Ahead of the Bananas NZ Going Global International Conference in August, RENEE LIANG spoke to guest speaker Alison Wong about writing, her Montana shortlisted poetry collection Cup, and growing up Chinese in New Zealand.

*   *   *

THE FIRST thing that strikes me about Alison Wong is her laugh. It’s frequent, loud and suddenly throws its arms about you like some long-lost cousin. She has one of those familiar-looking faces and I catch myself wondering if we are related somehow. It’s unlikely, though it would be good if we were. Then perhaps I could lay claim to some of those writer’s genes which make Wong one of our country’s emerging stars.

Meeting her just ahead of a conference for Chinese New Zealanders fondly nicknamed The Banana Conference, the first observation that pops into my unguarded mouth is that she is a New Zealander of Chinese descent. This is not the way she prefers people to approach her writing, she tells me smiling: “you write out of your own experience, but your experience isn’t just from your ethnic background, it is informed by everything in your life.” She goes on to add that most of her poems come with no ethnic flavouring. But in terms of experience, Wong has certainly had a rich life so far.

Growing up in urban, Middle New Zealand Hawke’s Bay, Wong was often isolated from Chinese culture. The Chinese community in Hawke’s Bay was small, unlike the bigger Chinese communities of Auckland and Wellington, and Wong was not aware that she was supposed be different from her Pakeha friends. But however much she downplays the cultural influences on her work, her Chinese upbringing continues to influence what she chooses to write about.

When Wong was a baby, her parents decided to stop speaking in Chinese to their children, to avoid problems with an employee who was paranoid they were talking about her behind her back. As a result Wong can’t speak much Cantonese, something that prevented her from getting to know her grandmother and importantly, many of her own family stories.

As an adult, Wong unravels her Chinese background through her writing. Stories she came across while finding out about her own community have been jumping-off points for some of her fiction. But although she does meticulous research to ensure her work is historically accurate, in the end, what she writes is fiction. “All (my) major characters and their relationships are completely fictional.”

Writing came naturally to Wong. She speaks of a sense of “otherness” common to many artists, but says that she would have become a writer anyway. As a schoolgirl, Wong did not relate to the stories of Sargeson and Mansfield, both of whom referenced spheres of New Zealand experience alien to her, and in the case of Mansfield featured characters that Wong found denigrating to her race. But she identified with the imagination and otherworldliness of Owls do Cry by Janet Frame. With further encouragement and permission from teachers, including one who allowed her to write an assignment on India in the form of poems, her urge to write was unlocked.

Members of her family – her mother, her father, her siblings and her half-Chinese son – wander through Wong’s poems, often becoming conduits to express her musings on love, relationships, memory and loss. Wong has also been working for some years on a historical novel about the Chinese community in New Zealand at the turn of last century. This, she concedes, has spilled over into her other writing – “it’s just coincidental that (I) happen to be Chinese and some of that feeds in as well... I’ve had to do so much research into Chinese things for my novel (that poems) have fallen out of that.”

On sampling her first collection of poetry Cup – a finalist for this year’s Montana Best First Book for Poetry Award – I find that Wong’s verse is spare and elegant, possibly with oriental notes, but balanced by a healthy whiff of Kiwi earthiness. One minute you sigh over the restrained longing of Landscape, the next you are gently slapped in the face with the sly punnery of Kilmog Hill. One gets the impression that Wong is quite happy to step quietly into the background and let the reader absorb the feelings and intent by themselves.

For example, in her poem Tessellation: “the man loves her/deeply//a stone in cool water//milk-drunk/reminiscent...”, Wong demonstrates her understanding of the importance of the white spaces between the words, the things left unsaid and therefore all the more powerful.

There is a subtle sensuality in her writing. Lovers feature in her poetry as often as her parents do – and she is touchingly vulnerable in her expression of her feelings: “as I lie/draped over you with nothing/not a molecule/between us/I feel like a soft wet leaf/a piece of news/paper wet with the love of you – “ (After).

It is probably fair to say that Wong has had her share of bad luck with men. Going over to China in her early twenties driven by “a calling”, she met and married a Chinese man and brought him back to New Zealand with her. However, in the end the marriage didn’t work out.

Wong found that being divorced was freeing: “I’d spent all those years supporting my husband and doing what I needed to do to earn a living and not doing what I really wanted to do. So when I didn’t need to support him any more, I could think about what I wanted to do for me and that’s when I started taking my writing really seriously... I realised – I’m a writer, I don’t need to earn any money, I can be poor, I can just do what I want to do.”

And what she wanted to do was write poetry and fiction, lashings of it, doing the Creative Writing paper at Victoria University at the same time as she enrolled in the Creative Writing course at Whitireia Polytechnic. This change of discipline – Wong’s previous degree had been in Mathematics and she had worked in IT for many years – might have seemed sudden, but Wong was happy.

Typically for a Kiwi, she downplays the subsequent success she had, earning among other honours an appointment as the Robert Burns Fellow at Otago University, the Reader’s Digest-New Zealand Society of Authors Stout Research Centre Fellowship (to write her first novel), and inclusion in Best New Zealand Poems 2006. She says that these honours focussed the spotlight at times, and her ethnicity came up for analysis repeatedly: “I just think you’ve got to carry on doing your own thing regardless of what anyone else thinks or expects – otherwise it can cripple you.”

Wong became involved with fellow Wellingtonian poet Lindsay Forbes, and they had a son they named Jackson. Jackson has been both a source of literary inspiration – the middle section of Wong’s book, subtitled Wishing Spiders, is about him – and of literary disruption. Wong laughs when I ask how her novel is getting on. “I try to write when Jackson is at school or otherwise occupied but it’s not easy! There are limited times you can write and it’s totally, totally different with a novel compared to say, a poem. With a novel, unless you make yourself sit down and write whether you feel like it or not, you’ll never write it.”

Although Wong and Forbes’ relationship did not last, one other result of their union, the Porirua Poetry Café, did. The live poetry performance venue has now hosted many local and international poetic talents. Wong does not see herself as a performance poet – “I can’t put on voices or (put on) a particular persona” – but she does enjoy reading.

And later when I have the opportunity to see her read, I can see this. She lets her words speak for themselves, almost absenting herself from the podium. Her voice is quiet, but with an inner steel which I can’t help feeling has defined Wong’s approach to life so far and comes through in her writing. A quiet, familiar strength. Quiet except for that loud, generous laugh of hers.

See also:
» Cup, By Alison Wong