I recently had the chance to read a superb edited critical collection, entitled Asian Canadian Writing: Beyond Autoethnography. The group of essays looks at the intertwinement of politics and form, history and identity, aesthetics and racial formation, among other such intersectionalities. While the essays themselves were illuminating, especially the attention paid to Asian Canadian Francophonic writers, the collection offers much to those who would like to more broadly conceive of the term “America” in Asian American writing to further include North America. I am still working to move beyond the domestic in certain cases and I will make a concerted effort to move many of my reviews to Anglophonic writers of Asian descent despite national origin, citizenship, or residence. In the quest for more ideological inclusiveness, I think it interesting to consider this possibility. Had I more fluent linguistic skills, I could perhaps explore other conceptions of “Asian-ness,” but English is pretty much where my limits lie at this time. Asian Canadian Writing also offers much needed emphasis on a group of authors and artists who need more attention; this list includes Larissa Lai, Fred Wah, Hiromi Goto, among numerous others. While I’ve had some opportunity to read these writers here and there, much work still needs to be done on my level. Here is the link to purchase the critical collection:
One of the impulses then today for that rather long introduction and plug for the edited essay collection is that I’m reviewing Weyman Chan’s poetry collection, Noise from the Laundry (Talon Books, 2008). This work is quite astonishing for the diversity of ways in which it can be read. In terms of form, Chan plays with both indentation and spacing; at times, some of the poems are much more narratively inflected, verging on prose poetry. The collection immediately establishes a transnational sentiment and temporal basis as it references the Tiananmen Square massacre. In “one billion love,” the lyric speaker finds himself alongside a tour guide: “I pay him, this tour guide who’s a student at Beijing university. It’s August, 1989. 2 months after Tiananmen. We walk the stones along Shanghai’s Bund. Freighters and ships, slow passage, scurfing rumour about the sweeping up of remains to hide the true number of bodies killed and torched in the square of that one-mind system. Meanwhile, a cook shuffles past us balancing 2 baskets on a shoulder pole: a brown hunk of moose nose, and a black bear’s paw. Over the coo of such delicate meats, a red-luck couple will be joined in marriage dipped in one billion love. (5) The intriguing element in this prose poetry block extends from the complicated ways in which historical events can become overwritten and re-contextualized. As the speaker walks through the square, there is the uncanny effect of not knowing what happened here and that such a narrative stands in contrast to the pedestrian optimisms of the marriage. Indeed, the felicitous union is depicted in quite a grotesque manner, as the “delicate meats,” call attention not only to the “black bear’s paw” and the “brown hunk of moose nose,” but the very delicate emergence of a democratic sentiment that does not find “one billion love.” The massacre will arc out as a bookend; towards the conclusion of the collection, in “Histology,” the lyric speaker finds himself contemplating the act of another:
In Calgary, as in Jinan,
I’m pissing away the half month
that coincides with plague. Everyone’s piss
expects this: Rabbit has gone fishing.
I forgot how autumn ruled the neurotic,
bureaucratic crap of larkspur and meadow rue,
twigs kicking, a bamboo sea inside my breath,
this lab tech at work who, four months after Tiananmen,
drove to Vancouver, shipped out and joined the students’ Movement.
She wanted to fight for something,
rise up against (this
before iPods and nano-links)
secretaries of interior fiddlers— (83).
If one is consider the lyric speaker from “one billion love” to be the same one in “Histology,” the sequencing serves to tell us that this figure has returned from his trip in China and yet there is yet another leavetaking; in this case, the lab tech who seeks a more “revolutionary” lifestyle. There is certainly a hint of sarcasm here as if the desire to overthrow ultimately faces an incredible challenge not only in the form of governance, but also through the emergence of a global economy in which China becomes a major nodal point not only of outsourcing, but also of the shift in economic power more broadly. This critique moves both ways as government officials are denoted as “secretaries of interior fiddlers.” Indeed, capitalism’s ability to move into and adapt to the Chinese economic system is the subject of numerous Chinese transnational writers ranging from Xiaolu Guo, Ha Jin, and Geling Yan, who show the ways in which China struggles from the opposing forces of modernization and traditional cultures. Much of the poetry collection is also concerned with the lyric speaker’s presentation of his immediately family, especially his father. In one particularly poignant poem, “b&w photo of Dad, 1954,” locates a different perspective granted on paternity as it is put into a larger temporal context:
2-toned spats, linked arm in arm gangster-style
with silver tie clips, blurred pant cuffs and
he’s sneaking up the stairs to catch me dancing with myself
to my brother’s 45 of Draggin’ the Line by Tommy James (48).
Here, the representation of the father as a stylized individual, replete with a kind of rebellious image, serves to problematize any reductive immigrant subjectivity that might focus on this figure as infantilized or even impotent in the movement to a different country.
Certainly, many of his poems evoke a medical background, one evocative of what I earlier called “medicinal poetics” in my readings of C. Dale Young. One poem that crystallizes Chan’s medicinal poetics appears in “At Work,” where I reprint a portion from part 4:
Next day at work, I close myself into darkness. Press the button that flows 75 thousand volts into a tungsten filament, stripping electrons from its surface. At ten thousand magnifications, I look for Herpes virus. Cytomegalovirus. Rule out Candida.
[. . . ]
The real world is smaller than we are. A Chinese lantern emanates my thoughts and form outwards, until I catch myself blurred and magnified, as diffuse as consciousness bending myths around a it life.
“Home sweet home,” she whispers, wheeled into Palliative Care, her chart binder tucked behind her knees. In her voice, cold dead leverage of pneumonia. (75)
Although I cannot claim to possess a vast amount of medical knowledge, what is interesting in terms of the litany of diseases he mentions is that they can be related to late-stage complications related to the HIV virus. Indeed, when the woman wheels into “Palliative Care,” with “pneumonia” in “her voice,” one wonders exactly what she might be surffering from and why she would have to be placed in a ward where there is no “cure” per se, but that she can only be attended to through certain comforting techniques. We know she’s been there before because of what she says and then the notion of “home sweet home,” as Toni Morrison famously reminded us, is never so sweet.
In “the terrorist at O’Hare airport,” Chan’s lyric speaker explores the problematics of interethnic racism in the post-9/11 era. Of course, what is interesting about this moment is that it problematizes the notion of a panethnic rubric undergirding conceptions of Asian American and/or Asian Canadian identity groupings:
The towers never fell for just one person.
At Gate 11, an East Indian woman woke me,
Asked if I need anything at Starbucks, she needed coffee now.
I blurted out, “No thanks; I’ll watch your luggage.”
Right away June said, “You can’t watch other peoples’ luggage!”
“Smart girl!” the woman answered back. (58)
The conclusion of the poem sees the lyric speaker realizing his mistake in assuming the potential terrorist activity of the East Indian woman who ends up taking a long time going to Starbucks. This sequence more generally provides us a window into the insidious ways racism takes shape, not necessarily about the acts of violence one can see so brazenly.
Chan’s work is just one of numerous Asian Canadian poets that I hope to review in the coming days and suggests a continual movement outward from any “center” accorded to what might be called Asian American literature. In these investments, we can take stock in a politic that E. San Juan, Jr. might have called the “emergent literature.”
Buy Weyman Chan’s Noise from the Laundry here: