James Jiang Reviews To Gather Your Leaving: Asian Diaspora Poetry from America, Australia, UK & Europe

By | 26 May 2020

Relative to their American counterparts, the Australian, British and European poets in this volume are positioned are latecomers. With a tincture of dismay, the editors of To Gather Your Leaving observe that ‘Australia had to wait until 2012 for its first Asian Australian anthology—Contemporary Asian Australian Poetry—while the UK has not had anything as comprehensive and focussed’. In his Cordite review of Contemporary Asian Australian Poetry, Timothy Yu remarked that while this publication was something of a game-changer, it wasn’t entirely clear which game the poets wanted to play. Did they even want to establish ‘a more lasting sense of Asian-Australian literary identity’?

This question still hovers over the selection from Australia in To Gather Your Leaving—by far the most eclectic of the book’s three sections. Works by poets from Adam Aitken to Ouyang Yu introduce an Antipodean perspective that crosshatches the traversals between East and West. Perhaps because of their positioning in the ‘Global South’, the poets assembled here are typically more wary of enclosing personal experience within larger (and perhaps more grandiose) historical and geographical envelopes. Indeed, it is Australia’s very apartness from the atrocities of World War II that forms the subject of Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s ‘The War Came Home’. When Hoàng reflects, ‘“War” is a word I could not form—or did I refuse to utter?’, the refusal is not traumatised incapacity so much as scrupulous reticence, an instinct for moral restraint against bearing false witness. The other side of this wariness is an appreciation of local eccentricities unshadowed by any anxiety about whether such eccentricities will translate to a global audience. It’s hard to describe the thrill of recognition I felt when coming across Maryam Azam’s ‘That Hijabi from Strathfield Girls’, a poem that in offering an ironic take on the vagaries of migrant aspirationalism usefully serves as a barometer of Antipodean poetic ambition. The very title signals a kind of self-possession, an indifference to making oneself available to those without a working knowledge of suburban Sydney and New South Wales’ selective schools (‘You go to Sydney Girls/ and all you want to be is a teacher?’). There’s a sense in Azam’s poems, which engage more or less explicitly with translatability, that such indifference may just amount to a distinctly Australian style of cosmopolitanism.

Some of the anthology’s best city poetry can be found in its final section, which is devoted to writing from the UK and Continental Europe. In the excerpt from Shamshad Khan’s paen to Manchester, ‘Manchester Snow’, the migrant’s predicament of having to audition the city for companionship is dramatised rather disarmingly as a lover’s plea (‘Manchester where do you see yourself in twenty years?/ don’t answer straight away/ … / answer after you’ve decided/that you’ll stay.’) Maya Chowdhry turns a sceptical eye on the honour awarded Glasgow in 1990 as a European ‘City of Culture’. The multicultural promise of ‘dusty rows an’ aisles’ of spices, powder, paste, stuffing mix, rice and tea is frustrated by the poet’s encounter with skinheads, and the poem’s catalogues tend less towards Whitmanian plenty than a Swiftian torrent of urban detritus. There’s a satirical edge, too, in Romesh Gunesekera’s ‘If This Is a City’, a poem that descends from its momentary suspension between Kolkata and Colombo to survey ‘a clownish mini-skyline of dunce’s hats and cones,/ obelisks and domes: a cramped garden of tombs/ interring a century of misadventure’. A more expansive tonal range is at play within the poems of this section. If Gunsekera segues seamlessly between the pathos of dislocation and the bathos of ill-gotten gains, Shanta Acharya screws the lyrical up to a prophetic pitch in ‘Loose Talk’: ‘my verse bitter as neem, divine nectar/ … / an epic Himalayan avalanche,/ submarine volcanoes lighting a ring of fire’.

While there is clearly much to savour in To Gather Your Leaving, it’s difficult to know how best to navigate its store of riches. To turn the editors’ own terms back on them: while the anthology is admirably ‘comprehensive’, it is anything but ‘focussed’. A collection as baggy as this needs a more consistent and heavier editorial touch—not to create a false sense of unity, but rather to bring into sharper relief the eclecticism of its inclusions. For one thing, each individual section would have benefitted from its own introduction spelling out the specific rationale behind its sequencing of poets and poems (and, perhaps, alternative rationales). This would have allowed for an additional layer of nuance and intertexture in constellating a region’s works in the spirit of Ang’s ‘togetherness-in-difference’.

As it stands, the book’s alphabetical arrangement of authors within each section points to an inert encyclopaedism. Such an arbitrary and decontextualising system hinders rather than advances the project of making legible the genealogies and lines of influence running both within and across continents—it flattens the terrain when the main benefit of an anthology as expansive as this one lies in the dramatic unevenness of its topography: the tributaries, valleys and clumpy banks along which readers can plot their own pathways. Having more navigational pointers would not have diminished the volume’s heterogeneity; rather, it would have rendered this variety more serviceable for the project of routing and re-routing the flows and counterflows of Asian diasporic poetry. The turn towards global literature would seem to call for a book with this kind of comparative ambition. But, as with globalisation itself, the consequences of such overreach prove to be both a blessing and a curse.

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