🙏 It is with great sadness, I farewell Lydia Wevers. This is my well-thumbed much-loved copy of Yellow Pencils: Contemporary Poetry by New Zealand Women, the second anthology that drew local women’s poems under a spotlight. So many readers, writers and students, along with friends and family, are sharing how this remarkable woman has affected them; mentored, inspired, opened windows. As the writer of Wild Honey I followed in her groundbreaking footsteps. From my Level 4 isolation, I am linking in grief with everyone who is mourning, with others who are also lost for words. Let us toast Lydia today. Let us toast her warmth and acumen, her dedication to writing, research, fresh ideas, New Zealand books and, above all, humanity. 🙏
SO sorry for your lose. Prayers for you and her family.
Yellow Pencils is one of my favourite poetry collections and I laud Lydia Wevers for publishing it. The book is currently on my coffee table and I’ll be thinking of Lydia and her achievements when I pick it up later today.
Ah yes, Paula, it is very, very sad, if expected, news. My husband, Nick, entered MFAT in the same batch as Lydia’s husband, Alastair. We were in Taiwan when we heard that Lydia had been diagnosed with cancer. Later, when we were back in New Zealand, I was asked to give a paper at a conference in Dunedin on the subject of Representing Asia, Remaking New Zealand. I was invited to talk about my own work and to bring in Robin Hyde, on whose China-based work I had recently written an essay. Because of the double link to Lydia (she had just run a seminar series on Chinese New Zealand), and also because, as a friend, I wanted to pay tribute to her, I dedicated the essay ‘O to be a dragon’ (the title taken from Marianne Moore’s book of that name) that the paper became to her.
I don’t think you would want to plough through the essay, which appeared in the NZ Journal of Asian Studies, but I would like to show you the dedication (it appears in note one) so have copied its first page. Evidence of Lydia’s broad range of interests.
In this essay, in line with the focus of this issue of the Journal, I write from the perspective of a contemporary New Zealand poet – someone who was stimulated to begin writing while living in Asia and whose poems make frequent use of Asian artistic repertoires, topics and locations. But before I attempt a discussion of those poems, I should like to acknowledge an earlier New Zealand writer, some of whose best work was also the product of an engagement with Asia, and whose resonant question “What is it makes the stranger?” is, I have come to understand, one that informs much of my own writing.
In the early years of the 21st century, we are concerned with the revision and adjustment of relations between Asian and non-Asian communities in New Zealand, with elaborating multiple notions of Asian-ness and New Zealand-ness, and with identifying the creation of some vibrant new cultural strands. It goes without saying that current moves are impelled, partly at least, by a history of doing the opposite. But if cultural separation and discrimination were the norm among non-Asian New Zealanders for the first century and a half of our settler culture, there were some remarkable exceptions. In the literary field, Robin Hyde, novelist, poet, journalist, war correspondent, occasional speech maker and prolific letter-writer, was exemplary.
Hyde’s brief life ran against the unthinking, generally racist, grain of the times. Her profile complicates the stereotypes that defined European-Asian interactions in the 1920s and 30s. From her journalism and letters it is clear that she was empathetic, personally and ideologically, towards the local Chinese and, though they appear less often in her work, Indian, communities – whose members were conventionally painted as both outsiders and underclass. I have traced a pedigree of interest in China, and the Chinese community, in the novel The Godwits Fly and two of her journal entries. If certain of Hyde’s pre-China writings reveal a longstanding interest in Asia, her China-based work reflects those cross cultural and humanitarian impulses in a more international framework.
What drew me to Hyde’s ‘China’ writings – the letters and journalism from that period of her life, the memorable travel text, Dragon Rampant, and, finally, the poems – were the rich particulars of her appreciation, together with a strong sense of their accuracy. Hyde went into China, without a knowledge of the Chinese language, at a time when it was torn by bitter internal conflict and large areas were under the brutal control of the Japanese. Despite these and other obstacles, obstacles that might have distorted and limited her understanding, Hyde fundamentally ‘got China right’.
To position a writer in relation to his or, much less often, her literary antecedents is traditional Chinese practice. As if he were following Chinese tradition and adapting it to New Zealand circumstances, Vincent O’Sullivan, in remarks that launched my second book (a book that drew on the experience of living in China), connected my work to the China-based poems of Robin Hyde. I had not at the time read Hyde’s poems and did not, therefore, feel able to position myself in relation to them via ideas of influence. But uncovering points of contact between Hyde’s work and my own for the present essay has shown me that the comment was deeply intuitive. If poems written more than sixty years apart, in entirely different conditions, can be seen to throw up common concerns, then, I would suggest, some of those same issues and concerns are likely to apply to the work, and the psychology, of other writers involved in the process of reflecting Asia in their writing. I am pointing here in the direction of a lineage of New Zealand writers, Asian and non-Asian, in which Hyde would occupy a significant early place. It is a lineage that exists to be traced.
What is it makes the stranger?
In the first line of a long, fragmentary, apparently unfinished and untitled poem from China, Hyde articulated the question: ‘What is it makes the stranger?’ Her poem plaits together Chinese and New Zealand scenes:
Coming to your land, I saw little boys spin tops.
The girls marked patterns in chalks about your street –
This game I might have told them at five years old.
It swells, via a string of particulars such as these, into a paeon to the theme of similarity in difference. Behind it lie the thought clusters that hold in always shifting arrangement notions of home and away, of strangeness, alienation and exile; of being a guest and being an other; of the changes that are effected by relocation and transplantation to the notion of home. These are the preoccupations that drive many of my own poems. By employing quotations from Hyde’s poems and letters as epigrams to sections of this essay, I have in effect structured it with her resonant and still pertinent words. In the suggestive spaces between these excerpts and my own poems and observations, the reader will discern the issues that bind one writer to another. But, just as the life of the poem cited above lies in the cross between the question that connects and the depiction of entirely unlike particulars, so those spaces may be seen to embody difference as well as correspondence.
an eyebrow commentary
The rest of this essay centres on a discussion of my own body of work. To provide a commentary is a quintessentially Chinese thing to do. The essay, from here on, is an ‘eyebrow commentary’, or author jottings. These may be envisaged as inscribed in an authorial red in lines adjacent to the text. It goes without saying that any background that a writer is willing, and able, to provide to her work will cast light on it only so far. Her commentary must also take its place alongside other critical responses. But, as an ‘eyebrow’ commentary, the following words exist in something like the relationship of Tao Yuanming’s shadow to its body, or body to its soul, in the three-part poem of that name.
The two features of my writing most relevant to the topic ‘Representing Asia, Remaking New Zealand’ are its use of Asian repertoires and its frequent situation in an Asian location. From time to time I have drawn on theoretical perspectives – narratives of exile, and of the exotic – in which to frame introductions to my poems. But such ideological positioning by the writer can work to limit meaning. A writer may appropriately offer a clue to the background of individual poems. She may muse about the preoccupations that trigger poems, or cause a group of them to belong together. But to theorise her work much beyond that is to misrepresent the innocent atmosphere in which poems usually arise. And there remains the risk of changing the nature of the soil, a clotted, deep, unknowing soil, in which the seeds of further poems may sprout.