Flash Frontier: Congratulations! You’ve just won the 2022 NFFD competition with your story ‘Golden phoenix, grey hen’. Can you tell us something about this story? Where the idea comes from, when you wrote it – and why you wrote it?
Vera Hua Dong: Thank you. I feel grateful and honoured. I had been thinking about the subject for quite a while. It comes directly from my life in Kerikeri and the collective experience of many Chinese immigrants I know. A friend of mine who has been living in New Zealand for over thirty years, running a successful restaurant business, has not been able to convince her mother that she is very happy. Her mother still cries over her choices and believes that her daughter wasted her life and education.
I could not feel the beauty of the Kerikeri landscape when I first settled down here. I was preoccupied with my identity crisis, a sense of guilt about not achieving a social status that had been expected of me, and a struggle over the differences in children’s education.
I did give it a go, and it’s only through active physical involvement that I find a sense of contentment, the beauty of the land and my connection to it.
One day, I picked up some worms and returned them to our worm café. I did it so naturally that I only thought about it afterwards: it was quite an achievement for me, who had a phobia about anything slimy and wriggly. That was an epiphany: I am finally a local.
FF: One of the judges’ remarks about this story is that there is a seamless time jump here. You seem to write very much in the present but often reach to the past. Your stories feel, quite often, like a conversation – not only between two characters but between present, past and future, or between two places. Can you tell us how you manage time and space in writing such a small story? How these are so fluid for you?
VHD: Our body lives in the present, feels the cold, hot; rain or shine; hunger and satisfaction. Our mind, however, is a wandering thing. This is probably more true for new immigrants. You cannot help but constantly, consciously or subconsciously, compare two places, two people and two belief systems. Sometimes, the past and the old place become all rosy, the present and the new place feel gloomy and depressing. Is that called nostalgia?
The story reflects that fluid state of mind between past and present, old and new, familiar and alien.
FF: You write quite a lot about food. Please tell us more about how food creates such rich terrain for your stories – which are ultimately about people and relationships. And we notice, too, that your writing seems to move quite fluidly between reality and fiction, sometimes blending the two. Can you talk about how food plays a central role in your life, and also in your writing? And do you think that, for you, writing is about the reality in fiction?
VHD: Food became an epicentre of our life, especially after we immigrated to New Zealand. I discovered that clinging to Chinese food was an effective way of ‘bribing’ my children not to forget their Chinese heritage. I made it a personal mission to become a good cook of Chinese traditional dishes.
My daughter once told me that the taste of the Osmanthus jam always reminds her of her grandma. They used to pick Osmanthus flowers together when we lived in Shanghai. After one trip back from China, my mother made her granddaughter a giant bottle of golden Osmanthus jam. The bottle leaked – an airport inspector said it smelled so beautiful that she wished the bottle was hers.
When we were growing up, food was rationed. My grandparents and parents kept chickens, ducks, growing vegetables, herbs and fruit trees. I have vivid memories of how my generous and proud mother struggled every year to put a feast together for the Chinese New Year celebration when she had so few resources. That was where ‘Family meal’ came from.
Yes, most of my writing is about the reality in fiction, either my own reality or someone else’s.
FF: Your work, whether fiction or poetry, often suggests a tone that is fable-like – there is sometimes a kind of mysticism or fairy-tale quality. Is this intentional, or do you find that this is your natural storytelling mode?
VHD: I never really thought about this. It is not intentional. I am delighted that you see such quality in my writing. Now I am conscious of it, and I will work harder to see where it may lead me.
In the 1970s, listening to storytelling on radio (说书 spoken books) was the most anticipated daily entertainment and a national sport. The stories were often from classical Chinses novels like ‘Water Margin’, and ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ , which were based on actual historical events and characters, but everything was so dramatised and elevated to a mythical status.
Odyssey to the West, Fables of Aesop and The Arabian Nights all provided entertainment and moral teaching in a time when we were allowed only a few ‘clean’ books and a few ‘educational’ movies to keep our minds engaged.
FF: You write in the Far North of Aotearoa. Can you tell us how your physical environment impacts the way you write now, living in New Zealand, compared to how you might have written in the past? Does New Zealand come more directly into your writing as you soak up the immediate world around you, in Kerikeri and Northland?
VHD: Although I grew up and worked in cosmopolitan cities worldwide, I spent much of my school holidays in childhood with my grandmother in the countryside. I believe that experience helped transform a city girl into a rural person.
What’s really amazing is now I can draw inspiration from the countryside in my childhood and rural New Zealand. Life seems to be one full circle, and the two ends finally met.
FF: You write in two languages. Can you tell us how storytelling takes shape differently, depending on the language you are listening to?
VHD: I had an excellent Chinese teacher when I was in middle school. She started every Chinese lesson with us reading texts out loud. After a while, the flow of the language, in prose and verse, became second nature. That, strangely, helps me in writing both Chinese and English.
The Chinese language is a more subtle and more precise one. It can be trickier than in English to find the right word for an expression. For example, 碧，青，绿，翠, all mean green but with different shades, textures and temperatures. In English, you may use simile and metaphors to show different shades of green, like baby green or as green as jade. In Chinese, you can do the same as in English, but what shows the mastery of the language is when you can use the precise character in your writing. This makes me work harder to find precise imagery in storytelling.
FF: And finally, what are you writing now?
VHD: I will continue to write flash fiction as a way to tell my stories and to perfect the craft of storytelling.
I also plan to revise or edit some flash fictions I wrote in the past four years. Let’s see whether I can make them less embarrassing to read.
I want to start again a routine of writing a poem a day (no matter how bad they are). I did it for three months at the beginning of the year. It’s a great discipline, and I enjoyed it very much.
FF: Thank you, Vera!