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ABOUT CHINESE WOMEN

Suicide without a cause, or silent sacrifice for an apparent cause which,
in our age, is usually political: a woman can carry off such things without tragedy, without even drama.
— Julia Kristeva

 

I

 

I return to a former self,
ghost or shadow self emerging from a glimmering light;

 

Woolf’s ‘luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end’

 

Life as circularity,

inevitable return to a womb-like space,

a space of the maternal?

 

Where do the dead go after they die? What nether region do they inhabit?

 

Where did the Hakka people come from? Peripatetic tribe from north-east China.

 

She comes from people without a home, or fixed position. She is condemned and doomed to wander looking for her place in history.

 

I conjure up the past, delving into the recesses of unknown memory and time.

 

I am returning to the source. The original source. The point of all our origin. But these origins go further back beyond Western tradition, beyond the story of holy innocence fabricated in the myths of Adam and Eve, and the notion of a God the father. And it does not reside in the maternal womb either, that place of warmth and nurturance, which begins with love.

 

I invite mystery. I return to our innate energy, excavating deeply layer upon layer of our consciousness.

 

I breathe in the light; I inhale deeply and exhale…

 

Where is the point of our origin?

 

I am digging deep. I have to go further than the surface of things, back through space and time.

 

I uncover hidden treasure buried for centuries, and carefully retrieve it for future purposes.

 

Filtering through the coloured papers of memory, those delicate, fragile and carefully processed pieces of our past and history felt in my bones and body.

 

In the beginning there was the Word. And the Word is me. My words become me, and I become the word, a flurry of mixed phrases, half-spoken sentences, articulate in their gibberish.

 

I try to find the language that defines me, become a whirling dervish, caught up in a veil of spinning letters. They fly around me, and I try to catch them.

 

In the beginning there was the Word.

 

I am the signifier, the signified, signifying everything and nothing.

 

Once, I danced myself into a trance to find my grandmother’s spirit.

 

When I felt it, my body shattered into tiny fragments.

 

Syncope – an absence of the self, time faltering, head spinning with a sudden vertigo.

 

Silent grandmother, guardian of secrets, please speak to me.

 

And when the repressed return to reclaim themselves, it will be terrifying.

 

 

II

 

A black-and-white family photograph taken in Hong Kong. The year is 1957 or 1958? My mother doesn’t know exactly. There are three generations of Hakka people in the photograph – my grandparents and their children, my grandfather’s brother and his family and my great-grandmother.

 

Hakka means guest families. They are nomadic migrants, renowned for their fortitude and resilience. In the nineteenth century, in clan wars against the Punti people, they built walled villages to protect themselves. My mother tells me how hard they worked all day in the fields growing rice, sweet potatoes, yams. There was no gas, no paraffin. They worked under the sun all day until it went dark. They sold their crops. The name of the area they lived in was Kuk Po. It was inhabited by seven clans – Sung (宋), Lee (李), Ho (何), Tsang (曾), Cheng (鄭), Ng (吳) and Yeung (楊). Today, Kuk Po is an abandoned village, inhabited by many ghosts. The town borders the Frontier Closed Area…

 

Three women sit in the middle of the photograph. In the centre, the matriarch – my great grandmother sits. In front of her, she parades her favourite grand- son, my uncle.

On her mother’s lap, my mother is a toddler, looking at the camera with bewildered eyes.

My grandfather, who I hardly know, stands as a young, handsome man. My grandmother gazes at the camera with seemingly sad eyes but she is difficult to read. Is she angry, troubled, distrustful, resentful? What is it that flickers beneath the surface, caught in this singular moment?

 

I can see my aunt’s features in my grandmother, her big, round eyes, her wide nose and full lips. All the women are dressed in dark clothes, the men in white shirts, the children in a mixture of traditional dress and Western clothes and what I find interesting about the photo is that the women are placed in the middle. No-one is smiling; even the children look sombre. It’s as though some- one has died. And someone will die, two or three years after this photograph is taken – my grandmother. She will take her own life and leave her children behind. An eternal mystery; unreadable cipher. From generation to generation, an irretrievable grief, an irrevocable loss reverberates.

 

My mother will become motherless at the age of three or four, she will inherit a wicked stepmother but earn the guilt-stricken love of her grandmother trying to make amends for her sins. My mother tells me how her grandmother really loved her and saved an apple only for her every day. No one else had an apple, only me.

 

Mirror, Mirror on the wall. Who is the fairest of us all?

 

Do you remember her, Mammy? What was she like?

 

Like you, I remember many things from childhood. I can still remember seeing her foaming at the mouth after she drank the weed killer. I think she mustn’t have drunk very much because she could still walk home back to the village. They tried to ferry her across the harbour to the city, but it was too late. Of course, she died.

 

Her body lies somewhere in an unmarked grave on the beach in San Tao. No one knows where she is buried. In recent years, my aunt bought a shrine for her in a cemetery in Hong Kong.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a poet, editor and critic. She was born in Bebington and grew up in Liverpool. She is a fellow of The Complete Works programme for diversity and innovation and a Ledbury Poetry Critic. Her poetry and criticism are widely published in magazines and journals including Poetry LondonThe Poetry Review, The TLS as well as in the Bloodaxe anthology Ten: Poets of the New Generation(2017). Her debut poetry pamphlet is Kismet (ignitionpress, 2019). Currently, she is an AHRC-funded doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Liverpool and received a Northern Writers Award for Poetry in 2020. Her second poetry pamphlet La Mystérique (2022) is published by Guillemot Press. She is a winner of the 2022 Women Poets’ Prize.

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