AN INTERVIEW WITH LYNDA CHANWAI-EARLE
I asked Lynda Chanwai-Earle, the 2019 Writer in Residence at the International Institute of Modern Letters, to first give me her pepeha, which she worked on in collaboration with poet, writer, and PhD student at the IIML, Anahera Gildea.
He uri ahau nō Haina/Nō Haina me Ingarihi ōku tūpuna. Nō Ngāti Pākehā, me Ngāti Poon Yue ngā iwi.
He uri tōku whaea o Haina.
I tipu ake ia i Te Whanganui-a-Tara.
E noho tonu ana ia ki konei.
I te taha o tōku whaea, ko Dong-Chanwai tōku matua tīpuna.
Ko Dong Long Seun rāua ko Dong Chakman ōku mātua tīpuna.
Ko Dong-Chanwai Mayme tōku whaea.
I te taha o tōku matua,
Ko Michael Earle tōku matua. Nō Ngāti Pākehā ia.
Ko au te mātaamua.
Ko Kiri Mamae Rachel Earle rāua ko Mandy Miria Earle ōku teina.
Ko Tia Mayme rāua kō Sophia Manaia āku tamāhine. Nō Te Ati Awa rāua.
I whānau mai ahau i Rānana, ā, i tipu ake ahau i Heretaunga, i Papua New Guinea anō hoki. E noho ana au i Te Whanganui-a-Tara ināianei.
He Kaituhi ā-noho 2019 taku mahi i Te Pūtahi Tuhi Auaha o te Ao, International Institute of Modern Letters, i te Whare Wānanga o Wikitoria, Victoria University of Wellington. He kaipāpaho ahau i Te Irirangi o Aotearoa i tērā tau.
Ko Lynda Chanwai-Earle tōku ingoa.
I am a descendant of China/My ancestors are from China and England. Ngāti Pākehā and Ngāti Poon Yue are my iwi.
My mother is a descendant of China.
She grew up in Wellington (region).
She lives here still.
On the side of my mother, Dong-Chanwai is my great grandfather.
Dong Long Seun and Dong Chakman are my grandparents.
Dong-Chanwai Mayme is my mother.
On the side of my father,
Michael Earle is my father. He’s Ngāti Pākehā.
I am the eldest.
Kiri and Mandy are my sisters.
Tia and Sophia are my daughters. They are from Te Ati Awa.
I was born in London and I grew up in Hastings and Papua New Guinea. I live in Wellington (region) now.
I am the writer in residence 2019 at Te Pūtahi Tuhi Auaha o te Ao, IIML, at Victoria University of Wellington. Last year I was a broadcaster at RNZ.
My name is Lynda Chanwai-Earle.
Lynda laughs unabashedly. She doesn’t chuckle, smirk, or do things half-arsed. If she’s going to laugh, she does. “I think it helps in a lot of situations,” she tells me. When she mentions her parents’ divorce when she was twenty-three, she laughs and then immediately says, as if to herself, “I shouldn’t laugh. Why am I laughing?” and then continues to laugh.
I meet Lynda in her office at the Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University December 2019, where she arrives with books, papers, and photographs of her family wrapped in delicate paper to show me. Lynda is someone who carries her family with her always. There are photos of her grandparents, her Gung Gung and Po Po, her mother as a toddler in a little bundle of clothes, a school photo in which her mother was the only Chinese girl, as well as her great-grandfather’s Poll Tax Certificate, which has been carefully laminated by her uncle.
When her great-grandfather, Dong Chan Wai, left Guangdong and travelled halfway across the world to arrive in New Zealand in 1907, the New Zealand Immigration Office got his name wrong. “Chinese denote surnames first,” Lynda explains. And so “Chanwai” became their surname. There is no Māori link in the name, but Lynda is often mistaken as Māori or Polynesian. Even when she travels to Hong Kong or China and informs people she’s half Chinese, “their immediate reaction is to burst out laughing, which I actually think is really funny. It’s because I’m tall and have a big nose and I’ve inherited my father’s long legs. It is what it is, it’s all good.”
The Poll Tax, however, has been an issue at the forefront of Lynda’s mind for much of her adult life. It cost each Chinese person £100, which was a substantial sum of money at the time. They were then transported as cargo, rather than as humans on board the ship. There could only be one Chinese person per 100 pounds of cargo to reduce the number of Chinese entering the country, and once they arrived, they were treated very poorly by the New Zealand government. Lynda’s own mother was a war refugee who fled the advancing Sino-Japanese invasion in 1941. That same year, “the New Zealand Government granted an exception to the exclusion policy for wives and children of Chinese New Zealand men… As a humanitarian gesture, the Government allowed these Chinese men to bring their wives and dependent children to New Zealand for a period of two years, provided they pay a deposit of £200 and a bond of £500. The war raged on and these refugees could not return to China so permits were renewed. Those who had arrived under the 1939 concession were reluctantly granted permanent residency – in the eyes of the Government an aberration that would need resolution by new policy.” Indeed, Chinese New Zealanders were not able to be naturalised as citizens until 1951.
Lynda is a Poll Tax descendant. “How can we move forward with our complex multi-cultural population?” Lynda asks in light of the fact that most New Zealanders are unaware of this history. “We have a legacy of colonial and institutionalised racism which has helped shape our country and sense of national identity. The New Zealand Land Wars shaped our nation to become what it is today. The sharing of knowledge and culture is at the heart of any society, and yet this critical and unsanitised part of our history has never been compulsory teaching.” She applauds the current government for finally making the New Zealand Land Wars a compulsory part of the curriculum, but Lynda doesn’t want to stop there. “It should be compulsory to learn about our 1881–1944 Poll Tax history, the 1970s Dawn Raids against our Pasifika communities, including up to our current crimes of hate against our Muslim communities.”
Lynda points to work Lincoln Dam has done in the issues of biculturalism, multiculturalism, and the Treaty of Waitangi. “It’s an ongoing complex conversation. We are evolving groups of communities and people, demographics are changing all the time. We are not homogenous and one ethnic community is not homogenous either. Our concepts of national identity have been so closely tied up with our British colonisation, and that has shaped everything.”
The events that occurred in Christchurch on 15th March this year shook the nation. We responded by saying this is not us. Who was saying this? Pākehā. Pākehā who were so horrified by the events they had to reject the entire narrative of racism in New Zealand. What does a person of colour say in response to this statement? I ask Lynda and her response is confident. “Bullshit. It’s totally us. These are our stories. That is us. We need to own it. We have to own our shit and we have to heal.”
It’s these kinds of stories that drive Lynda’s work. Ka-Shue (Letters Home), written in 1995 and premiered at Circa Theatre in 1996, is based on her own family history. The play “reflects the last 100 years of history between China and New Zealand, dramatised through the eyes of several generations of one NZ-Chinese family.” It was at the time of writing this play that she took her mother’s Chinese maiden name of Chanwai and hyphenated it with her father’s Pākehā surname of Earle.
Similarly, Man in a Suitcase (2012) was based on the murder of Wan Biao, which shocked New Zealanders. Lynda wondered “What were the conditions that created that perfect storm?” Man in a Suitcase became an international theatre collaboration with The Court Theatre in Christchurch and Peking University in Beijing. In China, the production was censored and shut down. “Instead of the two week season, we got shut down. We were told we could go but as an academic conference, we would have to stand it up, find another venue, put it on for free, not allowed to advertise, not allowed to talk to the press, press not allowed to talk to us.” Through amazing feats of her team and students from Peking University, they put the play on for three sold-out nights at the Haidian Theatre. Little did Lynda know, this production would be instrumental in solidifying a future creative relationship for her tele-feature, The Only Son, one of the projects Lynda has worked on at the IIML this year, co-writing it with John Banas.
Embraced by Screentime NZ, Steven Chow, a New Zealand filmmaker, phoned Lynda with his proposal to create The Only Son. Huanhuan Zhang, a researcher and translator who studied at Victoria University, helped Lynda with some of the Mandarin dialogue. And it turns out, all three of them have amazingly compelling reasons to be a part of the project. Lynda because she researched and wrote Man in a Suitcase – and because while she was touring HEAT in 2010 (the first of her Antarctica trilogy) as well as researching the play, the crew coincidentally stayed at the same Auckland hotel apartment where Wan Biao was murdered. The complete fluke freaked Lynda out. “I was like, ‘Holy shit! Oh my god! Which room is it?’” They indeed went and saw the room. After she says this, there’s a moment of stillness as she remembers the space in which a life was taken.
Huanhuan was an international student in New Zealand from Beijing in 2006, the year of the murder. As Lynda put it, Huanhuan was “fascinated and appalled” by it all. He even ended up going to Mount Eden Prison to interview one of the perpetrators, Cui Xiangxin, as he was interested in making a documentary about it all. In 2012, Huanhuan was one of the packed-out audience who saw Man in a Suitcase in Beijing. Lynda and Huanhuan met at a New Zealand Film Commission event in 2018, shortly before they became members of the fledgling Pan Asian Screen Collective. He expressed an interest in working with Lynda at some point in the future, which has now become The Only Son.
Finally, Steven Chow came on board as producer, “because his mother was actually teaching Wan Biao English at one of the ESOL schools in Auckland. And he was flatting in the same building that some of the perpetrators rented, so he was actually living in really close proximity to them.” You could say that the stars aligned so that The Only Son could be made by the right people.
Unfortunately, as I typed up this interview, Lynda received the disappointing news that The Only Son would not be selected for the Sunday Theatre slot they had been hoping for. When asked for feedback, TVNZ’s Steve Barr said “the script made him cry and the execution was great, but that as a third of the script was in Chinese, the panel felt it would be a barrier to TVNZ’s audience.” Perhaps we’re not as culturally advanced as we’d like to hope, reinforcing Lynda’s points about our New Zealand identity. The silver lining, however, is that the New Zealand Film Commission thinks it has legs as a feature film. The team will keep fighting to get The Only Son made.
In the screen industry, writers can be working on a project for years and it could never reach screens because of lack of funding. Language is power, and yet that power does not translate into any kind of functioning fortnightly pay slip. Lynda herself has described the writing profession as a long famine between financial feasts. When asked if she thinks artists are fairly compensated, she states plainly, “No. Artists and writers are not fairly compensated, but neither are teachers, nurses, midwives, or labourers.” Recording her award-winning Radio New Zealand podcast series about solo parenting in this country, Flying Solo, made her stop feeling sorry for herself and instead be in awe of strong Kiwi parents. “I’m not complaining, I count all my extraordinary blessings and this year’s writer’s residency has been a fricken godsend for me. Wish it could be like this forever though!”
The other piece she has been working on this year at the IIML is the second instalment of her Antarctic trilogy, HOLE, as well as researching and writing her third instalment of the trilogy HEART. HEART is set in Antarctica around 1957/8 in the lead-up to the Trans Antarctic Expedition. Meanwhile, HOLE is set to have a development season at Circa Theatre as part of the Women Theatre Month in September 2020. HOLE is set in the wild west days of Antarctica in the mid 1980s when Greenpeace activism was at its peak and McMurdo was “trying to get rid of 9000 cubic metres of contaminated waste [laughs] from their old nukey-poo.” The past holds a lot of drama, and Lynda is adamant to tell it like it is – or, rather, was. “That history is not sanitised, and I’m not going to sanitise it.”
Why set it back in time? Much like our Poll Tax history, there is a lot of buried history – particularly around the climate science. Scientists, at the introduction of fossil fuels, warned it would create a carbon dioxide blanket around the globe. This leads us, as a whole human race, to go through cycles and we are clearly not learning from our past. “I see it as cognitive dissonance. It’s where a group of people—or certain presidents of certain countries—refuse to see reality.” As a mother, Lynda’s thoughts are with her daughters. “How are our kids going to fare in the future? Fucking scary thought.” With a strong wave of optimism, she calls us all to sing “Kumba-fricken-ya and motivate ourselves right now, to turn shit around and cherish our fragile tiny blue dot in this awfully massive universe… How do I remain positive? I’m a mum. I must. It’s in my DNA. Call it stubborn optimism.”
Lynda hits hard with these topics. From highlighting our own dirty history, to fighting against the further stigmatisation of a marginalised ethnic minority, to calling our attention to the biggest threat humankind has ever seen, for Lynda it has always been about “challenging the gatekeepers and breaking the silence.”
Her own silence was broken when she left Hawke’s Bay and went to Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland. There, her story exploded onto a canvas to create a giant six foot six vagina that belonged to a tiny creature represented by a mouth. With a knife, she slashed it and threw red paint onto it. It was a rape painting, and gave her a voice for what had happened to her as a teenager. She laughs when she remembers moving flats and carting the the painting across Queen Street. “We’re lucky we didn’t cause any accidents.” Everything that happened to her in Hawke’s Bay exploded into her first poetry collection, Honeypants (AUP, 1994), which is autobiographical. “It’s faster than writing a script and eventually picking a script up off the page and putting it on in a theatre.”
When Honeypants hit the New Zealand arts scene, it caused quite a stir. This was before the #MeToo movement, and when most of the reviewers were older white men. One of the reviews said Lynda needed to take a cold shower. She laughs. “Loved that review.” Her heroines consisted of writers like Pamela Carol and Kathy Acker, but she also loved writers like Ntozake Shange and Tom Waits. “I modelled on their anger and explored my own gender politics.” And that’s how we have Lynda on the cover of Honeypants half-naked with a giant protruding codpiece and horns.
One poem from this same period called Coercion has a particularly disturbing origin. In Hawke’s Bay during the Springbok tour protests of 1981, when Lynda was only a fourth former at high school, her school had a tradition near the end of the year called Slave Day. Yeah. Let that one sink in. Now, of course, it has been abolished, but back then it involved seventh formers being auctioned off to ‘buyers’ who could do whatever they wanted to them. There was a group of about ten Pākehā boys, the most popular boys in school, who had it out for the Head Girl. She was a goodie two-shoes in their eyes: Pākehā, virgin, Christian, and a soprano in the school choir. Their fathers built a cross and their mothers helped them sew costumes. Ku Klux Klan costumes. Yeah. After a bidding battle with another group of boys, they won her. The whole school—Lynda included—looked on, too terrified to do anything, the teachers watching passively. The boys chained her to the cross and poured rubbish and black paint on her. She was trying to laugh it off and go with the joke until they stuck a fire hose up her trousers, at which point she burst into tears. Finally, a male teacher stepped forward and put a stop to it, but the damage was done.
Lynda reads me a line from Coercion: “She I and the vaudeville / this town’s up in flames / and everyone’s an arsonist,” which brings to my mind an Angela Davis quote: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we have to be anti-racist.” For Lynda, this line acknowledges “that even as helpless witnesses, we’re in this together. Everyone’s an arsonist. And until you actually own it, until you go ‘I can’t stand by and not speak,’ then you are complicit.”
Lynda recalls how, when performing Man in the Suitcase in Beijing, men from the Ministry of Culture had stern words with the actors after they attended the opening night. She acknowledges that they put themselves on the line for that show by quietly inviting reviewers to come and talk to Lynda, and also by getting students to come and see it. “Should we not tell the story in case it gets somebody in trouble? If someone was jailed because they were performing Man in the Suitcase in the middle of China, I would be horrified, but at the same time, I’m not going to not tell the story.”
Her belief in the role of art in society stays visible through all of her work. She quotes Jim Moriarty, a director Lynda worked with when travelling through New Zealand prisons with the Wellington-based Māori Theatre Group Te Rakau Hua O Te Wao Tapu. “Art and storytelling is not just about entertainment. It really should be about challenging our society. Because if we’re not challenging then we’re just being complacent,” Lynda says, “and if we’re sitting complacently and we think we have got to where we are because we’re entitled to be there, then we need to challenge ourselves, we need to take a good long look in the mirror.”
With all that in mind, it’s no wonder she has fans like Meng Foon, former mayor of Gisborne and current Race Relations Commissioner. She has interviewed Meng in many capacities over her time as a journalist and really admires him for his fluency in te reo Māori and for being a “really beautiful bridge for these communities.” Lynda is still quick to mention other unsung heroes doing lots of really good work. We may not know their names, and some of them have less public profiles than Meng, such as Mandeep Kaur, the first Indian Police Officer in New Zealand, or Anjum Rahman, the spokeswoman for Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand.
In a 2016 letter of commendation to Radio New Zealand as the National President of the New Zealand Chinese Association, Meng said Lynda “is an invaluable asset to both our ethnic community and for broadcasting in New Zealand.” He goes on to say he has received “a lot of feedback from our communities and politicians, such as the prime minister, his cabinet, and even the governor general, appreciating the many New Zealand Chinese stories that could not have been told without Lynda giving us a voice. She has built a strong trust and bond with us; moreover we feel culturally safe with her presenting our messages, and helping us express our point of view with wider New Zealand.” You can’t get much higher praise than that.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Emilie Hope is a writer, reviewer, performer, and theatre maker who completed her MA at the International Institute of Modern Letters in Scriptwriting in 2019. Her first play, Confessions with a Kangaroo, is being staged in April/May 2020.