Review

An ambitious gathering of love, loss and identity

To Gather Your Leaving is edited by (from left) Boey Kim Cheng, Arin Alycia Fong and Justin Chia.
To Gather Your Leaving is edited by (from left) Boey Kim Cheng, Arin Alycia Fong and Justin Chia. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF BOEY KIM CHENG, ARIN ALYCIA FONG, JUSTIN CHIA

POETRY

TO GATHER YOUR LEAVING

Edited by Boey Kim Cheng, Justin Chia and Arin Alycia Fong

Ethos Books/ Paperback/ 684 pages/ $30/ Available at bit.ly/ToGatherYourLeaving /4 stars

"If as a child I've said/ 'one day I shall have no home'," writes poet Wong May in Kampong Bahru, 1975, "...now it is said/over & again... the lostness that 20 years later has/ fetched me here."

Wong's biography is as wandering as her lines. She was born in Chongqing, raised in Singapore and published in the United States and now lives in Dublin.

Such multi-hyphenate identities fill the biography section of To Gather Your Leaving, an enormously ambitious anthology that gathers English-language poetry from the Asian diaspora around the world. It spans three decades and three generations of emigres, refugees and descendants of migrants.

The anthology is an undertaking rooted in Singapore - its editors are Nanyang Technological University associate professor Boey Kim Cheng, one of Singapore's poetry veterans, and up-and-coming literary voices Arin Alycia Fong and Justin Chia - but its branches reach around the world.

Poets are sorted by where they live - America, Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe - rather than by ethnicity, perceived country of origin or whatever it is that the question, "So where are you from, really?", probes for.

The contents page is a who's who of Asian poets writing in diaspora, from veterans such as the US-based Shirley Geok-lin Lim, born in Malaysia, and Li-Young Lee, the American son of Chinese exiles, to the latest literary stars such as Ocean Vuong, the Vietnamese-American winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize, whose tender, uplifting poem Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong gives the anthology its title: "Here's the man/ whose arms are wide enough to gather/ your leaving."

It is lovely to see in this mix luminaries like the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, whose lucent verse in A Lost Memory Of Delhi imagines the speaker's parents before his birth, in a home he knows only from faded photographs.

Arrayed against the greats are emerging poets such as Pakistani-Australian Maryam Azam, who gives candid insights into millennial Muslim life in A Brief Guide To Hijab Fashion and Places I've Prayed, and Hong Kong-born, London-based Mary Jean Chan, whose chiastic poem Happiness folds in on itself to examine intergenerational notions of sacrifice.

This tome strives to cover as much ground as it can on a subject impossible to handle exhaustively, and its mileage is laudable, though at more than 600 pages, it can get repetitive.

Certain tropes emerge, though these are punctuated by refreshing notes such as Chicago-born Timothy Yu's Chinese Silence No. 12, in which the speaker reads an Asian-American anthology full of silent grandmothers and their wok-fired cooking and remarks sarcastically: "This is so much better than the usual Orientalism."

Does writing in diaspora especially confine a poet to the trap of autobiography? Will Harris, who is of mixed Anglo-Indonesian heritage, recounts in Self-Portrait In Front Of A Small Mirror, how a barman refuses to accept his ID, unable to reconcile the name on it with the way he looks.

But in its brightest moments, the anthology plots a map across borders and labels, drawing together generations in its exploration of language and identity, as well as racism, cultural appropriation and trauma.

In the harrowing Debt by Cambodia-born, US-based Bunkong Tuon, a father kneels to beg the Khmer Rouge for a piece of liver from their child victims, so that his own child will not starve.

Particularly moving are the poems threaded with the love of parents and children. In the heartbreaking Cloud Moving Hands by Cathy Song - Hawaiian of Korean-Chinese descent - the speaker, watching her mother die, pictures her shedding "the old body/ like a nightgown she is sick of wearing" and running out of the hospital like the teenager she once was.

"I am afraid in her haste/ she will not remember me,/ but she does./ She does remember," writes Song. "I stroke through air,/ I fly through water,/ I send my mother home."

This is a map of a country that those between countries belong to, which does not exist, except perhaps in these words.

If you like this, read: Go Home! edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Feminist Press, 2018, $29.19, available at bit.ly/GoHome_RHB), an anthology in which Asian-American writers such as Mia Alvar, Chaya Babu and Kimiko Hahn reflect on what home means to those in diaspora.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2020, with the headline 'An ambitious gathering of love, loss and identity'. Print Edition | Subscribe