Earlier this year, my incredible former PhD supervisor Hilary Chung died after a long struggle with cancer. Now Ka Mate Ka Ora: A New Zealand Journal of Poetry and Poetics has published a series of tributes to her and her work. I reproduce my tribute below.
Twenty years ago, a new door in my life opened when I entered the office of one Hilary Chung, a new lecturer in Chinese who had recently arrived in the country. I still recall pitching to her what I only much later realised was an extraordinarily eccentric PhD project, involving disparate contemporary poets writing in Chinese, Russian, and English.
Luckily for me, Hilary was not only, as she later put it, ‘the only potential supervisor with the requisite expertise in New Zealand’, but was also willing to use that expertise in both Chinese and Russian to guide me through a four-year-long comparative project that I would very likely have struggled to get past the gate-keepers at most universities around the world. Even then, I doubt I would have started, let alone finished, the project without Hilary’s enthusiastic response that first day in the tower block on Symonds St where Asian Studies was then housed.
Since learning of Hilary’s death, I have kept returning to our first meeting. She was enthusiastic, energetic, and she conveyed to me a sense that anything was possible. This sense manifested not just in her ability to enable me and others to pursue our goals but also in her sharp ear for bullshit and her refusal to accept lazy modes of thinking and writing, including, frequently, my own. I know my experience of Hilary as a supervisor was shared because of the many beautiful testimonies to her written by the almost twenty other PhD students whom she supervised over the subsequent two decades. But I also know that she didn’t just offer this support to her own students. I remember the thought and energy with which she responded to three of my PhD students at the 2017 NZASIA Pre-conference Postgraduate Workshop at the University of Otago in Dunedin. Her generosity and incisiveness that day reminded me again of how lucky I was to have had Hilary as a supervisor.
My most intense period of collaboration with Hilary came, however, not during my PhD but immediately afterwards, in 2005, when she and I collaborated on translating and editing a collection of Auckland writings by the poet Yang Lian 杨炼. I was already teaching at Otago by that time, and I vividly recall our long telephone discussions about the best translation of a tricky word or phrase. It was Hilary who led this work of translation, and once again it was her drive and passion that got the project over the line.
The building where I first met Hilary is a few minutes’ walk away from the Symonds St Cemetery and Grafton Bridge, landmarks that are central to the geography of Yang Lian’s Auckland writings and which may well also have featured in Hilary’s first experiences of the city after she moved to Aotearoa in 1999. Perhaps it was their shared experience of the city as somewhere strange and new that led Hilary to pay particular attention to Yang Lian’s Auckland work. Writing in this journal in 2012, Hilary described how ‘for Yang Lian confronting the trauma of exile in Auckland meant not only confronting the alienating environment of Auckland city with its dead volcanoes, incomprehensible street signs and unfamiliar intimacy with the sea, but developing a new relationship with the language of poetry such that home and identity came to be located in language itself’. Hilary was no exile, and she probably experienced the marks of British colonialism in language, street names, and culture as uncannily similar, rather than bewilderingly different. And yet, Auckland was still a strange city for her when I met her not long after her arrival. And she too forged a home and identity not just through family and place, but also in ‘language itself’, in her work and words as a scholar and translator.
Hilary died at the end of a long winter. Now, as I write, I look out on a flare of kōwhai blossom that seems only to reinforce the bitter truth of her words: ‘In winter the semblance of death is belied by the possibility of spring but flowers seem possible only in dreams.’