In conversation with Gifkins Prize winner Emma Ling Sidnam on her debut novel Backwaters

27 November 2023
By Louise Dunn

Emma Ling Sidnam reflects on the eye-opening experience of writing her celebrated debut novel, and why we need to support diverse Kiwi voices.

Emma Ling Sidnam, Photo: Rey Sandu Godakumbra, supplied.

What can you tell us about your lived experience of growing up as a writer/creative in Wellington compared to other New Zealand cities/towns?

I actually grew up in Auckland and have a real soft spot for it, even though I live in Wellington and consider it home now. I don’t think I really thought about my identity as a writer while growing up—I just thought of myself as someone creative, someone with many dreams. My parents supported all my ideas, so I was really lucky in that.

Wellington is a great place to be a creative! There are so many artists, so many people making things that they really care about. It’s also a smaller city, which means that all the different art communities intersect—from the poets to the film makers to the burlesque dancers. I really love being surrounded by people who are driven to achieve their dreams. It makes my own dreams feel more possible.

One would think that a law career alone is all consuming. How do you balance practising law with writing? How much time do you devote to your writing?

I’m only starting out in my law career! I finished university in June with a double degree in law and literature, and I’m currently working 20 hours a week in the Treaty Settlement team at Crown Law. I enjoy my law job because it’s intellectually interesting and it feels like a contribution to public service. 

This year I wanted to have plenty of time to write so I can finish a first draft of my second book. I mostly write between Wednesdays and Saturdays, but I’m a fast writer so I can get quite a lot done in that time. I also read a lot, because I think it makes me a better writer. Next year I’ll increase my hours to 33 per week, giving myself just a few dedicated hours a week to write and edit. 

How have you used Backwaters to bring you closure as a fourth-generation Asian New Zealander? Can you help us understand why this has been an important process for you?

For as long as I can remember, race has been a big deal to me. Since I was little, I felt confused and frustrated when people would assume I wasn’t from my own country. I used to have a lot of anger at people’s ignorance: for forgetting that Asian New Zealanders exist, for not realising that Asian New Zealanders have been around nearly as long as Pākehā New Zealanders. Being a fourth-generation New Zealander is important to me because my very existence I counter to many people’s assumptions about Asian people here. People assume, oh, you must be first or second generation, but I can say, no, my family’s been here for a long time. 

When I was at university, I had a lot of conversations about race and wrote a lot of angry spoken-word poetry about racism. I was also obsessed with understanding my family history and how I, as an individual, fit into New Zealand society. It was all quite consuming. Writing Backwaters gave me closure, because it allowed me to explore my own experiences and question my racial and cultural identity in a slow, measured way. Writing a novel is quite a long process and as I drafted story narratives for Laura, my main character, I was also able to come to conclusions about my own identity. I’m at a point now where I’m still passionate about New Zealanders becoming more aware about racism and diversity—but I’m also able to throw my energy into other causes.

In your opinion, why do you think people are so curious to know about where you’re from-from? Why should the concept of ‘here’ or ‘home’ be approached with more care?

I’m aware that people don’t ask ‘where are you from?’ with malicious intent. People are just curious about my ethnic background. And that’s fine—but I wish people would ask the correct questions. People are welcome to ask, ‘what’s your whakapapa?’ or ‘what’s your ethnicity?’ and I’m happy to answer, but when someone asks, ‘where are you from?’ there’s an automatic othering that comes with that question. It implies that you’re not from here. Nobody asks, ‘where are you from?’ to Pākehā New Zealanders, and I think people should really think about why that is.

You mentioned that Backwaters is the first and last time you will write a novel like this, and that your next project will be very different. Can you tell us more about why this is so? 

Backwaters, as a first novel, feels extremely personal. I feel like I needed to write it and get it out of my system so I could move on to other things. I wrote Backwaters with three purposes in mind. Firstly, I wanted a resolution of sorts to my own identity journey. Secondly, I wanted other Asian New Zealanders to feel seen. Thirdly, I want to write an accessible, fun-to-read book that any person can enjoy and learn from. However, I don’t want to always write about race.

I’m conscious that, as a queer woman of colour, people will always expect me to write about my personal experiences. There will always be a level of political undertone to my writing. However, I refuse to be put in a box. I want to be able to write whatever I want, to write in a way that stimulates me creatively. That’s why my next project is very different. 

I’m super excited about my new book! It’s a collection of short stories dealing with desire, complicated relationships and the search for fulfilment. 

Backwaters has been described as being written for people of colour and queers. What role does writing/books play in helping people of varying identities feel seen/heard?

Representation is so important. I didn’t feel seen in many of the books I read growing up. I didn’t feel like someone like me would ever get to be a main character and go on fun adventures or be desirable as a romantic lead. When I was 11, I started to write a novel, and I made the protagonist a white boy because I thought that was just the way it was – which is really sad in retrospect. Books play an incredibly important role in allowing people of varying identities to feel seen. A child reading a book with a queer or POC protagonist can see themselves and think that they too can be an astronaut or an explorer or prime minister. Representation in books opens doors, because books allow people to expand their minds about what’s possible.

What are some texts that have helped you feel seen, heard, and represented?

  1. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner.
  2. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.
  3. Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles
  4. All Who Live on Islands by Rose Lu

And just to add two films!

  1. Everything Everywhere All At Once
  2. The Farewell

What role has fashion played in shaping your personal identity growing up in Wellington and or how has it evolved as you’ve matured?  

Developing my style has made me feel a lot more confident in who I am. I never felt particularly attractive as a teenager, and I spent years copying other people’s clothing choices. It was a revelation when I stopped trying to dress like other people and started working out what made me feel good. Finding my own style helped me embrace and love myself, and helped solidify my view of myself as a person.

How do you develop your characters? In the case of this novel, how closely are they inspired by people and events in your real life?

Sometimes my characters feel like they’re just waiting for me to find them. Other times my characters borrow traits from various people in my life, often becoming mishmashes of three or four people. In Backwaters I would say that the main character Laura is maybe about 30% me, but otherwise fiction. Max has some traits of a girl I knew from high school, and another from university, but she’s not based on any one person. Henry is a mix of three guys I know. Grandpa is completely made up. 

As for the events—there are elements of the family history that have a basis in truth, but all the actual events of the book are fiction. 

Only 4% of book sales in New Zealand are by New Zealanders authors and there are fewer publishing books each year. Do you have any comments on why you think this is and what we can do to shift these statistics? 

This statistic is really depressing to me because there are so many incredibly talented New Zealand authors telling relevant, important and fascinating stories. I think our reading choices are often too motivated by what’s popular internationally, and while I think we should read those books, I don’t think that should be at the expense of supporting local writers and local stories. There’s a special charm in reading something set in your own city. I think people forget how special it is to feel seen in the books they read. They also forget that ‘supporting local’ includes supporting New Zealand artists.

I think it’s great that we’re talking about this issue, because then we can brainstorm solutions. It can be as simple as committing to reading a couple of New Zealand books a year, going to more literary events, or even just spending more time hovering over the New Zealand table in your local bookshop. 

Backwaters, Emma Ling Sidnam

In Backwaters, Laura, a fourth generation Asian New Zealander who’s tired of questions about where she’s “from-from”, delves into her great-great-grandfather Ken’s diary, sparking a transformative journey of self-discovery and family secrets. This nuanced novel explores her quest for belonging in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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