book review · books · shanti

I Live At the Edge of An Island (like everyone else)

hello Virtually Readers! It has been A WHILE and it will probably continue to be A While between posts. Shar and I have made our peace with this, and for the time being this lovely blog holds years of effort and memories, while we keep reading and finding life in other places. So it goes, and I’m not going to apologise. But I’m currently indoors (because I can’t go outside, because virus), and I’m drinking tea, and it is rainy and I do not have any university work or journalism to do…so I thought I’d review a book I read yesterday.


All Who Live on Islands introduces a bold new voice in New Zealand literature. In these intimate and entertaining essays, Rose Lu takes us through personal history – a shopping trip with her Shanghai-born grandparents, her career in the Wellington tech industry, an epic hike through the Himalayas – to explore friendship, the weight of stories told and not told about diverse cultures, and the reverberations of our parents’ and grandparents’ choices. Frank and compassionate, Rose Lu’s stories illuminate the cultural and linguistic questions that migrants face, as well as what it is to be a young person living in 21st-century Aotearoa New Zealand.


Several parts in this essay collection made me quite tearful. One was in the essay “Five-Five”, an exquisite reflection on what wellbeing is, and what makes us feel at home. Here’s part of what Lu writes about faces.

In China you just had a face. If people looked  carefully, they could identify someting foreign in your behaviur, your style of dress. But people didn’t usually look so closely. People tend to look at the face.

In that moment, when you see their faces in the back of the ute, you will want to draw their attention to your face. The ute will stop, and one of them will lean forward, hand outstretched, in response to your face. ou are happy to take it. You are happy because you have experienced so few times when your face has been recognised like this.

Just typing that out made me cry again, yeah I’m so okay. Here’s a story about faces: my mum says that one of the reasons she knew it was time for us to live less rurally in India was when we as children would whisper ‘let’s go talk to the whities’ when any were spotted in the remote Himalayan village where we lived. I remember when we first moved to the town where I would live for the next 8 years, I saw a kid with their parents, one white, one brown. Someone like us. Sometimes–occassionally–my Hindi was good enough that I could tell people that I was from South India (not strictly untrue) and they would accept that I was Indian.

Now, I live in New Zealand. When I see other people who look Indian, I know that faces are not all of the story, and I know that I am blessed and cursed by my ethnic ambiguity. I see others who look Indian, and I want to go and talk to them, I want to be their friend. At a party the other week (before social distancing), a brown girl walked into the room, filled with boisterous white people talking about their summer jobs, and I abandoned my conversation with a friend’s newly mustachioed boyfriend and walked over to her, and did not stop talking to her for three hours. I want to be known by my face. I want people to not just accept my accent and assume that I’m a New Zealander, I want to be told I’m Indian even as my Hindi skills disintegrate, even if I don’t wear a dupatta with my salwar kameez. Rose Lu wrote about faces and where she thought she belonged, and even though my experience of belonging with my face is so distant, there was something pulverising about that section, like I was too understood.

also good for reading in the bath!

One thing I particularly noticed about this essay collection was that her writing isn’t showy, or tangled in purple. The metaphors are always in keeping with the subject matter, not too abstract. That’s good! I like intricate curling prose, and have been known to indulge in it myself, but the writing is elegant and stylish without flourishes, and that is good.

Instead, the florishes are in the detail. Lu has this magnificent, judicious use of detail. Take this, from “Cleaver”.

a thumb of ginger splatters open, spilling its aroma. My dad rocks the cleaver back and forth on the chopping board. Fwup! Fwup! Fwup! A spring onion stalk is slashed into four segments. My dad faces the blunt spine of the cleaver down. Thump! Thump! Thump! A cucumber is crushed, white seeds and clear fluid flowing out of its jagged surface

There are no words that don’t need to be there, but instead, each detail is bightly evocative. It’s especially obvious when she writes about food–I’m vegetarian but some of the food descriptions in this book made my mouth water even if they had meat in them. (I was especially interested, incidentally, in the comment about how Chinese people use all of an animal, and don’t process it so it doesn’t look like the animal it came from. In a curent climate where Chinese markets and food systems are being blamed for a crisis, I think All Who Live on Islands offers some tools to understand that discourse). These essays feel profoundly alive, because Rose Lu finds details from how she lives her own  life and contains them perfectly.

All of the essays are wonderful, but I particularly liked the first one, about how we differ from our grandparents, certain parts of Yellow Fever (although I found the structure contrived at times, but I too have done creative non-fiction classes and done the same thing myself), and The Tiger Cub…actually it’s hard to choose. Some of the essays utterly evoked my experience as a New Zealander descended from (South) Asian immigrants. Others, like “Alphabet Game”, felt totally alien to me and my experience of friendship and digital communication. I like writing that reminds me that other people are both familiar and alien at the same time; that my self is allowed to be mysterious to me, that I am allowed to write and read about it.

This essay collection is about immigration on one level, but also about how immigration is not one story, but the air that we all breathe, in a world where someone else’s factory changes your supermarket, where someone else staying home may have saved your great aunt’s life, where borders are closed, but only for now. Lu challenges the typical “bossy immigrant parents don’t understand their children of two cultures” in particular ways, and combs out the reason that exists at the same time. I was inspired to write more deeply, to act in greater compassion, to listen more, to hold myself accountable. I think all good writing should have such a response, and I am so glad I read this.

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