Kim Cheng Boey reviews Burning Rice by Eileen Chong
Reviewed by KIM CHENG BOEY
In his last collection of poems Nearing a Horizon, the pioneer Asian-Australian poet Ee Tiang Hong refers to his emigration from Malaysia as an act of severing “the cord straight through/ in one brave stroke, and then forget, / or else the heart will fray.” Despite the resolution to forge ahead, Ee cannot resist looking back, having spent a good half of his life in his place of birth. This is the fate of adult migrants; they are ruled by the reflex to look back, “even at the risk of being mutated in pillars of salt,” to use Salman Rushdie’s words. But this looking back stems not so much from nostalgia as from a need to negotiate the complex overlay of memories and stories, and the binaries of old homeland/adopted country, past/present, self/other. This is not nostalgia that is mere “longing for something to be as once it was”; rather it entails what beel hooks describes as “a remembering that serves to illuminate and transform the present.”. And we have ample evidence of this in Eileen Chong’s assured and moving debut “Burning Rice.”
The poems here are informed by what James Clifford calls “the empowering paradox of diaspora,” which is “that dwelling here assumes solidarity and connection there.” They ride the creative tension between countries, cultures and languages. With compelling lyric grace and courage the poems negotiate the dialectic and liminal spaces that have opened up on the migrant’s map, exploring the uncertain ground and shifting spaces between the new country and the world left behind. Family history and relationships provide the references points for re-orientation to a different landscape and language, and for the rewriting of a self that is no longer whole, but splintered, partial and plural.
At the heart of “Burning Rice” are delicately and meticulously crafted meditations on the complex web of attachments, loss and longing, so rich with imagery and narrative that they transcend the poet’s own ethnic, cultural and regional background. Here are portraits and stories rendered with snapshot clarity and compression, revealing a hard-won integration of heart, mind and soul. The title poem demonstrates Eileen’s ability to endow a quotidian act or event with lyric significance, as well as her superb control of the form, a lyric restraint that lets the imagery or the tableau resonate endlessly, rather than seal it with a single meaning. “Burning Rice” turns culinary failure into an exquisite meditation on roots and heritage, and the Confucian sense of tradition and filial piety that can be a crushing burden. Rice preparation is a delicate operation, requiring the right measures of patience and love to produce the right texture and taste, and thus forms a fitting metaphor for the poet’s craft. Eileen has served out a delectable helping of it here: the ritual of rice planting and harvest (including a folk song that all Singaporean children knew by heart) and cooking are compressed with admirable economy into a striking and pithy emblem for the task awaiting the migrant writer, namely, to transplant the seeds of heritage across spatio-temporal borders and “polish each dark grain into pearly white.” The concluding image of the charred rice as “black gold” represents not so much the poet’s inadequacy as the enormity of the task involved: how to translate the weight of ancestry embodied in the poem as a bowl of “ashes” and the long lineage of filial connections that the poet has betrayed with the act of migration, into a new narrative, in a foreign culture and language.
Food, cooking and eating are inextricably linked to identity in any culture, but perhaps more so in the Chinese. Lin Yutang asks “What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” To be sure there is not a single echo of patriotism in Eileen’s collection, which crosses borders and celebrates hybridity and plurality, but food is a key theme here and hunger a chief impulse shaping these poems. With their associations of nurturing and sustenance of mothers and grandmothers, the alimentary and culinary motifs do not merely reproduce the recipes and dishes so longed for but also evoke the complex processes of remembering and forgetting that underpin the poems. Memory is an alimentary act, ingesting, digesting and assimilating, mediating between what is outside and what is within, between that which is past and the here and now. In the poem “Mid-Autumn Mooncakes” the mooncake, a symbol of family union and filial connection in Chinese culture, ironically evokes the alienation and disconnection the migrant feels, and the haunting last image, has the memorable compression characteristic of the best Tang quatrains: “My bowl, a cradle of bright congee/ full of the gold of the mid-autumn moon.” The poem “Grandmother’s Dish” ostensibly reconstructs the recipe for a signature Singapore dish, but in an subtle and oblique way it evokes the grandmother’s authoritative presence in the kitchen, her voice so palpably recreated in an imperative chain set in tercets: “Ask who wants to ear. Don’t forget the sambal./ How to make sambal? That’s another dish. Today/ is Hokkien Prawn Mee. Eat now, while it is hot.” There is a sureness of touch that is able to distil the past and a loved one in a recipe poem. It is testimony to the saving and transfiguring art of memory, or what Benjamin calls “the Penelope work of recollection.”
There is much more in this slim volume besides autobiographical and familial themes. The Chinese migrant’s rediscovery of heritage and culture is enacted beautifully in the Lu Hsun poems and the dramatic monologues involving iconic women in Chinese cultural history. These fresh interpretations of Chinese history illustrate Ien Ang’s observation that Chinesesness has become an open signifier, susceptible to translation and reinvention wherever the Chinese find themselves. Transplanted into transnational contexts such as Eileen’s collection, and in her deft and astute hands, Chineseness acquires an exciting hybrid and mongrel guise.
These are not just homesick poems and poems of reconciliation. They are also poems of praise for the everyday, and praise, as Rilke says, is what matters. They breathe a measured grace, and wear an elegance that reflects a hard-won balance of image, form, emotion and thought. In concluding I should perhaps avoiding labelling it Asian Australian, seeing how the particulars of experience are rendered so vividly as to transcend ethnic descriptors, but it is a quietly powerful collection offers ways of seeing Asia and Australia in arresting and new conjunctions, and demonstrates how different origins and traditions transplanted from Asia have generated new and different ways of being Australian.