You'll read some of these pieces and you won't necessarily know purely from reading them that there's some kind of Asian background,” Wong says.
“People have very multinational, trans-cultural, trans-national backgrounds. I'm not sure whether your average citizen always realizes how so many of us have different heritages and connections around the world. Take me - I'm living in Australia now but I'm a New Zealander and I'm Chinese.
“Australian people hear my New Zealand accent, and they know I'm a New Zealander - that, I think, is something different from when I'm at home in New Zealand. A lot of people of colour who are not Māori in New Zealand can feel like they're not necessarily accepted as being New Zealanders just because of what they look like, because of what they sound like. But this is their home.”
Legwork on the book started back in 2019. Wong and Morris put out an open call for writers and went out to anyone they could think of, talking to theatre companies like Proudly Asian Theatre, online publications like Hainamana and organisations like the International Institute of Modern Letters.
They were overwhelmed with the response they received, as dozens and dozens of submissions poured in. Wong still has regrets about all the people that couldn’t be fitted in.
“I don't think anybody realized how many possible writers we could have included,” she says.
Wong and Morris took their role in bringing diverse and inclusive voices to the book very seriously. When it came to selecting pieces to include in A Clear Dawn, they made a conscious effort had to look past their own perspectives.
“Paula [Morris] and I were very deliberate in our strategy that we were not going to be guided by something as limiting as personal taste. Yes, we wanted literary quality. But we wanted diversity in every way.”
A Clear Dawn is not a comprehensive collection of Asian writers - “it can’t be,” Wong says - because there are so many other voices out there, but it’s part of a growing movement as New Zealand’s literature scene changes.
Wong has seen how much this scene has developed over the years and hopes the book will be part of a continuing trend of more diverse voices emerging in New Zealand literature. So far, Wong remains the only Asian-New Zealander to win the national book prize, for her novel As The Earth Turns Silver in 2010, but even that milestone was a jump forward from when she was a child.
“I grew up at a time where, as a young person, creative writing was not something that anyone would ever aspire to, definitely not an Asian young person. That would have been seen as irresponsible.”
Since then, the literature scene in Aotearoa has changed hugely, she says, and she’s seen an increasing number of new voices coming through, particularly in the Asian-New Zealand space.
“I think young people now are actually celebrating the term Asian in a way that when I was young, people didn't.”
A Clear Dawn, published by Auckland University Press, will be launched at the Auckland Writers Festival on Saturday, May 15.
This article was first published on the Asia Media Centre