Anxiety of influence in writing from the diaspora – Jane Shi
I am afraid of ancestral debt. The debt that does not come in the form of money, though it is often steeped in it. The debt that is not knowing – of how to ask and where or why exactly it hurts. An inheritance that cannot be thrown out, a thing more ceaseless than ocean and more anguished than birds swallowing plastic.
What is ancestral debt? To whom are we indebted, and how? Over time, as I come into my voice as a Chinese Canadian writer and poet, I learn that the central questions of diaspora are best attended to through metaphor. The movement of a vehicle (ocean, birds) as it reimagines a tenor (inheritance of debt) is much like what happens when bodies migrate across land and water to reimagine belonging. If a poet’s job is to bear witness and reassemble everything that gets tugged away and lost through displacement, what happens when the poet herself houses the memories, stories, and hauntings of that loss? What does she do with images that keep coming back and refuse to let go?
The Pacific Ocean is the subject of much of my writing. “Ocean,” “water,” and “rain” have become clichéd imagery within my poems. While I don’t necessarily see myself as an eco-poet, it is impossible not to be indebted to the poetics of water taken up by writers like Dorothy Christian, Rita Wong, Fred Wah, Lee Maracle and many others. It feels impossible to write anything at all without grieving what has been done to water – not just an element but a way of life, and not just a way of life but life itself.
I am afraid of ancestral debt – not knowing how to ask and where or why exactly it hurts”
Although “vast” is the middle character of my name (hàn 瀚), I am not always able to think so vastly. My heart keeps my writing small. For me, the ocean is sometimes just a mirage in a dream. I am merely speaking of this soup of sea creatures as an archive that knows my ancestral debt more than I do. It is an intimacy that helps situate my fears.
In ‘Place,’ Gwen Benaway notes how the colonial impulse to see land, water, and place as an object is seeped into the canon of Canadian poetry: “No poet is just an observer. Every poem and poet is a willing participant in someone’s disappearance.” In other words, any poetics of ocean is indebted to the relationships that make ocean possible.
It is tempting to see the ocean merely as a hiding place for ancestral debt. But unlike hills and mountains, there are no real hiding places. Everything is in plain sight. An ocean houses peoples, non-human animals, and ongoing political struggles drenched in body aches of violence. The more we hurt one another, the more the ocean hurts.
The more the ocean hurts, the more we hurt ourselves.
Tucked away in the subsidized apartment buildings of Vancouver’s Chinatown and the broader Strathcona neighborhood, between hipster vegan pizza joints and disappearing green grocers, are little-known artists and poets who know me by a different name than the one I write under. For the past few months, WePress, a Downtown Eastside arts collective, has been hosting art and storytelling workshops with Chinese seniors currently living in Chinatown. Their stories and art will eventually go in a book that I will edit and put together with other youth of the diaspora. This past fall, I ran my first poetry workshop with the collective. I read out a poem about, of all things, hating green onions, that had been translated into Mandarin and Cantonese; I heard my words transform in the air and float into elders’ ears. I watched as they wrote poems of their own and read them out loud, proudly.
Being a queer Chinese Canadian poet means making sense of truths which collide and disappear into each other, like crashing waves along coastal rocks”
Having multiple names means inheriting multiple truths about yourself. With ‘Jane,’ I inherit Austen, Brontë, and the graciousness of God. With my Chinese name, I inherit Domee Shi’s Bao (we share a last name!), the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, the infinite expanses of the cosmos, and the brilliant twinkle of a single star. Being a queer Chinese Canadian poet means making sense of these truths, which often collide and disappear into each other, like crashing waves along coastal rocks. Somewhere on the other side of the Pacific rests soil where my ancestors’ bones have returned to the breath of birds. There in the ever-present smog floats the story of war, poverty, starvation, ongoing toil, and cultural repression, along with the story of resistance and refusal – down to their smallest acts. On this side, where Coast Salish peoples have been taking care of the land and waters for thousands of years, centuries-long entrails of genocide, discrimination, slavery, exclusion and injustice have similarly co-existed with the story of resistance and refusal of disappearance.
When I listen deeply and carefully to the stories of resistance and refusal from the elders of Chinatown, including their sense of gratitude for being on these lands and their indebtedness to First Nations people, I sit with the watery in-betweens of what it means to migrate and to be part of a diaspora. In many ways, I also learn what it means to be queer – sitting always at the edge of belonging, desiring always a desire that wishes to be at peace with itself.
At the end of this April, shortly before I turned 27, Wayson Choy passed away. Wayson Choy was a gay Chinese Canadian writer whose book The Jade Peony was the first novel by a Chinese Canadian author I would ever read. Within the next few hours of his death I would stumble upon a Facebook eulogy by someone I know, someone I had danced with on the sometimes-sticky cement floors of the old Red Gate, who was related to him. It didn’t take long before I realized that we had lost a queer Chinese Canadian elder – one that I was always desiring, one that I am always imagining, but had never felt I had.
I owe my literary predecessors – just as I do the elders in Chinatown, just as I do the ocean”
The desire for elders is really the same desire for home. When you realize that your intergenerational relationships are fleeting and faint, you learn that your sense of home is as well. And while confronting that ephemerality, you also find yourself holding onto shards of what feels like a personal failure. SKY Lee, who wrote the first Chinese Canadian novel (the second I would ever read), Disappearing Moon Cafe, once responded to an audience question I asked about intergenerational solidarity with a call to be relentless: “In our corporate, capitalist, and criminal times, be as raw and scary and as gut-wrenching as shit in your writing.” So many seniors in Chinatown teach me through their activism and voices how to be raw, scary, and gut-wrenching. With record high opioid overdoses, homelessness, and gentrification in the broader neighborhood of the Downtown Eastside, where Chinatown is located, these elders continue turning to community and youth for support, and mobilizing to fight the city’s policies. It is never too late to fight for your sense of home, nor for intergenerational solidarity.
The shards I hold onto signal unfinished business, of work that must continue, of lineages that inevitably morph and shift and break off when they fall into my hands. I owe my literary predecessors – just as I do the elders in Chinatown, just as I do the ocean – an attempt to piece back together the broken dreams and promises, the silences and stillness of forgotten tongues, and the lost archives of suppressed voices. To make a bowl of offerings in the English language.
Ancestral debt is the haunting of a place that has known bodies and blood like yours, yet never fully accepts them. It is the hand-embroidered textile work of Florence Yee’s A Labour of Labour, “I work hard / so you don’t have to / I work hard / so you don’t have to” sewn so-on-and-so-forth on a found comforter.
It is the unheard voices of women of your lineage who were always served the coldest slice of bao. It is a concept of the diaspora, where diaspora also refers – as Alicia Elliott reminds us in her essay ‘The Same Space’ in A Mind Spread Out on the Ground – to those who were forced out, “those who had never chosen not to be there.” It is the acknowledgement you owe your ancestors when you write, to leave some incense-evidence that it was all worth the sacrifice.
In Phanuel Antwi’s essay ‘On Labor, Embodiment, and Debt in the Academy,’ the idea of debt is not merely economic but also ecological:
…the world operates in interdependence; thus, who we are, we are; we all owe everybody. Some are oblivious to their debts, some are reminded every day. On the one hand, this means responsibility to one’s “debts,” but on the other hand, it means no one can pay them off for all time, so the urge to get out of debt is itself illusory. Moreover, some debts to interdependency are more egregious than others, which is why white debts, colonial debts, corporate debts, require more rebalancing than others.
When the diaspora is also a settlement on stolen land, the debt that diaspora owes is an obligation to peoples, lands, and water apart from the dictates of Canada’s settler colonial government. It means, as Emily Riddle argues, that in the face of climate catastrophe, Indigenous people do not owe settlers saving.
The cliché of diaspora is that ancestral debt will never be paid in full – descendants will always fail the sacrifice of their predecessors”
What does it mean to live with our ancestral debt in the present moment? When we occupy Turtle Island, watch the nation-state we left behind extend its tendrils across the South China Sea and into Africa, and hold our breaths as we witness history morph into new horizons of repression for a million Uyghur Muslims locked in the concentration camps of East Turkestan, what are the responsibilities of being part of a broader Chinese diaspora?
The summers here are becoming more and more full of smoke from forest fires. It is not hard to imagine how the blue skies that my family came here for will eventually disappear. Last summer, I bought a ping pong racket-patterned Vogmask, a tribute to a sport I played on a high school team that went on to continue to the provincials. It was there, in the loud clickity-clack of a tournament gym, that I learned to be “raw and scary and gut-wrenching” in a way I didn’t know how to be anywhere else. I knew instinctively how to intimidate my opponent with the loud and brazen stomp of my right foot as I served.
Nowadays my body tenses up, gets queasy, when I imagine playing ping pong competitively. There is something meditative about rallying on and on and on without end, a long poem of short lines and tight stanzas that hug the borders of the page, that formal games disrupt. I can no longer stomach the arbitrary debt of losses, the credit of wins. The cliché of diaspora is that ancestral debt will never be paid in full – descendants will always fail the sacrifice of their predecessors. But I want to envisage an interpretation of such failure not as the failure of who we are but of the violent system that made us turn against one another in the first place. Made us compete, not just in sports but for the last scraps of bodily necessity. For the last drop of water.
As a writer and artist, I am haunted by the intensity of feelings I confront in my work. The gulf between my two names often brings me to my knees. I often find myself sitting at the edges of belonging, legs dangling over the fear that I will always disappoint.
If my ancestors are of both blood and water, then surely there are other leg-danglers sitting here with me. Surely, they are plotting to heal the hurt of the ocean, with the tiniest flick of the wrist, alongside me. Surely I am not alone when I feel everything, when I write into this feeling. I want to believe they are writing through me, writing with me, picking up the shards by my side, and imagining a desire that can finally be at peace. ∎