Half way through Emma Ling Sidnam’s debut novel Backwaters, in a chapter called ‘Self-improvement’, the narrator is talking to her grandfather about her fictional account of her great-great grandfather Kaineng’s journal. Her grandfather can read Mandarin and is translating it slowly for her while she writes, and he says to her, “It’s an odd experience, reading Ken’s point of view through your words…I can see Ken in there. But I also see you in there. And you’re the writer, so that’s not really avoidable. Your world view’s going to leak in.”
Twenty-three-year-old Laura Long Stephens – a name which echoes the author’s, inviting autobiographical reading – has agreed to do an extra-curricular assignment for work. A woman editing an anthology about minority cultures is looking for stories based on Chinese family histories and has approached the art gallery where Laura works to ask if there are any in the archives. There are not, so her supervisor suggests Laura write one based on her ancestors. Laura agrees.
The resulting story about Kaineng, or Ken, a market gardener who came to New Zealand in the 1800s, is interspersed between the many vignette-length scenes that make up the rest of the novel, which is a contemporary, almost YA-styled, first-person account of Laura’s daily life, her family and her exploration of identity. Laura is a fourth-generation Chinese New Zealander, but until now has resisted identifying as such. It doesn’t make sense to her. She is a New Zealander, first and foremost. Sidnam dedicates the book to “anyone who’s ever been asked ‘But where are you really from?’” Laura’s offence at this question, and her reckoning with her own discomfort in identifying as Chinese, are the psychological heart of the book. In this sense, the novel is also an invitation to the reader to try and understand who Laura is, and how we, as readers and New Zealanders, should identify her.
Through the several openings to the novel we learn that Laura is a university graduate and aspiring writer working “in a job with no official description” at the Auckland Art Gallery. She has lived in Auckland all her life. She is vegetarian. She likes to swim. She has a sister, Max, a mother and a father. In her teens, the family went to her grandparents house for Sunday dinners, though she and her sister would rather have been going to the movies. She disliked her grandmother, who has passed away, but loves her grandfather. She and her sisters both came out in their teens; Max as lesbian, Laura as bi. In other words, Laura is a solidly bourgeois upper-middle class Auckland leftist who grew up in the 2000s. And it’s within this context that her “journey of self-discovery” (per the blurb) can be read.
“I want to be able to definitively say who I am”, Laura tells her boyfriend, in one of their many conversations about her identity. She has joined an Asian artist’s Collective and feels that she is “one step behind” the other members in this regard. Her obsession is frustrating or baffling to many of those around her. Her boyfriend tells her “You’re you“. For her sister, Chinese identity is a given; there’s no interrogating it. For her parents, being Chinese New Zealanders is something they come and go from, but are not overly concerned by. For her grandparents there is pride and a sense of community that through the unfolding of Ken’s story we realise runs in a direct line from his original settlement of market gardeners. One of the delights of the book is that with three (or with Ken’s story, four) generations of a family represented, there is a diversity of viewpoints in terms of age.
Definitively saying who you are is of course an impossible project, given the complex threads of our DNA, our histories, our storying, our morphing subjectivities. But that’s no reason not to try and understand where you come from; an endeavour that is especially important in a country where whakapapa is foundational.
Laura’s boyfriend hates the cashmere jumpers he gets given for his birthday every year by his grandparents because only “lawyers and accountants” wear them
While Laura seeks to establish who she is through understanding her racial and cultural identity, the nature of her individual character – who she is psychologically – becomes apparent through her process. She is someone who needs to understand people, including herself, with clear labels, and often moral ones. This is not unique to Laura. Her boyfriend has a bad relationship with his family (unfathomable to Laura, for whom family is everything) because he regards them as too bourgeois, their values (they’re business people) as abhorrent. He hates the cashmere jumpers he gets given for his birthday every year by his grandparents because “they’re fucking soulless” and only “lawyers and accountants” wear them.
As Laura works out what makes her Chinese, or not, she identifies traits that might be specifically Asian, and that help her to develop a sense of belonging. Through the Collective she learns that – like her – other Asian New Zealanders take their shoes off at the door at home and have full pantries. Reading a collection of Chinese fables she remarks that they’re “Not happily-ever-after like most western stories for kids”. Reflecting on how her boyfriend treats his parents she notes that this would not happen in Asian cultures where “respect for elders . . . is paramount”.
Like all such comparisons, however, these are limited by Laura’s own life experience. Absent from them is evidence of any awareness that respect for elders is hugely important in Māori and Pasifika communities, as well as in many older generations of Pākehā families, or that removing your shoes at the door is also a European practice that many New Zealand households follow, or that middle and working class New Zealanders whose grandparents and parents were war babies would be hard pressed to squeeze another tin of tomatoes into their family pantries, which are stocked for the apocalypse. Or that traditional story-telling is dark and macabre in many, if not most (I don’t know) cultures. Hansel and Gretel still gives me nightmares, and I have removed my old copy of Struwell Peter from our bookshelves in case my children find it and think having their fingers chopped off for behaving badly is a thing.
This homogenising and labelling approach suggests a kind of marshmallowing of histories and cultures – the complicating details processed into a featureless sweet sponge, soft and small enough to eat in one contemporary bite. But while it seems contradictory for a character who, quite rightly, hates to be stereotyped, the tension it creates is one of the most interesting things about the book, and, for readers attentive to questions of cultural identity, is very thought-provoking.
Laura’s quest to understand herself in terms of her ancestry is thrown a curveball early on in the book when a family secret comes to light. I’ll avoid a spoiler by saying only that it involves a previously undisclosed adoption. The family are unsurprisingly upset by this discovery, but the rage Laura and her sister direct at the person responsible is strangely dissociated, without any consideration of the historical, political, social or personal contexts in which closed adoption might have been a decision that parents made in good faith. The sisters’ anger stems not from a sense of loss and grief, but one of insult and offence – how dare these people have affected our lives negatively by making this decision?
Two significant developments from the adoption discovery help Laura move the exploration of her identity, and the plot, forward. Results from a DNA test prompt her to conclude that “DNA was never the answer. . . Now, if people ask me what I am, I can say ‘It’s complicated’. If they persist, I can throw all my ethnicities at them and let them realise that they can’t typecast me through them.” She also decides to take a trip overseas, to see if she can trace her biological roots.
The best novels build worlds so complex and vivid, so articulate in terms of human experience, that a single detail can tell a reader who a character is, or what an environment feels like; we can sense even the thickness of dust on a dresser in a corner of a house that hasn’t yet been mentioned. Who knows how this magic really happens, but it has something to do with coming to the world of the book with a sense of curiosity and discovery, of not assuming from the outset that everything about this world is known yet, and being open to the conclusions an exploration of that world through language might bring. If, on the other hand, the story is written in order to prove a point, or advance an argument, the imagined world can often feel slippery, thin, misted over. Characters flatten to words and the integrity of the world becomes compromised. Cracks begin to appear.
When Laura, who tells us she became vegetarian at 13, and still is, eats a chicken salad for lunch, then a tuna salad, and has lamb ratatouille at a family dinner, and doesn’t seem to struggle at yum cha, we start to question the integrity of Sidnam’s imagined world
Scenes sometimes plod through a reportage of actions, not pausing to focus on anything in particular. In restaurants or around dinner tables, for example, there are few descriptions of the actual food. On her overseas venture, Laura shares some laborious updates: “I stretch and then get out of bed. I shower and then get dressed . . ” While wandering around the huge and presumably fascinating foreign city, “the day slips by”. She describes herself “idly pausing to look at interesting old doorways” but doesn’t describe those doorways. There are also missed opportunities to develop tension and plot through further detailing. The adoptive parents are regularly accused of bad parenting, but that “they didn’t love her enough” is the only explanation offered as to why; there are no details to tell us what about the parenting was bad.
When Laura, who became vegetarian at 13, and still is, eats a chicken salad for lunch, then a tuna salad, and has lamb ratatouille at a family dinner, and doesn’t seem to struggle at yum cha, we start to question the integrity of Sidnam’s imagined world. Other cracks are also apparent. Laura tells us, a long way into the book, that her grandmother died of lung cancer and was a lifelong smoker with a pack-a-day habit. Yet in the many times we visit her grandparents’ house and come close to her grandmother, we don’t once see a cigarette or smell any smoke. In the foreign country Laura visits, a woman running an orphanage speaks perfect English, which is possible, but warrants an explanation, in the least to avoid Anglo-centricity. A woman Laura encounters while travelling, and who becomes her lover, says strangely “It’s so good to finally meet you”, suggesting a previous correspondence where there was none. Flying home, Laura tells us “I love planes in the middle of the night . . . ” But as far as we know, this is the first overseas trip she has taken.
All these cracks are ones an editor might have patched, but they also explain why Laura and her world don’t feel quite fully formed. Although we know by the end of the novel where Laura is from, we still don’t know who she is.
Where we come from is a big question, and ambitious for a first novel. It’s one that I have been guilty of asking most of my life, and not always in the right way. As a child, my curiosity for the world beyond the provincial town belt was insatiable. I would energetically seek out people who didn’t look like me (few and far between in rural North Canterbury) and ask that awful question: “Where are you from?” When a kid arrived at our school who was half-Carribean, I tried hard to be her best friend (I was not cool enough by a long shot). At high school I pulled exchange students into my orbit whenever I could, and am still friends with one, decades later. I went to the school leaver’s ball with a guy from Argentina, Gaston Edwardo Ferracioli – I liked to say his name over and over. I got out of New Zealand the second I was able, and headed to Sussex to work in boarding school, which I was most upset about, wanting to go somewhere more colourful. But it was in the UK that I realised where I was from from. I was from from England, Ireland and Scotland, at least in recent history. (DNA tests reach much further back and afield). Within hours of my feet hitting the ground I understood that the sense I’d had all my life in New Zealand, of not quite belonging, was because I didn’t. Here was my whenua. I didn’t kiss the ground, and I mostly felt disappointed about it (I mean, who wants to be Anglo-saxon, really?) but something clicked.
Laura doesn’t get a moment like this. But her story, and her struggle, is also very different and it’s a vital one to be told in our literature, along with those of people like her ancestor, Kaineng, her grandparents, and her parents. Sidnam has an attentive searching gaze and, if she’s open to them, could bring many worlds to life.
Backwaters by Emma Ling Sidnam (Text, $38) is available in bookstores nationwide.