First-time novelist Alison Wong is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.
When I phone, Alison Wong has just logged on and discovered the names of the other two fiction finalists for the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Awards. There she is: first-time novelist with As the Earth Turns Silver, alongside heavyweights Owen Marshall and Fiona Farrell. How does she feel?
Her first reaction is to think of those who didn't make it. "It's such a lottery who actually gets shortlisted. A lot of top New Zealand writers put out fantastic books last year. It must be so disappointing for those who didn't get shortlisted."
There's a strong sense that Wong feels part of the country's literary community and supported by it. The acknowledgements section of As the Earth Turns Silver runs to just over five pages and includes numerous fellow writers, editors and academics. It reveals something of the 12 years of extensive, meticulous research - and doggedness - that went into her first novel.
A historical novel, set mainly in Wellington and Kwangtung, China, from the 1890s to the 1920s, As the Earth Turns Silver is a story of outsiders. It centres on Chinese immigrant Yung, working in his brother's fruit shop in Wellington, and widowed mother Katherine and the love affair that develops between them. Wong made sure every possible detail was accurate - from the way fruit was displayed in shops, to the preparation of an elaborate pork dish, kau yuk, to the appropriate street slang for Newtown, circa 1900. Not only did she research the minutiae
of colonial Wellington but she did the same for life in her ancestral villages in Kwangtung.
The novel is a tribute to Wong's own history as a Chinese New Zealander but goes beyond that, to give an authentic voice to the experiences of early immigrant Chinese - to make them, Wong says, realistic fictional characters rather than caricatures.
Wong has a degree in mathematics and worked in IT for many years before publishing her poetry collection, Cup, in 2006 (which was shortlisted for the best first book of poetry in the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards). Reviewers have noted As the Earth's lyrical, poetic style.
Wong says now, half-joking, that she wouldn't recommend a first-time novelist with no historical background embark on such a complex project. Not to mention the sense of responsibility that comes with portraying the early Chinese settlers in New Zealand. In fact, she originally had an entirely different first novel in mind.
It was only after a family gathering in Hawke's Bay in 1996 to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of her paternal great-grandfather's arrival in New Zealand that a startling family revelation about his life became the catalyst. (To reveal the details here would ruin the novel's plot.)
"I found it incredibly interesting but I didn't try to write his story; none of us actually knew him." She only knew that he was tall and had a fruit shop in Adelaide Rd, Newtown, demolished long ago. The rest was made up, a fictional story that tells truths about the racism the Chinese encountered in colonial Wellington. But in typically thorough fashion, Wong researched the actual shop and its exact layout, which she used as a setting for her story.
"I made a deliberate choice to write the novel equally from Chinese and Pakeha points of view - my family goes back into the 1880s in New Zealand. I feel very comfortable in my New Zealand identity: my culture is a mix of Chinese and Pakeha New Zealand - with a mix of Maori as well."
Although she felt at ease writing Pakeha characters, the Chinese ones were more difficult. "It was an old Chinese cultural point of view and I was quite worried about getting that wrong, but you've got to take risks in life; you can't allow fear to stop you from doing what you want to do."
There was also the added pressure that with so few books on this subject by a Chinese New Zealander hers would be held up as definitive. "I had to stop worrying about it, it would have paralysed me." Her father, who had told her the story of her great-grandfather, gave the project his blessing. "He understood it was fiction but would draw on all kinds of things to understand that times were different then and people had to make choices."
Making choices and taking risks is something Wong is familiar with. At school, she was equally good at sciences and arts, but writing wasn't a career option. "It never occurred to me that it was something that serious, it just wasn't on the radar, because Chinese kids didn't do irresponsible arty things that didn't make any money."
It was only in 1996, after the end of her first marriage - in which she had been the main breadwinner - that she gave herself permission to be a writer. Although she came to public attention first as a poet, she was always doing both, she says. It's just that the poetry book was finished first.
"I like things pretty spare. I write my fiction like I write my poetry, except that fiction requires more stamina and concentration: you've got to stay with the same story for so long - years - and you've got to keep interested in it, even though it might have very little relevance to your own life at that moment. I found that a real challenge."
In January, Wong remarried and left the Porirua suburb of Titahi Bay, which she adored, for Geelong, Victoria, where her new husband is a minister in the Uniting Church. It's a cross-cultural boy-next-door love story, her own version of As the Earth Turns Silver. They both grew up in Hawke's Bay and their families have been close for generations. In fact, Wong's great-grandfather who inspired her novel had an only son who was friends with her husband's grandfather.
They plan to return once her son, Jackson, completes high school. New Zealand is home, she says. It would have never occurred to her to move away for such a long time if she hadn't met her husband. She's working on her second novel, a mix of Chinese and Pakeha stories set in New Zealand from the early 20th century to the present, which means she'll have to come back regularly for research.
So she's a romantic? "I couldn't have written the book if I hadn't been - and you know ..." Wong pauses for dramatic effect, "I've actually moved countries."