introducing "the nation of aphasia"

I was grateful to receive an award for a poem I wrote about china, the country I was born in, and one I am eternally curious about. it is a place I have come at from a distance, to engage it in conversation, to listen to its stories, its music, and to learn from its seemingly eternal wisdoms. some of my most precious poems have been written with its hand— on the 43rd floor of my uncle’s apartment building in harbin, upon the curb of my grandmother’s house in beijing, in the yellow dust of shandong province, by the banks of the yellow river, looking over shanghai brilliant at dusk, and half-drunk on sweet wine in hong kong. there is no assigning a writer to a singular ethnic literary identity, but in my poems about china, I am proud to be associated with an incredible history of artistic legacy, and am full of thanks for my country, as I know it, to be read, to be spoken to, to be heard.

that being said, the nation of aphasia was written in the aftermath of a case in which five hong kong publishers and booksellers gradually vanished in the winter of 2015. gui minhai, lee bo, lui bo, lam wing-tee, cheung jiping. they were involved in the production and distribution of provocative literature, utilizing the unique “one country, two systems” policy of hong kong-mainland china relations to publish books that would be banned under chinese law. but despite the obviously political nature, this piece is not a call-to-arms. it is not a manifesto. ultimately, it stems from my curiosity and hesitant love for the country I was born in. bao pu, another publisher and victim of the chinese crackdown on “sensitive” literature, said in an interview that he has no ambition to save china. I, too, have nothing so noble to aspire to, but my intent is to give voice to what could go otherwise unsaid. to witness how days pass in china, to be released from presumptions, to deviate from subservient ideologies, and ultimately, to bring a country to coherence, so that we may reach some understanding. this poem did not come out of a desire for justice—a falliable thing—but out of the necessity for scope, some vision. so that one day, perhaps even china, who has remained so silent and so impenetrable for so long, may too open her mouth, and speak.

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听到了我写的一首关于中国的诗收到了奖,第一个情感就是荣幸。中国是我的出生地,一个让我永远充满好奇的国家,也是一个我是从远处接近的地方。写关于它的诗的目标,就是想跟它谈话,听它的故事,音乐,并从它的永恒智慧中学习。许多我最珍贵的作品都是用中国编的;在我大舅的哈尔滨公寓43楼,在我祖母的北京房路边,在山东省的黄色尘土中,在黄河的岸边,在黄昏时看着上海的辉煌, 在香港的甜酒上半醉。 没有任何一个作家能够分享一个单一的民族文学身份,但在诗歌中,我很自豪能够与这么难以置信的艺术遗产联合在一起。能让我认识的国家被阅读,让她发言,让我们两的故事都被得悉。

话虽如此, 《the nation of aphasia》是在2015年底写完的。在那个失密的冬天,五个香港出版商和书商逐渐消失:桂敏海,李波,呂波,林榮基,張志平。他们参与了生产和分销挑衅性文学,利用香港独特的“一国两制”政策出版中国法律禁止的书籍。但尽管明显的政治性质,我的诗并不是一种檄文。不是宣言。其实,它是用于对我出生的国家的好奇心和犹豫不决的爱,写出来的。鮑樸, 一位出版商和中国打击“敏感”文学的受害者,在一次采访说过说他没有拯救中国的野心。我也没有任何高尚的渴望;我的目的是吧那些原本无法解释的事情说出来。见证天是怎么过得,让这个国家从推定中释放出来,偏离屈从的意识形态,让我们可以对方了解。这首诗并不是出于对正义的希望,是出于联系必要的景况,愿景。所让有一天,甚至是她,中国,保持如此沉默了这么久,也可能会张开嘴,说话。

 

you can read the nation of aphasia here

What we did: love. We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention.
— donald hall, "the third thing"

on immigration

it is entirely possible for an immigrant to talk about immigration objectively, but why should that matter? despite the dispassionate character of laws and regulations, there is an argument to be made in that emotions should wield only limited sway as a determinant of policy, but that argument is entirely redundant in our current conversation on immigration. we do not resolve sensitive issues by disregarding the reasons we are sensitive to them. this is not an impossible conversation to have. this is not even a difficult conversation to have. it is simply, to use a defeated word, complicated. in order to engage with and understand immigration, one has to be open to complexity, inconsistency, and deadlock— precisely what frustrates us about emotional matters, and tempts us to disregard emotion in favour of logic or exactitude. 

it is difficult to be on the receiving end of media in times like these. the dismal updates keep coming and coming. people express their revolt and distaste in adjacency with updates of their lunch. newsflashes endlessly propagate images and descriptions of the same cruelties until we have lost our taste for them. all the language of reports and accounts serves as variations on emotional manipulation— crying mothers, abhorrent conditions of containment, children in cages, endless bureaucratic incompetencies. we feel hurt. angry. distressed. despairing. and yet, these feelings motivate some to reject and protest zero-tolerance immigration policies, and some to defend them.

I am an immigrant, and I stand with immigrants and refugees not simply because of some personal sensitivity to their stories and plights, but because I am invested in a world that does not measure worth by nationality. because I believe that the return for wanting to live should be life.

homogeneity is a natural preference for humanity. we find it easier to empathize with people who look like us. we form automatic kinship that can be associated with familial intimacy. we find it easier to trust people within our ethnic communities. these are all biases that can be overcome, and they do not determine our behaviours, but they do influence them. interracial conflict is something that may never dissipate, even with a significant portion of the global population touting acceptance and equality. from a national perspective, however, comprehensive acceptance and equality are luxuries that do not compare with the urgency of having to manage the financial and independent well-being of a country. adopting a mass number of refugees or immigrants into a country will force that host to diminish other capitals, at least in the short term. it will be an arduous process. it will be costly in every definition of the word, and it will be worth it. if it teaches us to live alongside one another, that alone would be worth it. if it proves our capacity for compassion, that would also be worth it. if it increases the vibrancy and brilliancy of our culture and our society, if it boosts the economy, if it improves infrastructure and modernizes the state, that would just be a bonus.

I do not speak for all immigrants, but the victims of america’s current immigration policies are not people who have left home on a whim, or to take advantage of america’s presupposed wealth. they may not even be there in search of some vague american dream. we know why they left. we know why they arrive by the thousands, in ramshackle boats and in threadbare clothing and in grief. accepting them is not a kindness, it is a responsibility. 

I am an immigrant, and I know other immigrants who support strict immigration policies. some of them are my parents’ age. we worked hard, why shouldn’t they? some of them are logical. the country can’t accommodate them all. we need to look after ourselves. some of them have no logic. borders exist for a reason. and of course, some of them are just racist. 

when I say responsibility, it is not only a moral responsibility, but a literal responsibility. america is the perpetrator and sponsor of enough violence and horror overseas that it is now indebted to welcome and harbour every individual whose lives have been affected as a result of american errors. the idealistic response to the immigration conversation is that the countries from which people are fleeing should be made habitable again, but those changes cannot come from force or invasion (masquerading as aid or so-called peace campaigns). for the country that has been at the epicentre of global politics for the last century, and that has abused that power to harrowing ends, this is america’s chance to owe up to its debt. 

it cannot be ignored that american-born citizens have things they feel the need to protect. it is not unreasonable that some feel threatened. I would like to comfort them by saying that an immigrant or a refugee will never have an easier life than they do. an immigrant never removes the question mark from their status. an immigrant never assumes home. an immigrant will encounter, all throughout their life, people who resent them for simply being there. 

but they will be reminded, then, that they have a life, and they will be grateful. 

I would also like to ask them about the kind of country they feel is being threatened. if it is a country that operates with the methodology of ruthless erasure, of privilege over decency, of nationhood over humanity, I would say that it is not worth protecting at all. 

“what was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?” 
- omar el akkad


 

movement song

by audre lorde

I have studied the tight curls on the back of your neck   
moving away from me
beyond anger or failure
your face in the evening schools of longing
through mornings of wish and ripen
we were always saying goodbye
in the blood in the bone over coffee
before dashing for elevators going
in opposite directions
without goodbyes.

Do not remember me as a bridge nor a roof   
as the maker of legends
nor as a trap
door to that world
where black and white clericals
hang on the edge of beauty in five oclock elevators   
twitching their shoulders to avoid other flesh   
and now
there is someone to speak for them   
moving away from me into tomorrows   
morning of wish and ripen
your goodbye is a promise of lightning   
in the last angels hand
unwelcome and warning
the sands have run out against us   
we were rewarded by journeys
away from each other
into desire
into mornings alone
where excuse and endurance mingle   
conceiving decision.
Do not remember me
as disaster
nor as the keeper of secrets
I am a fellow rider in the cattle cars
watching
you move slowly out of my bed   
saying we cannot waste time
only ourselves.

poetry, translation, china

recently I've started working for spittoon collective, a literary magazine based in beijing. spittoon publishes the work of contemporary chinese poets in english translation, and has released three phenomenal issues thus far. 

translation is an imperfect art form, and in its deficiencies we find something curative. in the gaps between languages there is a foreground of delicacy and a background of conflict, and through this navigation we are able to arrive at the thing we look for in text. we arrive at truth. truth various. truth contradictory. truth that evolves and alternates alongside us. poetry is essentially translating the internal language, and it’s pointless to ruminate over that something “lost” in the process of translation. the indistinctness of consciousness to the solid, graspable elemental language— is something lost there? of course, but we hold on to what we have. 

without the chinese language I would have never found poetry; it has always been the visual, sonic, and sensual qualities of my mother tongue that led me to search for the same in english. I've harboured a deep curiosity about language since I knew of its existence. pouring over the beijing newspapers that my mother used to line the dinner table, threading through the maze of handwritten notes, practicing stroke orders in rows of boxes, learning how to fit my tongue around the four accents-- stepping into my inheritance, my ownership. it is a journey that will never end; there will never be a final destination at the foot of this 6000 year old language. I continue to grow into words the same way I walk through the days; with an ever-widening sense of wonder. it is why I devote myself to poetry, because it continues to thrive in the same method of inquiry, trying to use the most powerful tool we have to truly understand everything we only merely know.

so it is with the greatest pleasure that I am now able to participate in the most valuable trade I know. between my origin and my present, the east and the west, I hope that you are able to find words that legitimize the world they are born in. the poetry of china is golden and ripe with harvest. I urge you to take what it has to give, to find the voices that burst out shining, to learn boldly from it, and to use it to fuel your own perpetual curiosity.

visit spittoon collective

I never thought of my gift—I have to say “my gift” because I believe it is a gift—as anything that I did completely on my own. I have felt from my boyhood that I had one function and that was somehow to articulate, not my own experience, but what I saw around me. From the time I was a child I knew it was beautiful. If you go to a peak anywhere in St. Lucia, you feel a simultaneous newness and sense of timelessness at the same time—the presence of where you are. It’s a primal thing and it has always been that way. At the same time I knew that the poor people around me were not beautiful in the romantic sense of being colorful people to paint or to write about. I lived, I have seen them, and I have seen things that I don’t need to go far to see. I felt that that was what I would write about. That’s what I felt my job was. It’s something that other writers have said in their own way, even if it sounds arrogant. Yeats has said it; Joyce has said it. It’s amazing Joyce could say that he wants to write for his race, meaning the Irish. You’d think that Joyce would have a larger, more continental kind of mind, but Joyce continued insisting on his provinciality at the same time he had the most universal mind since Shakespeare. What we can do as poets in terms of our honesty is simply to write within the immediate perimeter of not more than twenty miles really.
— derek walcott, the art of poetry no. 37

books read in march and april

1. VERSO'S BOOK OF DISSENT
      since I've finished this text Iʼve kept it close at hand. as a reminder that justice arrives in the form of rebellion, as reference (and in deference) to the warriors who came before us, and as inviolable proof that language is our sharpest weapon and our deepest sol$ce. in the words of liu xiaobo, it is more dangerous to stop peopleʼs mouths than it is to dam a river.


2. A SEVENTH MAN (JOHN BERGER AND JEAN MOHR)
    how does a book grow younger? the seventh man looks through various scopes at the economic demand of migrant workers in 1960s europe, yet why does this text continue to speak so resonantly? how has our fundamental structure of labour failed? that the development of one country actively seeks the underdevelopment of another? what does it mean to work? to sustain a social hierarchy? here, fifty years and unimaginable rates of development/devastation later, the same questions, with growing urgency, beg for our consideration.


3. COLLECTED POEMS (JOHN ASHBERY)
    john berger's verses will always be springtime to me, the very character of green in his study of moments. the way he dichotomizes time and our place within it is a literary performance of magic, and in doing so, joy is borne from ink and paper.


4. ARTEMISIA (ANNA BANTI)
    some books I love because they are beautiful, and some I almost hate because they are so beautiful they force me to confront my own limitations as a writer. anna banti has reinvented the craft. this is a sublime fiction that takes as its subject a glorious woman, and if you have ever had the fortune of seeing one of artemisia gentileschi’s paintings in real life you might just have some idea of exactly how graceful and worthy this book is. 


5. CITY WITH A HIDDEN PAST (COMPILATION)
    it has been a wonder to walk tokyo for hours on end, in some attempt to decipher the code it has woven deep within its construction. this compilation of essays has shed so much light on the various externalities and interiors that compose the ever-metamorphosing library that is this city, and gives compartment to what can be felt, what can be sensed, and what can be known. 


6. HATRED OF DEMOCRACY (JACQUES RANCIÈRE)
    democracy was meant to be the epitome of evolved societal existence, yet today we have seen it warped into a violent and unstable entity that propagates colonization and ignorance in the name of moral superiority. how do we fix it, and is it worth fixing?


7. TRES (ROBERT BOLAÑO)
    poetry is a series of doors we walk though to find the world ever more euphoric, ever more complex, ever more elusive and strange and fathomless. luckily, poets have bolaño to prove it. 


8. HU FENG'S PRISON YEARS (MEI ZHI)
    regarding hu feng, the chinese literary critic who criticised the absence of free expression during china’s politicisation of literature, and as a result was swallowed by the communist prison system for 25 years. meticulous, visual, and strangely careful, mei zhi gives us not only a testament to one of the greatest chinese intellectuals of the 20th century, but also a devastating reveal to how “reform through labour” steadily debilitates an incredible mind.
 

9. BLOOD, TIN, STRAW (SHARON OLDS)
    sharon olds is revered in poetry for her scrupulous awareness of her own female body; one of the only leading contemporary writers to become renowned doing so. the history of literature may be read as a testimony to how the female body and the female consciousness has been sequestered, ignored or openly denigrated. but now we have olds, who broke out writing viscerally about childbirth, motherhood, female orgasms, and all those other non-literary things women were meant to keep to themselves.

urbanity, or, an investigation into the invisible

in the writing of “ornithomancy”, I’ve been considering urban development, or more specifically, the invasion of infrastructure into culture. gentrification comes in and out of this picture, but in a less political capacity, what interests me has been the processes by which we interact with ourselves using the physical mediums of our environments. we generally give little thought to the mundanities of transit and spatiality, yet such specifications are quite literally the containers by which we measure out our lives. from daily commutes to architectural design to the way we create space for ourselves within our set boundaries, a close dissection of our daily patterns reveals the overarching mechanics of an economics that too often underserves the public in favour of unrestrained overdevelopment. in the particular case of beijing’s hutongs, the issue appears to one of preservation, and such is the emotional overtone I’ve chosen to emphasize in my piece, but it is only a partial glimpse at the present urban condition. yes, urban planning often wars with cultural inheritance, but on a bigger scale, it regulates our identities, regardless of culture. instead of seeing our public and private settings as backdrops, we need to consider them as active enforcers of human behaviour. 

 

it is sorrow, yes, when houses are knocked to the ground, when generations are shuffled to city outskirts, when unremarkable apartments rise anonymously. the emotional impact, however, is drowned out by the ongoing drumbeat of advancement. in beijing, the hutongs exist in states of various decay. updates to antiquated wiring and plumbing systems are only the first in a series of both pragmatic and cosmetic renovations necessary to complete the vision of a modernized, cosmopolitan beijing. it’s difficult to rationally complete an argument for the absolute protection of the old city; even certain hutong residents are eager for the slick steel and chrome of urban life. yet…

 

think about your commute to work. you walk or bike, take public transit, drive. think about the things you see along the way. think about where the sidewalk ends, or begins. think about station platforms at certain times of the day. think about the cafe you stop at, the convenience store, the bagel stand. think about the way your individual traffic reports to culminate in a series of statistics that eventually will enable reform. in this, you are a self-propellent being. you’ve figured out the most convenient way to get to where you need to go, and there is little need to think about how these extraneous, commonplace elements are in turn, propelling you. in beijing, there is no luxury of letting one’s environment melt into the background. a traffic jam can last up to forty-eight hours. notions of personal space seem like an absurd dream in train compartments. mobile bike rentals connect commuter to commuter impersonally yet concretely. in every direction of movement one is keenly aware of an interaction; the self vs. the functions of the city. in the cases in which antiquity is relegated to the realm of the inconvenient, we must search our habits of consumption to be cognizant of not only what we are trading in when we witness urban expansion, but what we are receiving in return.

 

when I ask tokyoites about how they feel about the place they live in, their first word is nearly always “convenient”, and tokyo, with its staggering population, is renowned for its negotiation of space. it would be foolish and impossible to compare it with beijing, in knowledge of the two cities’ enormous historical disparity, but in june, as I walked the streets of beijing, I navigated the stone walkways, under green canopies of self-conscious acacias, tried in vain to hail a taxi in sanlitun, and dined michelin in a mesmerizingly modernized hutong, I found myself holding up these two discrepant visions of urbanity, and saw the present turning into the future— uniformity. we champion globalization as a version of compassion, yet there is no stakes in empathy when identities blur all along the grid. in retaining access to our cultures, we need not turn away from advancement, but we need to decentralize our ideals of urban living to singular visions or commercial prosperity. I am hoping that the urban planners of today will consider our cities as artworks. we do not pick up a brush without considering the previous life of the canvas. we remain aware of context, or language, and of intimacy. we stand in front of a painting, and we listen. 

 

you can read "ornithomancy" here

freewrite for an audience on bolaño, on cortázar (or reading project iii)

BY MARWA HELAL

 

an alibi, an archive:

this whole reading project has been an excellent accident. i never meant to read cortázar’s hopscotch in this way, with this depth or intensity. but i had left my job and my mind had some extra space as i opened hopscotch that day in the park. yes, i left my job. one day i decided i was never coming back. my heart decided for me. after some palpitations and yet another bizarre and false conversation with my boss i decided i was done. on some gone girl shit. but back to the reading, it was bolaño i had my eye on, originally. he was the one who was supposed to help me write these cubicle poems. his way with absurdity was the cure to my maladies. he was the one who wrote for the ghosts, the one who was/is (depending on whether you believe a writer lives in her writing) is/was moody as i am. writers like us, we have no plot. but then there was cortázar telling me the same story over and over again like i had been living the same day over and over again in that cube. the grey padding of the walls absorbing all my intellectual potential all my unrealized dreams. and here i am, by lottery, with you: we ended up here. first there was the lottery of birth and then i came to this country as an immigrant by green card lottery. these motherfuckers have a green card lottery while refugee babies wash up drowned at sea. but that’s my next project. consider this part of my archive. when simone said to be mindful of our archives something in me resisted the idea. an archive felt like a performance, like i was supposed to be performing the act of writing instead of living it, being it. but i get it now. some things have happened to me recently that make me want to treat the archive as an alibi. see, ive seen the future, the future needs women’s archives more than anything else. when they cull us, they will see it was never a man’s world at all. so peace to cortázar, peace to bolaño, ive gone so far in the future im lightyears away looking back at all of us, all of the things we wanted but couldnt have. youre stars now. im a planet. they call me mars. and there is life here.

When it rings true, the #MeToo movement is about laying bare power dynamics, giving vent to anger, validating experience. But where it goes awry is where it shuts down ambiguity. We can’t just clamor for the stories, we have to allow room for them to surprise us, and trouble us. Desire thrives off risk, which makes it risky to legislate, legally or socially. We can’t presume to speak for each other.
— lauren elkin, "how french libertines are reckoning with #metoo"

"you eat first, and I'll eat what's left."

january in tokyo, and the first rain of the year. the sky was patting the plastic sheeting of the terrance with fat, soft hands. I chain-smoked cigarettes and felt guilty as I always do, remembering how my mother's face had never looked older than when I opened the door and the smell of smoke arrogantly followed, when she searched my purse for stray lighters.

she had come to visit tokyo in december, and emboldened with the memories of this city's unabashed seduction, I was determined to show her the place that had claimed my devotion. the secret greens whispering in-between erratic topography. the rose-fringe light. the absurd energy of boiling concrete. the defense that one unavoidably builds when home is abandoned for not-home.

it is no secret that love is literally a meal. my mother and I are always on the same side of the kitchen table; she's sitting on the chair sideways, legs crossed, one hand smoothing out the ends of her hair.
 is it good?
 it's great. why aren't you eating?
 you eat first, and I'll eat what's left.

do you know what japanese people have done to the chinese? my mother has said to me, dozens of times. I knew. children battered against brick. men kneeling. red river water. bottles and branches between the legs of girls. I averted her searching eyes. I tried to nod without it resembling complicity. I twisted my fingers, craving a cigarette.

through yanaka, we walked arm in arm. the 3pm sun was vivid and it softened us. I kept my eye out for pomegranates, the gift of winter my local supermarket overlooked, as she took bites from my sesame ice cream. through yellowed sake bars and cornflower-blue ceramics, I could feel her-- some part of her admiring resplendence, even unwillingly so. she, like I, was slowly being incorporated into the magic that--if one allows it--always pervades the body in these moments, alignments of time and circumstance in which one walks as if in cinema, and the air tastes as if someone had tasted it beforehand, and decided against adding more sugar. it's sweet enough.

later that night, she laid in my bed, and said to herself or maybe to me; japanese people really know how to live. there was resignation. bitterness. she would say it again after an afternoon at the onsen, and again, picking up pre-cut green onions at the grocery store. again, sipping impeccably frothed cappuccinos in ginza. the beauty, the luxury, the sheer impudence of this sprawling urbanity seemed an affront to her. I knew she was remembering her hometown. the exhausted traffic. the splayed, vulnerable structures. the chaos of vegetable markets. why do they have these things when we do not, she was asking. why do they have them when we have suffered?

my mother grew up at the end of the second sino-japanese war. when I was four years old, she took me to nanjing. we stood at the memorial museum as it sketched its triangular mark upon our bodies, and she did not take my hand when she told me, this is important. I did not know enough to be afraid of monochromatic photos or steel reincarnations. I could read only one character out of ten of the script patterning the walls, because I had not yet learned the language of violence. we bought a high-gloss book that detailed the stories of the war, and it traversed the pacific ocean as we left china behind. I would read it as a six year old child. I would come across it again when I was eight, then again at sixteen. even if my mother had not told me I would've known. it was important.

when I made the decision to move to japan, my parents were neither surprised nor disappointed. I had been travelling to tokyo for years, had brought back sweets and lipsticks and rolls of film, and was always planning my next trip immediately upon return. do you know what japanese people have done to chinese people, my mother asked and I did not respond. she knew my answer, and I knew that I should say nothing. there is very little space reserved for politics in that house. they tried half-heartedly to change my mind, but they know their daughter. my mother spent the next months trying in vain to teach me how to cook. ginger, anise, the darkest soy sauce you can find. I knew what that meant, and she knew she didn't have to say anything else.

I do not, and cannot, blame my mother for her ideas. she is not enthralled, as I am, by these impeccably maintained streets, by sumida river at sunrise, by this strange and staggering reconciliation of serenity and uproar. she does not come from a place in which one reserves a space for romanticism. yet she has created, from nothing, that space for me. the life I live. the city I love. the reason I feel sorry everytime I buy a carton of cigarettes. you eat first, and I'll eat what's left, throughout thousands of childhood dinners. it is my responsibility as her daughter to live without hate, without resentment. when she tells me something is important, I say yes, I know. and what it means is: I must take everything that you have given to me, everything that you have sacrificed, to not only know, but to know better.

2018

arrival: a human act
so it is that we always celebrate the light
seeming always new despite being tiredly revived
from long, long days passed

still, I am grateful for opportunities
to be new. eternally unready
I measure time still by spring
january by its glitter
love by its colour
and here, always, by where I have been
and the very long way yet to go.