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Cover of issue #218

Current Issue: #218 Of Borders and Bioregions (Autumn 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 218 (Autumn 2013), Of Borders and Bioregions is now available. Guest edited by Anne Kaufman and Robert Thacker, the issue features articles by Tamas Dobozy, Laurie Ricou, Lisa Szabo-Jones, Magali Sperling Beck, and more.

Book Review

Non-Generic Brands

  • Rita Wong (Author)
    Monkeypuzzle. Press Gang Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Paul Yee (Author) and Gu Xiong (Illustrator)
    The Boy in the Attic. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Goh Poh Seng (Author)
    The Girl from Ermita & Selected Poems: 1961-1998. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Mark Libin

I’ve often wondered what the project of delineating the field of literature in terms of cultural identity might entail. To declare that a text is a text is a text, and that we can read, for instance, Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Café just as we read D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, would effectively erase the differences that many contemporary writers are trying to foreground in their texts. On the other hand, elevating national or cultural identity as the criterion for formulating an analytic community begs the question of genre. A good case in point is this particular review, where I have been asked to review a book of poetry by Chinese Canadian writer Rita Wong, another by Malayan Canadian Goh Poh Seng, as well as a children’s book written by Chinese Canadian Paul Yee.

This collection of different nationalities as well as of different genres raises more questions than it satisfies: does such a grouping erase the very differences it purports to honour? If so, what sort of assembly of texts could avoid such an erasure? What method might be employed to write a cohesive review of these three disparate texts? On this last issue I have no satisfactory answer, and would prefer to leave it as a question, reviewing each work as a separate entity rather than as a community of works in dialogue with each other.

Monkeypuzzle is Rita Wong’s first volume of poetry, and it does indeed, as the book jacket declares, announce a promising new voice in Canadian literature. By turns personal and political, skeptical of the colonizing power of language while still able to wring appealing sounds and tones from that language, Monkeypuzzle displays a range of poetic concerns and techniques. The volume’s opening section, "Memory Palate," is especially delightful in its deft construction of a narrator able to render personal memory without becoming overwhelmed by sentiment. In this account of a childhood in Calgary, working at the family grocery store, and negotiating between "wannabe bad girl & good chínese girl," Wong neither ignores her marginalized position nor exoticizes it. A poem such as "the jade lady" relates the diversity and interconnectedness of the Chinese community oí Calgary—as well as ihe way ihe narrator, a child, is positioned at once within the community and outside its exchanges— without being overly literal or denotative.

Often displaying an engagement with language as a sensual experience—"i am drawn to elaborate nouns,/ pomegranates, persimmons, speculum, iguanas, drawn to/ the stranger taste on my tongue, this usage that uses me"—Wong’s discourse becomes prosaic and rather flat when she turns to poems more explicitly concerned with identity politics and with the split self inherent in Chinese Canadian. In poems such as "chínese & not chínese," Wong’s narrator describes how she is conflicted between identifying with China as her ancestral home and disapproving of the country’s violent handling of freedom movements in Tibet. As interesting as this doubled concept of "home" might be, the language that frames it becomes unfortunately didactic by the end of the poem.

Goh Poh Seng’s The Girl from Ermita & Selected Poems provides, as the title indicates, a sampling of almost forty years of Seng’s poetry that documents a life spent in Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Tahiti, and Canada, among other countries. The breadth of Seng’s travels is reflected in work that demonstrates wide-ranging concerns and a capacity to engage with the communities he visits. At times the narrator of these poems is a detached observer; at times the poems take the shape of dramatic monologues. The title poem, for example, allows the girl from Ermita, a Filipino prostitute, to recount the story of her life. This, of course, can evoke the uneasy feeling of appropriation: the male poet stepping into another culture in order to claim the voice of a marginalized female. At the same time, however, the sensitivity of language with which Seng renders these poems, the magic realist tone—"They call me Fely,/ I was born in Samar,/ I’m the girl with the bird in her head"—allows us to perceive the poem as mediated by a canny fое I. Poems such as these might remind the reader of Michael Ondaatje’s "Elizabeth" or "The Cinnamon Peeler" in their blending of the narrative and the figurative.

Seng’s development as a poet over the course of four decades is significant. The voice gains confidence as well as a sense of balance. The metaphors are precise and unexpected, and Seng’s incorporation of a myriad of languages into his poetry allows us glimpses of the cultures he describes. Through his poetry, Seng reveals himself to be a scrupulous polymath in the Modernist tradition, and the knowledge and sensitivity this imbues to his work is a strength rather than an anachronism. The final poems, written in his new home in Vancouver, display an appealing spareness to the lyric line that leaves the reader wanting to read more from this mature and confident poet.

Paul Yee’s children’s book, The Boy in the Attic relates the story of a young Chinese boy’s immigration to Canada. Beginning its narrative with the family’s final visit to their great-great-grandfather’s tomb, the story introduces the traditional Chinese custom of honouring the dead, explains that paying homage to the ancestors is discouraged by the government, and invokes the melancholy of leaving home for the unknown: a complex juggling act indeed. Does this multifaceted story risk confusing a young reader, or does it provide the child with a textured narrative presented without condescension?

I can’t help but think that Yee was uncertain as to whether his story was indeed becoming too complex, for when Kai-Ming arrives in Canada the narrative introduces a fairly stock cliché in children’s books, movies, and television programs: the ghost child who still inhabits his old playroom. This figure offers a companion for Kai-Ming, who is isolated from the neighbourhood children because he can’t speak English, but it also shifts the narrative away from the newly-arrived Kai-Ming and gives centre-stage to the blonde, apple-cheeked ghost. The reader is left with an unsettling example of how a story seems to inadvertently colonize itself.

Each of these works testifies to a vibrant and diverse community of Asian Canadian writers. Although it may be difficult to discuss these works as aspects of a coherent movement, the poetry and fiction demonstrate the continuing vitality of the Asian Canadian voice in Canadian literature.

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MLA: Libin, Mark. Non-Generic Brands. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #163 (Winter 1999), Asian Canadian Writing. (pg. 204 - 206)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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