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As the Earth Turns Silver, by Alison Wong

July 4, 2012

As the Earth Turns Silver Book blurb

“From the late nineteenth century to the 1920s, from Kwantung, China to Wellington and Dunedin and the battlefields of the Western front – a story of two families.

Yung faces a new land that does not welcome the Chinese. Alone, Katherine struggles to raise her children and find her place in the world.

In a climate of hostility towards the foreign newcomers, Katherine and Yung embark on a poignant and far-reaching love affair…

‘He came from behind and held her in his arms, told her to look again at the earth and sky and water. Could she see how the world turned silver?

People died, he told her, because they were afraid. They did not go out at night on dangerous water. They did not see the earth as it turned overnight to silver.’

Alison Wong’s much-awaited first novel establishes the author as a startling new voice in New Zealand fiction.”

As the Earth Turns Silver First Page

Wong Chung-shun, 1896

PROLOGUE

It is a lonely place where the Jesus-ghosts preach. They preach about love, about a god who died of love, yet in the street the people sneer and call out and spit, then on Sundays sing in the Jesus-house.

Their god is a white ghost. You see the pictures. He has pale skin and a big nose and a glow of moonlight round his long brown hair. He has many names, just as we Tongyan have many names. We have a milk name, an adult name, perhaps a scholar or chosen name. The Jesus-ghosts call their god Holy Ghost. Even they know he is a ghost. People are like their gods, just as they are like their animals. They even call him Father. We do not need to name them, these gweilo. Even they know they are ghosts.

Yung says, We do not need to recognise their words; we do not need to interpret the raised syllable. It is there in a flicker of the eyes, the slight curl of a lip, in the muscles of the face, the way they set against us. He says, The body has its own language, as fluid as poetry, as coarse as polemic.

Yung has a way with words. He says the language of the body can be used as a weapon.

Now that Yung is here, I do not have to pay a clansman. One of us can go to the market while the other keeps shop; one can sort bananas while the other trims vegetables. Now that he is here, I can save to [-p.8] bring out a wife. I can save the fare and the poll tax. It will take a good many years.” (pp.7-8 Alison Wong (2009) As the Earth Turns Silver. Penguin: Auckland, New York.)

Themes in the novel

LOVE;  DISCRIMINATION;  WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE;  CHINESE NEW ZEALANDERS;  EARLY CHINESE SETTLERS IN NEW ZEALAND;  IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCES;  PREJUDICE; RACISMTHE OTHERMUTLICULTURALISM;  THE BODY;  THE NATION; NATIONAL IDENTITY; NATIONAL ORIGINS;  POWER; STORY; FOODWAYS AND FOOD CULTURES;  GENDERING;  COMMUNITYHISTORY;  KNOWLEDGE;  FAMILY;  IDENTITY; SEXUAL IDENTITY; MASCULINITY; FEMININITY; HYPHENATED IDENTITIES; GHOSTS AND SPIRITUALITY IN LITERATURE; the list goes on!

Possible directions for study/questions to apply to As the Earth Turns Silver

Firstly, let me acknowledge that this novel is more correctly placed on the ‘adult’ side of the bookstore, but… there is so little fiction by ‘Chinese new Zealanders’ or on/by Chinese immigrants in New Zealand that this book remains important to readers of all sections… ‘until further notice’ as it were. Besides, divisions in bookstores are arbitrary!

There are a number of possible discussion points in this novel. I’ll come back to this blog and add to it later… for now:

The NARRATIVE is deliberately designed to present multiple perspectives. Consider:
  • Why have so many perspectives in the story?
  • How authentic are they? What evidence do we have for their authenticity?
  • What effect do these multiple perspectives have on our reading of the story?!
  • With whom do we empathise and why?
  • Viona Au Yeung also writes that “By telling the story from the perspectives of various characters, the author juxtaposes the public and private understanding of Chinese people.” In what other ways are the public and private worlds of these characters brought together? To what effect?
The novel is told as a love story – and a tragic one (the ‘star-crossed lover’ myth), yet it deals with some intensely political themes and engages quite deliberately in a project of historicity. Why make this story of early 19th Century Wellington a love story? Why not crime, or drama, or some other style of historic fiction? Why make the history so important in this story of love-that-cannot-be? And why choose this period/place in history to do so?
Nick Terrell has written that “Wong’s narrative contains domestic tyranny, bigotry, accidental death, terroristic murder, clandestine love, more murder and a final dose of tragedy, and yet an even-tempered tone holds steady throughout. / Wong does, however, make some attempt to build and control a kind of suspense or at least a sense of uncertainty as to the final accounting, moral or otherwise, for the intermingled family tragedies that have unfolded.” …why write in this way? Terrell’s implication is that is the fault of the author’s judgement, but I believe it is deliberate and intended to achieve a particular meaning…
Put another way, why tell a love story? Manying Ip points out that “Intermarriage is an indicator of social distance. It is the most intimate link, and bridges social gaps.” (7 Manying Ip (2008) Being Maori-Chinese: Mixed Identities. Auckland University Press: Auckland.) This story appears to be about the bridging of social gaps – does the love story help us make sense of race and gender as a personal/political divide?

Emily Perkins once mentioned the “essentially star-crossed lovers in [Wong’s] story” and went on to point out: “and you know that’s a very ancient myth from many different parts of the world – so there’s a real universality to that.”[1] …universality??? What is Perkins referring to? Why use a ‘universal’ myth to tell a story that could be described as historic fiction, set in a very specific area of Wellington? Is Wong’s use of this love story politically arbitrary or meaningful?


[1] Emily Perkins in 24 Emily Perkins with Kate De Goldi, Alison Wong and Glenn Colquhoun () ‘Writers in conversation’ English in Aotearoa 21-28

The story of ‘other wives’ in China has an emotive New Zealand history (Manying Ip Being Maori-Chinese: Mixed Identities pviii) and, while their inclusion in this novel follows a certain logic within the story of these star-crossed lovers, the story of these wives has greater significance (I think)… in terms of cultural heritage/roots and cultural loss – in terms of the very difficult and culturally specific break in family ties that underlies the history of immigration for many NZ Chinese… also, I think, in terms of the inclusion of ghosts (see blog, Thinking about the ghosts in As the Earth Turns Silver)

I particularly love Wong’s use of LANGUAGE (POETIC DEVICES, METAPHOR, SYMBOLISM, ETC.).  For example:
  • Viona Au Yeung  wrote that “In the novel, one can easily find words translated literally from the Chinese language. Wong deliberately preserves the awkwardness of expressions transposed into another language, thus allowing readers to understand how uniquely each culture approaches an individual notion. One example of this is “eats vinegar” being the Chinese equivalent of being jealous.” http://www.asiancha.com/content/view/509/211/ What other metaphors are in evidence? How do these metaphors (from different cultures) support your reading of the novel (as a study of living a bicultural existence, for example)?
  • Wong develops a number of symbols throughout the novel (Donald’s dictionary and butterfly collection, for example)… what purpose do they serve? How do they support our engagement with this story?
In terms of historicist projects and national history, Wong’s work merits close attention.

She has openly discussed her methods and the difficulties she encountered while writing this work. For example, Wong asserts: “There is a certain tenuousness about any claim I could make about being an insider writing about Chinese in NZ one hundred years ago.”[1] With this in mind (and knowing how much time and effort she put into her research), how do we read this novel? How do we interpret the multiple perspectives? …this is just one author…?


[1] Alison Wong (2003) Writing Historical Fiction from a Cross-Cultural Perspective’ a seminar given as part of the Stout Research Centre Chinese New Zealand Seminar Series, 2 April 2003, available as a transcript online at: http://www.stevenyoung.co.nz/The-Chinese-in-New-Zealand/Whats-New/Writing-Historical-Fiction-from-a-Cross-Cultural-Perspective.html accessed 2nd July 2012

In her Notes for Reading Groups of this novel, Robyn Sheahan-Bright quotes from the novel, then makes the following point about history: “‘She could see a tree stump–the end of life, all the rings of its history.’(pp 39-40) Generational change and the past’s influence on the present is suggested too in the novel. The author is writing from a past which has been influenced by these sorts of events; by the divides which were manifested in such spontaneous and fatal actions as those of Robbie. Have we learned from such a history?” (P9 Robyn Sheahan-Bright (2009) Picador Australia Notes for Reading Groups; Alison Wong As the Earth Turns Silver. Pan Macmillan Australia: Sydney (http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/resources/9780330424882-notes.pdf) accessed 2nd July 2012). What Sheahan-Bright is pointing to here is Wong’s project in historicity, as expressed in this novel; Wong invites us to negotiate and question the relevance of this period of history to modern New Zealand (in numerous ways). To what end?!

There are also numerous THEMES presented.

Identity is possibly the most significant theme…

A hyphenated existence: Wong really works the notion of living between worlds in this novel. Many references are made to living in a different time, a different place, etc.,  and needing to cross these divides to live everyday life. Wong has stated: “There is a specific kind of ‘otherness’, which is particularly relevant to the novel I am writing. Immigrants, or minorities of any kind (whether racial, ethnic, religious or otherwise) sometimes talk about living a hyphenated existence, straddling two cultures, sometimes belonging to both, often belonging to neither.”[1]
[1] Alison Wong (2003) Writing Historical Fiction from a Cross-Cultural Perspective’ a seminar given as part of the Stout Research Centre Chinese New Zealand Seminar Series, 2 April 2003, available as a transcript online at: http://www.stevenyoung.co.nz/The-Chinese-in-New-Zealand/Whats-New/Writing-Historical-Fiction-from-a-Cross-Cultural-Perspective.html accessed 2nd July 2012

Inter-racial tensions and women’s suffrage: Nick Terrell  has stated that “Wong consciously breaks up the narrative sequence in two ways. There are chapters which step aside from the plot to provide the perspective of the Wong-chung brothers, their wives in China, and Shun’s Wellington mistress Mei-lin; and there are chapters which keep step with the sequence of time, but which revisit previous events from a different character’s perspective. This is a common enough technique where demonstrating the multiplicity of consciousness and perspective is high on the author’s agenda. For that reason, the technique has been a staple of works exploring inter-racial tensions. The most coherent theme of the book …comes through as a kind of side effect of this technique – across every cultural milieu the deplorable status of women is a constant fact.” Nick Terrell A Wellington Nocturne – ‘As the Earth Turns Silver’ by Alison Wong The Ember http://theember.com.au/?p=608 accessed 2nd July 2012

The body and identity discourses: Viona Au Yeung writes that “Wong’s novel raises questions of identity, the most powerful of which is the inseparable relationship between the life and the body which defines one’s identity. Readers will notice a subtle change in Katherine’s observation of Yung as their friendship gradually transforms into a romantic relationship. At the beginning of their romance, she tries to dilute his Chineseness: “And yet when she was with him she forgot who he was. After all, he had a strong, almost European nose. He was tall. He didn’t really look Chinese.” Later, we see that although Katherine’s view of her lover continues to be influenced by her prejudices, we also see that it is tempered by a more philosophical understanding of the nature of identity: “If only she could have changed his skin. But then who would he have been?” The characters are all too conscious that they have to live in their given bodies, vessels which determine their appearance, feelings and in some cases, destinies.”
What do you think of this statement?
In what ways does Katherine describe Yung’s Chineseness? …his body, culture, personality, habits, etc.?
How does her relationship with Yung compare with her relationship with Donald? And how is this contrast significant to her relationship with Yung?
In what ways does this novel explore ‘the inseparable relationship between the life and the body which defines one’s identity’ (see Yeung above)?

National identity: Nick Terrell writes: “As The Earth Turns Silver is a love story and a tragedy. Beyond that it is an exploration and a celebration of Chinese settlement in New Zealand, charged with an element of displaced self-definition. National growing pains have been fused with a pivotal chapter in Wong’s family history.”[1]
In what ways are national growing pains evidenced?
How important is race to New Zealand’s development as a nation?
How important is New Zealand’s treatment of women to its national sense of moral character?
And what about our involvement in WWI – how important was this to our development of a national identity (and why does Wong not spend more time exploring this piece of history?)?


[1] Nick Terrell A Wellington Nocturne – ‘As the Earth Turns Silver’ by Alison Wong The Ember http://theember.com.au/?p=608 accessed 2nd July 2012

In this same vein, Wong’s engagement with this particular piece of history is important to current national identity projects … consider the following statement: “History offers two crucial channels to understanding ourselves better.  The first is the opportunity to learn from the past.  The second is psychological grounding.  We learn where we came from, how we got here and what has given our society its unique character.  History gives us context, richness and depth, continuity and perspective.” (vii (2004) Writers in Residence: A Journey with Pioneer New Zealand Writers. Auckland University Press: Auckland.) …What is there to belong to in New Zealand? Who belongs? What stories elucidate their manner of belonging?

Texts that invite comparison

Themes in Wong’s poetry perhaps? Consider her poem: There’s Always Things to Come Back to the Kitchen for, by Alison Wong

a bowl of plain steamed rice
a piece of bitter dark chocolate
a slice of crisp peeled pear

a mother or father who understands
the kitchen is the centre of the universe

children who sail out on long elliptical orbits
and always come back, sometimes like comets, sometimes like moons
(From Cup p16 Alison Wong (2006) Cup. Steele Roberts: Wellington)

How central is the kitchen to both works? To what effect? How does the kitchen (and the food cultures it represents) provide evidence of particular relationships? What does it show us about those relationships? What do these images of food and kitchen have to say about the public/private experience of the world?

Note: http://finecha.wordpress.com/2009/09/04/why-we-like-you-alison-wong/

Food, war, gender, nation-building, love and the home (okay, so this may not sound like a theme to everyone, but I was really interested in how many parallels I could see between As the Earth Turns Silver and Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate. Both novels are set in a period of overt nation-building but make a love story set very much in the home – and often in the kitchen – the focus of events. In both cases, the gendering that happens around food and in the kitchen is evident – as is the building of a racial identity in the case of As the Earth Turns Silver. These novels are just begging to be considered together)

In terms of writing against the nation’s ‘ethnic’ norm, (not ignoring that one commentator has already dubbed Wong “the Patricia Grace of the Chinese New Zealand experience,”[1]), I believe it invites comparison with the works of Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston but whether these are to be fruitful comparisons or perpetuating of an ‘ethnic writing paradigm, I’m not quite sure…

Arif Dirlik’s discussion of ‘ethnic writers’ in national literatures might be important here. Dirlik reminds us that Benedict Anderson “pointed in his Imagined Communities to the correspondence between “the ‘interior’ time of the novel” and the “‘exterior’ time of the reader’s everyday life,” which “gives a hypnotic confirmation of the solidity of a single community, embracing characters, author and readers, moving onward through calendrical time.””[2] Dirlik explains that: “Within such a context “the characters, the author and readers” do not belong in the same spatiality or temporality, and “the interior time of the novel” does not confirm but challenges “the ‘exterior’ time of the reader’s everyday life”—where the very language in which the novel is written, while it is seemingly the very same national language, nevertheless calls for translation because its idiom now includes the legacies of many other languages. More is at issue in this situation than the identity of literature. The issue, ultimately, is that of the status of the nation itself as political and cultural form.”[3] 

Consider also statements like: “”Based on meticulous research, [As the Earth Turns Silver] opens new windows on the development of our nation; it also opens our hearts to the anguish caused by racism, ignorance, failures in family relationship and communication, and war. The book is a delight to look at and hold, as well as deeply moving to read.” ~ Charmaine Pountney, Judge at the New Zealand Post Book Awards.” http://www.taiwan.com.au/OurClients/AlisonWong/Index.html

In terms of New Zealand history…one might as well compare such a rich text with Maurice Gee’s Plumb (As Sarah Dugdale has pointed out, this work is hugely evocative of Pakeha history in this land. Certainly Maurice Gee’s use of metaphor in Plumb is both culturally located and eloquent in the extreme…). And what of Meg – or, going a step further but staying within the framework of Gee’s trilogy, the absence of a story for Eddie? How do the silences around the very central figure of Eddie in Plumb’s world compare with Katherine McKechnie?

In terms of the deliberate use of an intensely metaphoric style and the framework of a love story, I am put in mind of Ann Pistacchi’s analysis of Maori metaphor in her MA thesis on Baby No Eyes. … Or Bernard Beckett’s August… Albert Wendt’s Mango’s Kiss… we should ask the question: why tell a ‘love story’? Manying Ip points out , for example, that “Intermarriage is an indicator of social distance. It is the most intimate link, and bridges social gaps.”[4]

Living ‘in two worlds’, perhaps… Paula Morris’s Hibiscus Coast also springs to mind, though I have to think this through more: looking at how an individual straddles two cultures and makes sense of themselves in this context perhaps???

Family… Consider this quote: “”There is an undeniable touch of New Zealand author Janet Frame evident in the breakdown of a New Zealand family. Katherine’s once staid domestic existence is disturbed by her new-found love and a son determined to carry on his late father’s patriotic beliefs. But Wong’s voice is very much her own — ethereal and challenging. The book’s ending, shattering in its simplicity, is a testament to Wong’s subtlety and skill as a writer. She has produced a thought-provoking, deeply affecting work about the choices we make and the courage to stay true to oneself.” ~ Mitchell Jordan, The Epoch Timeshttp://www.taiwan.com.au/OurClients/AlisonWong/Index.html

Consider also Nick Terrell’s statement: “Wong’s narrative contains domestic tyranny, bigotry, accidental death, terroristic murder, clandestine love, more murder and a final dose of tragedy, and yet an even-tempered tone holds steady throughout. / Wong does, however, make some attempt to build and control a kind of suspense or at least a sense of uncertainty as to the final accounting, moral or otherwise, for the intermingled family tragedies that have unfolded. Wong consciously breaks up the narrative sequence in two ways. There are chapters which step aside from the plot to provide the perspective of the Wong-chung brothers, their wives in China, and Shun’s Wellington mistress Mei-lin; and there are chapters which keep step with the sequence of time, but which revisit previous events from a different character’s perspective. This is a common enough technique where demonstrating the multiplicity of consciousness and perspective is high on the author’s agenda. For that reason, the technique has been a staple of works exploring inter-racial tensions.” Nick Terrell A Wellington Nocturne – ‘As the Earth Turns Silver’ by Alison Wong The Ember http://theember.com.au/?p=608 accessed 2nd July 2012


[1] Quoting Karen Tay, Sunday Star Times Bookman Beattie’s blog ‘As the Earth Turns Silver’ Wednesday, July 08, 2009 http://beattiesbookblog.blogspot.com/2009/07/as-earth-turns-silver-alison-wong.html accessed 8th october 2011

also http://www.taiwan.com.au/OurClients/AlisonWong/Index.html

[2]215-216 Arif Dirlik (2002) ‘Literature/Identity: Transnationalism, Narrative and Representation’ The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 24: 209-234

[3]215-216 Arif Dirlik (2002) ‘Literature/Identity: Transnationalism, Narrative and Representation’ The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 24: 209-234

[4] 7 Manying Ip (2008) Being Maori-Chinese: Mixed Identities. Auckland University Press: Auckland.

How to use this blog

Mindmaps help me think critically.  They help me see the links between things and plot a course through all the observations and questions that a text provokes when I read it ‘as a text.’  This blog is a mindmap of sorts; full of random thoughts and relevant-seeming quotations or ideas.

  • There is a tag cloud to the right of the blog, which shows the topics I am exploring as ‘tags.’
  • You can also use the search bar at the bottom of the page to see if a particular word/book/author/theme is mentioned.
  • Each time I bring an author into the discussion for the first time, I add an “Introducing the author” blog. This is easily found at the beginning of the section under that author.
  • I have a section titled ‘Blog Notes’ in which I explain my blogging style.
  • I have a ‘Literary Resources’ section which includes general ideas on literature and its study as well as the questions I apply to any text I study.
  • These questions (eg. Character Questions) may be useful to any other reader wishing to look at this text differently (refer to very early on in the blogging history of this section).
  • I absolutely welcome discussion: comments, suggestions, ideas, criticisms… please add them!

Wong’s As the Earth Turns Silver: a History

Awards won:

Fiction Award winner at the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Awards;

Winner, 2009 Janet Frame Fiction Prize;

Winner, 2010 New Zealand Post Book Award – Fiction;

Shoftlisted, 2010 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards;

Longlisted, 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Awards

Publishing History:

Originally published by Penguin Books in 2009, As the Earth Turns Silver is Wong’s first novel (She was already well-known and highly respected for her poetry, though.)

Bibliography of secondary literature:

Author information:

Refer blog : “Alison Wong – the beginnings of an introduction

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