New Zealand's Poet Laureate Chris Tse curates a selection of recent books by Aotearoa’s East and South East Asian writers to mark Lunar New Year.
In the Chinese and Vietnamese zodiacs, the dragon is a symbol of strength and power. Those born in a dragon year are said to be naturally lucky and gifted, so we often see a spike in the birth of babies in Asian countries during a dragon year. Adding to the dragon’s uniqueness is the fact that it is the only mythical creature represented in the zodiac.
For some time, Asian writers in New Zealand were somewhat mythical creatures themselves – their appearances in literary publications were rare, and very few got the opportunity to publish their own books. Many of the books that did get published are now long out of print. This historical underrepresentation of Asian voices in our national literature means that many of the valuable stories of our Asian diaspora are non-existent or hard to find. When I started writing and publishing in the early 2000s, this absence of voices made me think that our stories weren’t valued or wanted by the publishing industry. At times I felt lost, unsure of where I belonged in a Eurocentric literary landscape.
Two wonderful things have happened recently that made my heart swell and reminded me how far we have come.
In late December, Lee Murray was named the winner of the 2023 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction. Murray, who is an internationally acclaimed genre and speculative fiction author, became the first writer of Chinese heritage to be recognised at these awards.
And just last week, Aotearoa-raised, Melbourne-based poet Grace Yee took home two prizes at the 2024 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for her debut poetry collection Chinese Fish (Giramondo Publishing), including the supreme Victorian Prize for Literature. It capped off a big day for Yee, who was also longlisted for the 2024 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards that morning. These are of course just two examples of the recognition that our Asian writers are now gaining both at home and abroad.
My selections below are focused on writers of East and South East Asian descent and include books published over the last few years – my friend and fellow writer Saraid de Silva compiled a round-up of South Asian writers for Kete last year. As Saraid notes, there is much room for our diaspora voices to be louder. I recommend starting with the landmark anthology A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand (Auckland University Press), which features a generous selection of poetry, fiction and nonfiction by our emerging Asian New Zealand writers.
Lee Murray’s impressive body of work includes 16 novels and (as editor) 18 anthologies for adults and young readers. She’s been described as Aotearoa's answer to Stephen King and has been a champion for our local speculative fiction, sci-fi and horror writing community.
Recent books include Despatches (PS Publishing), a historical horror novella set in WWI, and Grotesque: Monster Stories (Things in the Well Publishing), which received a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection.
Emma Ling Sidnam’s debut novel Backwaters (Text Publishing) explores the impact of the past on the present as its protagonist Laura sets out to learn more about her great-great-grandfather’s life story. The more she uncovers, the more she wrestles with her own notions of identity and culture. Backwaters has been longlisted for this year’s Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
In her debut novel Isobar Precinct (The Cuba Press), Angelique Kasmara uses Auckland as the backdrop for a gritty murder mystery that leads its characters into a murky world of illegal drug trials, bombings and disruptive technologies.
Chloe Gong has had a meteoric rise from North Shore teenager to New York Times bestselling author with her These Violent Delights and Foul Lady Fortune YA series. Last year she released Immortal Longings (Hachette), the first instalment of her first adult series. Gong gives Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra an epic fantasy twist with body-switching, bloodsports and obsessive love.
Grace Yee’s Chinese Fish (Giramondo Publishing) is a dazzling feat of craft – an innovative, genre-defying debut that blends poetry with found historical material to tell the story of a Chinese family adjusting to life in Aotearoa between the 1960s and 1980s.
The multi-talented Cadence Chung has been making a splash in the local literary scene before she even finished high school. Her poetry collection Anomalia (Tender Press) is an arresting and confident debut packed with visceral, skin-prickling imagery.
There are pieces in Joanna Cho’s bewitching People Person (Te Herenga Waka University Press) that I am still thinking about years after reading them. Cho’s debut book is a showcase of her unique voice, equal parts earnest and indifferent, held together with a potent emotional honesty.
The poems in Nina Mingya Powles’ Magnolia 木蘭 (Seraph Press) are like watercolour paintings for the soul. Powles’ evocative use of language engages all of the senses as she explores the meaning of home, and what it means to be homesick for more than one country.
In Under Glass (Auckland University Press), Gregory Kan conjures up a strange and unknown world with two suns. Kan uses self-imposed constraints in how he uses structure and language to test the boundaries of metaphor and abstraction. Under Glass is a collection to savour.
Recent volumes in the long-running AUP New Poets series have featured poets Modi Deng (AUP New Poets 8) and Van Mei (AUP New Poets 6). Deng’s poems use restraint to magnify minute moments of daily life; Mei’s incorporation of Post-It notes, erasure and spreadsheets creates an unconventional reading experience.
Non-fiction and memoir
MasterChef NZ winner Sam Low released his highly anticipated cookbook Modern Chinese (Allen & Unwin NZ) last year to rave reviews for his accessible and charming breakdown of classic Chinese dishes. His book is more than just recipes and a reference guide – it’s a love letter to food culture, family and queerness.
Foodie Albert Cho has amassed a large social media following for his hot takes on the local food scene. He charts the highs and lows of his life story in I Love My Stupid Life (Penguin Random House), a characteristically unfiltered book that celebrates the restorative power of hot soup, family and friends. Cho also includes some of his favourite recipes, from Kiwi favourites to traditional Korean classics.
As well as receiving acclaim for her poetry, Nina Mingya Powles has made her mark as a beguiling essayist writing about food and place. In Small Bodies of Water (Allen & Unwin), Powles examines her experiences growing up between cultures, using water as a central metaphor for memory.
Rose Lu was inspired to write All Who Live On Islands (Te Herenga Waka University Press) after a formative solo trip to China as an adult. Lu’s essays unpack contemporary Chinese New Zealand identity while traversing topics as varied as food, mental health and growing up as a migrant in the regions.
In When We Remember To Breathe (Magpie), Renee Liang and Michele Powles cheer each other on through a series of short essays about the daily challenges of motherhood. An open and generous book that sheds light on the intertwined mess and magic of being a parent.
For younger readers
Now that I’m an uncle to an almost-three-year-old niece, I’ve been making sure that her book collection gets off to a flying start. Two essential additions have already been Nessie Sharpe’s delightful picture books Hurrah for Yum Cha! and Bang Bang Noodles, which feature both English and Cantonese.
Award-winning cartoonist Ant Sang has lent his legendary illustrative talents to mountaineer Peter Hillary’s 4 Yaks and a Yeti (Bateman Books), an adventure story set high in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Auckland writer Weng Wai Chan’s Lizard’s Tale (Text Publishing) is a thrilling story of wartime espionage set in 1940s Singapore. Lizard's Tale is an action-packed adventure for middle-grade readers and won the Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction at the 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
Learning to Love Blue is the sequel to Saradha Koirala’s popular Lonesome When You Go. A coming-of-age story set in Melbourne, Learning to Love Blue follows 18-year-old Paige and her goal of making it as a singer-songwriter while trying to find her place and make sense of the world. Koirala won the Young Adult Fiction Award at the 2022 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
I’ve already mentioned Chloe Gong’s wildly popular YA series. Another series to look out for is Graci Kim’s New York Times bestselling magical fantasy Gifted Clans series, featuring The Last Fallen Star, The Last Fallen Moon and The Last Fallen Realm. The Korean mythology-inspired trilogy has recently been optioned by Disney for development as a television series.
Lee Murray’s prize-winning prose poetry collection Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud (Cuba Press) arrives in April. The book weaves real-life narratives of Chinese diaspora women with the classic mythology of húli jīng, Chinese shapeshifting nine-tailed fox spirits.
In October, UK-based The Emma Press will publish Maddie Ballard’s Bound: A Memoir of Making, ‘a sewing diary exploring love, shifting connections and self-care’. Maddie is a recent graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters, where she won the 2023 Creative Nonfiction Prize for her MA in Creative Writing folio.
This review was originally published on Kete Books and is reproduced here with kind permission.