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Wong’s ability to graft words on to silences

June 30, 2012

Just another thought on language in As the Earth Turns Silver… I’m particularly fond of the way Wong creates the character of Mrs Newman: Wong not only builds this character out of words, but also out of the absence of words – a bit like a jinga tower, but stronger. Consider this passage (I’ve replicated the elipses and paragraph breaks which are in the novel as these are key to Wong’s craft):

“Mrs Newman picked up her pen, wrote a few words. Crossed them out.

‘You should be careful…

‘Katherine. I have nothing against the Chinese. They’re a hard-working race, they keep pretty much to themselves, and they don’t deserve the vilification granted them in the newspapers. But –

‘Katherine, listen. What does your fellow Briton see, the one who struggles to put bread and dripping on the table? The Chinamen undercut us with prices that would put a decent working man in the poorhouse. They take work away from impoverished laundrywomen. They suck the country dry and then return to the Flowery Land with everything that is rightfully ours. That’s what people say, and you know it.

‘Katherine, don’t look at me like that, I’m only trying to open your eyes. At least you should be careful of your reputation.

‘Yes, I realize you’re being careful. Otherwise I’m sure I would have heard about this a long time ago…

‘But Katherine, make sure you’re doubly careful. You may be a widow, but your husband was a respected member of the community…’

Mrs Newman burst into donkey-like laughter. She convulsed, ending in a loud snort. ‘Oh, Katherine you are a party! Of course I know women aren’t just appendages of their husbands! But, seriously Katherine, you must realise that it’s only the lowest class of women who consort with Chinamen. Those who have nothing to lose.

‘All right, so there might be a few respectable women who marry Chinamen. Ladies who play the piano at church and fall in love while working for the Lord among the heathen. These are the kind of women who answer the call of God to the darkest heart of Africa or China and die in childbirth or of some unspeakable tropical disease.

‘Katherine, listen to me. Did you know that if you marry an alien, you lose your British citizenship? No, I didn’t think so. A woman gets married and she might as well be an infant or a lunatic or an idiot. I wish I was joking. You marry a Chinaman and you lose the right to vote, you won’t get the old-age pension, Katherine, you lose everything. And if you’re thinking of living in sin, God forbid, you must have heard of the cases that have gone through the court? Doesn’t Truth love to report such cases?” (155-156, Alison Wong (2009) As the Earth Turns Silver: a novel. Penguin Books: Auckland.)

The linguistic features

Wong’s omission of the other participant in this conversation (the novel’s protagonist, Katherine) gives us a real sense of Mrs Newman’s character. Mrs Newman talks almost incessantly and tends to dominate conversations (a characteristic that seems to fit with her forceful leadership in the suffragette movement). However, what seems to be an inability to stop and listen on the part of this character has the added effect of forcing the reader to work harder to hear what is not being said – we have to pause and listen very carefully to what is being said ‘into the silences’. It fits perfectly with the political theme of language/power that runs through this novel and I think it’s a brilliant piece of writing!

The political features

The clever portrayal of the political discourse of the time (around gendered and racial identities) is also wonderful. Nigel Murphy offers some insightful discussion of this topic and I couldn’t help noticing the relevance of the following statements to Wong’s first novel:

“The most lurid and visceral evidence of white New Zealand’s fear of Chinese sexuality was published by the weekly Wellington paper the New Zealand Truth. A typical example was published in December 1906. Titled ‘The Yellow Yahoo,’ it warns of the dangers of innocent white girls frequenting Chinese fruit-shops.” (p.75 Murphy)

“That Chinese not only sold but also grew the vegetables that white New Zealanders ate was a cause of great concern. The combination of race degeneracy, disease, dirt and food made for a potent symbol of disgust for many white New Zealanders. The New Zealand Free Lance linked Chinese vice, disease and the cultivation of vegetables, noting in 1907 that Chinese ‘plant cabbages, vices, leprosy, and other more or less unpleasant things.’ …That Chinese continued to sell vegetables to European customers, despite the ‘dangers’ involved, was a matter of some irritation to those campaigning against Chinese immigration, and shows that even where the discourse against Chinese was strongest, simple matters of economics often outweighed matters of race.” (76, Murphy) Economic hardships ensured the continued patronage of Chinese fruit shops, but the dominant discourse of the time remained, in Murphy’s words, “uniformly simple: Chinese were a dangerous and unwanted threat to New Zealand, and were not, and never could be, New Zealanders. ”[1]

Much more could be said, but you get the picture!


[1] 77 Nigel Murphy (2009) ‘Māoriland’ and ‘yellow peril’: discourses of Māori and Chinese in the formation of New Zealand’s national identity 1890-1914’ pp.56-88 in ed. Manying Ip The Dragon & the Taniwha: Māori & Chinese in New Zealand. Auckland University Press: Auckland

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