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 PRISM international
Spring 2006
44:3
$9.00
Contemporary Writing from Canada and Around the World
The Homelands Issue  PRISM international  PRISM international
Fiction Editor
Benjamin Wood
Poetry Editor
Amber Dawn
Executive Editors
Zoya Harris
Robert Weston
Associate Editors
Carla Elm Clement
Ben Hart
Bren Simmers
Regan Taylor
Advisory Editor
Rhea Tregebov
Production Manager
Jennifer Herbison
Editorial Board
Tbny Liman
Joelle Renstrom
Susan Olding
Catharine Chen
Amanda Lamarche
Readers
Carla Gillis
Andrew Binks
Chelsea Bolan
Terry Dove
Amy Dennis
Emily Southwood PRISM international, a magazine of contemporary writing, is published four
times a year by the Creative Writing Program at the University of British
Columbia, Buchanan E-462, 1866 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T IZl. Microfilm editions are available from University Microfilms Inc., Ann Arbor,
MI, and reprints from the Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York, NY. The
magazine is listed by the Canadian Literary Periodicals Index.
E-mail: prism@interchange.ubc.ca   / Website: prism.arts.ubc.ca
Contents Copyright © 2006 PRISM international for the authors.
Cover Illustration: Untitled, Copyright © 2005, by Julie Morstad.
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$10. U.S. & international subscribers, please pay in U.S. dollars. Please
note that U.S. POSTAL money orders are not accepted. Make cheques payable to: PRISM international. All prices include GST & shipping and handling.
Submission Guidelines: PRISM international purchases First North American Serial Rights for $40.00 per page for poetry and $20.00 per page for other
genres. Contributors receive a one-year subscription. PRISM also purchases
limited digital rights for selected work, for which it pays an additional $10.00
per page. All manuscripts should be sent to the editors at the above address.
Manuscripts should be accompanied by a self-addressed envelope with Canadian stamps or International Reply Coupons. Manuscripts with insufficient return postage will be held for six months and then discarded.
Translations should be accompanied by a copy of the work(s) in the original
language. The advisory editor is not responsible for individual selections,
but for the magazine's overall mandate including continuity, quality, and
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For details on how to place an advertisement in PRISM international, please
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Our gratitude to Dean Nancy Gallini and the Dean of Arts Office at the University of British Columbia. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support
of the Canada Council for the Arts, the British Columbia Arts Council, and
the Government of Canada, through the Publications Assistance Program
(PAP), toward our mailing costs.
PAP Registration No. 8867. March 2006. ISSN 0032.8790
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Canada Contents
Volume 44, Number 3
Spring 2006
The Homelands Issue
Editors' Notes
Amber Dawn
Missing Home / 7
Benjamin Wood
Home Isn't Always Under Your Feet / 9
Fiction
Tiphanie Yanique
Girls Are for Loving / 38
Philip Holden
September Ghosts / 60
Nonfiction
Xujun Eberlein
Turning My Back on the Well /  15
Jill Sexsmith
A Country Song Played Backward / 52
Poetry
Steve McOrmond
So This Is Goodbye /  10
The Sleeper / 11
Heat, Smog, Ultraviolet /  12
Leonard Neufeldt
A Journal on Expats /  13 Doretta Lau
Life of Bones / 32
Madness and Water / 33
J.R. Tbriseva
Annie's Instructions (How Not to Be an Indian) / 34
Maria Rosa Lojo
My Lord Santiago / 36
Cruceiro / 37
translated from the Spanish by Brett Alan Sanders
C. Durning Carroll
The Circuitous Path / 45
Ingrid Ruthig
Japanese Staging of an Ontario Play / 46
Anis Shivani
America / 47
Salman Rushdie Detained (and Deported?)
by Homeland Security / 49
Dorothea Grtinzweig
Translate and Dream / 50
Little Listening Huts Is What / 51
translated from the German by Derk Wynand
Spencer Matheson
Children's Hospital / 55
Gabe Foreman
Grown Ups / 56
Daydreamers / 57
rp chow
To hit the bones / 58
Jada-Gabrielle Pape
create me / 72
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
dreaming of the garden of eden / 74
Contributors / 76 Amber Dawn
Missing Home
The double-cheek kiss, the bow, the forearm embrace, the tipping
of the hat, the three-step soul brother handshake—Vancouver
can't claim to have fathered any of these greetings. So, what do
Vancouverites do when they meet? They ask, "Where are you from?"
Though I've lived in Vancouver for over a decade, I still partake in this
local tradition of swapping stories about "home."
For me, the story is largely set with boarded-up factories, tar-patched
freeways, and collapsing concrete boardwalks along Lake Erie—dejected
landscapes I never thought I'd miss. But the tradition of home is about
missing the places left behind, and so, it's unalluring Buffalo, NY, that I
reminisce about.
These stories of home have also marked my year as PRISM's poetry
editor. Each week, submissions arrive from writers "originally from India," "Germany," or "Salt Lake City, Utah," now living elsewhere. I've
even come across a handful of Vancouverites who have moved to different cities, other countries. Many of these submissions are about "home":
poems that evoke a strong sense of place, and often a strong sense of loss.
When Benjamin Wood and I set out to collect these poems and stories
into an issue themed "Homelands," we were well aware that the word
"homeland" itself suggests a kind of loss.
Poets aren't afraid to grieve; some extraordinary writing can come
from grief. Steve McOrmond's "So This Is Goodbye" begins, "The story
of the Island is the story of paradise:/ we have always had to leave." The
island home is never actually seen in the poem—only the ache of leaving
is described.
Images of home permeate J.R. Toriseva's "Annie's Instructions (On
How Not to Be an Indian)." Inside, the walls are hung with deer antlers;
outside, the landscape is overwhelmed by winter—visual details so rich
that even the narrator gets lost in them. What is grieved in this poem is
cultural history. Toriseva writes, "I ask her about our grandmothers . . .
What were their songs? Where do I find them?" While "Annie's Instructions," like many of the poems throughout this issue, depicts change and
loss, it also shows how something of "home" is salvaged and honoured
in the remembering, and in the telling.
From the grave look at corporate globalization in Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's "dreaming of the garden of eden" to the almost
absurdist take on pre-millennial urban life in Gabe Forman's "Grown
Ups," the contributors in this issue have done much more than simply
answer the question "Where are you from?" While our homes and cultures continue to be ever changing, these authors have created permanency through their stories and poems. Benjamin Wood
Home Isn't Always Under
Your Feet
Home isn't always under your feet. It doesn't have to be the town
you were born in, or grew up in, or lived your whole life in. It
doesn't have to be the place you are standing in now, the nest
you have made for yourself, found yourself in. It can be a place you once
stood and remember feeling perfectly—peacefully—happy. In fact, home
can be a town you are yet to visit, a house you are yet to own, a cheap
bedsit above a bakery you may never rent—a destination you just hope
you will arrive at one day and feel safe. It can be a flaking blue bench at
the roadside where you once sat and waited for your school bus. It can
be a scratchy public rink you skated years away on. It can be a bed you
lay upon somewhere—just once—with somebody you loved asleep on
your shoulder.
Home is a headspace you run to; it's something you remember in
every last sensory detail and can bring to mind in an instant. It's a place
whose avenues, alleys, and shortcuts you know without thinking, without looking at the map, without glancing over your shoulder. When I
think of home, I'm sitting on the flower-pattern sofa in my old house in
Southport in the northwest of England. I'm watching the flames billow
in the fireplace and reflect like ghosts in the metal trim of the hearth. My
mother is there, my father is there, and my two brothers—they're talking, laughing, smiling, but I can't hear them; I don't need to hear them.
The safety of the moment numbs me.
At PRISM, we regularly receive submissions from all over the world.
We are proud of the diversity of our contributors and our editorial
team—this issue is a celebration of that diversity. It is also an acknowledgement of a theme which Amber Dawn and I have consistently noticed in PRISM submissions this year—stories and poems which address
the authors' feelings about their homes. The writers whose fiction and
nonfiction pieces are collected in this issue no longer reside in the places
they are writing about, yet their stories are vivid with details that seem
effortless, which bring to life the places they consider home. Because if
home isn't under your feet, it's somewhere your thoughts will always
return to. Steve McOrmond
So This Is Goodbye
The story of the Island is the story of paradise:
we have always had to leave.
In the morning it'll be your turn—your mother
standing in the driveway in her pink housecoat,
father seeing you off, firm handshake, stiff hug.
You won't permit yourself a single tear, not
when all you've ever wanted is to get away.
This sandbar lodged in the gulf like a lump
in the throat. Small world, and getting smaller
at the mercy of ice ride-up, storm surge.
Like the beaches of our youth, grain by grain,
we are washed away, deposited elsewhere.
You'd need a tractor-trailer for everything
you've forgotten, abandoned, taken for granted.
Intangibles you never thought you'd miss
and miss already: the smell of the sea, salt
spiking the air, the cacophony of crows.
Tomorrow when you go, all your worldly
possessions will ride with you in the back
of the U-Haul: Goodwill furniture, a dead uncle's
colour TV, several tons of books packed too heavily
in liquor boxes, and wedged behind the wheel well,
a finicky six-foot tall Ficus benjamina
you hope won't lose all its leaves.
10 The Sleeper
Between stations, the tunnel loops,
pig scream of inertia, the driver riding the brake.
It's seven in the morning, winter darkness above
and beneath. The woman slumps in her seat,
her body swaying with the train's lurch and lean.
How far she has propelled herself beyond
simple exhaustion, and with such a burden:
shoulders, eyes, corners of the mouth;
everything droops. Not enough time
to put herself together, hair still damp
from the shower, gessoed with mousse.
Her coat is open. In her haste, she's left
the top button of her blouse undone; the rise and fall
of her chest, that bone chapel, an intimacy
she would never have intended. Overhead
the blown speaker squawks, the doors open and close,
cold subterranean gusts, much shuffling of feet, still
she does not wake. At the end of the line,
if she doesn't come to, someone will lay a hand
lightly on her arm. You must admit, this mercy
is a little strained. Were she to miss her stop,
the train reversing, carrying her back home,
what'd be the harm? Would the mighty engine
of commerce shudder and seize, the shipment
remain stuck in customs, the territory manager
make his own coffee or do without?
Spare her the kinship. Let her sleep.
11 Heat, Smog, Ultraviolet
Undeterred by the warnings, we move
along the street, pushing against a wall
of dead air. There's the homeless guy
on the corner, six white rats clinging to his coat sleeve.
His friend lifts a clenched fist to his ear: Look, I'll call
you back on the landline. This sends the rat man
into convulsions, his laughter a hemorrhage.
Either side of us, office towers stand watch
like paramilitary police in mirrored sunglasses.
We walk in their shadow, we who are
so much shadow and ruin. We glance upwards,
all that steel yawing in the wind, and our hearts, cheap
pocket watches, tick faster. This life we've built
can't bear its own weight.
12 Leonard Neufeldt
A Journal on Expats
Let's agree, expatriate dinner parties in Turkey
are a mistake: the women disapprove
of your daughter's interior decorating,
the resort manager tries to seduce your wife,
you offer words sweet as honey with dishonesty.
At the restaurant in Ortakent anecdotes toeing
the sand, censure, sound of water lapping
the pier like dogs, and fish bones in your throat
at the long table touching the sea as if to carry on
where the words and white cloth leave off.
Once again the fault line between
statement and response. The new widow
who buried her husband here in Bitez
and not in Switzerland raises her glass
like a passport to speak with the loudness
of the deaf, a precision of syllables
stepping into isolation one by one:
what we have in common in this beautiful place
are the ways we can be broken.
Your evening walk in the corridor of sycamores
on Neyzen Tevfik Street in Bodrum:
you taste the sea air, touch the trees
and think elephants, camouflage
and trees in the Bible. You're an outsider,
but the trees comply. They are what they are.
/ can wake any time of the day without
newspapers from the West, but the possibilities
of being at home are not infinite:
the American poet—and when you return
to the room, she's sitting in your chair.
13 An ant-line of words follows him
to the table. He writes four pages per day
for his anthology of economic wrongs;
without getting up he can take Adorno
a step further—the highest morality is not
to feel at home in any place—his back
to the morning, eyes on the helter-skelter of dishes
white as five centuries of bones awaiting
resurrection in the Byzantine burial ground
inside the high hummock, the dead who will not
return to this humped world cut away
to reveal the Roman theatre beneath.
Unlike Father's memoirs. For the third
time in my life I pioneered. He'd left
behind secrets kept with previous homesteads
and brought along attenuated days.
If I haven't arrived, I've come to a clear road.
If your sister purchased a house in Antalya
would she spell the word "ex-patriot"?
Would she remember every room in houses
she's lived in, the renovations made,
the look of the life she'd taken on?
In Canada outrage dresses as wisdom,
and we are not short of excuses:
we cast them like bread on pristine waters
and find them again in a day or two,
the heart's inuring game in a nation
of expatriates. But pomegranates
have begun to bloom again in Lycia,
and you are learning the colours of your
awakening. Schoolchildren
dressed in blue and walking home
stop at the orchard gate to ask your name.
14 Xujun Eberlein
Turning My Back on the Well
On a warm June evening in 1945, my future mother ascended the
stone steps from the sandy beach to the streets of Chongqing,
following a three-day voyage up the Yangtze. The largest inland
port city is one of the four "stoves" of China, so called for its scorching
summers, but six decades ago it did not seem that hot. A borrowed floral
quilt roll on her back and a damaged cardboard suitcase in her hand,
she stood at the sunset-lighted Venerate Heaven Gate, blinking at the tall
buildings and bustling crowds. Then, pointing at a bus, she asked, in the
hoarse but wholesome voice of a country girl, "What's that?"
This time, the cousin she was travelling with was not surprised. Three
days earlier, after pushing their way through the crowds into steerage
on the bottom deck of the passenger ship "Mingwen," before finding a
spot on the floor to sit, my mother had pointed to an electric light on the
cabin's wall and asked, "What's that?" The cousin, a student at Chongqing Art College, embarrassed by her ignorance, whispered the answer,
"diandeng, "in her ear. My mother whispered back to him, "But I've seen
pictures of diandengin books—they did not look like this!"
I am not embarrassed for her as I write this. Though she had never
seen an electric light, or a bus, or any building higher than two storeys,
my mother was the first one in eight generations to break from illiteracy,
in a clan where girls were not even part of the family tree. That summer
day in 1945, a month short of sixteen, she had escaped from an arranged
marriage in order to further her education.
An age-old Chinese adage for "leaving home" is "turning one's back
on the well." The word "well," whose Chinese character resembles the
pound sign "#," was the old time synonym for hometown. Legend has
it that, in a remote age, there was one well and one market for every
eight households. From this uniformity, the phrase "markets and wells"
to mean habitats was derived. For thousands of years, leaving home was
cause for sadness, as if a young melon had been cut from its live vine.
A person leaving home to a new place was bound to become ill due to
acclimation to the water and soil— "shui tu bu fu." The adage, "turning
one's back on the well," has a sad tone, a connotation of being forced to
15 leave home. In my mother's case, however, the departure came as the
result of an epiphany.
The well she had drunk from for fifteen years was called an "oozing
well." It was only two-men deep, but the cool and sweet water oozed
out from the bottom and the walls year round, never drying out even in
the most severe droughts. Her village, nestled in the remote mountains
of Zhong County three hundred miles down the Yangtze from Chongqing, was named Gingko Bay. The name came from a thousand-year-old
gingko tree near her well. The towering tree branched like a giant umbrella, and showered golden, fan-shaped leaves in the fall. Almost all of
the villagers, with the exception of a few immigrants, were related and
had the same surname—Zhang.
At the age of thirteen, my grandmother, the only grandparent I knew,
was married as a child bride to a man seven years older, of a Zhang family, in Gingko Bay. It was five years before the last dynasty in China ended. My grandmother did not have a proper name. In her maiden years,
she was called Second Girl by her family, and after marriage she was
called Zhang Chen Woman, for her own family name was Chen. Later,
we grandchildren would call her Gaga, following the Zhong County custom of addressing a maternal grandmother, and that was the name that
stayed.
Gaga did not bear her first child until age nineteen; for years before
that, she was taunted by the villagers as an "unworthy hen that clucks
without laying eggs." In time, Gaga would give birth to thirteen children, most born in the fields where she worked alone. My grandparents'
household was an odd one in the village, with the traditional roles of
husband and wife reversed: while Gaga tended the corn, yam, potato,
wheat, sorghum, tobacco, and opium outside in the fields, her husband
wove cloth and bamboo baskets at home.
When she gave birth in the field, Gaga would cut the umbilical cords
with her plant-stained sickle, wrap the baby in her own clothing, and
carry it home. Twelve of the babies—my mother's sisters and brothers,
my uncles and aunts—did not survive disease and hunger to see their
first birthdays. By the time she gave birth to my mother, Gaga was already thirty-six years old.
My mother was Gaga's eighth child, the only one who survived. We
don't know if she was also born in the field, as neither of us thought to
ask Gaga that question while there was still time. What my mother does
remember is her youngest sibling.
The thirteenth child of my grandma, a baby girl, contracted a tetanus
infection—called "broken wound cold" by the villagers—from the sickle
that cut her umbilical cord. The village had no doctor, only an herbal
medicine woman. Gaga spent what little money she had to buy the herbs,
16 but they had no effect on tetanus. She lit sticks of incense, pleading to every god she enshrined and worshipped—the kitchen god, the loom god,
and Guanyin the Buddha of infinite compassion and mercy—none of
them responded. On the final day, the baby developed a high fever and
began to convulse. Letting my six-year-old mother guard the sick baby,
my teary grandma ran to the medicine woman again and begged for her
help. The medicine woman said the only thing that could save the baby's
life was the soup of hawk claws. Gaga climbed up mountains to look for
hunters, sobbing and tripping and falling, and eventually brought home
a life-saving hawk claw, only to see my mother wailing over her little
sister's lifeless body, with a neighbour trying to comfort her.
Though the village did not have a doctor, it had a sensei—a landlord's
son who taught a private "old learning" class (sishu) in his house, which
my mother began to attend at age six. Because a student must have a
"schooling name," the sensei named her Xiu—"jade-like stone"—to go
with her generation name, Bang, usually applied only to boys. For the
first time, a girl in her family had a complete name: Zhang Bang-xiu.
This is the other question I wish I had asked Gaga: what inspired her
to have my mother educated? As the only surviving child, it was understandable why my mother was exceedingly treasured in her family. Her
exemption from the fate of her siblings was attributed to the greatness
of her "eight characters"—characters in four pairs, indicating the year,
month, day, and hour of one's birth; each pair consists of one Heavenly
Stem (tiangan) and one Earthly Branch (dizfii), used in fortune-telling.
As a little girl, my mother was ill so often that her father had to run in
the rain, carrying her on his back to the village medicine woman. Nonetheless, my grandparents believed the folk wisdom that a person who
did not die in disaster was destined for good fortune. Still, this does not
quite explain why my mother's illiterate parents made the extraordinary
move, which required not only guts on their part, but vision. At that
time, while sons were driven to pursue education with the belief that "the
gold house is in the books," daughters were worthless assets for a peasant
family, and Confucius' teaching, "No talent is the virtue of women," was
still regarded as unalterable precept. One possible reason, my mother
later speculated, was that her parents hoped literacy would bring a better
marriage to their only child, after seeing a landlord's daughter who could
read get married to a county official.
My grandparents certainly did not know the great Song Dynasty poet
Su Dongpo's poem, "Life's misery begins with literacy." This line, lamenting the societal trap, was well drawn from Su Dongpo's bumpy life
of trepidation as a writer, yet it has since become Chinese intellectuals'
tag line. In the thousands of years of Chinese written history, intellectuals were always the first to be repressed during any social upheaval.
17 Nearly a millennium after Su Dongpo, Lu Xun, the great 1930s writer,
rephrased that line as "Life's confusion begins with literacy," adding an introspective lament over the nature of the educated self. To me, these sentiments reveal a simple truth that I came to experience in my own life as
an educated woman. Ironically, the two great writers' voices could only
be read by the educated. There was no means for my illiterate grandparents to receive them in the same way they could hear the official, aurally
spread teaching about the "three obediences and four virtues."
Perhaps Gaga had always sensed that her daughter was meant to be
a book reader. My mother was certainly not suited to being a peasant
wife. She could gather only half a load of pig weeds while other kids'
baskets were packed high; she would scream at the first sight of a caterpillar; when asked to help her father connect yarn, she could not find the
ends quick enough. One morning, when helping her mother cook sweet
potato porridge, she accidentally knocked the family's kitten, who had
been sleeping on the back of the big stove, into a wok of boiling water.
My ten-year-old mother ran to the wild hills and cried half to death,
though her parents did not say one word of blame.
Sending my mother to school, however, was like putting a fish in water. It was as if all the intelligence of her ancestors that had never had the
chance to materialize had been passed down and concentrated in her.
She easily excelled. While her mother hoed the soil under the scorching
sun and her father carried his hand-woven crafts to sell in the farmers'
market, she sat in the comfortable classroom reciting the age-old "Three-
Word Chant" ("At his birth, man is kind...") and effortlessly out-ran the
boys (there were no other girls in the class) in reading and writing. The
sensei had a ferule—a wide, foot-long piece of thick bamboo, to spank
a student's palm when the child failed to recite a text. Boys in the class
cried under the painful punishment often; some quit the school, unable
to bear it. The ferule never touched my mother's palm, and this was not
due to the sensets mercy.
Half a century later, days before Gaga's death in the summer of 1988,
the last story she told me was "Number One," which I had heard from
her several times. It goes like this:
One afternoon when Gaga was working in the field, a neighbour
boy ran to her and shouted excitedly, "Sister Xiu is number one!" Now,
"number one" was a phrase Gaga had never heard and it bore no semantics to her, except it sounded awful. So her interpretation was that the
kids in school were calling her daughter a name. Gaga was fierce: it must
be because Xiu did something shameful that made boys call her such an
awful name. How dare Xiu behave badly when her parents worked so
hard to provide for her! A few moments later, my mother arrived, and
before she could report her good news, she got a spanking.
18 My mother, on the other hand, has no memory of this incident. What
she remembers most about her early schooling was: excessive amounts
of barefoot walking, frequent changing of schools, and very little to eat.
The sensei in Gingko Bay taught about one and a half years of "old
learning"—Confucius' Four Books and Five Classics—during which his
ferule and the recondite, archaic text gradually drove most students out of
his sishu. When only two students remained, one of them my mother, the
disappointed sensei stopped teaching. Thus, one of the last "old learning"
schools in China closed its doors in 1937.
Meanwhile, a western-style "new learning" school had opened in the
Zhou's Memorial Hall about a kilometre away, with two teachers and
thirty-odd students. Gaga heard about it and asked her little girl, "Go or
not? It's a bit of walk."
"Go," my eight-year-old mother said happily.
So she took her thin legs to the new school everyday. The "new learning" was a lot more fun, with a physical education class in which my
mother enjoyed playing shuttlecock and jumping rope, and the text it
taught was much more entertaining than the Confucian sermon. "What
is this tree? Flowers come before the leaves." My mother sang the text
like a song. It was also a relief to kowtow no more to the tablet inscribed
with Confucius' name when walking into the classroom, as had been
required in the sishu.
However, that school was again short-lived; it closed in a year due to
financial troubles. From then on, my mother chased schools like rabbits.
She went to a free Christian church school for a year; when it closed,
she changed to a boarding school ten miles away for another year. The
boarding school then moved its location and became a day school, finally settling in a town three miles away.
This latest school cost a lot: six litres of rice a month, which Gaga
could barely afford, plus one day's supply of fresh vegetables that the
students' families took turns to send to the school's kitchen. Every morning, my mother got up before sunrise to begin the lonely walk; she did
not mind. It was the hunger that was harder to bear. The best lunch
Gaga could prepare for her—often saved from Gaga's own bowl—was a
bit of wax gourd, or squash, or loofah. When my mother's schoolmates,
all from richer families, ate rice and meat dishes, she had to hide away
to avoid staring at their food or exposing her shame as the poorest student. Her craving for rice was only satisfied twice a year, on the eve of
the Chinese New Year and on her birthday. Every July 27th, she ate not
only a bowl of rice, but one egg from the family's hen, which the whole
family—her father, mother, and maternal grandmother—watched her
devour ravenously. They were not eating rice or egg, yet they smiled the
whole time.
19 Six years flew by like an arrow. A frail and clumsy little girl grew to
a literate youngster. Remarkably, the sickness she suffered so frequently
in her early years seemed to shun her in school. She was a top student,
adored by the teachers. One teacher, also surnamed Zhang, was so fond
of her brightness that he took her as his nominal sister. At graduation, the
teachers urged my mother to continue on to middle school.
But that was not in the family's plan. Middle school tuition was seventy-two litres of rice a semester, far exceeding what my poor grandparents
could provide. My mother cried and begged. To give her some comfort,
Gaga let her take the entrance exam in the county's middle school; my
mother scored number one on the exam for a school she knew she would
not be able to attend. But she did not give up. She took another exam for
an all-girl's school, whose tuition was a bit lower but still remained out of
her family's reach. Again my mother scored number one. Her elementary teachers came to her house one after another, armed with eloquent
arguments to persuade the family to let my mother go to the all-girl's
school, only to leave with sighs after seeing the destitute house.
It was at that time my grandparents arranged a marriage for their
twelve-year-old daughter. My mother's literacy had indeed raised her
value, making her a more desirable daughter-in-law to richer families.
The village's matchmaker connected the Zhang family to a Qin family
forty miles away on a higher mountain. The Qin family owned some
land and also a wine yeast shop, and their son, my mother's fiance-to-be,
was about to become an apprentice at a Chinese herb medicine store in
the county, which meant he would depart from the peasant life, and my
mother along with him.
My grandparents were pleased at the opportunity for a better life this
would provide their treasured daughter. The two families and the matchmaker settled the arrangement over a bottle of engagement wine, without the presence of my mother or her fiance. The wedding date was set
for three years later, when my mother would turn fifteen.
They did not tell my mother of the arrangement, not because they
intended to hide anything from her, but because it was thought unnecessary—all parents arranged their daughters' marriages; that was just how
things were done. When my mother overheard their conversations, it
did not generate much reaction from her either. Was there a way to grow
up female other than to become another peasant family's daughter-in-
law? She was delighted when the Qin family gave her a piece of fine
floral fabric to make new clothes—for all her twelve years of life, she had
only worn rough, home-spun cloth.
Unexpectedly, this arrangement provided a turning point in my mother's continuing education. The Qin family wanted their future daughter-
in-law to have a middle school diploma, but they would not pay for the
20 schooling. To ensure this good marriage, my grandparents became debtors for the first time. They collected enough rice to pay for the tuition
from the village's many families. In the all-girl's boarding school fifty
miles away from home, my mother became a top student again, and was
happy to have rice—however coarse it was—to eat daily.
Happiness survived just one year. In 1942, the crops withered under
a relentless sun. The heat wave lasted forty days. The season's harvest
was so bad that my grandparents were unable to repay their debts, and
there was nobody to borrow more from. They did not even have rice or
pork for their New Year's Eve meal. When the new semester began in
spring 1943, my mother did not show up at school; instead, she sat in the
dimness of her thatched house "washing cheeks with tears." Her teachers and classmates wrote letters asking what had happened, urging her
to come back to school. In tears, my mother wrote back telling them her
family situation.
Then another unexpected thing happened: the school faculty discussed my mother's case in a meeting and unanimously agreed to exempt her tuition. This news dried my mother's eyes and brought out her
smiles. Her parents pawned their small parcel of land, with the hope of
redeeming it later should their situation improve (something that never
happened). My mother returned to school. In the remaining two years,
whenever she ran into new financial troubles—which occurred several
times—her teachers stretched out their helpful hands. Not that they were
rich—a teacher's salary was lower than other professions—but they were
the kind of people who would share their last bowl of porridge with
someone else. With the teachers' continuing support, my mother finished middle school. She got the chance to read many "new-thought"
novels, in which Confucianism, the first ever teaching she'd received in
her life and still regarded as sovereign, became the synonym of feudal
fetter for women and young people. Among the novels were Ba Jin's
trilogy Family, Spring, and Autumn, stories of young people's struggles for
individualism and liberty in a big feudal family compound. The books
planted the seed of women's liberation in my mother's mind, and she
began to resist the idea of marrying a peasant's son whom she did not
even know.
So came her first epiphany: she could choose to marry or not. She
could choose freedom over duty to tradition. Out of curiosity, she
once—quite unladylike—went to the county's herb medicine store to
steal a glance at her husband-in-waiting. The short, skinny young man
stooped over the counter processing herb medicine did not impress her.
His appearance did not match up to the heroes in Bajin's novels.
Close to her graduation in the summer of 1945, however, the Qin
family asked for a wedding. For the first time, my mother realized how
21 close the danger of this unwanted life was. She wrote to a cousin, Zhang
Taihua, an art college student in Chongqing, to vent her worry and fear.
The letter fell into the hands of the school's student counsellor, whose
responsibility was to inspect all students' letters. The counsellor had a
talk with my mother and expressed her sympathy. "If you can go outside, you should," the counsellor said, though her position prevented
her from speaking more explicitly to a student. It was amazing advice,
considering that Confucius instructed: "When parents are alive, don't
travel far."
Several teachers soon learned about my mother's predicament from
the counsellor. Most of them were women who had college degrees
from the big city, Chongqing. They urged her to go to high school. Even
though Zhong County did not have one, they told her, Chongqing had
many. And their encouragement did not stop there. They knew my
mother's financial plight and gathered enough travel money for her. Try
to get a school scholarship in Chongqing, they told her. You can do it.
My mother returned home armed with this support. She said to her
parents, "I don't want to marry. I am going to Chongqing." My grandparents were quiet. Chongqing was such a big concept it was beyond
their judgment. By this time, after their daughter had waded through all
the financial difficulties to graduate from middle school, a status no one
(not even a boy) in the previous eight generations had reached, they had
gained respect for her ideas. My mother kept talking. She was going to
study in high school, and after that find ajob in the city to support and
take care of them. "Don't worry about us," Gaga said. My grandfather
smoked shredded tobacco leaves and said nothing; only his water pipe
made bubbling sounds.
My mother did not think much about how her parents would face the
Qin family. At fifteen, that was beyond her worry. Gaga did not mention
it either. She borrowed a floral quilt from a landlord, a cardboard suitcase from a relative, and packed for her daughter. She made my mother
new black cloth shoes with thickly layered soles that took many nights to
stitch together. Then Gaga, who until then had never set her feet out of
her hometown, carried the borrowed quilt on her shoulders and walked
with her only child, her treasure and hope, for one and a half days along
winding mountain paths. My fifteen-year-old mother wore the new shoes
and carried the borrowed suitcase, sweat soaking her home-dyed cheon-
gsam—light blue (or dark blue, the only two colours Gaga could afford).
Sewn inside the seam of the cheongsam were a few bills—travel money
pooled by her teachers. At the port of "Ghost City Fengdu," they met the
cousin who was on his way back to art college in Chongqing. My mother
and the cousin boarded a wooden sampan that took them to a two-storey
passenger ship.
22 My mother waved goodbye to Gaga that summer day in 1945. The
ship sailed for the big city, Chongqing. She was not home when the
Qin family went before the county head to sue her parents for breaking
the marriage contract, nor did she know the details of how her illiterate parents fought through the suit (guansi). Only after they successfully
defended themselves, with the help of my mother's elementary teacher,
did a student in Chongqing, someone from her hometown, bring my
mother a page of the local newspaper—an announcement abrogating
her engagement with the Qin boy was in the corner.
In Chongqing, my mother would enter a Teachers' School on financial
aid, and join student movements led by underground Communists. At
her graduation, between possible higher education and revolution, she
chose the latter. It was a time beset with domestic troubles and foreign
occupation, and the old regime was tattering. "As big as China is, there
is no place to put a peaceful reading desk," was that time's portrait. She
would soon meet my father, a city orphan and fellow revolutionary, and
fall in love. Together my parents risked their lives fighting for an "ideal
society," seeing victory as the Communists took over in 1949, months
before their marriage. That was how I, a decade later, was born as a city
girl, a misfortune I tried hard to reverse.
II
As it had emerged from the villages, so civilization is capable of travelling back. The same is true of a family's trajectory. What a coincidence:
at exactly the age my mother turned her back on Gingko Bay's oozing wells in an attempt to leave poverty and illiteracy behind, I tried to
abandon the city's comfort for the countryside, aspiring to be tempered
in hardship. That early attempt, however, was foiled by my infatuation
with books that I had inherited from her.
Times had changed: in contrast to my mother's youth, I now lived
in New China, during the initial steps toward heaven. "Communism is
heaven," we sang. "Socialism is the initial stage of Communism," we
studied. Tales of arranged marriages belonged to a distant old society,
so did inequality—no one seemed to be richer or poorer than another,
at least to my teenage eyes. Gingko trees became antiques—they could
only be found in well-reserved parks. (Even the one in Gingko Bay had
been felled. When? My mother doesn't know.) Water flew out of the faucet automatically and smelled of chlorine, and had to be boiled before
drinking. No sweet wells in the city. But that didn't matter. There was
always a home, and now a school, to turn one's back on.
I was a student in Chongqing's 29th middle school. Education was
free, but schools had been closed for several years (it was called "ceasing
23 classes to engage in revolution"), and when they reopened, they opened
to a different authority—the Workers' Propaganda Team. Red banners
hung everywhere in the schoolyard: "The Working Class Rules Everything!" They marked a new era in which books were burned or sealed
instead of being read. It was not a new game. Ever since the Qin Emperor burned books and buried four-hundred and sixty scholars alive in
212BC, every dynasty and regime had followed suit; the Cultural Revolution was unique only in its size and the remarkably large number of
books burned.
Master Yoe, a taciturn lathe worker in his late forties, was the WPT
member stationed in my classroom. His wrinkled face looked benign,
but his occasional, deep-voiced bellow was frightening, as were his inspections. Without notice, he would randomly walk into our chatty classroom carrying his hands on his back and sauntering around between our
desks. Wherever he stopped, the noise in that corner also stopped.
In our school ruled by the working class, we studied not classical literatures or sciences, but Chairman Mao's articles and editorials from the
People's Daily. We also wrote essays criticizing the idea that "education's
purpose is the advancement of official positions." (Whose idea this was,
I had no clue.) The schooling became quite boring after a while. The
WPT members must have been as bored as we were, because I saw them
playing Chinese chess, Go, or cards in their offices. Yet whenever I asked
a teacher about anything, class schedules or other activities, the answer
was invariantly, "Ask Master Yoe."
I had never seen Master Yoe read anything, not even a newspaper. I
suspected that he was illiterate. Until I was caught by him one day, that is.
I used to "steal" my parents' books to read, because they only allowed
their children "age appropriate" materials, which were usually boring
beyond explanation. Ever since I was little, the folk saying, "When a
book reader steals a book, it's not burglary," had stuck in my brain. Prohibition only made the "real" books more enticing.
There was a big bamboo bookshelf in my parents' bedroom. When I
was ten or eleven, I discovered my mother's fifteen-year collection of a
monthly literary magazine called People's Literature on the floor level of
that shelf. I was in heaven. For months, I would sneak out one issue at a
time and put it back after I finished reading. My mother never seemed
to notice. But as soon as the Cultural Revolution began, my mother, the
superintendent of a school district, sold all her books (except the works
of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Chairman Mao) as waste paper to a
salvage station. I begged her to keep the literary magazine that I had not
finished reading, even risking the exposure of my secret, to no avail. If
we did not get rid of the books, she told me, the Red Guards would come
24 to raid our house, and put her and my father at fault. Those books were
"four olds"—old thought, old culture, old tradition, old custom—and must be
swept out.
Her precautions failed to save them. Despite the emptied bookshelf,
both my parents were capped as "capitalist readers" and publicly denounced. And I had no books to read for several years. Before the schools
reopened, I used to spend the best part of each day wandering the streets
and reading "Big Character Posters." Plastered on the walls outside of
public buildings, the posters were a means of unprecedented free speech
that adults used to attack each other, everything and anything. Every
day, a new layer of hand-written Big Character Posters was pasted on
top of the old ones. A typographically printed flyer appeared on top of
them now and then, with bolded red titles: "EXTRA GRAND GOOD
NEWS!" In the context, it said that medical experts had scientifically
proven that Chairman Mao would live to be one-hundred and thirty to
one-hundred and forty years old. The flyer was covered by angry comments within moments, written on with fountain pen or brush: "Extra
grand nonsense!" "Venomous attack!" "Chairman Mao is immortal! Immortal! Immortal!" They were exciting to read at first, but eventually, as
the layers grew thicker and thicker, the repetition of attacks and obloquy
became dull.
One day during my first year in middle school, I noticed a crack on
the seal across a library door. This one-room library was on the second
floor of the office building at which my father, before his disgrace, had
been a department head. Like all other libraries, its door was sealed
by two diagonal strips of white paper with black dates and red stamps
on them. But for some reason, there were still shelves full of books inside—that much I could see through the chink in the door. Every once
in a while, I would peek inside when no one was watching and fantasize
about owning all those books.
When I noticed the tear appearing on the sealing strip, I told myself
it wasn't because my forehead pushed it. The tear grew wider each day.
I "accidentally" passed by the door more frequently and stole glances at
its slow evolution. At last, one day, I saw that the sealing strip was about
to snap. With a little extra push surely it would.
I don't remember providing the push. It must have been a natural
force that finally tore the seal. In any case, I found myself inside the dim,
dusty library, standing in front of a spider-netted bookshelf. Not daring
to stay long, I grabbed a thick, tattered book from the nearest shelf—it
must be an interesting book if so many people had read it, I thought.
Hiding the book under my shirt, I snuck out, heart pounding, and ran
home.
25 The book was Three Kingdoms. While virtually all books belonged to
"four olds," this was their epitome—one of the oldest classic novels. Before the Cultural Revolution began, I had heard fragments of the novel in teahouses, told by folk storytellers holding a short piece of wood
board, used to strike the table and make a loud noise whenever the story
was approaching a climax. For several afternoons after school, I was
immersed in the novel. No one interrupted me. I was in heaven once
again. Only Gaga—my illiterate and affectionate grandmother who had
great respect for written words and would tiptoe around whenever I was
reading—and my younger sister—a muddy-headed ten-year-old who
was content to leave me alone as long as I promised to tell her a story I'd
read—were at home.
I laughed when Zhu Geliang, the greatest war strategist, tricked his
enemy with "Empty City Ruse" and "borrowed" the enemy's arrows
using straw boats; I cried when he died of sickness on an autumn night
with his army's victory in arm's reach. I saw nothing but the ancient regiment flags and shining spears. I heard nothing but the beat of battalion
drums and the neighs of armoured horses. I wished I had been born
in that heroic time. My dream was broken only by my parents' return
home from their work units each day, at which point I quickly stashed
the book under my quilt. My parents, laden with their own burdens,
noticed nothing.
Against my better judgment, I brought the book to school a few days
later, spellbound by the final chapters. I knew very well that the book
had the stamp of my father's work unit on it. If caught by the WPT, I
would not only bring disaster on myself but also impose a new crime
upon my father's name. But I was dying to know if Zhu Geliang's chosen
successor, Jaing Wei, had won the war. Sitting down, I opened the book
in the compartment under my desktop. I kept my head up, lowering
only my eyes to read. Every few moments, I glanced around to see if
anyone was watching. But the classroom was the ruckus of a hornet's
nest—all my classmates were chatting, kidding, throwing chalk around,
and no one paid attention to the poor teacher writing whatever on the
blackboard, let alone me. More reassuring still, Master Yoe wasn't in.
I could only stay alert for so long when reading such an enticing book.
After a dozen pages, I forgot everything else, until the blue veins on a big
hand filled my eyes and took the book, almost gently, away. I looked up,
panic stricken, meeting Master Yoe's serious gaze. God knows when he
had walked in.
One day, months later, a bunch of men arrived in green military
dress. With their arrival, new slogans appeared on the campus walls:
"Station troops to guard the frontier and cultivate the borderland!" The
26 "troops," it turned out, meant us middle school students. We were being
recruited to go to Yunnan, China's southern borderland neighbouring
Burma, to plant rubber trees in the army reclamation farms. Anyone
who had turned sixteen was eligible, which meant most of the students,
who had been delayed by several years without schools. And the recruiters did not mind if all of us joined them.
My best friend and I hit palms pledging to go together. We applied
enthusiastically, as did many of our friends. Every regime has its own
politically correct terms. What we did was politically correct, expected,
and honourable, in our time.
When I handed my application—one page full of vehement words—
to Master Yoe, he said, "You are not sixteen yet."
"In three months I will be. Revolution does not discriminate by age!"
"We'll need your parents' agreement," he said. His swarthy face
showed no smile.
I was confident that my mother, a Party member, would support my
correct decision. But she turned out to be tough. She said I was too
young, Yunnan was too far, work in an army reclamation farm would
be too hard, and much more. I pestered her day after day, alternating
cajolement with coercion and crying. Finally, she sighed, "All right, go.
It's only sooner or later." She knew she would not be able to keep me in
the city after my graduation anyway. My elder sister had already been
sent to the countryside for re-education. I could see how sad my mother
was that I did not even want to wait one more year, but a mother's sadness was not a teenager's concern.
I rushed back to school to find Master Yoe. I told him my good news,
speaking incoherently as I panted for breath. He looked suspicious. "Really? Your mother agreed?" I just couldn't understand his lack of excitement. But at least he did not turn me down.
In a few weeks, the list of approved students was announced, both
in broadcast and on a big wall, the names studded the papers like ants.
Everyone I knew who applied got their wish, including my best friend,
but I did not find my name. Did this mean I was not trustworthy?
Master Yoe wore a sly smile when I confronted him. "Shh. You are
not going to Yunnan. You are going to high school."
That was the first time I heard the news that high schools would reopen as well. High schools had not been needed because universities admitted only factory workers, peasants, and soldiers by recommendation,
many of them semi-literates. Now, Master Yoe told me secretively, Premier Zhou Enlai had instructed an "experiment" (as if it were a novelty):
to admit a small number of students to high school, and after graduation send them directly to university. (The second half of this plan, as
it turned out, was never realized before Premier Zhou's death in 1976.)
27 As such, my school was in the process of selecting one student from each
class to go on to high school. And Master Yoe singled me out from thirty-
plus classmates.
That fateful day when Master Yoe seized my Three Kingdoms, I did all
I could to plead with him to give it back to me. I vowed to become the
most obedient, disciplined, and well-behaved student, and do whatever
he asked me to do. I begged him not to implicate my father.
"I'll tell you my decision in three days," he said.
It was an odd thing to say. What would take him three days to decide?
But a delayed decision was certainly better than an immediate execution. I nodded meekly, as if in a position to agree.
There is no need to describe how heavily time hung during those
three days; it taught me the meaning of an old adage: "Live a day as if
it were a year." The third afternoon, I followed Master Yoe to a quiet
corner in campus and timidly reminded him of the deadline. He handed
me the book rolled in a newspaper and said, "Nice, nice. I've been looking for this book for some time. Never thought it could arrive so easily."
He smacked his lips like a glutton. "Here you are, girl, don't let me see it
again."
He had taken the novel for three days to read himself.
Afterward, we discussed Zhu Geliang, the embodiment of Chinese
wisdom. I believe this was why he wanted to see me go on to high school:
for our shared secret love of Three Kingdoms.
That was how my infatuation with books frustrated my political correctness. With the help of a worker whose duty was to demolish old
books, I went to high school instead of a rubber tree farm. Luckily, my
high school years overlapped with Deng Xiaoping's short-lived "second
time up" as China's vice-premier, and, under new policies issued by the
practical leaders Zhou and Deng, I had an almost normal education in
the sciences and literature. That is, if you discount my school's relocation
to the mountains for one year, hiding in preparation for the Third World
War that Chairman Mao knew the American Imperialists would soon
start.
Though Master Yoe thwarted my first attempt to leave the city, he
could do nothing to save me from going to the countryside three years
later. When I graduated from high school, the university doors were
still closed to us. We heard the rumour (the only reliable source of truth
in China) that Premier Zhou Enlai was ill, and he was being subjected
to "not-by-name" criticism, a typical Mao approach. Another round of
mandatory political campaigns involved everyone in China—"Commending the Legalists and denouncing the Confucians." Chairman Mao
28 was a Legalist and Premier Zhou was, according to rumours, the biggest
Confucian in modern China.
Thus, Premier Zhou's conspiracy to send some of us directly to university was thwarted by Chairman Mao and his "proletarian headquarters." Consequently, all of us who had the fortune to graduate from high
school joined the largest migration in history, just like our old middle
school classmates, only with a few years of delay, to the countryside. We
were all called "inserts," and we officially lost our city registration.
It was not coincidence that I departed Chongqing in May 1974 through
the same gate that my mother arrived in June of 1945. Chongqing was
a port city on the Yangtze, and that gate symbolized the passenger port.
Though the port was the same one, the name had changed. "Venerate
Heaven Gate Port" had been renamed to "Red Port" by the Red Guards.
The simpler new name was a tongue-twister for older people like Gaga
and my parents; they still called the port by its old name; just like when
our street's name was changed from "Dai Family Lane" to "Destroy Capitalism Lane," they never got used to it.
The passenger ship I took was named "East Is Red." It had five levels,
much bigger than the "Mingwen" ship my mother came on three decades earlier. The sight of the ship excited me, as if it were the flagship
of my expedition. But my mother was sobbing. She came to see me off
at the port, taking no notice of the bustling scene, the fluttering red flags
and deafening gongs and drums. Tears blurred her vision, as if we would
part forever. To her, my city registration was my well of sweet water, the
loss of it foreboding a lifetime of bitterness.
How did I feel? There is a telling anecdote. A friend of mine, the
daughter of a factory worker, cried to me over our misfortune at being
sent down to the countryside, and questioned the purpose of it. I said to
her, "Do you know in which direction all other country's populations
flow? From rural to urban. Only China is countering the trend. We are
making history." She stared at me as if I were delirious from fever; the
language I used was exactly the production of the time, grand and hollow.
The problem was, I meant it sincerely. Unlike my mother, my eagerness to leave home was not a result of epiphany; it was a youthful chase
for glory, wanting to be reborn as a member of the working class. Going
to the countryside was the only path to that glory.
In this, I was the opposite of my mother. Who was I like? Whose
daughter was I? A song we sang daily gives a clue: "Mother dear father
dear none dearer than Chairman Mao, sky big earth big none bigger
than the Party's benefaction." I was a hybrid. My mother bequeathed me
the appetite for more, always more, education; but part of my education
as a youth, in fact the dominant part, was "Mao Zedong Thought." It was
29 Chairman Mao who called on us to march "up the mountains and down
to the countryside, go the path of combining oneself with workers and
peasants."
During the first month of my countryside life, on a stormy day in a
Lily Village along the Yangtze, where I made my second home in Fuling
County, I ran in the rain, hatless, a hoe in my hands. I dug up a little
pine tree from the wild hills, about knee-high, with lush green needles,
and transplanted it into the new lot of land assigned to me by the farm
production team. It was my way of showing my determination to root
myself in the countryside. My hands and clothes were all muddy when I
was done, and my eyes could barely open with the rain running on my
face. With this much water, the tree surely would have no problem to
survive, I thought, ignorant of nature's law.
It did not take even a week for my transplanted pine tree to turn
brown and lose its needles. And four years of harsh country life later,
when the Cultural Revolution ended and universities finally reopened
to the public, I pulled my feet out of the dirt without hesitation. As hard
as I had tried, and despite the sweet well water I drank, I never got used
to the primitive life of the farmer, going to fields at sunrise and going to
bed at sunset, with no books to read, not to mention my shock at witnessing the peasants' poverty, unimaginable given it had been nearly three
decades after "liberation."
So in the winter of 1977,1 went to the largest national college entrance
exam in history, taken by a decade's accumulation of wannabe students,
many of whom had never set foot in high school and knew well that their
chance for college admission was next to nil. Only then did I realize
what a great favour Master Yoe, whose full name I did not even learn,
had done for me. I passed the exam with high scores and walked in
Chongqing University—the only way for me to legally reinstate my city
registration. Far away in Yunnan, my best friend from middle school, a
bright girl who had joined a rubber tree farm seven years earlier, also
took the exam, but she did not pass. She later returned to Chongqing
when, after repeated entreaties, demonstrations, and hunger strikes,
the millions of city youths brought to Yunnan from Beijing, Shanghai,
Chengdu, and Chongqing were finally allowed home. She never spoke
to me again after she learned of my college admission.
I turned my back on the wells in Lily Village just like my mother
had turned hers on Gingko Bay's—the difference being, Lily Village was
never really home. I left it disillusioned of the glory I had anticipated.
In another decade, I would go further from home than my mother had,
this time across oceans. One hot summer day in June 1995, exactly half
a century after my mother left her village, she came all the way from
China to join me in my commencement at MIT. In a photo taken that
30 day, my mother watches Charles Vest, the president of MIT, awarding
me the blue-red doctoral hood, tears swelling in her eyes. Beside her, my
American husband and our six-year-old daughter, clapping their hands
for me, look confused by her tears.
Meanwhile, we, the Chinese students who came to the West seeking
modern higher education after the Cultural Revolution, were bantered
by our own country folk as "oversea inserts." My acclimation to the foreign water and soil was yet to be tested. I knew by then, however, that
books were my sweet well. I've since made my new home in a place
where I hope library doors will never be sealed. #
31 Doretta Lau
Life of Bones
Caffeine strips calcium from the body, leading to osteoporosis rather
than fossilization. When the Chinese labourers built the Canadian
railroads they were looking for Gold Mountain. They lay down
explosives and waited. At death, they wished their bones burial in
China. Threats of Go home! taken to heart.
There is no sign that there was once a Chinatown in Olympia,
Washington, but people still ride trains.
32 Madness and Water
Was I reading Madness and Civilization or Civilization and Its Discontents
when I came across ideas that forced me to sleep with a blanket over
my head?
There was a link between water and madness. Foucault said as much
and I believed him. Between ages twenty-two and twenty-five I lived by
a beach. An ex-roommate told me that the saltwater ruined the paint
on cars. During daily walks I looked out onto the water and wondered
what else would be spoiled.
33 J.R. Toriseva
Annie's Instructions
(How Not to Be an Indian)
There are many things you should not say, she tells
me, accusing me of making fun of her. What there is to make fun of I
don't know; the skin too dark for her story about herself, the eyes too
brown to match Finn blue, maybe. She drags her foot behind her, yes.
She doesn't know how to read, yet. She believes books mock her. My
father comes in with the warm heart in a bowl of water. She rinses. She
cuts. She dredges the maroon slices in peppered flour, sets them in the
oil. They slide around in the cast iron skillet on the wood stove.
I give her what I wrote in school. She tears the paper
up and down, side from side. This is about other people. Not us.
I defend myself. I have checked the facts. You were born in a ditch, I say.
I know you were. Rosebud. Lakota. Your sister told me. Your sister told.
I ask her about our grandmothers. The all together
beloveds. The no one is forgotten beloveds. What were their songs?
Where do I find them? You have none, she says, because you need
none. We are here now. Be thankful.
Here the drum pulses my tongue. The frost imprisons
morning. Eight points on the wall rattle. They are the first deer my
father shot, and the biggest deer. She forbids me to tell stories in her
presence. None of them will be true, she tells me. Better not to talk.
I leave her to the rattling of the antlers.
34 Snow packs around my tongue. I tell stories with my
hands. I sift them into biscuits with salt flour. Outside, I pin the wet
dishtowel to the line; stories flip out like soaked sheets. Beholden,
I walk away. My hand slivers the door of her icehouse. I leave her
thistles, her maple branches. Icicles pinch my lashes as I leave her land.
I have tried to leave before and gotten lost in the black spruce swamp,
unable to find my way out to the other world, unable to find my way
back to her house again.
Now, I walk into a bigger sphere, a farther circle. The
brush opens for me. Far from woods, from slough, from wolves. Out of
reach of deer, my throat thaws.
My drum is in the pulse of my tongue. I open
my mouth. The words slip out. My own tribe, I dance to them. We are
all of us together beloveds. None of us will be forgotten. None of us will
fall into peat or loam. None of us will burst into coal, not now. We will
be bones. We will be books. We will be.
35 Maria Rosa Lojo
translated from the Spanish by Brett Alan Sanders
My Lord Santiago
All roads—they have told you—lead to Santiago. But the witches
always arrive first, mounted on ancient brooms of toxo and covered
with the round hats of peasant women. The Apostle awaits them, from
his perch on the Portico de la Gloria and in the Quintana dos Mortos,
and seated on the high altar, and lying in the coffin of his sepulchre,
and offered in the form of a statuette of ground stone on the souvenir
stands, and painted on the canopies of restaurants.
My Lord Santiago admires the witches who fly at will, and when
they come down on the Rua do Franco they take their hats and hang
their brooms in the Museo de San Domingo de Bonaval.
My Lord Santiago has been dead for many years, always working at
community tasks. And although he is a saint and breakfasts at the right
hand of the Lord, and has his niche in Paradise, which is a safe, small,
and beautiful place, he sighs as he leans on his staff watching the distant
heels of the witches bathing in the moonlight, and the refulgence of
their red hair.
Santiago de Compostela (St. James of Compostela) is the Galician city and legendary burial site of the New Testament apostle. Toxo is a type of rush that is used
for fodder for animals and, when dried, is good for making hats and brooms. The
Quintana dos Mortos, or Plaza of the Dead, is part of the Plaza of the Quintana,
which is divided into two sectors, for the living and the dead; the latter formerly
contained a cemetery, and the whole plaza remains a mysterious place to which
magical powers and legends are attributed. The Museo de San Domingo de
Bonaval is one of the most important of the city, actually called Museo do Pobo
Galego (Museum of the Galician People) and situated in the Convent of San
Domingo of Bonaval.
36 Cruceiro
No one knows what there is behind the giant cross, under the dry
moon. Those who take the road facing the stone cross come back with
their faces changed when day breaks and the mountain shakes off the
fine dust of that delicate light. They no longer seem to be what they
are, but what they once were, or what they will be; neither their joy
nor their sadness befit their lives, not even their clothing their bodies.
Everything is either too small or too big, like the sleeves of scarecrows.
But people respect these inadequate beings whom madness seems
barely to touch with the tip of a finger. It is said they have outwitted
the prison of their fate, and death, confused by the magical powers of
a Man murdered in an Eastern land, will not find them when it seeks
them.
Cruceiro is Galician for a large cross erected in a road.
37 Tiphanie Yanique
Girls Are for Loving
Part 1
The radio said to wear bright colours. Dresses that fly when you
spin. The men—guayaberras, but not black—only the leading man
was to wear black. Who had even heard of anyone wearing a
black guayaberra to a party? All the men wore their finest white ones. A
few came in suits and American-style shirts. These men had lived abroad
and knew that Americans didn't really understand the formality of the
guayaberra and so didn't trust the request for "Island clothes." Everyone
wore their best shoes—the worst kind for dancing.
It was the middle of the century. Two wars behind, the world ahead.
The island had been planning for weeks. This would be a put-us-on-the-
map event. The movie needed twenty extras but Mervin Manatee talked
about it on his radio show, so every St. Thomas couple who could, came.
There would be no pay, but a chance to be in a film—this was enough.
The Lutheran minister and his wife; Foncel Benjamin, Esquire, and his
wife; Dr. Ruth Kent and her husband, and a host of other important people. Even Anette, the literature and history teacher of the public middle
school, was going with her newest husband, Franky Smith.
Father Carl Earl, on island for the first time since seminary, was thinking about going. He worried his attendance might be bad for his career
in the Church. Besides the fact that he couldn't decide what to wear. His
black with priestly collar would look odd on the dance floor, but he so
liked the uniform and never wore lay-clothes like some of his colleagues.
He called on a few of his friends before the evening began to wish them
joy and safety and Godliness at the filming. He believed in joy. He believed in human beings. He also believed in forgiveness, but that would
haunt him later. Now, he was only happy that the Virgin Islands was
getting positive publicity. This was his home, though not the home of
his parents who never stopped being Danish even though they, too, had
been born on the island. Perhaps this film would encourage tourism—
more jobs—though he still wasn't sure about tourism as an industry. He
had seen it in another place, in Hawaii, where the Church had sent him
for his first assignment because he was from the Islands—praying away
the barrier of Pacific and Atlantic. The culture was sadly commercial-
38 ized there. The passion behind gestures watered down for the simplified
tourist gaze. He hoped to be transferred soon, if the Holy Father saw fit,
if God so desired. Hawaiians didn't seem to relate to him. After years
of white priests, they wanted one of their own. He understood. But this
wouldn't happen to his Virgin Islands. He sat in his room, not in the
sacristy overlooking the Catholic school he had become a priest to help,
but in his room. In his mother's house. He wrote a letter to himself—no,
no, to God—admitting that he wanted to be with his friends. Dancing.
He loved dancing. They had said to come in pairs, though, and he was a
priest. Whom would he dance with? Perhaps Gertie would be there, and
she would be beautiful. Perhaps, through no fault of her own, she would
be too much temptation. He wrote this. At the end, he thanked God for
giving him strength to know what was best for himself and the Church.
Anette Smith was a former classmate of Carl Earl back when he was
fast cars, a contagious smile, and a funny lisp. She wore a red-and-yellow
dress for the occasion. She had bought the fabric two years ago, before
she had known she was pregnant with her son, Francis, during a time
when she had considered leaving her husband, Franky. She didn't want
the fabric to be about that. She didn't want it to sit and haunt her, so she
decided she and Franky would go to the filming. She had the cloth made
into a dress for dancing.
Anette's older sister lived in the apartment below them, and she
charged them only a little rent. With her eyes out the window and her
fabulous greying hair hanging down, she declared to her sister that the
dress was too risque. "Nettie, you look like a harlot."
"Hush," said Anette. "I look like a flower."
"You look like a tart in flames. You know you are the mother of daughters and a son." The older sister leaned forward and whispered, "What
are you teaching them?"
The dress was of a silky cotton material. Fitted on the top, with flirty
sleeves that just covered her shoulders. Loose at the bottom, falling just
below the knee. It was a red dress. With three-inch hibiscus blooms spotting it in yellow. It was a dress for movies. It was a dress to be star. Anette
only had white heels, and Franky thought they didn't go with the dress.
He was a saga boy. With his green eyes and green Cadillac, he knew
about matching. He gave her the money, even though she made her
own, to buy red shoes with a thin strap and tiny buckle. Franky wore
a starched white guayaberra with intricate embroidery and simple black
slacks. He carried a frayed-edged hat made from bleached white straw,
in case the directors thought it lent authenticity.
The crowd of sixty, not twenty, met in a large bare room on the eastern side of the island. There was no view of downtown, where parties
really happened. The ballroom of this new resort (it was not to be called
39 a hotel) opened onto a beach. Most of the extras had brunched there
among the high peach walls for the Catholic Daughters of America or
to celebrate a beloved's ninety-ninth birthday. None of them had ever
been there at night. It was a long drive there in the darkness. Eastend
hotels (they call them resorts) of this size would be destined to fail. There
were small motels and inns that did well, but this was, yes, elegant, but
really a monstrosity. All the rooms so inconveniently far from the dining
area. The dining area so far from the garden paths. There were places
that would have been better. The Grand Hotel, with the wise Danish
architecture overlooking the waterfront. Or the Hilton, nested up the
long driveway in Soto Town, where there was a waterfall filled with the
fattest shrimps in the world. There were parties in those places all the
time. But the movie people wanted solitude and a beach; and, after all,
movies weren't meant to be real. A party would be created—like magic.
Plus, the movie people wanted sticks of fire lining the walls of the ballroom. The Hilton wouldn't allow this, and it would be too dangerous
downtown.
The locals didn't think the fire or the beach was a good idea. There
were trees around for the flames to catch. And on the beach in the evening, the sand flies were sure to nyam everyone alive. The extras would
have to dance up a lot to keep the no-see-ums from biting and leaving
itchy welts that wouldn't look good on camera. As it was, the Americans
got bitten most of all. Sand flies like fresh blood.
The place was floral and fiery. The peach walls sprayed with glitter.
Only a few tables in the centre of the huge ballroom, with glasses oddly
half-full and others more oddly turned over, draining onto black tablecloths. The men in the white guayaberras looked smart beside their ladies
in blue and green and Anette's red-and-yellow dress. Their heels chattered and snapped as they whispered among themselves.
Markie and the Pick-up Men were given matching shirts and short pants
with blue waves and orange surfboards. They protested the pants, stating in vexed sputters that a real West Indian scratch band would never
wear short pants to play a party. It would be shameful. They weren't little
boys. They weren't working around the blasted house. They weren't
going for a damn swim. The costume coordinator ranted back: "It's a
movie! You're getting paid!" Finally, since the musicians had all come
in plain black slacks anyway, they were allowed to do away with the
shorts. Matching was most important. It didn't matter much, anyway.
They would shoot them from waist up and not much camera time would
be spent on them. They wouldn't even be singing. The movie people
had another record. The Pick-up Men would be phantom playing, and the
movie's leading man would actually be the lead singer. Hadn't they read
the contract? Markie never really recovered from being sent away from
40 his microphone. Before that, he used to do a little skedaddle dance up
front and get the crowd really ready. That evening he was sent to play
the cowbell over on the side. The band never sounded the same again.
The music given was a fast Jamaican mento, not a Virgin Islands anything. The same two songs over and over. They were all, the band and the
dancers, told to look happy. For the first song, the band would just "play"
and the dancers would dance—like Island people. So they danced. How
they always danced. They smiled into the camera and smoothly forced
their way into its vision, so that they all spun in a dense circle around the
room, as if practiced. They avoided too much grinding and bum-jerking because the pastor was there after all, but they allowed themselves
enjoyment. It was a free lime. Husbands holding wives closer and then
farther, as if they were courting; wives with hands clutching husbands'
shoulders as if this were juicy infidelity. Slippery foot action, sometimes
only fingertips touching. Again and again to the same one song that the
actor in the black guayaberra pretended to sing. For the second song, the
dancers were told to form an open circle and clap vigorously in time
while the leading lady did a limbo in the middle.
The leading lady was dressed in something too fitted, really. It would
be hard for her to get the bending right. The limbo stick was placed lower
and lower, and, as she contorted more and more, the crowd of sixty, not
twenty, roared in support. "Is a dancer she must be!" Then the stick was
set on fire. Jesus, Lord! Murmurs and steps back. It could be done. Those
who walked on broken glass with their hands could limbo this low with
fire in their face, but could this Continental do it? The camera waited
while the woman breathed and breathed. "I'm only gonna do this once
so don't mess it up," she called to the air in a voice that sounded hoarse
and older than she was. The clapping stopped. Everyone waited. She
hiked up her skirt, and the flames reached out to her thighs. She bent her
knees low, pressed the inside of her ankles to the ground, splayed her
hands out in welcome and tiled her torso backbackback. How low can
you go? Everyone was chanting slowly and hushed. How low they needed to know. Her knees first, then her palms. "Ballet," Anette whispered
to Franky, and he nodded with his lips pushed up as if he'd thought of it
already. Then her exposed hips and crotch area. The flames brightened
up. Gasps. Pastor Milford's eyes widened and averted. Then her torso
with her rather large breasts, oh dear, and finally her head. It was her
hair that caught aflame. All the stiffness of it unable to resist the lust of
the fire. Screams! And someone letting out a huge kyakkyak laugh. Pastor Milford rushing forward to save his sins, covering her furiously with
his jacket and slapping down the fire.
It was a wig, thankfully. She struggled from under the minister's jacket
and emerged with black hair plastered down on her head and a charred
41 yellow wig on the ground. She stomped on the wig defiantly with her
bare feet, but without the expected anxiety. Her face was calm and
steady, and she kept stomping. "Cut!" someone called. "Don't you dare
cut!" from someone else. The actress kept stomping. Her now-dusty feet
pulping the curly wig into pieces that flew about, until the leading man
finally grabbed hold of her in a hugging, containing motion, and she
told him calmly to let her go and then walked out to the beach. The wig
looked like murdered baby birds.
"Great work!" The director, who wore a black T-shirt that read "Director" in pink, said this into his megaphone. The dancers, who were
doctors and lawyers and pastors and educators, walked back to their cars
where they milled around the lot and talked about their own swanky
dance moves. On the drive home, Franky wore the straw hat that the
director had loved and let the roof down. Anette moved close to him on
the front seat and rested her hands on his thigh. "You're a beauty," he
said. "You a star." With her hair blowing around her face and the moon
big above, she believed him. And he meant it.
Part 2
The movie came out in the States months later. In May, Mervin Manatee
chartered a plane to take ten well-off Virgin Islanders to hot diggity New
York City where they would stay in the Hilton and watch the Virgin Islands become a star. Anette and Franky were not among them. The richest of the ten bought new suits and heavy sweaters, even though it would
have been summertime on the continent. The radio station reported on
their sending-off. When they returned, however, the silence abounded.
Clarence Robinson, the future Governor, was in the States studying
law when the movie came to his town. He didn't say how he saw the
poster, but he saw the poster, and there they were. Franky and Anette.
A third of the picture was just them with the rest of the group in the
background—Anette's skirt flying in dance, the couple's mouths wide in
laughter. Clarence, who would be in the history books someday, called
Anette on the phone to ask if it was her for sure. He didn't call again.
In August, "Girls Are for Loving" arrived in the Virgin Islands. Cru-
sians flew in from St. Croix andjohnians ferried in from St. John. They
would see themselves reflected and know they were real.
The Island had an indoor theatre owned by a Mr. Cissineri—Cinema Cissineri, he was called then. There was no snack-selling allowed,
just the movie and Cinema C telling the patrons to "hush up" from the
projector's booth if they made too much noise. The line was long for the
theatre. Somewhere in the middle of the line, Franky and Anette felt like
celebrities—not just extras. She wore the dress, but with modest flats and
42 a light sweater over her shoulders for the night air. She was hoping that
those who didn't know her would recognize her as the woman in the
poster. They did. She received admiring smiles and nods.
Inside, Franky and Anette huddled together, and he made loud-talk
with the folks behind them. Cinema C hollered for everyone to quiet
down and the lights went soft. The movie crackled on and there was no
waiting. Their scene was the opening scene. See them dancing and shuffling smooth calypso-style, seven step, two step, dipping and all. There
was The Pick-up Men looking kinda happy. There was the pastor and the
teacher and everyone sure looking hot. Close in on Franky and Anette
and her red-and-yellow dress. In the theatre, Anette thought that her
husband looked so handsome up there on the screen. She turned to compare the real him to the famous one.
Something important was about to happen and Anette could feel it.
She was scared and excited, as if she was about to get married or win a
prize. She watched Franky spin her nice and slow, then fast so her dress
flew a little. Then there was the limbo scene. Just as it was. The poor
woman's thigh was still showing. This had seemed okay when she was
just doing the limbo, but it didn't seem so okay now that they were seeing
it so large on the screen. The movie showed it all, right up to when the
lady's wig caught fire on the limbo stick. Then there was a cut to Anette's
dress, the very one she was wearing. It wasn't Anette, just a piece of the
skirt with a big hibiscus flapping furiously as if in a wind. It made Anette
feel uneasy, as though her flame dress was to blame for the hair on fire.
It was the entire scene with the leading lady stamping her wig and acting crazy, with cuts back and forth to the red-and-yellow dress. Then
the extras there gaping at the scene and curling into their men. They
hadn't thought they were acting. They hadn't realized the camera had
been on them. Then there was another cut to Anette's dress, a piece of
her leg finally showing, then back to the leading man taking the woman
in his arms, and then a cut back to the dress. Anette, in the theatre, was
wishing it would stop, wishing she hadn't worn the dress to the opening
after all. Then back to the leading couple, though now, suddenly, they
were naked. All the audience could see was the man's hairy back moving forward and forward and the woman's oily legs coming from either
side of him and moving like a broken machine. Flash back to Anette's
dress. Then a close-up on the lovers, their tongues roaming each other's
mouths. Then Anette's dress, then a solitary breast wobbling—and then
Pastor Milford's wife screamed like she was about to die. The theatre
started to flood out. Anette was crying. No tears. Just a sobbing thing.
She was repeating, "My dress, my dress." Now on the screen there were
the groans of the two people, just doing it and doing it as if no one was
watching. The movie patrons spilled out into the street and didn't look
43 at each other.
The young priest, Father Carl Earl, issued a formal complaint to the
movie studio. "These are Godly people. They were innocent of this sin."
The studio claimed no violation. "No one did anything against his or
her will," they wrote. "There were no secrets. Not our fault no one had
bothered to ask. No one was in the sex scenes." It was all the community
talked about for weeks.
Anette went on the radio. Waiting in the outer office of the station she
looked around at big pictures of Mervin Manatee on the wall, thinking to
herself that it was a good thing he did radio. He had a sweet voice but an
ugly-as-sin face. Inside, Mervin put Anette before the microphone and
asked why she was so upset. She sat with her legs closed tightly, her updo hairstyle feeling like it was coming loose. It's true none of them were
actually in the nudey scenes but Anette screamed into the silver square,
"The land was in it!" She wanted to add "and so was my dress," but her
words were screeching and bouncing around the radio booth, and she
was in tears. Ugly Manatee played a happy calypso before escorting her
out.
Soon enough everything died down because there was nothing anyone could do. The Eastend Resort was beginning to make money and
they wanted the whole thing hushed up.
44 C. Burning Carroll
The Circuitous Path
There is no doubt you will have to line up. The miles of fence posts
always stand between you and them—a bit of tartan dress caught
on the barbed wire. Once the examination begins you won't know
How to answer: "You there on shore, take a few dinars," before
you duck behind the muslin curtain. The examiners sit
in a separate room, arguing over your results when one tells you
Invective is not recommended. Now those professors are marching
down the street, proclaiming to all who will hear them: "We were
wrong." The mountains have come between you; the line is growing,
Snaking through the grass. A few step out and try to make it
across the hills of snow but return as corpses, rigid and thin-
lipped. As you stand there with all the others your feet sink down
Into the water. Yet the words on the test have not dried;
someone else might claim them, and you would end up broken
by your family, shunted from cousin to cousin, reminded daily
Of your failures. "Oh Alyosha, how could you?" a great aunt
would exclaim. The men in the line nod their heads
as if they understand. The bit of muslin curtain flutters in the wind.
45 Ingrid Ruthig
Japanese Staging of an
Ontario Play
Bold freight trains tug the
day east to west, a stubborn
backdrop, behind them.
Robins geisha grey
sky, chastened by feminist
winds for the summer's fall.
At last, underneath
the gravity of cues, the
rain capitulates.
46 Anis Shivani
America
In whose name, palindromist or survivor,
is the Brooklyn Bridge dedicated today?
Why does it seem to levitate darkly gay
this morning when I'm the Norse diver
plugged up the nose like slave driver
to my ancestors? Who, in Lazarus' pay,
terrified of air breathed new, makes hay
of tramping through Ellis as the cadaver
the nation will clothe? Walk with dignity.
Open your cavities to inspection
by horn-rimmed Quakers on asexual fire.
Outside, the streets are walked with impunity
by Chinamen in killing introspection
over present wives hid in capital's byre.
They name me a new name, I am Smith,
not Solomonovic, tongue-lashed to order,
christened in capital, baptized to no border,
new man made measured to Victorian pith.
It's the Twenties and the poets have found kith
on the Seine and Danube, tied to the warder
who flashes The Underground Man if disorder
of the mind is alleged, playing up the myth
of unruly genius. At Tenth and Spring
a butcher from the Ukraine is arrested
for printing pamphlets to anarch Emma.
How do you know when not to play king?
Actionable crimes past habeas are nested
in a working man's every easy dilemma.
47 1,
High torchlight, at noon, sealing burning steel,
on the seventieth floor platform girders,
and the hammer in the brain inciting murders,
drowned out by the exploding sun we kneel
to as kept pagans: the rise of Empire State,
if not told by Nostradamus then condemned
by Al Smith as high holy worship not hemmed
in by Catholic cachet. In Kiev we celebrate
Mass like heathens drunk on words Akhmatova
might have slipped through the censors' seeing eyes,
but we don't tell our dying father we love him.
The skyline we build will be stooped Jehovah
for future prodigies who'll see the skies
as paint for honeymoon, the planet's warm trim.
Down Lenox Avenue Garvey led troops,
dreaming of Africa, ditching Connie's Inn
and the Cotton Club, before Ellington
and Armstrong were evicted by paid snoops
on leave from the Depression. Two loops
of fear shut close. Mood Indigo soon lifts.
At the Savoy Ballroom Semple drifts
to south Manhattan, as the A train whoops
primal purity. These New Golden Gates
have risen in the dust of bold migrations
crusting thick, mannered lemmings aching sick.
What is it about trumpets for prelates
on graft that never sticks? Heard vibrations
echo down Seventh shaking brick after brick.
48 Salman Rushdie Detained
(and Deported?) by
Homeland Security
Your bags of aleph-bey, like a Turkish Sultan's numerals:
Have you had it in you all along to ogle our Southern beauties?
Do you not know your respective place, in the horny bowels
of wherever it is we manufacture garments and towels?
Hunh! Gotcha! These golden-spined volumes autographed
by renegade mullahs—we're not using any oxymoron here—
were these bought with your own money? Is there not,
for Christ's sakes, a fatwa against transporting barrels of
homemade secretions, which you call the poet's muse, prose-
writer though you may be. Acchoo! Bless you! We mean
no harm, of course, holding your outsized head up for
inspection. We were told these eyes were new. We beheld
last night, after the last Delta flight, a red flare in the sky,
which may have been the devil's copious way of worship
in the twilight of the angry age. We relinquish violence
if it's in the name of idol-worshippers from fourteen or more
centuries past. Your carry-ons will be returned spotless,
sir, if you will do us the courtesy of fluffing your pockets.
49 Dorothea Griinzweig
translated from the German by Derk Wynand
Translate and Dream
I'm a poem just translated
am dissolved and created anew
recollect no drift
from jetsam me to flotsam me
only dream that it has occurred
I say
come on old body
be my guest in the new
it comes
is invisible passes through me
stays in the present
so that I'm me and
in my stead
A thread runs through me
I don't see its ends and
someone speaks
It's the strand of the soul
that will never unravel
And speaks
Around it you
he body after all only being on loan
shall be transformed transformed
50 Little Listening Huts Is What
the sheds of the toiling miners
were called
boys would listen for the tolling
of the mountain bell
in listening huts
listening into the depths their
ears intent on
the sound within
waiting with ears spread
like wideopen arms
before the earth
its mouth its womb
51 Jill Sexsmith
A Country Song Played
Backward
At the edge of a town called Somewhere, there's a dirt road that
leads to my childhood home. In the background, there's a red
barn where my black horse waits for me. My dog is somewhere,
probably swimming in the river that runs through it all. All of this, the
people and animals, exist now only in memory. It's a slow curve down
a back road I seldom revisit, and when I do it's always in a pickup truck
driven in reverse. Isn't that how you get back all of the things you've
lost? Or is that a country song played backward?
My last months there, years ago, were spent with my grandmother
and saw me quitting school, my job, my life, to keep her there for as long
as possible. And I knew her death was the end of more than her life. It
was the end of all of this—a century of farming and routine and furrows
of land that must have known us all by name or footprint.
Her death was a predictable cancerous one. After years of chimney
action, her lungs turned in on her, filled her small body with a plume
of chemicals and painted her insides black. There was the silent elevator ride after news of being beyond treatment, beyond therapy, beyond
hope.
My grandmother was an atheist, though I suspect she was a believer in
the odd after-school special where a shadow is sent to escort a person to
the other side, meets her, squares off eye-to-eye, then turns around and
floats the other way, as if to say, not yet. She never acknowledged her
death except to say she would never get a chance to wear her new sundress. I helped her hem it, before it was time for open-backed gowns.
"Am I too old to be wearing this?"
"I think it's perfect."
She looked twelve, but I wanted to remember her standing in the
doorway, with light and life surrounding her and a blanket of flowers
covering her.
For a while, her blue-haired friends stopped by with raisin-laden dainties to say their awkward goodbyes. I was in the kitchen eavesdropping
and sweeping prairie dirt under the rug.
52 When the stairs became too much to navigate, we replaced the dining
room table with a hospital bed. She complained it was too hot. In the
dining room where we once ate turkey dinners, I listened to her morphine confessions. On highs, she asked me to make sure my grandfather
wasn't wearing his rubber boots into town. On lows, she wanted me to
write one of her daughters out of the will. On plateaus, there were certain pieces of china to be left to particular people, though the order was
always changing and in the end seven people were left sharing the same
broken cup.
Eventually, she required tubes for water, air, earth, and fire. She ate
nothing and remained remarkably lucid, though every time she woke
up, she scolded me for not having visited her for years. All in all, we
were a tight-lipped family, circling her bed, not knowing what to say but
doing all the right things.
She died in a hospital room with her good daughter and her only
son at her side. I was not there, but I can picture her squaring off with
the darkness, searching its eyes and knowing it was time. I can see her
changing into her dress before she walked away with this shadow by her
side. There is one stoplight in Somewhere and it changed from green to
amber to red and back to green again. The road to our farm disappeared
and no one seemed to notice.
My family went through her belongings. I wanted the most ridiculous
things to keep them from going to Goodwill and to keep my cousins
from having them. I wanted all of her lasts. Her last unfinished knitting
projects, the last apple pie she baked, her toothbrush, her misshapen
ceramic pots.
We cleared out the house and it seemed too small to have ever held
life. It was just an empty container. I walked up and down the stairs
avoiding the loudest creaks—we had mapped them all out like crude
cartographers when we were kids, practicing our Christmas Eve Santa-
ambush.
Somewhere in all of this, my dog nibbled on rat poison typical in the
nooks and crannies of a farmhouse. Between attempts to hoard a dead
woman's belongings, there was a flight to a veterinary hospital and a dog
whose eyes welcomed her into the darkness.
Somewhere in all of this, my black horse broke out of his pen and
went for a midnight snack. He was my steady four-beat friend for over
ten years and I can imagine him in all his glory stuffing his face with
food, loving every grain of it. But that kind of eating was no good for an
old horse's bones and he bloated and ended up with a bullet in his head,
and I was not there for that last breath either.
Somewhere in all of this, I had a boyfriend. We had come to the end
of our relationship long ago, though we agreed to stay together until my
53 grandmother died. And once she was gone, we waited a few more weeks
to not make it completely obvious. And when the body turned cold, I
bought a plane ticket across an ocean and found myself trying to forget
where I came from. While I was gone, Somewhere didn't wait for me.
The house was moved. The barn imploded. The land sold out, went
commercial and became a golf course, a flood diversion, a greenhouse,
a traitor. And I walked on foreign lands and felt the ground crumbling
beneath my feet, and felt my grandmother's breath pushing me along,
forcing me not to look back to see if the ground was still there.
54 Spencer Matheson
Children's Hospital
Tiki was our boss, "Yeah, like the lamp" he'd lament and had given
up trying to explain from whence his brown skin came ("That near
India?") face etched with deep black lines, too much sodium light at
midnight.
I trained with Mrs. Milatovic in Oncology and we took long breaks
where Tiki couldn't find us, behind a big freezer full of purple popsicles
("Take one! Take one!"). She spoke of Yugoslavia and her dead children.
We vacuumed furry black dust out of air ducts as bags of clear thick
fluids dripped into the kids. You got used to the crying, saw blood as
something requiring 1 part bleach to 2 parts water (there was a video,
full of protocol and acronyms).
I'd ride my bike home, glide through soundless streets and alleys
scent of sickness still on my clothes, moon flickering between tall
black cedars. The blue glow of TVs in family rooms suggested if not
normalcy, then at least unbroken bodies, normal blood levels, an
unfamiliarity with pain.
55 Gabe Foreman
Grown Ups
By 1998, life had become a difficult-to-find
but well-organized pharmacy. Unguided by map or billboard
people would drive for hours unable to locate its glowing windows,
its shimmering cigarettes, its over-the-counter, carefully-packaged—
By October, everything hard to see had become fashionable.
Neptune and its moons hung from the ears of every actor;
while continental drift led well-read families to believe
that whatever disparities exist
will eventually correct themselves.
We felt that just beyond the horizon, park statues were igniting,
shedding dramatic light on a sacred workplace where assistants
in aprons roamed quiet aisles, and wheeled beautifully-labelled boxes
out of storage. A crate of Dutch magazines was lovingly arrayed
on the rack, and a systematic pyramid stacked
from the stout brown bottles of a rare Peruvian cough medicine—
By the end of the century, watching movies felt like dying
while the novels we loved allowed our days to diminish
without volume. Kids wept under the influence of standard passions,
but we couldn't say why, or what our hands meant
when they weren't sliding down the railing of the stairs,
or lifting a cup of whiskey to our lips. Pets ran off,
leaving a pattern of rainwater down the hall
which opened to a room we had never known was there,
while a few blocks distant, the pharmacy we had forsaken
was still open, and the family of rats that clustered
so persistently around the drainpipe finally scampered up
its tunnel to the eaves. Their moonlit forms surged
across the gravel roof to build secretive nests
on the opposite side, hunching up, scratching the tin,
kicking wads of mulch from the trough.
56 Daydreamers
In the country, people scorch corn
and swirl brandies on a deck in the candlelit dusk,
while a blue cylinder off to the side
fries insects.
And since humankind is not encased in the earth
but kept in towns across the crust, when you and I
finally retire, nothing will stop us
from drifting into the country.
After a late brunch, wild geese will call our names
and we'll nod, letting tracers of memory guide us
to a brighter farmhouse.
A tray of leek soup glides to a stop
on the checkered cloth, where a wicker dish
of pumpernickel steams. Young duck slips off the bone,
and our fingers dip into room temperature
cups of merlot
while a single bluebird, further to the side,
imagines what her eggs contain, and catches flies.
57 rp chow
To hit the bones
dupt gwut
she says this simply
as I try to describe
what the gold-toothed babysitter wanted
me and the other kids to do.
dupt gwut
and I smile at the succulence
of words, the brevity of desire:
my hands young and small, balled
tender four-year-old fists
poised for pounding.
My still body echoes
as she drops a fist
onto her other hand, palm dupt gwut
over my sternum: ribs sounding open
bones; low tones blowing
through the caverns of my lungs.
Has the body always been
this simple, this clear,
this open to time?
dupt gwut I am
the old woman in the basement
of my mind. Chinese words from my childhood mottle my arms,
leather my flesh.
dupt gwut Here,
in Vancouver, across a shine of concrete
bridges, a slip of wet pavement,
she takes my bones back
to the Toronto of my youth, the Hong Kong of my creation.
At thirty-two, Cantonese Toisan wah
phrases pulsate, drift
errant yet precise, waves hitting tympanum
until the cortex resounds with recollect.
58 When I pass through
old neighbourhoods, I search
the scene with the same sensation, as if I could glimpse
a former self, ascertain the women I've been.
Somewhere, a body back
in time gathers dupt gwut
bones.
59 Philip Holden
September Ghosts
Kian could never quite get used to the rhythms of this city that
clutched the western edge of the continent. Summer quietly became fall. Salmon in the rivers, fruit swelling from grocery stores
onto the sidewalk—blueberries in July followed in August by peaches,
and then in September by dark plums, curved like small seashells. On
September evenings when they were both free, he and Jan strolled to the
beach while there was still light. They walked out onto the wooden jetty
and looked back at the glass and concrete towers of downtown filling
up with yellow light under low waves of cloud. The mountains of the
North Shore were blacker then, anticipating winter, their lower levels
still scattered with the gold of not-yet-fallen leaves. Turn northwest and
you could see the entrance to Howe Sound, wedges of grey water, ridge
and island layered up on each other.
As they approached the end of the pier, they picked their way among
the fishing lines that extended like tripwires across the wooden decking.
Voices spoke together in Mandarin, northern-accented, tongues curling
around modulated vowels; children pouted, asked parents questions
about their catches, and parents replied in low, weary voices. Mothers
and fathers prepared artfully-cut pieces of chicken bait, fastened them
to crab traps, showed shivering sons and daughters how to bait a hook,
how to pull a caught fish from the line with an inimitably precise turn of
the wrist, where to measure the catch between two nails hammered into
a board. Kian listened, hauling in words and then watching them escape,
wriggle free into an ocean of sound.
Mom, what kind of fish is this?
Better do it this way, put it there ...
Dad, I'm cold!
Yet he never spoke to the fishermen, with their young children,
scuffed shoes, their cheap clothes from Kmart. He liked to listen, but
not to reveal himself to others. It was Jan who would say hi to them, her
60 voice rich with the assured tones of belonging; they'd return greetings,
like casual handshakes, before turning to their affairs again. She'd once
asked him, walking back down the beach, what the people on the jetty
were talking about, and he'd told her nothing much, nonsense really. His
own disinterest puzzled him. Perhaps they reminded him of his newness
here, of the thinness of the camouflage of his clothes, the Gortex jackets
and the branded-fleece sweaters. He could fit in here effortlessly until he
opened his mouth.
They turned and walked back to the shore; when the deck broadened,
Jan reached for him and they walked for a while hand in hand. Her fingers were cold, he noticed, even in September. This was a new discovery.
In the middle of the coming winter, he was sure, she'd torment him in
bed, reaching forward to scratch his back or his chest with digits like
icicles.
As the evenings got shorter, he found he liked to be alone more often,
to begin to build himself a cocoon against the early darkness of the winter months. Not a physical cocoon, of course, more a way of absenting
himself from the cold to come, the curtains of rain that would sweep
the city, the fog and then the bare whiteness of the mountains when the
sun—all too infrequently—shone.
There was another city in which he still lived, a city which he now
knew only from the slow accumulation of email in his inbox. Singapore was different from Vancouver, built on a flat island linked to the
southern end of a continent by a sunken causeway, a few green central
hills standing in for mountains. No creeping cold here; no wild seasonal
abundance. You submerged yourself in a bath of warm air, in nature
prolific but parsimoniously pruned and trimmed, carved into hedges or
channelled into watercourses, reservoirs, and drains. In this city, space
turned in on itself. If you found a jetty and walked out on it, you'd see
only ships, water, the smudge of low islands on the horizon. After a few
moments, you'd find yourself turning round, looking back at the city
itself, the tall buildings that crowded out the hills. Even the fishermen
and their kind were invisible. Service workers cleaned throughout the
night and then vanished to dormitories in the daytime; migrant construction labourers built huge buildings screened from the public eye and
returned to their places of origin before the scaffolding was taken down.
Yet there were traces of their presence, if you cared to look. Not noticing
them was a habit of mind. After a time, you no longer saw the dark figures trimming the plants on the expressway, the domestic workers who
sat just outside the circle of the table at family meals.
Kian found it easy, three years after leaving this city, to rebuild it
virtually inside his head. He could imagine a walk from the government
61 housing complex in which he lived, taking the well-groomed pathway
that ran between blocks of flats like a crack between paving slabs, out
onto the road outside, then following the grey pillars of the subway line
to the nearest station, where he would board and watch each stop go past
him like the pages of a photo album until he reached his destination. The
effect was like gaming on a console: everything was photo-perfect but
crisply defined, a little too clean to be quite real. And here there were
no monsters to fight, no obstacles to overcome, only the slow unwinding of the ground beneath his feet. Each time he imagined a journey, he
thought of a different destination, and eventually arrived without effort,
without incident.
He'd anchored this connection by subscribing to email groups from
the city: some with enough traffic to constitute virtual communities,
others silent for days, only to burst into life in a spate of urgent announcements. He was a lurker, skimming daily but contributing nothing,
sometimes opening each message and studying each report intensely, at
others browsing and selecting interesting headlines only. On days when
he was pressed for time, he'd taken to deleting new postings en masse, yet
he was always reluctant to do this. Among the messages that bubbled
constantly into his inbox were a few personal ones. Banks or companies
that had somehow found his address, of course, but also the occasional
queries from friends, or the twitchings of the tentacles of a largely migrated family. He liked to read these, and yet when he came to reply he
found the task burdensome. It was like trying to write in a long-forgotten
language, dragging him back into involvement in a world he now only
wanted to watch from a distance, like a tank full of brightly coloured
fish. He replied with terse, reluctant messages, and most of his revived
conversations soon lost animation again, sputtered and then died away.
On that particular September evening, there were fewer messages
than usual, and so he hunched in front of the laptop screen, scrolling
through them one by one—a talk at the museum on the bank of the
downtown river, a protest meeting against an upcoming execution in a
modest hotel, a promotional offer for a new bistro in a part of the city
that had hesitated for years on the threshold of gentrification. The next
message also looked like an advertisement: the title was "Friends of Ng
Li Jun: Update." He puzzled over the name while the full message loaded in the view pane; his first thought was that this must be a fan club for a
newly-discovered actress, or a singer, or maybe a support group for one
of the bloggers who'd recently got into trouble with the government. But
there was something familiar about it. He turned to the message pane
and began to read.
62 Hi,
This is Kenneth. I've added a few new names to the list this time. If this is
the first time you're getting this message, you might want to check out the
e-group info at the bottom of the page. To all of you who have responded
and sent cards and flowers, many thanks. Lijun's able to talk now, and
she wants to thank you for your messages of support. If you want me to say
anything to her, or pass on a note to her, let me know.
Kian read on quickly, stumbling over words that were clearly now
part of the everyday vocabulary of Kenneth's messages: metastasizing,
ablation, angio. The email was precise, neutrally phrased, considerate of
its audience, mapping the movement of cancer through Lijun's body. I
don't know you, Kenneth, Kian thought. Are you someone who doesn't
feel, or are you someone who keeps his emotions curled up inside himself like me, always smiling but not smiling inside?
Li Jun. He held onto the name for a minute, feeling memories return
like a slow intake of breath, wanting to extend the moment, to pause
before they came to the surface of thought. Remembering was suffused
with guilty pleasure, like unwrapping chocolate. Even though Jan wasn't
there that night, he found himself looking over his shoulder, making sure
that no one was watching.
A single summer, some ten years ago. They'd both flown from Singapore to Taipei to improve their Chinese to get ready for graduate work.
He'd known her vaguely as an undergraduate, but they hadn't been
close: their decision to rent a room together had been a pragmatic one,
dictated by the difficulty of finding accommodation. On a friend's recommendation, they'd found a place near the Youth Park, a short bus ride
from the city centre. Or rather, she'd found it; he remembered arriving
two days later than her, in the evening, making his way with his clumsy
backpack from the bus stop through the stalls of the night market, so chaotic after the order of home. Yet when he arrived, the apartment seemed
as though it had been lived in forever: she must have rearranged the
furniture, bought or borrowed posters for the wall, a corkboard already
stuck with Post-it notes, kitchen appliances, even bathroom towels. Only
his room was empty: bare tiles, a low mattress, a plastic-skinned portable
wardrobe, and a small desk and chair. Over the next three months, he'd
always be conscious of its bareness in relation to the other rooms. He
worked hard to make his room lived-in, but a feeling of temporariness
always hung over it, as though all its contents might, at a few minutes'
notice, be thrown into a few large suitcases and transported elsewhere.
You know how there's a blissful few days when you both desire each
other? When you're sure of the other person's feelings, but you don't
63 express it yet? When every touch, every glance is woven through with
meaning. You are no longer anxious; you know what will happen. And
yet you pause, like a diver before leaving the board. You know where
you will end up, the arc, the trajectory of falling in love, into the water,
but you still wait, savour the last moment when you have volition, measuring out the weight of your body. You cannot avoid falling, but you can
still decide how you will fall.
He remembered that with her. Not when it happened—perhaps after
a few weeks living in the same flat?—but those moments: together in the
creaking lift, arms full of shopping, their fingers accidentally overlapping
on the lift button, then withdrawn as though stuck through with a needle.
Low light through the frosted glass partition that separated their rooms;
behind it he could see her shape, like a fish underwater, fall and recede,
grow magically and then fade away to nothing. Later, when they made
love, they'd always go to her room, and he'd be amazed at how full it
was of things—old posters, jade from the market, postcards, batik hangings, plump cushions on the bed. Afterwards, much later, when he had a
room of his own elsewhere, in another city, he'd always try to replicate
this richness but would fail. He'd buy things in an initial shopping spree,
arrange photographs, cover surfaces with brightly printed cloth. And
then he'd forget about his surroundings: emptiness would grow in the
room, like mould.
Other memories: the smell of her, like the soap from his childhood.
The way that her legs were very short between knee and ankle. An abbreviation of the fibula and tibia, she'd said. We all have it, in my mother's family. Look: you can pick me out from my school photos. I'm the
one in the skirt with the little legs. And something you couldn't see in the
photographs: a birthmark like a small, brush-painted dragonfly in the
hollow valley of her back.
Afterwards, when they'd gone their separate ways—she abroad, to another city; he back to Singapore—after the telephone calls and the mail
conversations had slowly died away, after her final message to him—"So
what shall I tell this new man? Do I still have a boyfriend?"—he'd put
this all away, filed it on an obscure shelf, neatly, of course, lovingly, but
tightly sealed up. He'd never met her parents or family.
He opened up one more memory. After she had gone. He'd walked
in the Youth Park, over the bridge that spanned the water, the carefully
manicured grass, the small reluctant trees, out of the gates. He'd felt her
come up behind him, as she used to do, touch him on the inside of the
elbow, then slip her arm into his. He felt it distinctly, and then he turned
to her. No one there, only air. Later, his neighbour would say to him that
there were ghosts in the Park, especially in the Seventh month: the Japanese had used it as a killing ground during the occupation. He liked this
64 explanation: after all, what were ghosts? Memories that write themselves
indelibly into flesh, perhaps, like pain from an amputated limb.
And now she was dying. He found that he'd pulled back his right
sleeve, despite the growing coldness of the room, and was pinching the
muscle of his upper arm between thumb and fingers. Memory attached
itself to the body just there—he remembered how his limbs used to fit
together with hers, how his arm would clasp her small shoulder when
they lay next to each other, her back against his chest. An inexplicable
tessellation of flesh, bone, and blood. And yet for her now, something
inside the body turned on itself, cells blooming unexpectedly like weeds
in the darkness, carried away by currents of blood to snag at every turn
of the body, and then to grow wildly again. He felt uneasy, as if the intimacy of recollection was a further contamination. He deleted the other
messages, showered, and went to sleep.
In the next few days, he felt a gnawing restlessness. He taught his
scheduled classes at the college, letting student discussions go on a little
longer, more formlessly than usual; he held office hours, began marking
a stack of papers that had accumulated in the mailbox. On Wednesday
evening, he went out to see a movie with Jan. They ended up over at her
place, spilling red wine on a comforter which they then proceeded to
fight for during a noticeably colder night.
At work and at home, he found himself logging on to his email at
every possible opportunity: it was almost a compulsive disorder, like
cleaning a surface on which no dirt remained. Nothing from Kenneth.
He had at first thought he should take action, and sat down to compose a
message to be relayed to Li Jun, but words were recalcitrant, refusing to
come. A couple of days later, he typed a brief acknowledgement, thanking Kenneth, wishing Li Jun well, asking to be kept updated.
The next message arrived on Thursday night, sandwiched between
an advertisement seeking Caucasian children as models and a link to a
series of theatre reviews. Again, Kenneth's clipped, precise prose. An
initial apology to his audience for not writing sooner, followed by an
explanation of how busy he'd been. Kian still found it puzzling to know
who Kenneth might be. Obviously, someone who knew the family well.
Not a brother, clearly—he referred to the parents as Mr and Mrs Ng.
Surely not a husband or fiance: he was too restrained, not proprietal
enough. Yet thinking about Kenneth was a form of procrastination, Kian
realized—the way you stand waist-deep in cold water, waving your arms,
delaying the shock of plunging in.
A deep breath and he dove below the surface. She seemed to be recovering well but now she's developed an infection. The doctors don't know where it
came from-you know how it is in hospitals. She's conscious for most of the time,
65 but she finds it difficult to speak. There's some internal bleeding, somewhere in the
body.. .Her mouth fills up every now and then with a mixture of blood and mucus,
like the filling ofAngKu Kwei—you know, the peanut one, how it gums up your
mouth—so the nurses have to clean it away. She's in intensive care now, so Tm
sure you '11 understand that we can't have many visitors. The illness has been a
long one; she has fought very hard... We can still hope. Whatever your religion,
you may wish to remember her in your prayers during this difficult time.
He knew the hospital where she was warded. She was in the star-
shaped, pink new building which he'd visited frequently towards the end
of his grandfather's life—not on the same floor as the geriatric medicine
ward, but then again all floors were identical. And so he could visualize
entering the building from the taxi rank, floating, disembodied, up the
two flights of escalators, past the clinics, the shop that sold curry-puffs,
the crowded food court, to the parallel columns of waiting elevators. The
elevator doors closed with a click, like a bell struck once; he'd keep his
eyes focussed on the floor as they ascended the tower, stopping at what
seemed to be every floor to embark and disembark new passengers. On
the eleventh floor, the door would open to a lobby, glass windows looking out over a hazy cityscape. He would pass two small children playing
in determined oblivion by the water fountain; the ward door to the right
would open automatically with a rush of air onto another corridor which
he'd follow, past the pantry and the nurses' station, to the pastel vinyl
and wood veneer of a closed door. But the door to her room always
remained shut. He could visualize an empty room—the layout of the furniture, the elaborate controls of the bed, the sensible couch for visitors,
even the small, framed fragments of china that decorated the walls. Yet
he could not place her in it, could not see her visitors, the busy nurses,
the family conferences held in whispers outside, the rhythms of life that
ebbed and flowed around her unmoving body.
He gave up. This time he found it more difficult to sleep.
The next morning, he decided to act. He should call her parents. He
mentally counted out the time difference: sixteen hours ahead. Best to
call the parents in their morning, perhaps, before they went to the hospital, but not early enough to wake them. So he should call at about
five o'clock. No teaching today; he drank strong coffee, worked his way
through a stack of student papers, pacing himself, three at a time. Before
lunch, he went for a run on the beach, past the old seaplane dock, the
yachting centre, along the pathway by the beach looking out over the
North Shore. The tide was recessed, revealing acres of mud; container
ships floated, copper-red in the harbour, dwarfed by the mountains behind. He ran slowly, keeping within himself. On the way out, he listened
66 to a randomly-downloaded podcast—a plummy BBC voice described
penguins in Antarctica struggling to maintain their habitat on a diminishing shelf of ice. At the cafe on Locarno beach, he paused, stretched, and
then began the return journey, feeling his feet crunch on the grey gravel
of the pathway, listening out for the cyclists surging past him, like ghosts,
from behind.
The podcast finished, and he found himself rehearsing what he might
say on the phone. Lijun's father was fully bilingual, he remembered her
telling him, her mother more comfortable in Mandarin or Hokkien than
in English. It would be better to reach out to her in Chinese. The first
part was easy—the formalities of greetings that you learned very early,
and which never left you.
max? mm, vmx. m^^iom^mM. m/±&-M^m.
S;fl"Efeirr^fj"{fc o o o Mrs Ng? My name's Kian Boon. I'm an old friend
of your daughter's. I live in Vancouver now. I called because...
But here he paused. How would the conversation continue? He needed to find a way in, past the wall of formality. Like when you're out on
the Sound, and you come to a boom of chained logs. You nudge with the
boat, seek for an opening that you cannot see—a link left deliberately
open so that a beam can pivot back, like a clenched arm, in the still water. He could not think of how he might find it, this way into the intimacy
of family.
He returned, showered, hung around the apartment, picking at marking and at lunch, making brief excursions to buy a newspaper and milk,
yet returning quickly, as though held by an invisible tether. When he
eventually came to call, the process was somehow reassuring—the thick
weight of the cordless phone in his hand, the recorded voice messages as
he navigated his way through the calling card menu; the scale of tones as
he entered the numbers on the keypad.
A pause. Then, he could hear the phone ringing in another living
room, half a world away. Once, twice, three times. Then a scuffle, the
sound of a breath exhaled; in the distance, a Teresa Teng song. A woman's voice.
"Bg? Hello?"
""il?" he mouthed back, lips opening wide, like a fish.
""{!?" She was more persistent now, more suspicious.
He opened his mouth. He wanted the words he had prepared to
march out in a procession, but there was only emptiness, only air. A
pause, and then a clatter: the tap of fingers, maybe, on a marble table-
top? He heard her call out for Lijun's father to come to the phone. His
breath was trapped, extended over thousands of miles.
Approaching footsteps.
"Bk?" she said again.
67 He spoke with effort.
"XTd^^>   JTthTo  Sorry, wrong number."
He put down the phone.
On Friday, he went over to Jan's again, bringing offerings—wine,
fresh fish and vegetables from the store. They cooked together with less
humour and a growing domesticity. Then, for the first time, she told him
of her frustrations at work, chopping onions with venom, scraping scales
with a blunt knife as though they were a carapace over her boss's skin.
This again was something new, if not entirely unexpected—a confirmation of growing intimacy. And yet listening to her, tasting food and wine,
looking out over the lights of the city, he was aware of a persistent itch of
dissatisfaction. I do this more these days, he thought. Others talk, I listen,
echo back, empathize, using skills that I've never needed to learn. And
yet I'm less interested, less hungry for confessions.
"It's so good to be able to talk to you about this," she said finally. "You
don't mind me venting, do you?"
Of course not, he assured her. And yet somewhere inside himself
he knew that this wasn't true. It's not that I mind listening to you, he
thought, but I want you to listen to me. Listen for my sound.
When they went to bed, her fingers were thankfully warm under the
covers. When they made love, he was always surprised by the determined angularity of her body, the concentration she took in controlling
pleasure, climax, release. The bed was by a window, looking out over
the city: when he woke at night, he felt that he could step out onto a
ground of frosted stars. The comforter had shifted sideways, one corner
protruding between them. The coldness of her hands now. He burrowed
next to her for warmth, but never quite found a way for their bodies to
fit together. And the smell of her body: Cinnamon? Almond?—always
something he couldn't quite locate—exotic, entrancing, but unfamiliar,
not everyday. Something that would never be his own.
The morning was bright—sunlight through open curtains, joggers on
the seawall. No ghosts here. She shook out her hair. "It's a great day," she
said. "Want to look at the salmon stream?"
He remembered the hatchery on the North Shore: square tanks, the
heavy-nosed, penned fish. This was different, she told him. This was
real. After coffee, they drove out in her car up the valley, suburban malls
gradually flattening to a narrow strip of farmhouse-studded fields framed
by mountains on either side. She drove for half an hour or so, then
turned off the road. Soon they were in suburbia again; they passed a
White Spot, a small mall with a credit union, insurance agent, and funeral home, and then she turned into a parking lot surrounded with trim
privet. "Over there." She pointed to a path next to the hedge, got out,
68 and gestured to him, impatient.
The air outside was cold. He closed the car door reluctantly, listened
to the central locking click shut, then followed her. At first he doubted
that it was a salmon stream. The setting was impossibly domestic—a
thin trench of water that cut through the turf of gardens and back yards,
skirted the sidewalk of a suburban street and vanished into a tiny, well-
groomed park. Here there was a small bridge, and they could lean over
the tubular steel railings and look into the creek. The water was shallow, its surface uneasy, scored with traces of underwater snags that occasionally broke the surface. If he looked upstream, the low winter light
bounced off the water and turned it silver-grey, as opaque as the towers
of the city. But directly down from him it was transparent as air, flowing
over logs and other debris now cloaked with a velvet of silt.
"Look," she said.
She was standing on the other side of the bridge, facing downstream,
where the creek deepened into a tunnel excavated between the trees.
She pointed. A grey fish, moving sluggishly, just at the place where the
surface of the water began to break into lumps of light.
"More like a catfish," he said.
They moved along the bank to get a closer view. The single salmon
swam slowly, its dark body blotched white with fungus. Every now and
then, an unseen current of water would catch it unawares, slide it a metre
or so downstream; it would struggle with an ebbing undulation of the
body to regain position.
"Look," she said again. "At the bottom of the river."
He saw them in dizzy revelation; the floor of the creek was tessellated
not with logs but with dead fish, shrouded in the fine grey silt, already
receding into the riverbed. The snags that broke the surface were fins, or
flanks picked through to the bones by hungry birds. In the outer world,
decay, but in the cold folds of the stream only suspension, a gradual
fading into the comfort of the riverbed. The salmon bodies were stiff,
stacked on each other like logs on a fire. They puzzled him, as if there
were a pattern to them, a regularity that he could not quite grasp.
"Like a cemetery," she said.
When he took her fingers in his hand, he noticed how pale the skin
was—translucent, broken only by the chocolate-brown of a mole.
This is what life does to you: it catches you up in its rhythms. Saturday
and Sunday with Jan, all those mundane domestic tasks still deep-dyed
with the warmth of novelty when done together. It was only when they
returned to his apartment to pick up clothes that he half remembered:
he felt a renewed restlessness, as physical as an itch. He wanted to go to
the computer, hear the hard disk grumble to life, open the inbox and
69 then scroll through the messages. Yet he was buoyed up in the moment:
he had almost forgotten what he would look for there. Another life
claimed him now, brushed thinly but persistently like watercolour over
the blankness of memory. The ache of muscles after the gym; coffee in
the mouth over slow brunches; sunlight through hemlock on trails high
into the North Shore mountains. Another weekend opened and then
closed. On Monday, he taught classes again, returned in the afternoon to
the disorder of a neglected apartment.
More emails. A ladder of messages that climbed endlessly up the
screen. A walking tour of the museum district, a performance art piece
at a converted shophouse. The last posting on Caucasian models had
generated a frenetic discussion on "race." He traced it, from a sharply-
worded first intervention, an escalation of conflict, to the moderator's
humorous deflation, and agreement by all parties to agree to disagree.
He saw Kenneth's messages early on, but left them until last, three islands of bold type in a long stream of discarded headlines. Then he
clicked on the most recent one.
Dear Friends,
I regret to transmit you some sad but not unexpected news. Li Jun passed
away at about 12.00 noon today. Her mother, father, and brother were
with her. The wake will be held at 44Jalan Simpang and the funeral
ceremony will be at Mount Vernon on Saturday at 12.00...
Kenneth, he thought, you've outdone yourself.
He remembered again. Once in Singapore, when she was in England,
when they'd still kept their connection alive, he'd taken a bus to the
west of the island, walked by her parents' house. It was set in an estate
built for public servants in the 1970s. Then, he imagined, it had seemed
remote, almost on the frontier of the advancing city. Now it was part of
a middle-class suburb, crouching beneath the towers of public housing
that had sprouted behind it. He loitered unobtrusively at a nearby bus
stop, as though waiting for the next bus. From his vantage point, he could
read a history into the house. There were confident, early additions—a
brick wall at the foot of the front garden, and a porch for the car—all
to accommodate affluence and a family which grew in tandem. There
were later additions, also—hole-in-the-wall air conditioners wedged into
improvised gaps in upstairs windows, a room extended awkwardly out
over the porch. And after this, after the children had left home, perhaps—nothing. The fruit trees and flowers in the garden, the wild guava
and the bougainvillea, grew with a barely trimmed abundance. The car
in the driveway was a small Honda Civic, old but well-maintained.
He'd tried to reconstruct the house of her childhood then: the cool
70 mosaic floors which her mother—and later she herself—would have
mopped clean, the heavy metal-framed windows always fastened open,
the iron-grating twisted into wavy lines and the outlines of flowers. He'd
summoned up cooking smells, the taste and texture of barley water in
the mornings, drinking the syrup and catching the puffed grains in his
teeth. He was trying, he knew, to map his own past onto hers. But her
past might have been very different; he had no way of knowing.
Now, with Kenneth's letter before him, he tried another form of reconstruction. The space of the house would be turned inside out: the
coffin in the front room, awnings with round tables underneath them,
like water lily leaves encroaching on the surface of the lane. At night,
after work, shoals of friends would gather to pay their respects, and then
stay to talk, drink the packets of water and melon tea, chew nervously
at peanuts and gourd seeds between the walls of white wreaths, heavy-
smelling flowers. There would be the usual family disputes: was she a
Buddhist, Christian, or freethinker? Chants and prayers would compete
over the coffin until it departed on its last slow journey.
Sending condolences was easy. He searched Singapore websites,
found a florist, chose a bouquet, typed a brief message. Credit card and
contact details, then a final touch on the mouse. Done. In a few hours,
he knew, they'd email back. Just to check, Mr Kwek. You want the flowers
delivered on Friday, on the last day? We can send them earlier, you know, then
everyone will see them. And he'd reply, no, you don't understand me. I
want them to come very late. She'd understand that. So as few people as
possible see, just before the wreaths are all taken down, when the undertakers pick out the most beautiful flowers to place on the coffin.
He sat for a few minutes at his desk. The heat of the apartment bothered him. I can't stay here, he thought. I need to go out. And there's still
time. I can walk out now, on the September beach, before it gets dark.
The weather's clear; I can look out over the still water, the huge ships
silent, like logs in the inlet, the black wall of mountains beyond. I'll walk
on the sand by the sea's edge, the jetty in the distance, its fishermen like
cutouts against the beginnings of a sunset. The water there will be as
opaque as beaten silver, or mirrored glass. I won't even try to see beneath. As I walk, I'll pull my elbow away from the side of my body. Just
a little; like that. I know that she will come. I know that she will touch me
just here, on the inside of my elbow. I know that she will take my arm.
71 Jada-Gabrielle Rape
create me
dark black tea,
salt water salmon, rain forest air
jagged rocks jut forth, and let it be known
her name is Maxine
she is my mother
and my tie to my people
stoke the fire,
move deliberately through two rooms
and tell me I'm home
her name was Frances
she was my auntie and she gave me
my brothers in the Indian way
hug me hard before you drive away in your smoky old car
walk quietly in my memories but keep hope for some future
together, right now I still don't forgive you
or any other way of saying, she is my sister, Lisa
and she too creates me
teach me to tie tobacco bundles
and teach me again
tell me between rounds a girl sits like this and
touch my shoulder when you speak
pick medicine in all territories, take in broken children
Auntie Anna, know—you are always home
72 open your door and scowl expectantly
at the world, and when it's me
open your face and say words
somehow soft to your ears
Where's your mom? then spread the door wide
let in fresh air and Ohh Shuh! Auntie Dot
give me a hug anyway even if I've come alone
I've come to make peace
these salmon-women create me
saltwater women, xwelmuxw, my teachers
create me
73 Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
dreaming of the garden of
eden
In the old days back home
when a woman got tired of her man
she'd make him take whatever he could carry
and send him back to his mama's house
Now      women smile for the camera
as the state photographer snaps a picture
Lipton's tea garden
has cut down the mountain
The Export Processing Zone throbs
like a heart punched out of a country
I sit in Toronto and Brooklyn reading about these women
checking books out of the library till they are too overdue to return
I want all of this to be       in my silent father's memory
choked by the amber liquor that choked many of us
arrack became Johnnie Walker in the countries we moved to
maybe these women are in his memory    the same way they're in mine
carried in my blood's thick water
We were the one Sri Lankan in Las Vegas, Worcester Mass, Lancaster CA
like a bad joke no one's ever heard
We were one of the thousands after '83
surviving cargo holds and refugee camps
Our aunties snapped at all of us
"You are Canadian! American! British! You can never..."
74 go back
to this island       shaped like a tear
There are reasons why everyone says no place
is as beautiful as home
This was where the Garden of Eden story came from
this green on green
was where paradise was
my appamma's house filled with bullet holes
this earth dreaming memory
women who still smile
only when they want to
There is no paradise to go back to
just this place
rich and sharp as raw gems
75 Contributors
C. Durning Carroll was born in New York City and was educated at Vas-
sar, Emerson College, and Boston University. He is now completing a PhD
in British Romanticism at the CUNY Graduate Center. He recently met and
married a wonderful Canadian, and now resides in Toronto. Recent work
can be seen in Brooklyn Review 21 at www.tarpaulinsky.com, and is forthcoming in The Boston Review.
rp chow lives in Vancouver where she periodically scratches paper with ink.
Her work has been published in the anthology With a Rough Tongue: Femmes
Write Porn.
Xujun Eberlein grew up in Chongqing, China, and moved to the US in
1988. Her work can be found in AGNI, Story Quarterly, Meridian, Stand (UK),
Saint Ann's Review, and is forthcoming in The Walrus. Her work has received
various literary awards and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
Gabe Foreman is compiling a poetic encyclopedia of different types of people. Maybe it will become his life's work. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.
Dorothea Griinzweig is a German writer and translator who lives in Finland. The poems translated in this issue are from her third and latest collection, Glasstimmen lasinddnet (Glass Voices lasinddnet), Wallstein Verlag, Gottin-
gen, 2004, for which she received the Christian-Wagner Prize for Poetry.
Philip Holden teaches literature in English at the National University of
Singapore, and has been a permanent resident of Singapore for a decade. In
the last twenty years, he has also worked and studied in China, Taiwan, the
United Kingdom and the US, punctuated by three periods in Vancouver, a
city which remains close to his heart.
Doretta Lau lives in New York, where she is working on her MFA in creative writing at Columbia University. She is a member of Speaking Of,
a Vancouver poetry collective.
Marfa Rosa Lojo, born in 1954 in Buenos Aires, has published three books
of poetry, including Esperan la manana verde (1998) from which the present
selections are taken. Her prose, representative of the so-called "new historical narrative," includes the novels La pasion de los nomades (1994) and Las
Libres del Sur (2004), and the collection of short narratives Amores insolitos de
nuestra historia (2001).
76 Spencer Matheson, originally from Vancouver, now lives in Paris. He is
working on his first novel.
Steve McOrmond's first book of poetry Lean Days (Wolsak and Wynn
2004) was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. A second
collection entitled Primer on the Hereafter is forthcoming this fall. For more
information, visit www.stevemcormond.com.
Julie Morstad graduated from the Alberta College of Art & Design in 2004
with a BFA. She lives and works in Vancouver and divides her time between
drawing, illustration, animation, and design.
Leonard Neufeldt, literary and cultural historian, has published four volumes of poetry. His poetry has appeared throughout Canada and the US.
His work has also appeared in India, the Far East, and Europe. Recently,
he has been engaged with two volumes of cultural history, published by the
Heritage Group. He was born and raised in Yarrow, BC.
Jada-Gabrielle Pape is Coast Salish from the Saanich and Snuneymuxw
Nations. In the summer, she gardens, and in the winter, she walks in the
rain—it's probably all so that she can wear gumboots. She recently learned
how to knit so that her kid can say, "My mom made it."
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer Sri Lankan writer, spoken
word artist, and arts educator. Her first collection of poetry, Consensual Genocide, is forthcoming in 2006 from TSAR Books. She is a frequent contributor
to Bitch and Colorlines magazines, and has been published in Thirdspace, Lodestar Quarterly, big boots, Fireweed, and in the anthologies Colonize This!, With a
Rough Tongue, Without a Net, Dangerous Families, and Geeks, Misfits and Outlaws.
She is currently collaborating on Blood Memory: A Sri Lankan Storytelling
Project. For more information, hit her up at brownstargirl.com.
Ingrid Ruthig lives near Toronto. Her work, which won the 2005 Eden
Mills Writers' Festival literary competition, has appeared internationally in
publications including The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, The Antigonish Review, Event, Magma (UK), and in translation in Europe. A chapbook, Synes-
thete II, was recently released by Littlefishcartpress. She is completing her
first collection of poems.
Brett Alan Sanders is a writer, translator, and teacher living in Tell City,
Indiana. His short prose and poetry has appeared in New Works Review, The
King's English, Spectacle, The Journal ofGraduate Liberal Studies, and Insights. His
novella, A Bride Called Freedom, was published in a bilingual edition (English
text with Spanish translation by Sebastian R. Bekes) by Ediciones Nuevo
Espacio (www.editorial-ene.com). He is also the co-winner of the University
of Southern Indiana's 2005 Louis Schewe Essay Award.
77 Jill Sexsmith lives in Winnipeg where she is a communications student attending Red River College. She completed her BA(Hons) at the University
of Winnipeg in 2003. She is currently working on a novella and short story
collection. Her nonfiction has appeared in paperplates.
Anis Shivani's poetry manuscript, Treasonous Times, is available to interested
publishers. Work appeared recently in The Antioch Review, The Iowa Review,
The Times Literary Supplement, Pleiades, London Magazine, Wasafiri, Meanjin, The
Hollins Critic, Denver Quarterly, and Colorado Review. A novel, The Intruders,
about Americans caught up in contemporary South Asian turmoil, and a
new collection, Anatolia and Other Stories, are in progress.
J.R. Toriseva is the recipient of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference scholarship and the Mary Merritt Henry Prize in Poetry.
Derk Wynand has published ten collections of poems, most recently Dead
Man's Float (Brick Books, 2002) a collection of fiction, and several books
translated from the German of H.C. Artmann and Erich Wolfgang Skwara.
His translation of Dorothea Griinzweig's first book, Mittsommerschnitt/Mid-
summercut, appeared in a bilingual edition published by Buschek Books in
2002.
Tiphanie Yanique is from the Virgin Islands. She is fiction editor of Gulf
Coast and contributing review editor with Calabash. Her writing has appeared
in Sonora and Global City Review and is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review,
Cream City Review, and Callaloo. She has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in literature and creative writing, the Mary Grant Charles Award for
fiction, the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Tufts University Africana
Prize for Creativity, and fellowship residencies with the Callaloo Writers
Workshops, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and the Cropper
Foundation for Caribbean Writers. She is now a final year MFA candidate
with the University of Houston. She teaches creative writing and has recently finished a novel.
78 ?
The Creative Writing Program at U.B.C.
The University of British Columbia offers
both a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and
a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative
Writing. The M.F.A. degree may also be
taken by distance education. See our
website for more details. Students work in
multiple genres, including: Poetry, Novel/
Novella, Short Fiction, Stage Play, Screen &
TV Play, Radio Play, Writing for Children,
Non-fiction, Translation, and Song Lyrics
& Libretto.
Lynne Bowen
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Keith Maillard
Maureen Medved
Andreas Schroeder
Linda Svendsen
Peggy Thompson
Rhea Tregebov
Bryan Wade
Faculty
Online Faculty (M.F.A.):
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Please visit our website:
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44:3
Like the beaches of our youth, grain by grain,
we are washed away, deposited elsewhere.
-"So This Is Goodbye" by Steve McOrmond, Page 10
C. Durning Carroll
rp chow
Xujun Eberlein
Gabe Foreman
Dorothea Griinzweig
Philip Holden
Doretta Lau
Maria Rosa Lojo
Spencer Matheson
Steve McOrmond
Leonard Neufeldt
Jada-Gabrielle Pape
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Ingrid Ruthig
Brett Alan Sanders
Jill Sexsmith
Anis Shivani
J.R.Toriseva
Derk Wynand
Tiphanie Yanique
GENUINE
CANADIAN
jy
MAGAZINE
Cover Art:
Untitled
by Julie Morstad
1 7EQ0b " flhBbl '

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