One of the biggest things I love about the Chinese language is muscle memory.
If you write anything enough, your hand remembers how to write it. With the Chinese language though, to write anything well, you have to remember how to write it.
With the rise of technology and the pinyin system, it has become much easier to type out Chinese words, as all you need is the sound. But the physical act of writing out the language remains deeply tied to the action of your hand, and the memory of each stroke that makes up a character.
I think my poetry is often about memory, because it is about language.
More specifically, my poetry has often been about trying to do what the Chinese language often does to me – viscerally, emotionally, spiritually, even physically – in English. My aesthetic, tone of voice, and distilling process is very much informed by what I know of the Chinese language, and how it works.
I only recently came to this realization overtly, that my poetry was a series of failed attempts to do this. I wouldn’t call it translation. It seems more like a desire to bridge a gap, to find a sense of cohesion between languages that will never meet, but yet, are always meeting in me.
One of my more consistent habits is the Chinese writing practice. I was trained to write in Simplified, but was so enamoured with Traditional that I taught myself how to unlearn the former, and relearn the characters in Traditional form.
Since then, I often doodle by rewriting the same word over and over again. Some days I choose a particularly dense word, like ‘籌’, and practice it part for part until I can condense it into a proportional size. Other days, I write song lyrics from memory, or copy them out in their entirety, to get into the habit of full sentences, and a fluidity of transcription.
To me, exercising muscle memory is practice for better poetry.
I need to keep these words, because it’s so easy to lose them.
Not only that, I need to grow, and learn new words, new meanings, new sentences, so that my poetry will grow.
Last summer I read Murakami’s Kafka by the Shore in Chinese – which, even in English is a colossal undertaking. It took me 3 times as long, but I managed to finish, and comprehend.
Part of my personal decolonization process is to restore the centrality of the Chinese language to my learning. It is something that has been streamed out through Westernized education, internalized racism in me, and the people around me.
I used to want my poetry to come from a neutral speaker, and by neutral, I really meant White North American preferably.
Although I don’t think peppering my poetry with clear Chinese symbols, and images is the answer, I do think that recognizing this relationship in my languages is a huge step forward for me.
I also recognize how long it took me to get here, and how far I still have to go.
But this process has only confirmed the role of writing in my life: whether or not literary journals accept my work and publish it, whether or not the language/image/ideas are accessible to a reading public. At the very least, for me, poetry as decolonization is another step in not just survival, but living fully.
I am grateful, to have my poetry.