#835 Songs for crossover Mamas

My yt mama
by Mercedes Eng

Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2020
$16.95 / 9781772012552

Reviewed by Grace Lau

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As I read through Mercedes Eng’s poetry collection, my yt mama, I found myself in a liminal space that is rarely explored in the stories in mainstream culture. How many stories about “yt mamas” and Chinese fathers do we see on TV screens, bestseller lists, and least of all, the readings that schools assign? Until recently, just having a Chinese person play the lead in a movie was itself a groundbreaking development.

Mercedes Eng

I was very curious about the book when I first heard about it. My own relationship with my mother is complicated, tense — and also, how many poems can you really write about your mother anyway? But by the time I finished my first reading of Eng’s book, I was reminded that yes, many people could probably write about their mothers forever, and still find new perspectives and revelations every time they revisit their childhoods.

As someone who grew up in Vancouver, in the city (not the country), with both a Chinese father and mother (no yt mama or yt grandmama), it is a bit surreal to read these poems that seem so far removed from many Canadians’ comfortably familiar conceptions of Asian-Canadians. For Chinese-Canadian readers in particular, neither Crazy Rich Asians nor Kim’s Convenience will prepare you for how my yt mama reaches from one edge of the diaspora to the other, to wake you with a gentle slap to the face.

A Chinese CPR construction camp, Kamloops, 1886. Photo by Edouard Deville, Library and Archives Canada

my dad broke out of prison and ran to Medicine Hat to grandpa, whose antique store was right across the street from the CPR station that was built in 1906 and expanded in 1911-1912 to accommodate the city’s growing population.

How many of us immigrant-settlers, Chinese or not, can say that we are familiar with this part of Canadian history?

And yet, the Chinese labour that built the Canadian Pacific Railway is not a secret. We know whose bodies laid these tracks. We just know nothing about them, not because these stories were untold, but because they went unheard.

Mercedes Eng with her parents. Courtesy Geist magazine

In “rice,” Eng describes the escapades of her paternal Chinese grandmother, “the first girl in her fam with unbound feet.” This poem in particular is such a strange and wonderful kaleidoscope for the Chinese diaspora. There are little fragments that we all recognize from our own family myths — an aunt who plays mah-jong for money all through the night and then comes home at 4 in the morning, an uncle who adores Johnnie Walker Black, a grandfather who was an incorrigible gambler, a grandmother who was a legendary Cantonese opera performer… only for Eng, these pieces all come together to form a portrait of her formidable grandmother, who seems to have done it all.

It is a loving memory crafted efficiently and beautifully in six and a half short lines.

There are other mother figures too. There are poems, “songs,” dedicated to her friend Audra’s Métis mother and grandmother; because in the diaspora, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a few mothers.

But the desire — and struggle — to reconcile her Caucasian-Chinese identity comes through most beautifully in the last song in this series: “a song for my yt mama.”

Eng’s love of hip hop (and basketball, as we’ll see later on) provides yet another window into how she perceives her identity: “me and Tupac, cradled in amniotic fluid / the first time we entered the walls of a prison / Tupac’s mama was a Black Panther who resisted the system / my mom is the system.”

Tupac and lyrics for “Dear Mama” (1995)

The general definition of privilege is relatively simple. But the way in which it works in our lives — not so much. Tupac’s “Dear Mama” is a beautiful acknowledgement of his mother’s hardships raising him as a single Black mother on welfare. Eng says simply that she wishes she could write a song like “Dear Mama” for her own mother. What is said without words is that she cannot. It is a painful place in your heart to go, to acknowledge that you love your mother but that you cannot write as beautiful a song as what Tupac wrote for his mother. But then again, it’s Tupac. And then again, Eng wrote not a song, but an entire book that is as heartbreakingly honest and loving as “Dear Mama.”

And if there’s a culture that’s intertwined with hip hop, it is almost certainly basketball culture. In the last poem, “my body,” Eng juxtaposes many poignant paradoxical comparisons to describe her body. Now, this is not altogether an uncommon device for writers to use, but as an interracial person, Eng’s body itself inhabits two worlds — and makes this an actually powerful and meaningful approach.

Allen Iverson’s crossover on Michael Jordan, March 1997

There are quite a few comparisons that make you go “Oh, wow,” but my favourite by far was the callback to Allen Iverson crossing over Michael Jordan (I’m not sure if Eng meant to refer specifically to AI’s signature move, the crossover — in which the player moves from one side to the next, and sometimes back again with ease and speed — but I’m going to say yes). Not only does Eng write her body as literally crossover, she then juxtaposes her body as Ben Wallace’s (halting, terrible) free throwing shooting form and also Ray Allen’s (graceful, legendary) three-point shooting form. If you’ve seen the bodies of either player as they shoot the ball (or if you have the chance to, do it), this visual lends a whole new layer to the poem.

Mercedes Eng

One of the beautiful things about a mother-centric book is it’s almost certain that you will relate to it on some level, in some way. Not exactly like Eng’s relationship with her mother of course, but it will make you think of your own relationship with yours. Good or bad, close or estranged. In “the crazy things my mother told me when I was a kid,” one of the book’s longer poems, Eng shows how our mothers’ lessons echo in our minds well beyond childhood and take on a life of their own to a degree that they probably didn’t even expect. Sometimes, adults say the darnedest things.

Unexpectedly, my yt mama is also a valuable history lesson, one that you will never find in a textbook in school. In fact, one might make the argument that students would find much more value — and truth — in their readings if we just replaced their textbooks with anthologies of the work of Canadian poets.

In “the places we come from/1,” Eng takes the reader on a journey through the places she comes from. Not only the history of her parents’ interracial relationship, but also the history of the land — which, literally, is the place she comes from. She picks up this journey in “the legend of the craft brewery of medicine hat,” which will perhaps make you take another look at the craft bro who’s at the helm of your favourite brewery.

If there’s one idea that comes up time and again in Eng’s examination of her family, it’s that interracial relationships aren’t a miracle cure-all for racism or ignorance, and it would be foolish to expect that of them. Families are difficult. Love is difficult. Eng has shown us that what we can do is look at our families with a critical yet compassionate eye — and that difficult things are worth doing, and can be done.

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Grace Lau

Grace Lau is a Hong-Kong-born, Chinese-Canadian writer living in Toronto. Her debut collection of poetry is forthcoming from Guernica Editions in 2021. Find her at gracelau.space and on Twitter at @thrillandgrace.

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The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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