Tuesday 28 March 2017

Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen poetry review: Ungrateful — A Paper Daughter

Review of Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen's poetry collection: glimpses of perpetual marginalisation

A moving, fairly disturbing, collection of poetry from Hong-Kong-born writer and actor Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen, Ungrateful — A Paper Daughter, takes you deep inside the experience of perpetual marginalisation. All the small everyday unthinking acts of callousness that grind you down are laid bare on paper. It begs the question: why do we do this to each other?

There's lot of pain in each of these short poems powered by a strong voice and a clarity of vision that blasts away extraneous matter to reveal the hard, white glittering diamond at the centre.

Each poem grants a glimpse of what it was like to be a Chinese adoptee in Britain in the 1960s onwards, taken on as a baby by a well-meaning but hopelessly out-of-their-depth white family. How must it have felt never having your inner workings seen or responded to with warmth, and an almost entire absence of the most basic human connection: love. A weaker character might have been driven debilitatingly mad but instead, Lucy uses it to fuel her art, to make us see and experience what this existence is like for the person at the heart of it. Together they roll up into a massive punch.

It's not an unrelenting wave of misery, more a series of vignettes, a shutter opening and closing, giving us snapshots of a unique life. In "China Is Not a Good Place to Be a Bird" she finds herself a murmuration of starlings when she longs to be free, "screeching across the air Like the Feral Cockatoos of Hong Kong".

Even in mid life Lucy is still finding out about tradition and habits that might have been second nature had she not been uprooted at birth. She asks, "Why Do Old Chinese People Hoard So Badly?" and sees fear of poverty or worse in:
" ... a jar of fermented baby mouse wine
Empty jars, a precious commodity
Washed out with care
Ready to receive Chinese herbs
For soup
Deer tails
Dried seahorse broth
Empty chocolate tins
Empty tubs ..."

all waiting to be filled with good things, a bit like the poet herself. Is she perpetually balanced on a fulcrum of unease, of displacement, in the moment before toppling into victory or chaos?

The writing is restrained, allowing us to feel the emotion. You don't need hyperbole when the events speak for themselves, the cumulative effect of a thousand cuts bleeding into a massive whole.

Do Chinese count? Lucy has counted and placed politics to the fore in "Chinese Numbers", a chilling page that takes us through cataclysmic events from the Dover 58, the Chinese migrant workers found dead in a lorry, to the estimated 400,000 Chinese killed by Japanese fascists in wartime experiments.

All those colonialist turn-of-the-20th-century yellow peril slanders are still with us, mutated, morphed into manifestations that are deemed acceptable, often hiding in plain sight. Lucy's poems provoke a deep engagement with the questions with which she's grappling. This marginalising dynamic is real and whipping away like a snake and too much of our energy is wasted trying to work around it. Every once in a while it snaps hold and injects its poison. If the author can wake us up to stare it in the eye and call it what it is, then she has done us all a favour.

Ungrateful — A Paper Daughter by Lucy Chau Lai Tuen is available on Amazon