Labor of we
Layers and alliance in Kenji Liu's 'Map of an Onion'
Kenji Liu’s debut poetry collection does not start quietly; rather, it breaks into the world, denouncing the United States’ attempted erasure of migrants through legalese that alienates non-English-speaking people. The collection begins with the birth of the speaker in Kyoto, Japan, and spends layer upon layer puzzling the violences that the colonial center wreaks against the periphery. Liu’s overarching metaphor for intersectionality and assemblage of identities is the onion without a full and “real” center. Three layers that Liu uses cluster as follows: poetic forms and ancestry, settler colonialism and the speaker, and wholeness from ruin.
Layer 1: Poetic forms and ancestry
In some respects, the formal poems in this collection act as proof of ancestry, or as official documents to be problematized: the reader engages discourses around descent, heritage, and inheritance. Specifically, Liu uses the qilu, an ancient Chinese formal poem that is composed of eight lines of seven characters each. Liu uses this formal mode — and deviates from it — to echo the social and cultural distance from his parents’ homes. In his poem “My Dear Koxinga,” Liu experiments with migrating this form into English:
Nations need a parable
To reinvent themselves with.
In this use of form and its subversion in English, Liu is able to attain a new kind of “parable” in which the national belonging of the speaker is in flux, using an ancient form to undo the historicizing of a single narrative. Liu’s speaker shifts linguistically as well as formally; for instance, in the poem “A Son Writes Back,” Liu also employs the qilu form but adds to it a translation into Chinese by Der-Jin Woan and Suh-Ling Lin.
Liu considers Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee in order to practice his art of complication. Noted by Timothy Yu in the book’s introduction, Liu uses the dictation lesson to illustrate the way that language is complicit in the institutional racism against migrants. Often the migrant is slated to inhabit a particular place in the settler state of the US, desiring to assimilate into the patterns of racialization within the present construction of citizenship. What is ignored, typically, is the fact that this land was purloined from Native inhabitants. Liu adds Native American presence to the political landscape of “Deconstruction: Papers” through “interventions” that disrupt the English-only legalese of immigration papers and show the irony of a settler state using language that deliberately shuts out any imaginings of alternative citizenship. The interventions that Liu makes add Chinese, Taiwanese, and Lenape languages to the texture of official documents; the poem, divided into three parts, includes “Birth Certificate with Chinese Intervention,” “Taiwanese Passport with English Intervention,” and “Naturalization Certificate with Lenape Intervention.” Liu’s interventions and considerations of the languages of places are important to the claims that he poses for the anticolonial project of this book. From “Deconstruction: Papers”:
Personal description of holder as of date of naturalization
kènu Date of birth February twenty kènu nineteen seventy
seven kènu sex Male kènu complexion Medium kènu
color of eyes Black kènu color of hair Black kènu height
three feet zero inches kènu Marital status Single kènu (4)
In this poem the appearance of Lenape language serves as an unrelenting reminder that this land was originally Lenape; that the archive of the land still holds the memory of its original inhabitants. In doing so Liu asserts that immigrants do not have to serve the settler state and its continued genocidal actions against Natives. He shows how migrants and immigrants are able to destabilize official mechanisms, such as immigration papers, to illuminate this history and alliance with Native groups.
Layer 2: Settler colonialism and Liu’s speaker
Asian American literature is often discussed in relation to white and black cultures in the United States. Liu expands this discourse to include other migrant groups; by doing so, he is able to resist the mythology of the nation that many subscribe to in order to achieve cultural capital.
By naming specific indigenous North American groups whose land his family migrated to, Liu opens up his onion to the complexities of being a minority group struggling for national inclusion on the land of Native people who have been denied ownership, their land stolen from them by the American government.
In the poem “In Orbit Around New York City” Liu contends with the names of places around Edison, New Jersey. He writes:
Over the decades, onion skins
laid with scalpels. Tributaries,
In this poem Liu’s speaker attempts to excavate the palimpsest of the land. He applies his overarching metaphor of the onion to the histories of landscapes, accounting for the role that colonization, forced migration, and immigration have played in shaping the tenor of national space.
A phantom in this collection is Japan as a colonial master of Taiwan; it emerges through the language of official documents that Liu recreates. The leveling agent between the speaker’s parents is their immigration to the United States and the neocolonialism of the American capitalist market, where both must contend with the English language to survive. In his poem “Landing,” Liu maps the challenges his speaker’s parents face. Liu writes,
By now nobody has to explain the three-in-one god. Japan dwells
in Taiwan, the US dwells in Japan, eternally. Now they cohabitate
in the stock market. Baptism by firebombs, atomics, Gojira (89).
Liu’s speaker contends with settler-colonial complicity as well as American imperialism to portray a complicated scene where the speaker’s parents — one Taiwanese, one Japanese — learn English in a basement on Lenape land stolen by European settlers.
Layer 3: Wholeness from ruin
The last layer that Liu contends with is that of the psychic inheritance of a fractured history of national belonging. Liu’s speaker emerges whole, despite the complicated immigrant identities that he must wade through. As with the various places and inhabitants that make up the history of the speaker’s location, Liu offers a reworking of the Theravada Buddhist practice of metta, sewing together well-wishes for all beings in his poem “Memoriam for Places.” Liu offers a prayer to the devas of place, acknowledging the complications of “graveyards,” “chalk outlines,” “bullet holes,” and “prison cell corners.” He writes against ruin:
May all your stained places remember
how after rains, grass gets free (85).
In this poem Liu articulates the resilience of his immigrant speaker, how complexity of identity makes for a beautiful spring — how emerald wholeness emerges despite damage. And there is freedom in this survival; a freedom that the poet and migrant know despite the multiple spheres of oppression faced in this world of racial profiling, unjust incarceration, police brutality, anti-immigration violence, and Donald Trump.
Spanish, Japanese, and Chinesetranslations of Liu’s poemsappear in this collection to show the multilingual landscape from which Liu’s imagination draws, and the ways in which minority communities can share a common poetics and allyship. Ending his collection with the poem “Deconstruction: Body Unbound” Liu writes,
the predictable I
the trembling labor of
This acts as a call to form alliances with others in the current political climate of the United States. This book is pivotal in the Asian American canon in its alliance-forming push to act against the dominant, white supremacist hegemony that immigrants, Natives, and minorities alike face in the United States. Liu imagines a world where “alliance” means the negotiation of various colonizations, histories, and oppressions, and a weaving together of stories into one so powerful and nuanced it must be reckoned with.