Home and displacement sit side by side in Chinese Fish. Inhabiting multiple perspectives, Grace Yee’s polyphonic verse novel follows a family suspended between two cultures over two decades, from their resettlement in New Zealand from Hong Kong in the 1960s through to grief and loss.
These themes are common in diasporic literature. What sets this work apart is its daring approach – it leaps across genres and forms, sometimes on a single page. Seen primarily through the eyes of mother Ping and daughter Cherry, these lives unfold vividly, from running a rat-infested fish shop to Cherry’s coming of age. Chinese Fish is at once poetry, prose and essay; elements of experimental zine-making sit alongside more traditional writing techniques. Consistent punctuation, spacing and capitalisation are cast aside as Yee gleefully skewers convention.
It bears some formal similarity to another Giramondo book, Anwen Crawford’s No Document, which challenged its reader to interpret the text by providing multiple ways of reading: blank pages or variations in capitalisation that suggested a new order or secret meaning to be deciphered. Yee intersperses the family’s thoughts, conversations and experiences with news clippings or academic and historical details in a slightly lighter text colour. The different text sometimes bookends a paragraph, revealing a hidden sentence. These passages can be read straight through or in separate sections – the reader’s choice transmutes their meaning.
Absences force the reader to fill in the blanks. Yee’s prose is punctuated with Chinese words, sometimes immediately translated but often not – there’s a glossary of terms at the book’s end but there’s something wonderfully subversive about allowing the ideograms to sit alone, unintelligible for the non-Chinese gaze. It brings to mind an essay in the Aotearoa New Zealand poet and writer Nina Mingya Powles’s 2021 collection Small Bodies of Water, which deconstructed the ways in which Chinese ideograms are built while keeping some – including the title itself – untranslated.
As Yee details the family’s struggles in a white society – and she does so quite viscerally, particularly in passages that emulate voices of the dominant racist mindset, with lashings of orientalism – these fragments of culture are a guard to keep them safe, something just for them.
Visual language comes to life here, too. As the children leave for school for the first time, eight pages are filled with a wallpaper of two Asian children: boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl… The effect is like a Magic Eye puzzle, inviting the reader to look closely and strain to see what is behind the image. The text leading up to the onslaught of images reads:
children know not
one word of English
when they begin school. The transition would be
so much easier if their parents made
the effort to expose them to our language from
infancy. It is difficult,
however, because the majority of them insist on sticking
to their own kind.
Coupled with this dehumanising commentary, it’s a striking way of presenting the characters’ simultaneous experience of belonging and alienation. It is used again when Baby Joseph, a bloodthirsty infant, is shown holding a stake, shielding his siblings from the racist taunts of their neighbours (“that summer joey’s meat cleaver tantrums were so famous the macallister boys didn’t dare ching chong us again”).
This playfulness is evident as well in Yee’s written language: during a caesarean birth, the mother’s “flesh gives way like a ripe avocado”; characters eat “soup and fuss”; the first prickles of teenage longing manifest in “insides fizzing like yeast”. This food-related imagery winds through the text and around the central setting of the fish shop. It’s fortified by menus, catalogues and advertising that punctuate the prose in different font sizes, blurring the lines between domestic and work spheres. Food plays a communal role in many immigrant families, but its use as metaphor can often feel hackneyed. Yee avoids this fate with a light touch that is equally irreverent and affecting.
Broken English becomes another linguistic tool. Cherry, impersonating her mother, writes a letter apologising for her absence at school due to “the new moania”. Elsewhere it serves to highlight loneliness, as when Ping cleans the house frantically while awaiting her absent husband: “use the vacuum cleaner try to SUCK all the bad thing out”. The fractures in a familiar language draw out the sense of otherness experienced by the characters in their new country, while also becoming a dialect of their own – Ping’s voice, in particular, is distinct and memorable.
Place and time are subtly cemented through pop culture references, particularly in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Cherry comes of age: her schoolboy crush has “hair like Leif Garrett”; when she hangs out with her new friend Delia in a graveyard after school, they’re “Cathy-and-Heathcliff zombies”. These nods, used sparingly, place the teenage character in a setting separate from her parents and siblings. It’s a splintering of worlds that is further highlighted when Cherry dissects rats in science class – the same creatures that scurry across the shop floor.
Chinese Fish is a layered and thoughtful work that reveals more through multiple readings. Its challenge and pleasure is discovering different pathways through the looping narrative – finding new windows to peer into, to see something unexpected.
Giramondo, 144pp, $26.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "Chinese Fish".
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