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