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.


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:



Caster by Elsie Chapman: Lit CelebrAsian Author Interview

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Welcome to our interview with Elsie Chapman to celebrate the release of her new book, Caster! Pitched as a Chinese-inspired Fight Club with magic, it centres on sixteen-year-old Aza Wu, who enters an illegal underground magic casting tournament to save her family legacy and avenge her sister, and is filled with action, magic and twists.

Co-hosts Shenwei and Wendy both loved the book, and below are five reasons they think you should read Caster. For more detail, you can also check out their full reviews — a big thank you to Elsie Chapman and to Scholastic for the ARCs.

Review from Shenwei @ Reading Asian America

Review from Wendy @ Written in Wonder

Reasons to read CASTER:
Read More »

Interview: Marivi Soliven – Author of The Mango Bride

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Marivi has authored 17 books. Her debut novel The Mango Bride (Penguin, 2013) won Grand Prize at the Palanca Awards, the Philippine counterpart of the Pulitzer Prize, and has been translated into Spanish and Tagalog. The film adaptation is in production and will premiere in 2020. She is a fierce advocate and organizes literary fundraisers for immigrant survivors of domestic violence, and these efforts have helped, nine immigrant women gain legal residency and escape their abusive marriages. She continues to advocate for immigrant rights and concerns in her day job as a phone interpreter.

What was your favourite part of the writing process behind exploring different perspectives in the Filipino diaspora in The Mango Bride? Are there any other parts of the diaspora experience you’d like to explore in future?

My favourite part of the process was reconstructing the Manila of my childhood – the food, the homes, the women who smoked like chimneys while looking impossibly chic.  I’m still intrigued by the many aspects of the Filipino diaspora and am working on a second novel that portrays the first diasporic wave of Filipino farmworkers in the 20s and 30s.

Did you work as an interpreter impact or change the way you write?Read More »

Asian Lit Bingo 2019 Reading Challenge Announcement and Master Post


We are back in 2019 for #AsianLitBingo – a month-long reading challenge during May! This is the master post with all the information for the reading challenge.


Inspiration and Purpose: In the U.S., the month of May is Asian American Heritage Month*, so we thought, what better way to celebrate than to do a reading challenge that spotlights books with Asian characters and centers Asian voices? In publishing, there are power dynamics in play that marginalize Asian authors, especially those who write Asian characters and draw from their heritage for their writing. In the context of publishing in countries where white people are the majority/dominant group, diaspora Asians in those countries have a hard time breaking into publishing.

In a more global context, Asian writers in Asia have a hard to reaching a wider market beyond regional publishing due to their perceived foreignness, plus a general lack of infrastructure for translations for those that don’t write in English (and many do write in English). There are also double standards in the industry that facilitate publication for white authors writing Asian[-inspired] characters/settings/stories while Asian writers who write from the place of a cultural insider are often told their stories are “too Asian” or “not Asian enough.” For this reason, we feel it is especially important to highlight #ownvoices Asian stories, where the authors share the heritage of the characters they write about.

*May is technically designated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. However, a number of Pasifika activists and friends have stated that lumping together Asian Americans with Pacific Islanders results in the erasure and co-opting of PIs and that they want to have their own spaces to discuss their issues. We are respecting that and keeping the two separate for this challenge.

We encourage readers to also support Pasifika spaces via Our Stories – Tala mai le Moana compiled by Lani Wendt Young, Pasifika Tales and the updated resources below.

Update: Back in 2017, Alec Te Pohe collected these useful Pasifika lit resources:

Māori and Pasifika Month Reads via Ruru Reads

Tina Makereti: five Māori and Pasifika favourites

Māori (and Pasifika) writing in 2017: Thalia Kehoe Rowden recommends 22 picture books that feature Pasifika and Māori children

Ministry of Education Pasifika and ESOL resources

HUIA Publishers

Pacific Island Books

Kōmako: A Bibliography of Māori writing in English

Asian Lit Bingo Scope:

Aside from the reading challenge, we have planned a few social media events to complement the challenge and celebrate Asian literature in other ways.  If you are an Asian blogger/vlogger/bookstagrammer/etc. and have your own idea for a post/video you want to make about Asian lit, go for it, and feel free to leave a comment here with the link so we can add it to the list. You can use this template for your blog header if you’d like.

The Hosts 

Meet the Lit CelebrAsian team at our team page. Some team members are taking a short break to focus on work commitments but our active #AsianLitBingo hosts for 2019 include:

Shenwei @ READING (AS)(I)AN (AM)ERICA (#AsianLitBingo Creator)

Glaiza @ Paper Wanderer

Janani @ The Shrinkette

Sophia @ Bookwyrming Thoughts

Stephanie @ Igniting Pages

Wendy @ Written in Wonder

Kate @ Snarky Yet Satisfying

Reading Challenge Information

The reading challenge is a general challenge and also a contest with prizes!

The Hashtag

Use the hashtag #AsianLitBingo when posting on Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr about the challenge. Check out what other people are reading and find posts and reviews related to the challenge by searching the hashtag.

The Setup

Similar to the Diversity Bingo challenge, the Asian Lit Bingo challenge takes the form of a bingo board, a 5 by 5 grid with 25 total prompts for books to read. The baseline goal is to read prompts for a single line, vertically, horizontally, or diagonally on the board, for a total of 5 books. Post your progress on Twitter with the hashtag #AsianLitBingo.

Eligible Books:

  • Fiction books should have an Asian main character (can be one of several main characters) and be by an Asian author to qualify. It does not have to be #ownvoices, but reading #ownvoices books is strongly encouraged!
  • Nonfiction books should be by an Asian author with a focus on Asian people, whether it’s a[n] [auto]biography, history book, essay collection, etc. A nonfiction book can count for prompts other than the nonfiction square provided that it that focuses on a person/group that corresponds to that prompt (e.g. an autobiography of a Asian trans woman could count for either the nonfiction category or the LGBTQIAP+ Asian MC category).
  • The free space is for any book with an Asian main character by an Asian author.

Below is the bingo board, designed by Aentee. Note: “MC” stands for “main character” (though as specified above, it can be a book about a real person).


Asian Lit Bingo 2019

Book SuggestionsRead More »

On The Importance of Difficult Themes in Picture Books – A Guest Post by Meera Sriram

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Picture books are an influential medium, they have the ability to make children ponder, imagine, and question. There’s so much beauty and power in their brevity and visual appeal. Growing up in India, I did not have access to this category of books. I was introduced to them as an adult. And as a parent raising kids in the U.S, I’ve relied on them for everything – from potty training and early learning to first-times and friendship woes. I fell in love with them so much that I followed my heart and began writing them. However, I often wonder about themes that are not commonly seen in mainstream picture books (while I find them more accessible in books that cater to older children). If you think about events, people, places, and experiences that young kids are exposed to on a daily basis through social interactions or via media, we don’t really include most of them in our stories.

Many families are caught up in all sorts of struggles, small and big, everyday or long term. And children are great observers and sensors – they notice, listen, and particularly pick up on the mildest disruptions. Why then do we shy away from centering stories around topics like poverty or terminal illness, alcoholism, disability, guns, divorce, adoption or death? These things happen to us, around us. All the time. When my kids lost their first grandparent in India, they were confused, their grief compounded by immigrant-life challenges. My daughter was 6.Read More »