There’s a small problem with Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal’s first book, and while it doesn’t adversely affect her sophisticated and engaging essays, it could discourage potential readers, which is clearly the opposite of what the publishers intended when they packaged the collection 20 years ago. First, the cover has nothing whatsoever to do with the contents and is misleading if not offensive. Then it’s easy to imagine a browser searching the image for a point of entry, or trying to find the moment when the author’s mother “met” Bruce Lee, who is clearly there because he was one of the few Asian celebrities turn-of-the-millennium book shoppers would have recognized.
But then the title story plunges readers into a vivid, even hallucinatory journey behind the curtain in a Chinese-American family restaurant, among Seattle college students’ summer jobs, through ageless cultural conflicts, and into a late-night TV encounter between a mother and daughter finally getting to know each other with an assist from an old martial arts movie. What follows introduces the author’s theme, not really “not fitting in,” but the truly universal experience of trying on identities and the roles that come with them. “We Do Not Live Here, We Are Only Visitors” finds Paisley and her mother visiting Taipei, during which she introduces herself and the key persons in her story, reveals some crucial backstory, and sets forth the basics for what follows. Then, in “Other Women,” her experiences teaching English abroad in Korean and Japanese girls schools builds to her recognition of internal exiles at large, at home in her own country. Finally, in “Hunters and Gatherers,” the largely settled matter of her own identity gives way to awareness of the struggles of others.
As family-of-origin troubles go, Rekdal’s is both novel and credible. Her mother, born here to American-born parents, belongs to a family that, though naturalized, considers itself Chinese. She met and married Paisley’s Scandinavian father while studying in England, so Paisley unavoidably sees herself as part Asian and part Northern European. Her British boyfriend dismisses her feelings of being culturally unmoored by this, pointing out that his family is half French. “I don’t think the Norman Conquest counts, Mark,” she tells him, but can’t make him understand the difference, any more than she can make her mother see that presenting herself as Chinese constitutes just as much being an “imposter” as it would be in her daughter. Her eventual resolution of this dilemma comes in a cascading series of revelations, beginning with an acknowledgement:
Appearance is the deciding factor of one’s ethnicity, I understand; how I look to the majority of people determines how I should behave and what I should accept to be my primary culture. This is not simply a reaction white America has to race. If for the past several years I have become a part of white American it is because it has embraced me so fully, because it is everywhere, because it is comfortable to disappear into, and because the Chinese would not recognize me on sight. Any struggle to assert myself as more than what I seem to be is exhausting.
The form these essays take is refreshingly approachable, each starting with a vividly detailed narrative that gains substance from both conversation and solitary reflection. Poetry emerges from observation, so it comes as no surprise that Rekdal shows as much as she tells about the locations. What she finds is often either unexpected or paradoxical. One thing she must have learned about identity is that what you think, who you think you are, can delay understanding what is seen. Reading her essays today, it’s possible to wonder how much has changed since she wrote them. When China suddenly opened to Americans, it seemed that everyone was eager to learn all about China, go there, even adopt a Chinese orphan baby. Now, after five years of politicians bashing China, that may have changed.
By comparison, her time spent in Japan tells another story: time and again, she is asked if Americans hate Japan for being too successful, or if Americans feel shame for what has happened to their country during their lifetimes. The Japan that emerges is nothing like the one she envisioned when, as she writes, she assumed that because she liked Japanese art, she inherently understood it. “Why does no one feel this way about their own art? Only the art of other cultures?”
Initially, Rekdal seems to have little to say about gender conflict, though it must be everywhere in the times and places she writes about. Actually, though, what the folksinger Joan Baez has said on the subject could probably answer for her as well: “I see the whole human race as being broken and terribly in need, not just women.” On reflection, sometimes long after reading them, gender is like a drum beat or a continuo in these essays. But it’s never a partisan issue. Her mother’s criticism of her boyfriend, or her parents conflicts with each other, are presented as battles she comprehends but doesn’t take part in. Nevertheless, she adds, “the natives are restless under my skin. The natives in me are wild.”
“One of us seems to be misplaced,” she says of her last encounter in her final essay, and then “my hands shake with what feels like exultation.” Her attention called to her camera, she decides to take a photograph: “The thought of forgetting it makes the thing suddenly precious. I need the image preserved in black and white. I need to take the memory of it back home.” After this volume, she developed a form that combines her words with photographs. Her laureate project builds on the concept of a cultural or linguistic map. If Paisely Rekdal is an outsider, then she’s trying to bring the rest of us outside our shelters to share with her a fuller vision of what’s about.
The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee
To celebrate our XX anniversary, 15 Bytes is looking to the past for inspiration. On the last Sunday of every month this year, we’ll be taking a look at a book, by a Utah author, that appeared before we did. If you have one you’d like to suggest, please use the comment section below
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.