Book Review: Lonely Asian Woman, by Sharon Lam

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_lonely_asian_woman.jpgA series of small, yet misjudged decisions by Paula escalates into a surreal period of her life, an honest representation of the years following university.

Sharon Lam’s Lonely Asian Woman is the culmination of all her best work; the hilarious everyday commentary of ‘Single Sad Postgrad’, the insight from a break from expectation in her architecture thesis and of course, the surrealism of her Starling poem ‘Everyone at the Pool Looked like Ewan McGregor.’

Lonely Asian Woman is Sharon Lam’s debut novel. She has already made a mark on Wellington; after completing her Masters of Architecture, for which she was a finalist in the NZIA student design awards for her thesis ‘Architecture for you, me and the bees’, she went on to study at Victoria’s International Institute of Modern Letters, for which this book was written. She has been published in Starling Magazine and wrote for Victoria University’s Salient student magazine including a weekly column ‘Single Sad Postgrad’ in 2016.

Sharon’s Salient column, with titles such as ‘Eulogy for My Love Life,’ ‘I Found Myself, You Can Ask Me Out Again Now,’ and ‘Boys (I Never Dated) But Am Definitely Over’ is a taste of the comedic surrealist tone of Lonely Asian Woman.

Our main character Paula, comes to a point of self-realisation as a ‘lonely Asian woman’. She is in her mid-twenties, unemployed and generally lacking in motivation. The blurb warns that this ‘is not the story of a young woman coming to her responsibilities in the world.’ This is an understatement.

Don’t expect a story focusing on the everyday life of an unemployed twenty-something to become a coming of age arc. Rather than acceptance of adult life, Paula’s series of misjudged decisions, patchy attempts at normalcy along with the occasional moment of joy is an honest representation of the years following university.

The struggles of Paula, which I have felt in this week alone:
1. Wanting financial independence but not wanting a job.
2. Wanting cheesecake but not being able to afford cheesecake.
3. Lack of motivation do something other than stay at home all day watching reality TV.

Lonely Asian Woman sets the bar or perhaps lifts the standard for the ‘coming of age’ genre. It is honest, it is genuine in its moments of friendship, loneliness, and mistakes. There is no clean arc and resolution, but small, everyday successes shine a hopeful light on the mundane reality of our own lives.

The drifting of Paula’s thoughts as well as striking moments of self-reflection make her an utterly believable and sometimes tragically relatable character. Throughout the day to day of Paula’s life, we have insight into her thoughts; weighing up the Taoist definition of peaches as the ‘fruit of immortality’ and cost on a supermarket trip, reading the brand name HEAVENS SAKE in the voices of a geriatric Finnish man, Barney and a drive-thru speaker. An interesting figure was Paulab, a disturbingly autonomous corporeal representation of the side of Paula she may prefer to ignore. Paulab appears abruptly at random times throughout the book, almost like a flatmate who you put up with despite their sheer lack of likeable qualities.

However, in moments of weakness and general lack of common sense, Paula left me in disbelief. The plot line became increasingly bizarre, even more so for the slow normalisation of all that was happening to Paula. A series of small, yet bad decisions by Paula escalates following an incident in which she steals a full supermarket trolley. From that moment on, one must be careful not to overthink as they read. Believe me, Paula doesn’t.

The strength of Lam’s writing, as with ‘Single Sad Postgrad’ is her ability to simultaneously make the mundane hilarious and insightful. She excels in short form writing, elaborating on small stories or a train of thought. Lonely Asian Woman switches between conventional slice-of-life structure to lists, tables and sets of instructions. A personal favourite of mine was the comparison between Paula and her boyfriend, Eric according to the idea that ‘while there are two types of people in this world, there an infinite number of types of people in this world.’

I went into this book with high expectations from Lam (her memory at architecture school, her Salient writing). I came out slightly confused as to what exactly Paula had actually experienced. When one attempts to read Lonely Asian Woman with ‘real world’ logic, the result is confusion and disbelief. My advice is to read the book in the same way in which Paula navigates her life; take it as it comes with an eye for the humorous side, and you will eventually come to normalise the surreal. While the plot shocked me in places, it was an unusually satisfying read. One which left me looking at everyday life with an almost alien perspective of the ridiculous situations we normalise. Refreshing and relatable, a definite recommendation.

by Lara van der Raaij

Lonely Asian Woman
by Sharon Lam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson
ISBN 9780473470326

Book Review: The Fuse Box – Essays on Writing, edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_fuse_boxWhat a fascinating collection this is. Poets, novelists, playwrights, tutors all write about their experience of writing. Their stories are remarkably different – Elizabeth Knox says she learned stories first as spoken narrative (her old sister Sara told her stories all the time) and later to read independently. That’s not so unusual, most kids hear narrative first – but few have the same talented sister to spin the tales, and even fewer find their creative voice as successfully as Elizabeth Knox has.

James Brown discovered at some point that reading could make him laugh and cry, and that it is not necessarily so for everyone. His piece is an alphabetic framework of his experience of writing and what the intending / aspirational writer should keep in mind. It’s well done and ranges from discovery through flarf (look it up!), intervention and shit detection to zing. It’s a clever idea and it works really well.

Lloyd Jones writes ‘to unlock something I don’t know exists. It’s in me somewhere and I’m in search of it’.

Damien Wilkins sheds light on Dennis McEldowney, among others. Stella Duffy views writing from a mid-point in life, with ideas to assist new writers. As she says, you can ignore all her points except this one: do the work. You have to do the work.

She also says that writing is not hard work. ‘Being a miner is hard work. Working twelve hours a day in a textile sweatshop is hard work………Writing…is not hard work…. but you have to work hard at it’

Patricia Grace is interviewed by her playwright daughter-in-law Briar Grace-Smith in a wonderfully interesting set of questions and answers. Much to be learned here.

For Victor Rodger writing is a political act, and for Nina Nawalowalo, necessity is the mother of her invention – there are stories which need to be told. As Tina Makereti quotes at the beginning of her essay, ‘Beautiful writing alone is not enough. Not now – look around you.’

There is a wealth more in this small book – it’s a really excellent insight into how many of our best writers write, teach, learn and create. If you want to write and don’t know how to begin, most of the experience in this book seems to say “just do it” and then see where it goes. That is really great advice. I think this is a great addition to our New Zealand literary canon, and I just have to end with the most wonderful quote from the last piece in this book, a poem by Hera Lindsay Bird where she says:

‘You start to wonder about the future and the great untitled project of your life

It keeps you up at night, like a big fluorescent sadness’

Maybe the solution to that is simply to start writing.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Fuse Box: essays on writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters
Edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561650


Book Review: Sport 45, edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sport_45Sport 45 is packed with an array of new and brilliant pieces from New Zealand writers. There’s poetry, there’s essays, there’s even a novella. It’s a collection that’s not afraid to widen its scope, and this is how it provides a wonderful snapshot of new writing.

While reading through each piece of short fiction, I couldn’t help but recognise common themes. I discovered many characters who were estranged, isolated, alone. I saw the loneliness of waiting, as reflected in Tracey Slaughter’s story ‘Cicada Motel’. I stumbled through the bush with Kerwin in John Summers’ short story ‘Own Shadow’, as he tried to understand what was haunting him.

But the dynamic between characters also spoke volumes. Displaced in new and unfamiliar places, characters were left to try and make sense of each other. In Melissa Day Reid’s short story ‘I Will Come and Find You’, a husband and wife have travelled to Barcelona on a whim. They have also decided to abandon planning for spontaneity instead. Reid portrays Barcelona in a wonderful dream-like way; she describes a snapshot image of ‘arm, neck, lips, ear, tears, drums, and firecrackers’. But shifts in dialogue reveal a growing rift between this husband and wife. In fact, the two seem to be talking on top of each other. The wife points out a candlelit room in a building; her husband sees an alleyway below it and starts making his way there instead. As the story progresses, this rift widens. The piece seems to capture the natural but inevitable drift that sometimes takes place in friendships and relationships. It’s a palpable and bittersweet emptiness. And in this story, Reid explores whether this rift can be stitched up again.

Nicole Phillipson’s novella, ‘Moulin d’Ornes’ touches upon these estranged themes as well. Paul travels to a commune in France, intending to get away from the world so he can write. It’s a quiet setting where ‘the old, grand beauty of Europe… made his memories of New Zealand seem slightly cheap.’ In her novella, Phillipson highlights an interesting advantage to moving away: the delight of cutting away old connections.

A few essays also slipped in next to these pieces of fiction, taking their place comfortably amongst other genres. Giovanni Tiso’s essay ‘Before the Earthquake’ is one of these essays. Tiso describes the possible calamities that could occur if a serious earthquake were to hit Wellington. But he also describes the emotional state that Wellington is already living in because of this possible earthquake. Wellington’s next serious earthquake is not an if, but a when. As Tiso states, ‘we live before the earthquake. Everything around us is foreshadowing’.

There is also an array of beautiful poems in Sport 45. Helen Heath’s poem ‘A Rise of Starlings’ is delightful; she beautifully weaves the image of ‘wild celestial fields’ and messages traced ‘in particles of dust and light’. Natalie Morrison’s poem ‘Three edible grandmothers’ is a peculiar and whimsical little piece that sounds like it came from a fairy tale.

Overall, Sport 45 is a delightful instalment of this annual magazine, and there are a variety of pieces that provoke wonder and rumination.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Sport 45
edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561995


AWF17: Old Guard, New Guard – Bill Manhire and Hera Lindsay Bird

This session was on Saturday 20 May, 4.30 – 5.30pm, at the Auckland Writers Festival

I love a session chaired by a peer or colleague – in a broad sense – of the panelists. So ‘Old Guard, New Guard’, which featured Bill Manhire and Hera Lindsay Bird and was chaired by Andrew Johnston, was always going to be an exceptional line-up for this poetry-loving, Unity-old-girl, wistfully-dreaming-of-IIML reviewer. Bill the old guard, Hera the new – leaving Andrew to ponder ‘I don’t know where that leaves me, but I think I’ll be the lifeguard’.
Both Bill and Hera had sweeping introductions from Andrew. There was a certain sense of both of them needing no introduction, but on the topic of Bill, at least, Andrew pointed out ‘there are quite a few things that Bill does – most people know some of them, but few people know all of them. His wider contribution to New Zealand culture is huge’. Poet laureate, CNZM. Honorary DLitt from Otago. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, Hera’s introduction contained the phrase – not the first time I’ve heard the sentiment in reference to her work – ‘it’s rare to hear the words “poetry” and “viral” together in the same sentence’. And yet, there’s really no other way to put it. Andrew let Hera explain the genesis of her ascendance to the stratospheric heights of household name poet.

For those who haven’t actively followed Hera’s goings on – or perhaps if you’ve only just plugged back into the literary landscape after a year in the desert – things blew up when two of the poems from her eponymous debut collection were published on The Spinoff. Then the wider internet came knocking.

‘I woke up one day and someone told me I was in The Guardian. There were 300-long furious comment threads. The one that people were angriest about was “Keats Is Dead So F*ck Me From Behind”. I kind of flippantly name-checked the deaths of a whole lot of American and British poets.’

Hera meant no disrespect, though, she assured us. ‘I was careful to only write about poets that I liked.’

At this point, Bill pointed out the similarities between ‘Keats Is Dead…’ and R.A.K Mason’s ‘Song of Allegiance’. Mason’s poem begins:
‘Shakespeare Milton Keats are dead / Donne lies in a lowly bed’…

And ends:
‘Though my song have none to hear / boldly bring I up the rear’.

It’s a glorious comparison – and yet, Hera claims that it’s purely coincidental. At least, as far as she can remember. Whether intentional or not, it still makes for a beautiful bookending of New Zealand poetry to date.

Further elaborating on the ‘furious comments’, Hera pointed out that she often prefers a negative review to a positive one ‘from someone liking you for the wrong reasons.

‘I had lots of considered and thoughtful and intelligent reviews, but there were also a lot of people who it felt like they didn’t understand what I was trying to do.’

Hera noted that she doesn’t mind when people (incorrectly) assume that everything in the first person in her book is actually coming from her own perspective. ‘There’s always a performative aspect.’

That line of questioning let into a conversation with Bill about the dichotomy of being a relatively private person who has had some very public poems – whether through major commissions or through winning major plaudits that pull the spotlight in his direction. Bill agreed with Andrew’s suggestion that his poetry acts ‘as a kind of defense as well as projection.’

They also discussed the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) – which Bill set up and Hera attended. While he fell into the role of workshop convener somewhat by chance, his work in that space means that every reader of New Zealand literature owes him a debt of gratitude. So many writers at all ages and stages have gone through the halls of that building on Waiteata Road – and part of the success of so many of them could in part be chalked up to the drive, right from the start, to get people out of their comfort zone. And importantly, to get them towards being the best writer that they can be within their selves, rather than trying to match to some kind of official framework.
bill manhire house.jpg
‘One of the things I’ve always done in the writing workshop world is give people the equivalent of a commission – make them jump the tracks and go sideways from their own sensible selves.’

At Andrew’s request, Bill went into a potted history of the Victoria creative writing programme – both pre- and post-IIML name being added. It was a fascinating wander through time – from implementing a Cambridge-esque optional original manuscript component for English majors through to the IIML of today – in the building now officially called the Bill Manhire Centre (above).

Hera gave a little insight into her experience at the IIML – and her perception of Bill while an MA student there. ‘Bill was the big boss – I think that the only time I saw him in the classroom was at the beginning of year part. He came up to me with a plate of samosas and silently offered me one.’

She went into some detail regarding her own feelings about creative writing programmes – deemed crucial by some, derivative by others. ‘I don’t think it’s essential to do creative writing courses – but they do speed up the process.’ At what other point in one’s young adult life, she pointed out, do we get the luxury of taking a year out from the world just to write?

Bill talked about students coming in intending to focus on one style – and leaving converted to something else. Hinemoana Baker was an example given as someone who came in wanting to be a short story writer, and came out with her first collection of poetry. That particularly close quarters creative environment seems to have a transformative effect on those who study there.

Both poets read examples of their work – Bill lightheartedly requesting to leave before Hera launched into ‘Keats Is Dead…’, but later drawing an incredible stillness from the crowd as we listened to him read ‘Known Unto God’, a poem commissioned as a response to the Battle of the Somme .

There was much more, so much more. Both poets agreed that they do not exist at nearly such extreme poles as the name of the event would suggest. ‘I’ve always thought of Bill’s poetry being quite modern and mine as being much more old-fashioned than people realise,’ Hera said.

‘I think your work is quite traditional,’ Bill replied, describing it as a familiar house with different furnishing.

Old guard or new – or life guard, an essential role for a panel chair to play, after all – when Bill and Hera and Andrew are three of the face of New Zealand poetry today (and yesterday, and tomorrow), it does make you bloody excited to be a reader in this country, doesn’t it?

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Hera Lindsay Bird
by Hera Lindsay Bird
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560714

Tell Me My Name
by Bill Manhire
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561070

Some Things to Place in a Coffin
by Bill Manhire
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561056

Book Review: Beck, by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_beckWhat a tale. The strengths of Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff merge imperceptibly in this story of a half-negro boy born on the wrong side of the sheets in Liverpool.

Beck’s early life was calm enough, but when the Influenza went through his family, his mother died, leaving him age 11 an orphan, in the ‘care’ of the Sisters of Mercy. We pick up with him as his life changes again, as he’s fed and bathed, and sent onto a ship – we soon find – to Canada, where he is taken into the care of The Christian Brotherhood. They taught him to read and write, garden and play games.

And while you can possibly predict the end at least, of that phase of his life; the telling is the pleasure of it. The showing of place is dramatic and beautiful, and yet again (after Barkskins) I want to go to the wilderness of Canada. Of a storm: “Beck stood in the narrowing space between the sunlit world ahead of him and the dark chaos behind. For a few moments, it was a kind of calm; then the wheat writhed, flattened and hissed. A wall of wind, unstoppable and full of ice, hit him, knocking him to his hands and knees.”

At the heart of this novel is the capacity of a person’s heart to change and grow, given the right conditions. There is no melodrama, no over-exaggeration; for much of this story, Beck has unforgivable challenges, but this isn’t what makes him tick. The people around him teach him to do what they need him to do, and feed him, and allow him to feel human warmth. And this is how it happens: how you grow from a husk to a person.

This is a true saga, though a relatively short book for all that. The beauty of the language is immersive, and it is a novel I can see being used within schools to talk about race, and travel, and the healing power that humans have for one another. Perhaps it will turn somebody onto the right path.

I met Mal Peet when he was living in Wellington for 6 months, teaching at the IIML. I pulled together a workshop for keen secondary school writers one Sunday, and it was magical. He was empathetic and encouraging, and his wife was also wonderful. The writing world is certainly poorer for his loss.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406331127

Book Review: The Stories of Bill Manhire

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_the_stories_of_bill_manhireIn my English class back at high school, we had the opportunity to analyse poems by Bill Manhire as part of our close reading practice. It was great to hone our analytical skills with the works of Manhire, an award-winning New Zealand poet, academic, and writer who was named the Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate in 1997. His name was written in bold on a poster on our classroom wall, situated beside posters honouring other New Zealand greats like the Impressionist short story writer Katherine Mansfield, the poet James K. Baxter and the writer Maurice Gee.

The Stories of Bill Manhire, published by Victoria University Press, is a collection of short stories taken from The New Land: A Picture Book (1990), South Pacific (1994), and Songs of My Life (1996). Added delights to this assemblage of literary gemstones are the entertaining choose-your-own-adventurenovella, ‘The Brain of Katherine Mansfield’ (published in 1988, with illustrations by Gregory O’Brien) and the memoir Under the Influence (2003).

Manhire’s stories exhibit unique structure and a genuine Kiwi voice. New Zealand and global histories form the contextual backdrop of most of the narratives. I particularly admire the way Manhire glides between local and global history, from tales of New Zealand pubs and railways, to political and historical events such as Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953-54 visit to New Zealand. In one of his short stories, Manhire imagines the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the famous novel, Treasure Island, who died in Vailima, Samoa. His incorporation of Samoan language, culture and mythology provides cultural vibrancy throughout the text.

My favourite short story was ‘Some questions I am frequently asked’. This piece, amusingly formatted Q&A style, pokes fun at the public life of a writer. The structure of the text mirrors a conversation at a book signing. ‘The Poet’s Wife and The Ghost who talks also’ concern the writer’s lifestyle and social relationships, treating these with humour and sarcasm.

In sum, Manhire’s writing is comical, imaginative and observational. His short stories are magnificent products and imprints of the culture that enlivens the land of swedes, sheep and deep thinkers.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Stories of Bill Manhire
by Bill Manhire
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739254