A genre-bending work

Book review of Chinese Fish by Grace Yee. Picture: ON FILE

By Christine Yunn-Yu Sun

Chinese Fish, a verse novel by Melbourne-based poet Grace Yee, was the winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Prize for Poetry at the 2024 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

While a novel is told through prose, a verse novel combines story with poetry.

Published in June 2023, Chinese Fish tells a multi-generational story of a migrant family in the “Land of the Long White Cloud” – Aotearoa New Zealand.

Readers are introduced to the Chin Family, starting with Great-Grandfather who arrived in New Zealand to work as a laundryman in 1896 after the gold rush ended.

His son arrived in 1921 but resettled in Hong Kong after the Second World War.

Grandfather and Grandmother have five children. Yet, it is the second son’s wife Ping and her daughter Cherry who are the story’s focus. In 1963, Ping, described as having “a face like a BBQ pork bun”, was told by a fortuneteller in Hong Kong that “she would live a life of unimaginable prosperity on the New Gold Mountain at the bottom of the earth”.

But life in New Zealand is not the prosperous paradise she was led to believe it would be.

Like all migrants, she is terribly homesick and has difficulty adapting to the local language, food, lifestyle and work environment.

Adding to Ping’s trouble is her wayward husband: “Stan returns at three a.m., falls into bed reeking of beer and cigarettes, reaches under Ping’s nightgown, her elbow in his gut, his vomit all over the pink candlewick. every night he / go out come / home two three / clock I can’t sleep / I waiting for him / use the vacuum / cleaner try to SUCK / all the bad thing out”

As this quote demonstrates, the verse novel is narrated in multiple voices, with Ping’s words written in italics and often interspersed with Hong Kong written Chinese.

In comparison, the third-person narrative is “laced with archival fragments and scholarly interjections” and often contains passages borrowed and adapted from media reports and opinion pieces of the middle decades of the 20th century, which are printed in grey colour.

Indeed, the book derived from the creative writing component of the author’s PhD on the experience of settler Chinese women in New Zealand, who faced discrimination not just from their own patriarchal family and community, but also from the mainstream society in their adopted country.

In the author’s words: “Because the settler Chinese community’s experience of this word [‘Chinese’] was for so long associated with stigma, the instinct to refrain from making overt displays of ‘Chineseness’ and assimilate into the Pākehā mainstream was strong. The title feels a little treacherous, almost illicit: a talking back that flies in the face of the ‘model minority’ imperatives we were brought up with – be quiet, lie low, know your place – all of which were amplified for women and girls.”

Chinese Fish is an honest and innovative probe into the inner workings of a Chinese family.

Highly recommended.