How Hard It Is to Gather the Scattered
Sprawling anthology rewards the selective reader
By Tse Hao Guang
To Gather Your Leaving: Asian Diaspora Poetry from America, Australia, UK and Europe
At a friend's recent book launch, talk turned to ancestral origins. I found myself repeating the story of my being first-generation Singaporean, with my parents themselves first-generation citizens of the different places they came from. I suppose if my future children continue living in Singapore, that decision would represent the breaking of an unintentional family tradition.
Growing up under the cloying embrace of Singapore's immigrant nation narrative (and the US's, too, secondhand), I have come to believe that if there ever were such a thing as an Asian diasporic narrative, it should be the obligation of the arts to complicate it, point out its flaws and impossibilities, and refuse to let it be pinned down. Of the literary arts, furthermore, poetry represents to my mind the ripest opportunity to get away from the idea of narrative altogether, and towards something less tameable—style, influence, spirit. I therefore approached To Gather Your Leaving with hope, but it was the same instinct kindling this hope that also, ultimately, quenched it.
Leaving is a curious anthology, edited by three people based in Singapore and published by a Singapore press, but choosing to define the Asian Anglophone poetic diaspora as made up only of people of Asian persuasion who've settled in what could broadly be called the Western world—America (the US?), the UK and Europe, and Australia (wait, where are Canada and New Zealand?). Even granted the limitations the editors explain in their introduction to the volume, there is doubtless a rich vein of Anglophone poetry emanating from, say, people of Indian descent living in Africa, not to mention poetry from the Chinese and Indian diasporas scattered throughout Southeast Asia, or perhaps the sub-subculture of Filipino poets living in Singapore.
To put it another way, the distance between the northernmost and southernmost tips of India is further than the distance between Indonesia and Australia, which an anthology like this should at least pay lip service to. The absence of a Hong Kong category is especially unfortunate, given that its current turmoil can be seen as diasporic people resisting returning to a home they no longer (or never!) identified with. And grouping poets according to what I understand as roughly "place of origin" is an odd choice for the sort of book Leaving seems to want to be. The cumulative effect of these editorial decisions is to reinforce the narrative that the only or best way for an Asian writer working in English to be recognised, read and anthologised is to get as close as possible to the centres of Anglophone literary production.
That aside, the editors do not explain why they chose the poets they did for inclusion, nor why they chose the particular poems they did. Without such explanation, it becomes almost nonsensical to ask why pioneer Asian-American poet Aga Shahid Ali should be included, but not another foundational figure, Theresa Cha, whose monumental Dictee is even mentioned in Kimiko Hahn's 'Asian American Lit. Final'. Where are Rupi Kaur and Lang Leav, whose (Asian-extraction, Anglophone) poems are arguably the most widely-read today? (Certainly a nonsensical question).
The obscurity of the editorial process adds another dimension to the editorial introduction; the tropes of home, return, displacement, fathers and mothers lovingly and compellingly illustrated there could be seen as themes the editors were interested in and selecting for, rather than emerging organically out of the material as a first reading might cause one to believe. The difference between these two frames of understanding the anthology relates directly to the vexed issue of narrative I opened with. Whose narratives are these, and who is supposed to be the audience? (More unanswerable questions).
Leaving nearly makes up for lack of editorial nuance through sheer volume. Its more than 600 pages contain poems by writers I have found useful, even central to my own poetic practice (Myung Mi Kim, Arthur Sze, Wendy Xu, Ouyang Yu, John Yau, Timothy Yu, and the sui generis Wong May) (full disclosure: I provided the editors with Wong's contact information). It also features poems I enjoyed by writers I had not read before, but whom I knew of (Ocean Vuong, Jenny Xie, Bella Li). And it contains excellent poems by writers who, to my own shame, I had never even heard of (Bhanu Kapil, Gita Mammen, Jane Yeh).
Another commendable decision was to feature at least three poems per poet, and often four or five. This gave what I felt were outstanding poetic voices more space to stretch and add texture, while presumably giving less virtuosic writers the chance to demonstrate the best of their output. There were few instances of full-on disappointment; the writing is on the whole capable, and sometimes compelling, interesting, even moving.
As with any dictionary-sized book of poetry, I recommend approaching Leaving as a repository, reading it opportunistically and selectively, and otherwise mostly admiring its heft on a desk or bookshelf (much like The Penguin Book of English Verse). I, however, had to do the whole cover-to-cover deal, which was immensely fatiguing. By the time I landed in Australia, encountering recurring themes, situations and metaphors felt less like the joy of discovering familial resemblances and more like the suspicion that making your grandmother a symbol of tradition had been cliché for a long time, as even the editorial admits.
In a world of 5G connectivity, cheap air travel, and relatively porous borders, it seems easier than ever for people to move to another place to live, work, or study, much less to encounter a different place through a short trip, or in a game, film or book. So one difficulty I have with diaspora as an artistic category is my sense that physical and cultural displacement have always been normal and unremarkable, at least among the kinds of people I imagine would care for a book of Anglo-Asian poetry. Something more, or sharper, needs to be done with "the diasporic".
A related difficulty is my sense that if diaspora is the pre-eminent marker of displacement, then we miss something fundamental about those who stay, observing a land or culture they thought was "theirs" change beyond all recognition around them. Few poems (notably "An Aboriginal Tale" by Ouyang Yu) consider the possibility that no matter whether you stick around or leave, you stand to be dislocated and scattered. There are signs that people are coming alive to the limits of globalisation; a virus that becomes a worldwide threat precisely because of the ease at which we move about is one awkward symbol of these times.
I had hoped To Gather Your Leaving would have attempted delving into these various contradictions and difficulties. The book's mere existence is a mark of incredible effort; just imagining obtaining rights makes me feel like lying down, much less thinking about how much time was taken to research, proof and typeset it. I just wish more effort were made to consider what an anthology says and does—or doesn't say and do. And far from wanting to discourage the editors, I hope that they continue to consider anthologising a worthwhile activity, and that their next volume will fill the lacunae of this first one. My children, wherever they may have to live, will need it.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020