What does it mean to experience a history of trauma and blood in ephemeralities, in residue?
Once, a reader told me that my missives to Mao sounded like love letters, and because I was born to immigrants who fled a country that was shredding itself, I was appalled, disgusted, annoyed. But then I thought: A love letter is something broken, too. It cannot say what it longs to say, it circles around an occluded center, it tries to uncover a history between.
Writers always say that first books try to be everything: We want to imbue our inaugural words to the world with as much of ourselves, as deeply and comprehensively, as possible. When I first started writing letters to Mao in the summer of 2012, I didn’t know where it was going. I wrote to him on days that were full of sun and a bright blue ocean outside my window. I wrote to him on days when the fog was so thick, the world appeared white and ghostly surrounding my apartment. I wrote about the ocean and the feeling of sleep: slow-moving, blurry, immersive but obscured. I wrote, If sleep is an ocean, then it is because we are migrants inwardly sighing along to its many oscillations . . . awash in the knowledge of three: body, bodying, embodied. I wrote about the cosmic trajectories of my parents moving around in my childhood house, about the fluidity of history and myth, about floods and tornadoes and how my father stood watch at the living room window, looking for tunneling cones or roofs detaching. I wrote about the migration patterns of birds, the texture of my mother’s voice, the violence of bodies, the inheritance of tragedy, the angle of daylight through the curtains. I wrote, Our home in the south of the island slept between the ocean on one side, and on the other large dark hills, so I could always know what it was to be at the same time cocooned and ready to arch a distance. I wrote about home-building. I wrote about anger and I wrote about longing.
In these long blocks of lyrical prose, I was following an instinct I didn’t fully comprehend. I felt each address open up a wide field that could contain all the disparate yet overlapping emotions, atmospheres, and histories I had been wanting to hold in one hand. It was like drawing a boundary around a grouping of stars or cupping some water from the sea. The blocks of text didn’t try to parse the entanglements; they allowed the tension between sentences to carry all the absences, ambiguities, and silences I could never before say—how knowledge in an immigrant household so often comes in tides that approach and recede, how there are always gaps and missing ghosts, how all the fear and protection and silence and love comes so mixed together it would be a falsehood to separate them.
Dear Mao, I wrote, If the world, drowsy, were to be washed in a sheen, perhaps we would all have some intuitive knowledge of the immigrant body.
Growing up in Texas, Mao was in some ways like an estranged but unspeakable family member: a familiar face that looked more like mine rather than my classmates’ at school; a name I knew but a body I had never met, like so many of my actual family members. There was no singular conversation but rather an evaporation of allusions: Mao Zedong was the suffering of your family, my mother might say as she plucked steamed pork balls into our bowls. Mao Zedong was the loss of homeland’s soul, as she wiped the tabletop with a wet cloth. Mao Zedong—, she would say, in conjunction with a word that means to harm, to wound, evil, calamity. The sounds of his name uttered from my parents’ lips carried a heaviness I didn’t fully understand but accepted as the cosmology of my home. Less a person, he was more: fact, shadow, air. He was like a ghost woven into the lamplight, the threads of the carpet, the pattern the window blinds made on the floor in the late afternoon. To say I loved Mao would have been repugnant and inaccurate. But to say I hated him would have been inadequate in ways as well. What does it mean to experience a history of trauma and blood in ephemeralities, in residue?
My parents were children who were separated from their families during the Cultural Revolution in the midst of imprisonments, labor camps, and hasty escapes, so history for me was always something blurry, leaky, vague. There was so much I did not know, and even if I asked questions, I never received a straightforward or comprehensive answer. There were pieces here and there—bodies floating in the river, meals of porridge to stretch out food, lost family members—but all of this was interwoven with the rest of my childhood: the sound of my mother’s bare feet on the linoleum, my father telling stories of the Monkey King each night with our stuffed animals, my brother and I chanting rhymes and songs in Mandarin and Shanghainese during breakfast at the table my father built. At some point I decided that either my parents didn’t know much of their family narratives—a lineage misplaced among the turbulence—or they didn’t have the language, linguistically or emotionally, to communicate with me about it. As for so many children of immigrants, their lives came to me in little fragments and echoes that I collected in my palm like rainwater.
Dear Mao,I hope you understand that what I am doing is trying to give you a history of water . . . History as water, so that I am giving you something that spreads.
Mao was loss: of family, of home. But in a strange, flawed way, he also came to stand in for the very thing that was lost: homeland. He was the catalyst for my life in America and therein for the cultural distance between my parents and me, but also, then, for the relative safety and stability of my life here, the ocean of love that my parents recovered in the space of that distance, the constellations and weather they spun inside the rooms of our home. How can I address this colossal specter of history as anything but all of my complicated feelings of anger, curiosity, tenderness, intimacy? What do I want from him when I say:
It is important for you to understand that never once did I long for a different life, which is not to say I never longed for home . . . for although as a child I was often homesick—at school, at the neighbor’s house, anywhere unfamiliar or foreign—I also at times felt an inexplicable longing while inside my own house.
Some nights I dream of subtropical trees and their serpentine branches, but more and more my days are filled with escarpment and carapace scattered across the beach. The shells are emptied, abandoned; they are waiting for history to declare them whole.
Despite their lack of explicit storytelling, my parents managed to hand down their own history lessons to my siblings and me, which were distinct from the history lessons I learned in school. I always knew who Mao was, just as I always knew to clean my plate, to save the rubber bands and plastic bags, to sneak extra napkins at the cafeteria. Mao was a phantom, and like all phantoms, he was sometimes tepid and sometimes looming, appearing and disappearing in the cracks and crevices of our house as the loss and suffering of my ancestral homeland, the brokenness of my family, and sometimes in my child logic all that was sinful about the heart. Dear Mao, I wrote, You were dust in my house. A shadow underneath the floorboards. These lessons of Mao came mixed together with other ones: to be wary of strangers and unfamiliar situations; to keep to myself and carry out my work invisibly; that a home is something one leaves over and over. My parents’ lives and histories, though unarticulated explicitly, have been internalized in the navigations of my body in the world, and in many ways, Mao became a name for so many unnameable apparitions.
Dear Mao, In stories we kept reading, wandering was a punishment, and we were instructed to pity the immigrant, the foreigner, the stranger. But what if the absence of a point of reference is not something to be lamented but a structural foundation on which to build a house we fill with water?
I often think about how some Chinese Americans have a more complex relationship to the history of China than the people who grew up or still live there, as if we are the black sheep of the family, the mislaid children who are always in some way measuring the distances surrounding us. There is a strange sense of estrangement in my body that leads me back to the ocean to count its waves. As I grew older I began learning that Mao, like my relationship to homeland and history, is a fluid and complicated shape. He is an abhorrent dictator to many and yet a revolutionary hero to others. There may have been beauty in his theories and ideals, but there were also bodies in turmoil and blood on stained hands. Fathers can be terrorizing figures as much as they are meant to be kind, so why should I not think of Mao as an odd manner of broken family member, a man and a myth, a perpetrator I would like to look in the eye, confront, rebuke, as well as a lost ghost to explain to, justify to—something to complicate and, yes, even to long for—an absence, a wound, to mourn?
All writers in some way compose love letters to their obsessions. A letter can be a document of deep ambivalences, contradictions, and silences, submerged in the complexities of shared and unshared histories. Or: a longing to locate two disparate points in an expanse of sky.
Jennifer S. Cheng is a poet-essayist. She is the author of House A (2016), selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Omnidawn Poetry Book Prize, and MOON: Letters, Maps, Poems (2018), selected by Bhanu Kapil for the Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She received fellowships and awards from Brown University, the University of Iowa, the U.S. Fulbright program, and the Academy of American Poets. Having grown up in Texas and Hong Kong, she lives in San Francisco. Read more at jenniferscheng.com.