In the Bag: Emma Sidnam

Words by Yu Mei

Acclaimed writer, poet and lawyer Emma Sidnam

Emma Sidnam’s debut novel, Backwaters, won the coveted Michael Gifkins prize in 2022 while it was still a manuscript. An acclaimed writer, poet and lawyer, the fourth-generation Chinese New Zealander has used her words to explore representation, belonging and the journey of finding identity. She is committed to amplifying underrepresented voices and ensuring their story is heard. A year on, in celebration of the book’s release in Aotearoa, we hear Emma’s advice on writing, life balance and finding confidence.


I write for two reasons. Firstly, I write because I love writing. I simply love putting words together and telling stories. Secondly, I’m driven by the need for diverse representation in New Zealand and the world. I felt a real lack of representation growing up, and I want to be part of the movement telling previously untold stories.

Things have happened for me both faster and slower than I thought they would. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 5, and I used to imagine myself publishing a novel at 14, then 15, then 16. I wanted to be young enough for it to be truly impressive. Of course, I wasn’t a teen prodigy, but by the time I published (at the wonderfully confusing age of 24) I had moved my goalpost to 30. So, I managed to beat my goal after all. Honestly, winning the Michael Gifkins prize for an unpublished manuscript and subsequently getting a book deal was a huge surprise. At the time, I’d all but given up on my novel because I’d submitted it to a few places and only got rejections. And then all of a sudden I get this deal and life changes.


I feel like I alternate being a kind of classic style (black turtlenecks) and a very colourful, slightly bohemian look with lots of colourful long skirts and singlets in summer. I’m always open to trying new things though! I’ve recently picked up a black leather trench coat that I love because it makes me feel like I belong in the Matrix. I mostly thrift my clothes because a) the environment b) it’s cheaper and c) I love searching through second hand clothes and the thrill of finding a piece I like.

I love my Karen Walker acorn necklace which my parents bought me for my 19th birthday. I love it because it reminds me of my childhood self that used to run through Autumn leaves and dream of turning into a fairy. It’s a piece of childhood whimsy, a reminder that joy can still exist in the little things.


I’m a massive fan of Michelle Zauner, also known as Japanese Breakfast. She’s an incredible writer and musician, has awesome style, and remains this real, cool person. I love almost everything she’s ever done. I love Agnes Varda, the iconic French filmmaker. She lived this true artist lifestyle and her career spans over 20 full feature films. I’m also incredibly inspired by Wong Kaw-wai, for the universe he creates in every film.

There are a lot of amazing New Zealand artists I love.

For poets I’d recommend my good friend Khadro Mohamed. She has this incredibly detailed delicacy in her writing. Another favourite of mine is Nina Mingya-Powles who writes so gently about food and bodies. Both Khadro and Nina inspire me through their writing because they seem to notice the world in such a special way.


I’m someone that thrives on routine. I don’t know, I like repetition which is why I don’t find the gym boring. I’m a real morning person! Most of the time I wake up relatively energetic and happy for a new day. I love getting up slowly, reading and going through my phone, drinking coffee, and listening to music. I really value having a life outside of both my ordinary job and writing—it’s important to me that my life is vibrant and full of many people and experiences. I really know when to prioritise fun.

My happy place is in nature. I love standing on mountains or opposite the sea and closing my eyes and just breathing. I love the sun on my skin, the crust of salt on my legs, the tickle of grass against my feet. Nature rejuvenates and heals me.


I’m very organised in the sense that I’m a planner and I will book things out a week in advance. At the same time however, I do sometimes show up to things a day early or late. This becomes a problem when the thing is a job interview.

I am usually carrying umbrella, tissues, ChapStick, moisturiser (my hands get really dry), spare earphones (music is a necessity), keychains (to remind me where I’ve been), a charger or portable charger, spare underwear (you never know what might happen in life), spare socks (same reason), spare tampons (for friends, I use a cup), some tiny chocolates or lollies (energy burst!) and a reusable shopping bag.

Emma at Yu Mei Newmarket Lounge with her Brooke Bag in Toffee.


It doesn’t matter if what you write/make/create is bad. Just make it. You won’t get better without making a whole lot of terrible art.

I’m currently very inspired by Olivia Rodrigo! That’s a 20 year old who really knows what she’s doing. Also, GUTS rocks.

Start conversations with strangers. You never know who you might connect with. Whether you’re on the bus, plane, or in an elevator, smile and say something.

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