You know, as a reader, I appreciate when a book sneaks up behind me, pushes me in the back, so I’m thrown into the deep-end. I mean, why tiptoe around, avoid the hard stuff or work up to it gradually? Why not throw the kid gloves away? There’s a respect to this approach that is—uncomfortable, sure, because I am flailing in cold water—but also incredibly invigorating.
I’m thinking of the very first words in Grace Yee’s Chinese Fish, a verse novel following the Chin family in Aoteroa New Zealand from the 1960s to the 1980s. The prelude introduces us to the family members, beginning with Great Grandfather, with the Chinese characters as translation alongside.
1896. They called him slant-eyed celestial oriental mongol yellow peril chow ah fat ah sin ah so alien heathen chinee ching chong chinaman stinky chinky john—he who starched their whites and bleached the shit out of their underwear long after there were no more nuggets to be found in the riverbeds.
Yee’s unpunctuated paragraph is a revealing micro-portrait of Great Grandfather, but also an uncompromising mirror on racist language and power. There’s a sense, too, that the indignity of laundry work is somehow resisted. The ‘shit’, after all, belongs to the ‘whites’, in both senses.
Chinese Fish is a compelling family saga, with so many memorable scenes and phrases—the ‘million-starred hush’ as Ping first arrives in Ōtautahi Christchurch, Baby Joseph’s ‘meat cleaver tantrums’, the dissection of a rat in science class. What stood out to me most of all, though, was the way, just as I was beginning to feel comfortable as a reader (as a white reader), the book kept pushing me back into the water.
After recently hosting a series of workshops, in which I spoke at length about painful literary terms like the ladder of abstraction and psychic distance, I’ve begun to think a lot about flux in writing, the swift transitions between the abstract and the concrete, and how such movements not only offer chances for contradiction, for embodiment, for parallelism and for elucidation, but also for stark and unexpected revelation—in this case those that are disquieting, and as you say, for a white reader, often confronting.
Grace Yee’s Chinese Fish exhibits, at its core, a mastery of this flux. The story of the Chin family is told through multiple perspectives, sometimes contradictory and sometimes complimentary, with shifts indicated through indentations, font-size and voice decisions. Too, Yee uses erased or faded text, as both asides and interruption, constantly jeopardising the account, and the authority giving it, or even recontextualising intimate moments as being clearly informed by anti-Chinese racist policy in Aotearoa New Zealand.
For me, this is where I think Yee takes off the kid gloves. Yee seems uninterested in pandering to a white lens, and there wasn’t a moment throughout the entire book where I thought that Yee fell victim to the pretensions of the typical poet, who can sometimes feel compelled to spill flowery language over meaning or pure feeling. Instead, the work, to me, seems aimed at actually speaking directly to people—confronting as that dialogue might be—in ways that elicit plurality rather than singularity—or, even, dare I say, solidarity. Yee is constantly making the micro the macro, and in turn challenging our own silence, ignorance and complicity, but never in a way that forgives us, and often, as you say, in ways that frequently and potently make fun of the white-y (who wears shit underpants). The language, and the ideas, too, are for the most part, brilliantly simple, and I find myself still captivated by so many elegant and straight-talking lines; one that comes immediately to mind, being when Ping, the protagonist, gives birth to her first daughter, Cherry:
The doctor stings the mother and slices her open—her flesh gives way like a ripe avocado and her heart beats so loudly she fears the baby will be born deaf.
Tim, you hit on something I was struggling to find a word for. Whether you call it swerving, interruption, or flux (perhaps flux is best), it’s this quality that I was most struck by in Chinese Fish. It’s not just about the sudden arrival of an unexpected phrase, but the jolt of an entirely other voice, a contrasting or even contradictory register. It happens a lot when quotes from newspaper articles are included, the barefaced eugenicism and expectation of ‘integration’ (or the assumption that ‘they’ will always be ‘other’).
My favourite instance comes after Cherry’s encounter with a ‘fumbling Pākehā boy, who tore her brand new “silken” pantyhose’. The text leaps over to the right of the page, and we read ‘What is the point of this anecdote? Is this a story / about assimilation / or—god forbid—miscegenation? This / Cherry character / doesn’t seem very Chinese. / Could you put her in a chong-sam’.
No doubt, an entire PhD could be written on what ‘pandering to a white lens’ might actually be. There may be other opinions about what Yee’s poetry here does, and I’d be interested in them. For now, I just want to say I love books that aren’t just windows but mirrors. After that quote above, we read Cherry say, in parentheses, ‘( I have never worn a cheongsam ) / ( he tasted like cheddar cheese )’.
There’s a wry humour to the book, sometimes shocking, but often subtle. The narrative is epic, fragmentary and suggestive. Food is a kaleidoscopic motif—sometimes a source of comfort, then estrangement, and later a spur for teasing and abuse. But always the poetry is driven forward with a mobile, curious attention, and an appreciation for the rich aesthetics of the ordinary, including broken English, double meanings and misunderstandings. Reading Chinese Fish, we immediately ‘get it’, and at the same time we realise how little we know.
Perhaps ‘pandering to a white lens’ is a turn of phrase too quickly applied, particularly (and indeed ironically) by a white writer like me. In this, I suppose, the story seems anchored in community, in people, but it isn’t beholden to those alone. Yes, there’s a deep reverence, but as much so a boldness in the myriad subjectivities—a looseness in the fragmentary, the broken, the multiple misunderstandings, the wry humour—which as you note, don’t hold any punches. Perhaps more accurately, the work doesn’t pander to polite politics or comfortable representational politics that so often make white readers feel safe.
Rather Chinese Fish seems committed to play, to expansion, to this wring-you-in-the-guts humour while never proclaiming itself to be the full story. This is clear, to me, through the ‘alien monolingual children’, or the suspicious and superstitious Ping, or the meat-clever wielding Baby Joseph. But even more so, in the fact, as I think we’ve both noted, that Chinese Fish makes white people the butt of the jokes, because in a lot of ways, we’re the only one’s throughout it who are too precious and fragile to see how peculiar—and might I say ‘foreign’—we can be.
After the Health Inspector hounds the Ping’s fish & chip shop, insisting on cleanliness while prodding and poking the food with his ‘sausage fingers’—his voice noting the ‘wonderful dexterity’ of using chop stick (as if a nod to his own ridiculousness)—Baby Joseph is scooped up by Stan, his father, and taken out back, in order to be protected from Ping, who by this point, is ‘wound white and tight as a snake’ (a jovial mirroring—or perhaps reclaiming—of the uptight and literally white Inspector, who, from all accounts, is a snake). Moments later:
‘The butcher—in blood-splattered navy-&-white-striped apron and gumboots—appears at the front of the shop holding Baby Joseph by the hand. Baby Joseph is holding a cone with two scoops of rainbow-coloured ice-cream. He’s sniffing and licking. / Ping and Stan make sounds like laughter. / The Butcher winks at Cherry and Lenore peeking between the fly-strips. You girls want ice-cream’
No doubt, the Butcher is the odd one out: blood splattered and offering kids ice cream. That wry humour, you mention; subtle, and too—scathing. As you say Andy, there’s ‘an appreciation for the rich aesthetics of the ordinary’, but perhaps, I’d argue, the rich aesthetics of the extraordinary when whiteness is no longer invisibilized. The broken English, and double meanings, and active misunderstandings, then bring on a new meaning. It’s us who doesn’t get it—it’s us who will always be striving to. This is work we must continue; yet Chinese Fish reminded me, as you say, ‘how little we know’, and also how we need to become comfortable in that not knowing.
Chinese Fish seems to continue a broader trend across Giramondo’s history of publishing. The books they publish are volatile, immediate, staggeringly complex in their directness, a beautiful fusion of the academic and the dialogical—the ivory intuition hidden behind the podiums flourish and the commercial street-savvy street-talking firecracker. And so it’s little wonder that a noted poet (I won’t name for fear of the drop) once said to me that Giramondo is responsible for almost every significant work of literature in so-called Australia’s recent history; a rather ironic comment, as their own absurdly successful and ground-breaking book, was published with someone else.
I won’t ask who it was, as tempted as I am. But they’re probably not far off the mark.
Andy Jackson is a poet, creative writing teacher, and a Patron of Writers Victoria. He was the inaugural Writing the Future of Health Fellow, and has co-edited disability-themed issues of Southerly and Australian Poetry Journal. Andy’s latest poetry collection is Human Looking, which won the ALS Gold Medal and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry.
Tim Loveday is a poet, writer, editor and educator. In 2022, he won the Dorothy Porter Poetry Award, and 2023 he was shortlisted for the David Harold Tribe Poetry Award. He has been the recipient of a Next Chapter Fellowship, Writing Space Fellowship and numerous residencies and grants. A Neurodivergent dog parent, Tim is the verse editor for The Creative Hub of Extinction Rebellion and the director of Curate||Poetry.
Relationship note: In late 2020, Andy was Tim’s tutor in Poetry and Performance at RMIT. Tim has recently taken over this role, after Andy was offered a full-time position at The University of Melbourne.