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Rose Lu: from Chongming Island to Whanganui. Photo/Ebony Lamb/Supplied

All Who Live on Islands: Rose Lu's riveting book of personal essays

A migrant’s essay collection reveals a talent for narrative drive, and Kiwis’ casual racism.

“I was born on one island and I’ve come to live on a different one.” So says Rose Lu in this riveting book of personal essays. Lu was born on Chongming Island near Shanghai. In 1995, her university-educated parents left China, arriving in Auckland with three suitcases, five-year-old Lu and US$6000 in cash. They’d never spoken a word of English and knew no one.

Lu’s family moved around for eight years looking for a way to make a living, ending up in Whanganui running a dairy. For Lu, high school was an unwelcoming place. There were few Asian kids and the school was “ruled by arrogance and machismo”. Someone started a joke that her family ate cats. In the end, Whanganui felt to Lu “like a toilet stop that had gone on for too long”.

Lu studied mechatronics at university and is now a software developer. In 2018, she gained a master’s in creative writing. From the quality of the writing in this book, it’s a career swerve we can hope she continues with.

The book’s nine essays each tell a separate story in captivating detail. Topics range from grocery shopping with her grandparents at the preferred “poor-person” shop (Pak’nSave) to reminiscing about lovers such as James, who “had a penchant for brown jerseys and a habit of turning up late”.

Woven through each essay is Lu’s experience of being a migrant from China, of looking different, and of being subjected to the crude prejudices of Pākehā New Zealanders. Even well-meaning ones: the grandmother of one boyfriend whose church friends “made certain to tell me about their hardworking Asian gardener or the one Asian family that lived down the street”. An aunt of the same boyfriend suggests he “show Rose how we eat corn in New Zealand”.

Culling racism – whether casual, unconscious or gross – just keeps getting more urgent. For any number of different reasons, everyone would gain something from reading about Lu’s experiences. Along with this, Lu is a hugely talented storyteller. Take “Alphabet Game”, about the intensity of a certain type of adolescent female friendship: “Every night [Kimberley] demanded I stay up texting her until she was ready to sleep, often until three or four in the morning.” Menacing dependence; an obsession with Sid and Nancy. Did Kimberley’s American friend, Aiden, really commit suicide? Was he even real? It’s like a short thriller. It’s like adolescence.

Lu’s talent for narrative drive is highlighted again in “Five-Five”, about a gruelling hike in Nepal that becomes very dangerous indeed. (Not that Lu, who has done Outward Bound, ever panics.)

And then there’s Lu’s empathy. She gives the people in her life the respect of really seeing them, of trying to figure out what life is like for them. “The Tiger Cub”, about her brother’s dogged and mainly silent battle with depression while in his first year at university, is unsentimental but as tender and moving as anything I’ve read.

All Who Live on Islands, by Rose Lu (Victoria University Press, $30)

This article was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.