Sjohnna McCray's Rapture

There's an embodied solidity to Sjohnna McCray's poems in the debut collection Rapture (Graywolf Press, 2016).

For example, the poem "How to Move" begins:

I cannot look at anything
     so black as my father's leg
          or used-to-be-leg below the knee,

now a stump. If a child's doll lost
     its flexible hand, the surface
          underneath would be as round

as father's stump. I've touched it once.

We're thrown into a consideration of the speaker's father's leg and his amputation, where the presence of this injury is foregrounded in the context of childhood. His father's blackness, the darkness of his skin, makes him stand out in contrast not just to the people around him (either darker or lighter in skin tone) but also with respect to his first prosthetic leg, made in "the color of oatmeal" that is perhaps meant to approximate normative whiteness.

Rapture is the winner of the Walt Whitman Award for a debut poetry collection, chosen by poet Tracy K. Smith. The sequencing of the poems in this book reminded me of Ocean Vuong's Night Sky With Exit Wounds in that both collections start with poems about the speaker's father and mother and end with poems about same-sex attraction and relationships. Like Vuong, McCray's life is framed in many ways by the Vietnam War although in his case, his black American father was stationed in South Korea during the war where he met a Korean woman.

The earlier poems imagine how the father and mother meet in the context of a military presence that condones or even celebrates prostitution of local women. Many of the poems then move into considering the experiences of this mixed-race couple in middle America as well as the speaker's experiences as nonwhite.

Some of the poems capture a sense of the danger and the excitement of sexual awakening and experience. In "Death Is a One-Night Stand," the young speaker follows a "poor boy" out of the city in the dark hillside to view the stars, and he describes the moment of finding himself alone in the night with this stranger as one interrupted by visions of a police search party looking for his body. This fear is balanced only partially with the anticipation of intimacy, which itself is framed around the thought of death: "He places a hand on the dip of my back / to guide me, like Hades, into his world."

The later poems interestingly consider a more settled experience of sexuality and intimacy. Rather than exploring those first encounters and the first blush of excitement, these poems are about a couple's developed and developing intimacy, the way little things help make up both the everyday quality of being in a relationship and also add up to something much larger. This idea is addressed most diretly in "The Green Bowls," where the speaker's lover brings over the titular green bowls as well as spoons and plates to his place, signalling the process of moving in together and beginning to combine belongings into shared trappings of a life together. The bowls, spoons, and plates are symbols of domesticity but also of what underlies it:
I knew I was in love but would have to
cook. We stood over the kitchen counter
as if taken by surprise. Centered in sheets
of newsprint lay not ordinary plates,
but a new shape entering our lives.

I definitely look forward to more poems from McCray and am especially interested in seeing how he shapes language around same-sex intimacies beyond the more tried-and-true language of first encounters, discovery, and the heat of desire.
  • Current Mood: flirty flirty

Green Island (by Shawna Yang Ryan)

I’m going to put it on the table right now: this book—a novel (fiction!)—taught me more about my family and cultural heritage than any history class or textbook ever did.

The plot leans heavily on a historical event and period of time that is never mentioned in American history classes. It is hard to learn history when it has been wiped from the history books. In fact, I don’t remember any mention of Taiwan in my history books before college. I never knew the details of the 228 Massacre until reading this book, despite whisperings of it at family dinners in my youth. I would like to blame the lack of Wikipedia at the time on not following up on what everyone meant by “2-2-8”, but I have to admit I was not the most intellectually curious child.

Me, deep in thought.

When I finally finished this book, I was compelled to talk to my dad about it. I was told first-hand stories about what my own family did in Taiwan to stay safe and what it looks like to live in a country without free speech. A big reason this event is hardly mentioned, even in the Taiwanese community, is because talking about it was forbidden for decades. But even characters in the book that dared to speak about it in America (an entire ocean away from Taiwan) got a good beating for the violation. I guess I don’t blame the Taiwanese community here then. This book taught me that the cultural divide between me and my parents is comprised of more than just a difference of generational age, food, and language. The fact that I could not fathom such suppression of speech about a historic event (what’s done is done, right? WRONG) was very telling; I was privileged to grow up in a culture of American free speech while my own family never had such basic rights. It’s not about speaking English fluently or simply not having enough filial piety in the American culture. It’s about what I have, their sacrifices in the immigration process that lets me have it, and what they didn’t have.

I also learned that my family and all our family friends represent many sides of the conflict embodied by the 228 Massacre. My grandfather’s family emigrated from China to Taiwan to get the hell away from Mao’s red army (of military and citizens alike). Many of these folks that ran from China to Taiwan (my mom’s family) were of the party that kind of abused the folks that were already there (my dad’s family), the people that identify themselves are true Taiwanese people (though they themselves immigrated from China a couple hundred years prior and committed similar atrocities to the natives there…probably the real true Taiwanese folks). It’s interesting to recall the political discussions (read: fights) my family got into in over dinners. It’s also interesting to hear which family friends came from which group.

The ultimate question I asked my dad: “How are you friends with people that identify with a socio-political group that has done so many horrible things to people you personally know?” His answer was simply that people are people, all doing the best they can. “It’s war. There is no right or wrong. You are simply at a place and time and you are swept up with one side or another. You usually don’t even get to choose the side.” It sounded true, but surprisingly forgiving for the atrocities described in the book. Perhaps this was a moment to learn that as an American, I have been privileged to not live through a war on the home front, which tends to complicate things. All the more, I now know that I come from a culture that is a lot more adaptive than I originally thought, given the historical, uh, diversity of my family and family friends.

I learned a bit from this book—historical references, cultural details described, even details on what it is like to immigrate to America in the 80's. The real gold is in the conversations that have revealed things about my family I would have never known otherwise. I’m sure not everyone will have the same experience from this book, but there must be other books out there like this that help people understand their own families in a deeper way. These books are gold.

Deepa Iyer's We Too Sing America

It's been awhile since I've read a book on politics geared towards a general audience (rather than an academic one), and Deepa Iyer's We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (New Press, 2015) was a great way to return to the genre.

Deepa Iyer writes from the perspective of a lawyer and activist for racial and immigrant justice, and this book offers arguments for coalitional social movements that connect efforts to combat anti-immigrant, anti-Black, and anti-Muslim laws, policies, and actions. Iyer makes a few central claims about what social justice looks like and how it can progress. Among these is an emphasis on understanding post-9/11 anti-Muslim hysteria as a wide-reaching phenomenon that impacts different people based on perceived racial identities of Muslims. Iyer also reaches back to the historical contexts of anti-Asian sentiments, highlighting exclusion, internment, civil rights movement, and immigration law shifts in 1965 as significant shaping factors in the contemporary landscape of legal and extralegal discrimination. In addition to her attention on laws and policies that have disparate impacts on different populations, she also argues strongly for addressing media and political discourses about these issues. For her, the framing of discussions is often crucial to our ability to understand what is truly at stake.

The eight chapters develop from a close consideration of the Oak Creek Massacre against a gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012 through chapters that consider racial profiling in immigration law and policing; coordinated efforts by right-wing extremists to attack mosques and push through bans on Sharia law in the south; challenges to the model minority myth and cultural exceptionalism that frame Asians as honorary Whites; youth activists who are undocumented migrants advocating for changes to immigration law and deportations; and interracial coalitions fighting police violence.

Iyer weaves her considerable knowledge of the legal and policy world with the voices of people impacted by some of the most troubling moments in post-9/11 America, including young Sikhs whose families were torn apart in the Oak Creek Massacre and undocumented, queer South Asian American youth whose activism has helped open up possibilities for undocumented youth to stay in the country, pursue higher education, and keep their jobs.

Underlying Iyer's overall argument is the idea that America is a land that often rejects non-White others but that nevertheless has the capacity (perhaps even the duty) to change its laws, practices, and personal biases to embrace other Americans. This is where the title, We Too Sing America, riffs on Langston Hughes's famous poem in which the speaker sings America despite being treated poorly.

One thing that is interesting about the book is how Iyer imagines it as part of ongoing and future conversations on race. In the final pages, she calls for all readers to commit to "race talks" in their lives, with neighbors, coworkers (possibly affinity groups in their organization), and others in their communities and across communities. The goal of these talks is to connect people at an individual level so that they learn how much they share with others but also learn to love and respect those who come from vastly different experiences. Her website offers some more guidance on hosting and participating in these race talks. 
  • Current Mood: enthralled enthralled

Ocean Vuong's Night Sky With Exit Wounds

Ocean Vuong's first full-length poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), circles around two major themes—refugee melancholia via intergenerational relationships and the twinning of violence and desire in same-sex attraction.

The book is divided into three unnamed sections. The first roughly focuses on the poet-narrator's father and mother and their experiences fleeing Vietnam to America as well as the continuing repercussions of violence and loss that follow such pain. The second part picks up on queer sexuality, particularly in male–male sexual encounters. The final part sees a melding of the major themes of the first two parts.

The most significant relationship explored in these poems is the father–son relationship, where the father is an intensely important figure in the son's life but someone whose violence haunts the intimate world of the family. Especially in the first part of the book, the poetic voice reminded me of other writing by Asian American refugees who, in their memoirs and poetry, imagine the experiences of their parents and other relatives who experienced the trauma of fleeing a war-torn homeland. There is an interesting move to inhabit these experiences as one's own as well as to detail how such experiences unfurl into the lives of the next generation.

The opening lines to "Always & Forever" is a prime example of the fraught yoking together of kindness and violence, propriety and impropriety:

Open this when you need me most,
he said, as he slide the shoe box, wrapped

in duct tape, beneath my bed. His thumb,
still damp from the shudder between mother's

things, kept circling the mole above my brow.
The devil's eye blazed between his teeth

And later in the same poem: "Or maybe just a man kneeling / at the boy's bed, his grey overalls reeking of gasoline // & cigarettes."

The poem that caught my attention the most is in the third part of the book. Entitled "Notebook Fragments," it appears to be a selection of observations, somewhat random, but the juxtaposition of observations and sequencing of them is, of course, what makes the poem especially interesting. One passage:

An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists.
Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.


9:45 a.m. Jerked off four times already. My arm kills.

Eggplant = cà pháo = "grenade tomato." Thus nourishment defined
by extinction.

I met a man tonight. A high school English teacher
from the next town. A small town. Maybe

I shouldn't have, but he had the hands
of someone I used to know. Someone I was used to.

As with the book as a whole, this passage shifts back and forth between the speaker's first-person experiences and the experiences of his grandparents and parents. And weaving those experiences together are the world-historical forces of American intervention in Vietnam.

See also stephenhongsohn's review of Vuong's chapbook Burnings.
  • Current Mood: working working

Quan Barry's Loose Strife

Quan Barry's Loose Strife (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) is a collection of poems inspired by a collaborative exhibit with visual artist Michael Velliquette.

The cover image is by Velliquette, a piece entitled Chromasoul from 2012.

This collection of poems is one I'll have to read again and again to get a stronger sense of its nuances and interconnections. As a whole, there are recurring themes of history, war, and violence. The poems unfold across the pages in various layouts. At times, the lines are simply left-justified. At other times, the lines are fully justified, even compressed into two or three columns on a page. Some pages provide fully justified lines that are stretched out to leave plenty of white space between words, and at least one page alternated between left-justified and right-justified lines. This play with the placement of words on the page forces a reading experience that is more attentive to spacing and the visual impact of black words on off-white page.

Another aspect of the poems is Barry's consideration of how others perceive violence and representation. The epigraph comes from Shakespeare's Macbeth, for instance, which sets the tone for a poetic world filled with the chaos of war and ambition. Barry also brings up ancient Greeks like Homer and Euripedes about their representations of violence. And in various poems, she considers images of contemporary war and violence that have seared into our collective memories such as from the Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields, of a woman who survived having bleach thrown in her face, of a black man impaled by a white man wielding an American flag as a spear....

I would've loved to have seen more images of the visual pieces by Velliquette that formed the collaborative exhibit to get a sense of the dynamic between visual art and the images of poetry.

See also stephenhongsohn's reviews of Barry's novel She Weeps Each Time You're Born and other poetry collections Asylum, Controvertibles, and Water Puppets.
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative