Counternarratives of Migration

  • Caroline Wong
    Primal Sketches. Signature Editions (purchase at
  • Matsuki Masutani
    I will be More like Myself in the Next World: Poems. Mother Tongue (purchase at
Reviewed by Rina Garcia Chua

Forgetting and remembering are strong diasporic themes that surface in poems of migration by racialized immigrants. Yet the lyric often betrays a singular metanarrative of success and abundance that settled migrants are framed with. The migrant’s experience of movements—departures, arrivals, settling, and returning—are never simple nor homogenized; these experiences are wildly messy, joyous yet painful, and sometimes interrupted by dreams (or nightmares) of what was left behind. Further, these lived experiences move beyond the frames of multiculturalism and diversity that are asserted by Euro-American nations to project a utopia of cultural acceptance; in fact, they offer counternarratives that are crucial to comprehending the intense self-reflexive inquiry that builds a migrant’s identity. These counternarratives not only manifest in the lyric through the discourse of what was forgotten and remembered, but also build a world fraught with dreams, voicelessness, myths, and the elusive search for home.


The counternarratives in Matsuki Masutani’s poems are reflected in confessional verses. Divided into nine sections, the collection delves in and out of different phases of the poet-persona’s life: Marriage, Japan, Island Life, Chemo, Parkinson’s, Old, and Grandchildren. Each section is a poignant and honest narrative of a life lived outside of their heartland, and of a person vying to create an identity on foreign soil. Curiously, the sections Marriage, Chemo, and Parkinson’s are accompanied by their Japanese translations. Reading these parts in English and glancing at the Japanese translations (through logographic kanji and syllabic kana combinations) on the right page of the book is a curious interrogation of the reader’s ability to accept what cannot be translated, especially when the translations appear to be longer than the English text. The English texts as narratives flow in a simple way; Masutani is not one who uses institutionalized techniques. He expresses simply, directly, and without fuss, welcoming the reader into the world he is crafting. In “vii” of the section Marriage, he shares how his wife dreamt that he abandoned her in the middle of a strange city by forcing her out of the car. It was a “hell of a time” for her trying to get home, so he thinks he “should apologize somehow” for that dream (22). The juxtaposition of that moment in Marriage, together with the escalating small arguments of a couple from different cultural backgrounds, solidify the counternarrative that migrants are faced with—reckoning intimacy with differences. The translations seemingly ground those moments with a reminder that these are his moments, his interpretation of the events, and no one else’s.


Similarly, the sections on Chemo and Parkinson’s relate the poet-persona’s own inner realizations and turmoil over battling and living with terminal illnesses. In “ii” of Chemo, he mentions how it occurs to him that he is dying of cancer, but the young doctor insists that he will live. He also fears the chemo bottle with tubes that the nurse calls “baby bottle.” In a single line, he declares: “I must make my life more worthy.” (70). With this realization of mortality, the poet-persona then pines for his heartland, his native soil; the collection pivots to soft, tender verses in the sections Old and Grandchildren, with the last lines of the poem “Newborn, she is sleeping” seemingly responding to the title of the collection: “Sometimes she shudders / like a bewildered insect, / a mystery from the other world.” (114). Perhaps for the persona, the turmoil within stops the moment he sees his granddaughter sleep in the world he is inhabiting; perhaps that is where he feels that he is able to step into another world beyond the one he has already made and where he can be “worthy” by his, his ancestors’, and his grandchildren’s standards.


In contrast to Masutani’s honest counternarratives, Caroline Wong’s Primal Sketches provides an imagery of visceral and violent counternarratives that marks a poet with a keen eye towards the world she has built and the environment she is inhabiting. If Masutani’s collection is stellar in its simplicity, Wong’s verses are a masterful demonstration of owning the standard techniques and running away with them. With five sections, namely Living at the Edge, The Animals that Serve Us, What Runs in My Veins, Unmarked Paths, and The Way Home, Primal Sketches is not so much confessional as it is self-reflexive. It explores the poet-persona’s identity after she has lived with this persona for most of her life. She is unafraid to narrate what has happened to the sacred places of her childhood, of the experiences that have brought her to North America, or the alienating feeling of returning to the native land after so much change. She recounts myths, translates poems from poets of the Tang and Song Dynasties, and creates her own world that is full of curiosity, wonder, and pride.


In the section What Runs in My Veins, Wong writes: “but we have only what we carry: / wounds that never heal / scars left by lack and aggression / a thirst for reason and sanity // memory of lost homes.” This poem, “What We Carry,” introduces the reader to the realities of migrants as they try to find their space in foreign soil. From this general description of a migrant’s embodied experiences, Wong then delves into the specificities of her own immigration and what she cannot deny: a mortality that perseveres. She states in “Enduring Will” that despite being a fragile being, the persona is “driven by an unstoppable imperative / a will to endure, carry on.” This tenacity to survive no matter the challenge is reflected upon in the last poem of that section, “Ancestor Worship,” where the poet-persona describes how her father remembers his first boat journey with his clan brothers for two days and a night just to bring offerings to their ancestors’ graves. That perilous journey ends with her father’s solemn prayer, which, unbeknownst to him, will lead to the “uprooting sojourn that awaited him.” The collection then swerves to Unmarked Paths, which recounts the poet-persona’s own journeys to foreign countries as a curious tourist, visitor, and settler. Perhaps these are also an uprooting, but of her own agency and choice.


Parts of Wong’s collection are hard to read and digest, such as the section The Animals that Serve Us. This part creates an anthropocentric environment where slaughterhouses and fish farms become assembly lines and drive societies to interrogate the sentient experiences of animals that are bred for our consumption. Often, these verses project violence that is hard to read; however, Wong does not disappoint in her navigation of these metaphors. She weaves in and out of these visceral descriptions by creating a space where the reader can question their own interpretations of how food is produced and how the process is rendered invisible to us. This is what perhaps Wong is most accomplished at: is to give the reader a startling but gentle nudge of reality.


In her last poem, “Joy of Flying,” she returns to the Yangtze River (the titular first poem). For the first time, the poet-persona is not anchored to the world she has built but is secure enough to let go. She does not know who wrote the lines about the Yangtze River, the one who says that the moon is like a hook, but she is “rising, rising to the moon’s crystalline hook” despite it all. The lightness in the section The Way Home is sharply different from the grounded and anchored verses of the first four sections, which also shows how the poet-persona has evolved as she begins the journey to where her heart is.


Both Masutani and Wong have had to build a world in which they could feel safe on foreign ground. Sometimes, this world is never really home for them, and their counternarratives in these two collections show realities beyond the homogenized portrayals of migrants in North America, especially in Canada. Forgetting and remembering becomes a process that they must contend with in order to secure their own identities despite the difficulties of migrancy; further, as they find themselves accepting that their lives are now shifting to another strange new world, they allow themselves to dream of returning home. In Masutani’s “vii,” he recounts how an old cherry tree outside his living room window stretches out its neck to ask how he is doing during the thick of his chemo sessions; in Wong’s “Footfalls,” she talks to her children and remind them that in their veins, “a river of stories and memories / illuminates our ancient paths.”  These reckonings with their identities are a pathway for the poet-personas to reclaim their lost identities, own their myths, and to forge into a new world with those they have chosen to help carry their stories and memories. It is these reminders that surface counternarratives so they can be shared with the generations that need them and hunger for them.

This review “Counternarratives of Migration” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 6 Jun. 2022. Web.

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