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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

Other Voices: Uncovering Women’s Narratives

Other Voices: Uncovering Women’s Narratives, an evening of poetry and discussion.

 

Hosted by student literary convenor-moderators Kyla Chen, Aiza Mustasam, and Loretta Glass Cooney, this event held on 23 May 2024 in the Tauranga Girls’ College Library was kindly supported by the school, The Cuba Press, & Tauranga Creative Communities. With a celebration of Lee Murray’s latest book Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud, the evening featured a panel discussion between acclaimed Aotearoa poets, Lee Murray and Renee Liang, followed by poetry readings from guests and student poets.

 

L-R: Loretta, Aiza, Lee, Renee, and Kyla.

Kyla Chen opened the evening, inviting publisher Mary McCallum of The Cuba Press to the stage to introduce poets Lee Murray and Renee Liang.


L-R: Claire, Lee, Renee, Mary, and Jenny

Mary acknowledged New Zealand Society of Authors representatives Jenny Nagle and Claire Hill, who had travelled to Tauranga from Auckland for the event and who had worked alongside staff at The Cuba Press and family members of the Laura Solomon Trust to establish the NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize in honour of late poet Laura Solomon. Mary noted that the Solomon family would be present in spirit to support the launch of the prize-winning book. She said, “We’re hugely proud of this book, Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud. It really is a courageous book. I know it took a lot for you to write, Lee. This is about the lives of Chinese diaspora women in this country. It’s about the lives of the ancestors. It’s about the lives of people that Lee wants to open up about, to bring out of the shadows.”


Thanks to staff at The Cuba Press and artists Kim Lowe and Christine Ling for their work on the book.

The students introduced themselves, with Loretta Glass Cooney telling the audience she was inspired to write poetry by her grandmother, who was also an author, and who would read poems to her at night before bed. Aiza Mustasam, a student leader who is active in a number of clubs, said she likes to enter poetry, speech and drama competitions. Kyla Chen also likes storytelling, particularly comedy and satire, but she recently discovered poetry as a way to express her emotions and to dive deeper into certain topics.




Kyla began the discussion by asking Lee what had prompted her new work Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud.

 

Lee said she had already examined expectations placed on Asian women in her horror anthology Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. As part of that project, she wrote a prose-poetry story called ‘frangipani wishes’ which became the impetus for Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud. “I realised I still had things I wanted to say,” Lee said. “How would I frame them? That got me thinking about how the magical fox goes through nine lives in order to ascend to heaven. Could I put myself in those lives and walk in their shoes and see what it was like?”


Lee consulted New Zealand’s Papers Past archives for information about Chinese women in Aotearoa. “I looked for the gaps and what wasn’t said. I looked for the stories that we don’t hear about.” For things that she didn’t have answers for, Lee talked to people who might have had those experiences or knew someone who had, so the stories became a blend of fact and fiction.

 

Loretta asked Renee what drew her to ‘other’ stories and was there a story she had uncovered that she was particularly proud of.

 


Renee—whose Chinese name, gifted to her by her paternal grandfather, means literary blossom—spoke passionately and in depth about helping to uncover the story of the bones of 499 Chinese ancestors (miners) who were being returned to their home villages in China, but instead were lost to the sea when the SS Ventnor was holed off the coast of Northland. When the bones washed up on the shore, local iwi nurtured the bones in the traditional way, by making sure they were safe, visiting and speaking with them, which unknown to the iwi, is also is the Chinese way to honour the dead. Later, young people from both Māori and Chinese descendants came together and agreed to continue to honour those ancestors whose stories are now part of this soil. Renee said she felt compelled to explore the story. “I’m not related to those bones, but I’m pretty sure I was tapped,” Renee said. I’m pretty sure they saw me and thought, ‘Writer. Okay, right, we need somebody like that.’ It was really hard to not write something about this as soon as I’d been up there and heard the story, and as a result, I think they are my adopted ancestors.” She went on to write three plays and an opera, each time consulting with families of the deceased for their permission, including descendants of the Dunedin businessman who organised transport of the bones, making sure descendants maintain sovereignty over the story, which is an important aspect of her writing practice. “Every time, I checked with them before I said yes to the project, and I think that made a much better work because not only were they in, but other people also came forward because they could see that I was trustworthy,” she said.

 

The discussion turned to barriers and access, prompted by a question from Aiza.

 

Renee pointed to intersectionality: “Lee is not only telling the story of women, but she’s very specifically highlighting the stories of Chinese women,” she said. “And Chinese in this country, and in many other countries that they migrated to, do tend to be invisible as a community. You just don’t know very much about them as often their existences are not recorded, and their real names are not recorded either. I do think that you have to do what Lee is doing; do the scholarship and search through the history to bring these people alive and centre them in the story. For me, it’s one of the most moving things about her book.”

 

Lee said, “For us, if it’s a bit distasteful or a bit shameful, we’re not supposed to talk about it, and so these things are swept under the carpet in Asian families. I was really interested in telling the stories that, traditionally, we mustn’t tell. So some of the barriers are ourselves, because it is hard to tell these stories. We have to be really brave and dig deep and into our own emotional core to write them.”

 

However, Renee noted that in Aotearoa, Chinese women have led the way over the men when it comes to writing their stories. Lee agreed and said this was noteworthy since traditionally Chinese women haven’t had the same access to education as men, their focus directed instead towards children and family.

 

When Aiza asked about ways of ensuing authenticity in our writing, Lee mentioned deep research, using primary sources, asking questions, and drawing on lived experience, as well as getting sensitivity readers for the work. Renee pointed out that sometimes the story isn’t ours to tell. “Multiple times, I’ve gotten really excited, spent ages researching, and finally tracked down the one person I needed to talk to from that family and they’ve said no. I say, good, I’ve already forgotten about the idea already. I recommend that. There is always another story,” she said.

 

Loretta asked why it was important to tell women’s stories, which seems an obvious question, since women make up around half the world’s population, but historically women's stories have been given less attention. Renee gave the example of how, for many years, medical research was largely focused on studying cohorts of white middle-class men, and women’s stories weren’t included in the sampling, which has slowed advances and provided misleading results. She gave the example of long COVID being aligned with post-viral syndrome which has been reported by women for years and is only now getting attention because it is affecting men.


Lee said she had never felt represented in stories she read as a child, except perhaps in John Wyndham’s dystopian novel The Chrysalids (1954) where she saw herself as an ostracised mutant who sought sanctuary in New Zealand. “If you don't see yourself in the story, then you need to write the story,” she said. “You are the only person with exactly your lived experience, so you should write that story. Nobody could do it better than you can.”



Kyla rounded out the panel asking guests why they chose poetry over other forms.

 

“They’re mostly short,” Renee explained. “Women don’t have a lot of time. If you want a nice, controlled vehicle for putting something on the page, then poetry is a nice compact form and you can finish it in between taking a laundry load off and going to pick up your kids.” She added, “It’s supposed to be a joke.”

 

Lee also said that poetry was accessible—both for the reader and the writer. “With fiction, we have rules about long story arcs, and character, how to plot, and where the tension is, but with poetry you can do what you like. You can use a poetry form, or you can use free form. You can do what you like and all it has to do is make someone feel something.” She mentioned visual aspects and the added impact of poetry when it is performed out loud in the author’s voice. Poetry helps us to process traumatic events, Lee said, but she also claimed it was useful for recording small observations can be a single line or a novel in verse. “It’s so versatile.”

 

The evening concluded with the panellists reading from their work, followed by refreshments and informal discussion.


Renee Liang and Lee Murray

Lee Murray is a third-generation Chinese New Zealander and multi-award-winning author, poet and anthology editor. She was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement for Fiction 2023 and in 2020 she was made an Honorary Literary Fellow of the New Zealand Society of Authors in their Waitangi Day Honours. She’s won five Bram Stoker Awards, awarded by the international Horror Writers Association. Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud won Lee the 2023 NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize for a work with ‘unique and original vision’.

 

Renee Liang is a poet, playwright, paediatrician, medical researcher and essayist.  She is the Asian Theme Lead and a named investigator on landmark longitudinal study Growing Up In NZ. As an established writer, Renee has collaborated on visual arts works, film, opera and music, produced and directed theatre works, worked as a dramaturge, taught creative writing and organized community-based arts initiatives such as New Kiwi Women Write, a writing workshop series for migrant women, and The Kitchen, a new program nurturing stories in local kitchens. Her work The Bone Feeder, originally a play, later adapted into an opera, was one of the first Asian mainstage works to be performed in NZ. Renee has written, produced and toured eight plays. In 2018 she was appointed a Member of the NZ Order of Merit for services to the arts, and won Next Woman of the Year for Arts and Culture.




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