All Who Live on Islands by Rose Lu: Book Review

Today, co-host Wendy has a review of All Who Live on Islands, an essay collection by Rose Lu 陆杨怡 to share with you. Thank you to Victoria University Press for the review copy!

About the book:

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.

Review

There were many parts of All Who Live on Islands that I found insightful, including what it is like living in Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand), and the specifics of the author’s experiences as a diasporic Chinese writer. Lu’s prose is captivating, weaving in a range of non-linear memories and reflections into conceptually cohesive essays, and with clever experimentation in the structuring of certain chapters. The reflections on her career and studies were a perceptive and thoughtful read.

For this review, I’ve focused on certain aspects of the book that particularly resonated with me:

The experience of a 1.5 generation migrant

There was one aspect of All Who Live On Islands, intrinsically woven throughout the entirety of the book, that I especially appreciated seeing: the author’s experiences as a 1.5 generation migrant. Lu was born in China and her family migrated to Aotearoa when she was five, the exact same age I was when moving permanently to Australia.

Whilst there are no universal features of any kind of migrant experience, there was an interweaving of the author’s relationship with China and New Zealand in the book that really spoke to me in a way that stories about 2nd-generation Chinese migrants haven’t necessarily been able to in the past — the inclusion of different languages to reflect the reality of conversation and thought in the book, the highlighting of Chinese history and how her family came to leave, the ongoing and nuanced comparison between the two cultures in everyday life.

Photo of All Who Live on Islands on bookshelf, next to Under a Painted Sky, Picture Us in the Light, and Secret of a Heart Note

Regarding the interwoven languages, I found the unapologetic use of (simplified) Chinese characters for Mandarin rather than their romanisations, as per the norm for books in English, really refreshing — I loved being able to read it and understand the actual meaning of what was being said, with all its connotations and depth, rather than guessing the character based on pinyin or drawing inferences solely from English translations. Many readers won’t be able to understand it in the same way, and that’s the exact beauty of the author including this — it’s a reflection of the composition of her own identity and experience, of being part of two cultures’ distinct systems, each with their own uniqueness, where translation cannot carry everything over.

Additionally, the author’s grandparents’ Chongming dialect is woven throughout, and I appreciated this being acknowledged, due to my extended family also speaking two lesser known (in comparison to Mandarin and Cantonese) Chinese dialects — ones which are spoken rather than written, and don’t have standardised systems of romanisation.

Discovery & rediscovery of Chinese society and culture

Like the author’s family, mine made very limited visits to our extended family in China when I was in primary school and high school, and at the time I never really had the chance to experience the country at my own initiative. This changed when I picked up a Chinese major almost by accident at university, and ended up going on a one month in-country study program in China. The immersive experience of language learning, my own explorations, and that period of living in China shaped a slow reframing of the way I thought about my culture and identity.

So I enjoyed reading Lu’s account of returning to mainland China as an adult and her own growth there — allowing me to see a somewhat similar experience through someone else’s eyes. There were several passages I found powerful, but I thought this one was especially worth extracting:

I became more assured about being from Aotearoa and from China — something I repeatedly had to explain to my Pākehā friends, who saw my cultural identity as a needle wavering between the two places. At one point I had seen it that way too, but now I view it as a symbiotic relationship, two twinned vines growing in tandem.

Before I spent this time in China, I had never missed it. I hadn’t known what to miss. I focussed only on its deficits — on the perceived wrongness of somewhere that is different.

(Pages 87-88)

This segueways into an exploration of the Asian New Zealand literary scene and history, and into her development as a writer and the challenge of fitting into a white-dominant space, that is entwined with the exploration of identity which preceded it. That particular chapter — All Who Live on Islands — was my favourite and one I’ve now reread multiple times.

Explorations of friendship and family

In the chapter ‘Alphabet Game’, I enjoyed the author’s reflections on her friendships, with the reality of their intensity and intimacy, the challenges that mental illness poses to it, as well as the difficulty of losing friends. It made me think of the memoir/essay collection No Country Woman by Fijian-Indian author from Australia, Zoya Patel, which also had a chapter on friendship that I really liked. Another chapter is dedicated to her brother, and her relationship with her parents and grandparents is discussed throughout the whole book. In much writing, both fiction and non-fiction, platonic relationships are often not given the attention and respect in the narrative that they are due, and this was a refreshing change.

Lu notes a difference between herself and her parents’ generation — the latter, due to the specifics of their experience migrating to Aotearoa, prioritises family much more, and doesn’t quite recognise the importance of having friends with whom she can share experiences and talk about certain things that she can’t discuss with family. I loved how this articulated something I’d implicitly known but hadn’t quite been able to conceptualise before — as the author says so herself in the book, this is why it can be so important for us all to have mirrors in literature.

Overall thoughts

All Who Live on Islands is a book I would recommend to everyone, regardless of nationality or cultural background — the great thing about memoir is how it speaks so truly and specifically to a person’s experience, enabling it to reshape anyone’s understanding of themselves and their worldview. This also means that if you do share certain aspects of the author’s background — if you’re a 1.5 generation migrant, if you’re from Aotearoa, or similarly went through a re-immersion of your family’s country and culture as an adult — you’ll likely enjoy seeing these experiences depicted in the book, ones that are generally under-represented in media. If you don’t generally read nonfiction/essay collections, don’t be turned off either — the writing is accessible and you’ll be immersed in the narrative and insights.

Where to find All Who Live on Islands:

About the author

Photo of author Rose Lu

Rose Lu is a Wellington-based writer. In 2018 she gained her Masters of Arts in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters and was awarded the Modern Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize. Her work has been published in Sport, The Pantograph Punch, Turbine Kapohau and Mimicry. Her undergraduate degree was in mechatronics engineering, and she has worked as a software developer since 2012.

Find Rose on:

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