Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2019

Auckland Writers Festival: The Good Immigrant

It was nobody’s fault, but I was a little bit disappointed that Iranian-American Porochista Khakpour wasn’t part of the panel for this session, because she (the author of The Last Illusion) was the very reason I bought a ticket for it.  Unfortunately she had to withdraw from the festival altogether because of ill-health, but there were other interesting authors to listen to, so I enjoyed the session anyway.

However, (and I’ll say this first, to get it out of the way), I don’t think the moderator Noelle McCarthy gave enough attention to Rosabel Tan, the curator and editor of a New Zealand online arts magazine, The Pantograph Punch.  The topic was immigration and belonging, which is probably just as important an issue in New Zealand as it is anywhere else, but the questions were nearly all directed to Alexander Chee (of Korean-American heritage) and Elaine Castillo (who’s of Philippines-American heritage).  They were vibrant and lively panellists, and what they had to say about the situation in America was important, but I was keen to learn about the diversity of Kiwi writing and publishing, and I would have liked to hear Tan (who grew up in Brisbane but is of Chinese heritage) compare the situation in Australia with New Zealand—but I left none the wiser about that.


The first question was about what it was like to be writing in the era of Trump.  Castillo spoke first, saying that she’d been in the UK when Brexit was happening and that the election of Trump was a catalyst for her to return to the US to ‘fight’.  She made the point that while ‘well-meaning white liberal friends‘ were surprised, People of Colour and Friends of Colour were not.  (And this very first comment was interesting to me because I would have thought that ‘well-meaning white liberal friends’ would also be ‘Friends of Colour‘ but apparently not.)  But her point was that there were issues in US society that were invisible to the wider society.

Chee was in Korea when Trump first made his nuclear threats against North Korea on Twitter (and he drew a melancholy laugh from the audience when he said it felt so weird to say that out loud) – and this threat was a catalyst for him to write a meditation on life, belonging and how Korea had transformed itself under its new president.  He said that the problem with nationalism is that it is predicated on agreeing to forget the flexibility that is part of the nation, in exchange for what is an artificial confidence and involving the turning away from grievances and issues that need to be addressed.  These were wise words about what we stand to lose if nationalism holds sway.

Rosalind Tan made one of her few contributions when she said that a split had emerged in New Zealand since Christchurch – a cleavage between those on the left who were shocked and responded by saying ‘it’s not us’, while for years the Muslim community have documented abuse and threats against them but it has never made the daily news.  She also said that there is now a new awareness that when they program events featuring Others, they had to consider whether they were exposing them to risk.  She thinks that there is not enough discussion about the risks of free speech.

(This remark made me look around the room, where I noticed not for the first time that the vibrant multicultural society that’s outside on the streets of Auckland, was not inside the tent.)

The next question was about whether writers feel a sense of responsibility.  Castillo said that all writing is political.  If it’s said not to be, it’s because it’s white, middle-class writing.  Topics such as motherhood or love are not universal, she says, because the way they are written about is alien to People of Colour.  She thinks that specificity is important, writing about the ‘textural, granular dailiness’ of motherhood or love for People of Colour is a way of ‘pushing back against the clichés: the refugee/migrant experience of having a better life if they work hard and being grateful for the opportunity. People forget that many immigrants leave their homes because of some cataclysm which is caused by others, and she referenced the ways that America had interfered in the Philippines which was what forced many people to leave, so gratitude was not the emotion that they felt.  And since America doesn’t have structural supports like universal health care, working hard does not guarantee a good life, because ill health can make you lose everything you’ve worked for.

Chee also said that ‘if there’s no ethnicity,’ it’s about whites.’  He said that in his writing he wanted to ‘fill in the spaces’ with the specificity and the fullness of lives.  He likes his students to write about the American Dream and how they fit into it, and he’s a bit concerned by some of them who don’t want to hark back to their immigrant origins.  Assimilation was the norm in the sixties, but now it’s not, so he thinks it’s unfortunate that some of them want to hide these ethnic origins of the last century.  It seemed to me that Chee feels a kind a melancholy about America now: he talked about how the US was like a ‘hissing cat, where the fur makes the creature seem larger than it is.’  I think he shocked the audience when he said that Trump was killing people: people dying on the border or succumbing to disease because they no longer have healthcare if they lose their jobs.

It was only towards the end of the session that there was a comment about needing to get past gatekeepers in the publishing industry (publishers, agents, marketers) because they are all white.   Chee said it was important to avoid tokenism but that in his collections he wants to support writing across a broad spectrum.  These comments made me think about the Australian industry which, it seems to me, offers more support for diversity (ethnicity, disability, LGBTQI, Indigenous Australians) from the indie publishers than from the global mega-publishers.  (Like all generalisations, of course, this one is open to exceptions, of course).  I don’t know enough about New Zealand indies to know whether that’s the case here too.

I talked about this with other people in the audience afterwards, but they didn’t seem to know either.  So now I’m on a mission to find out!





  1. Even the expression People of Colour pre-supposes that White is normal and Colour is other. It is very difficult for white liberals like us to not say “not me” but it is important that we don’t, that we go on identifying (or having identified for us) those areas where we still are part of the problem.


    • I know… naming is a very fraught issue…


  2. Reblogged this on Travels with Tim and Lisa.


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