Hong Kong-born and bred student Eric Yip made the news a few weeks ago with his poem Fricatives winning first prize in the 2021 National Poetry Competition in the UK. I find this poem very complex, and I do resonate deeply.
Submission is the running theme in this poem. Submission to our coloniser through the experience of learning to speak ‘proper’ English, and through seeking a ‘better education’ (and implied better future) in the UK. Fricatives can be a challenge for many Cantonese speakers. Yip uses it as a clever device to convey ambiguity and ambivalence about cultural imprialism, the current political climate and displacement. While the Cantonese restaurant can be a place of consolation for many who have emigrated, it is also a place where the forced fallatio from a stranger occurs. As overt as the symbolism is, it aptly echos the poem’s title, how movements of the mouth and tongue are of the essence. I read it as submission to imperialism, of language, culture, politics, governance, etc.
‘Fresh yellow grains beaten till their seeds spill’, ‘escaped from Alcatraz in a rubber raft and drowned on their way to Angel Island’, ‘bruised bodies’, ‘force the pen past batons and blood’ are all vivid symbolisms that relate to events of the recent past, and are indeed ‘fresh material for writing’ and get attention. Freedom of speech is explored, with the pen not being mightier than the batons, and ‘[y]ou must be given a voice before you can speak’. A lot of complexity there. I don’t see these symbolisms simply as political commentary, so much as they give a sense of time and place, and of ambivalence.
The mother seems pragmatic towards language learning and sending her son abroad to study, but oblivious towards the hardship that his son has to endure. Her son’s ultimate transformation into ‘steamed, perfect, white’ rice from the once yellow grains that subjected to threshing is perhaps not seen as a cost so much as it is a desired outcome for those who are privileged: ’lucky enough to care about how the tongue moves’. This is the cost of being a third culture kid: leaving behind one’s cultural origins as one is physically and culturally displaced. This is both about him as an individual and collectively as the colonised. I was once that ‘spectacled boy with a Hong Kong accent’.
Not an easy poem to fathom.