A novel about self-discovery

Book review of Emma Ling Sidnam's Backwaters Photo: UNSPLAH

By Christine Yunn-Yu Sun

To describe Emma Ling Sidnam’s Backwaters as the journey of a fourth-generation Chinese New Zealander to discover her identity is to underestimate the book’s rich complexity.

To praise it as a story that will attract readers of this or that author with Asian ancestry is to narrow its scope, limiting its universal appeal and reducing its value to a piece of “ethnic work”.

Like the first-person protagonist Laura, we have all asked ourselves the question: “Where are we from?” But, unlike Laura, only some of us have been asked the question: “Where are you really from?”

If this question gets thrust upon you simply because of how you look, even though you were born and have lived here all your life – it really makes you wonder about your existence.

Unless you can find the answer that satisfies your heart and soul, you will never rest.

For identity is much more than how others identify you – it is also how you define yourself.

In Backwaters, Laura embarks on a journey to find an answer that will give her peace.

Her sense of being neither here nor there – that she is not enough to own and belong to either space – prompts her to explore the nature and significance of her heritage.

“I just want to fit in,” Laura admits.

“And be accepted as a New Zealander and not asked where are you from? everywhere I went.”

Yet, even a DNA test cannot give her a definite answer, because any specific label, like “Chinese” or “New Zealander”, is ambivalent and open to a myriad of interpretations.

“It tells me naught about who I am as a person, except that I am a mix of things and my history is ambiguous, and I already know that.”

While working on a project about the Chinese New Zealander experience, Laura comes across a diary supposedly written by her great-great-grandfather, Ken, one of the earliest Chinese settlers in Aotearoa who worked as a market gardener during the gold rush days.

The more she gets to know about the sojourner – the man who felt like a foreigner in his home country and then built a home of his own in a foreign land – the better she understands that life is what you choose it to be, a self-made and self-sustained mixture of disappearance and discovery, fulfilling and forgetting, fact and fiction, memory and reality, and giving and forgiving.

In Laura’s words: “All the stories that got me here… they play back in my head like a sped-up film. These stories might be the backdrop to my life, but they don’t determine who I become next.”

Instead of internalising what others see in her and then defining herself accordingly, she recognises the need to see herself as who she wants to be.

Winner of the 2022 Michael Gifkins Prize, Backwaters is all about the bittersweet search for belonging.

It shows us a way to find confidence and courage to claim our own stories.