Bowling Pin Fire, by Andy Quan
Reviewed by Candice Daquin
You feel closer to an author when it is clear he has lived outside the confines of his culture and academic rigidity, writing life onto paper with an organic voice of equity and experience. Perhaps it is true gay writers share a “voice” or canon but unlike sharing cultural heritage, being gay can be a fragmented and individualistic experience; the common themes are there but the supporting culture and history is not always consistent. In some respects Andy Quan’s work reflects this dislocation and drive to design a new cultural identity; both in his sexuality and ethnicity.
In his poem Quiet and Odd Quan writes; “”What a shame,” adults told us. We couldn’t speak / our ancestral language. Nor could our mothers! Tell / them they’ve lost their heritage. What’s the use anyway.” Here he is lending a voice to the feeling of helplessness incurred by many immigrants who leave their home country for a better life only to lose a sense of their original culture and become absorbed into a strange melting pot. Growing up means watching that culture tenuously preserved and simultaneously picked apart; often by people who do not appreciate or respect the feelings of loss for culture and identity and its relation to the fragmented whole that forms immigrant identity. Quan’s translation of this experience was unerringly shrewd especially given his ability to subsist in both worlds conversantly.
With this theme in mind, one can understand the poignancy of the line; “Brian Tom / not yet into his teens expected only bad things in life / so as never to be disappointed.” A Chinese character observed by Quan growing up with the innocent perspective of a transplanted generation, seeing the reactions of his contemporaries and other Chinese-Canadians who emotionally close-down for fear of feeling the pain of displacement, who stop hoping to fit in, for fear of never succeeding. Quan’s childhood recollections are not simple stories but indictments against those who pressure immigrants to give up who they are, forcing shame so deep that simply being who you are becomes an embarrassment; “Dominic / Kong was certainly not us, he told people he didn’t / know Chinese but who could follow his broken / English?” Quan honestly and palpably gives us the stark image of a little Chinese boy with a heavy Chinese accent, attempting to tell his peers that he too did not speak Chinese in hope he would fit in.
With truth comes a disquieting wake-up call to the experience of cultures often hidden in the everyday world. Cultures that suffer in silence, who as Quan describes, can be mute in their awkwardness and social isolation whilst inwardly screaming; “It wasn’t just that they were odd. / They were quiet boys. Not like us, ails on chalk / boards, five drill alarms. When my voice broke / I couldn’t even whisper without getting in trouble.” A culture neither of one place or another, but pieces of both, conflicting with social pressure to define oneself and become part of a culture that is only part your own. Whether Quan got into trouble as a boy or became the quiet boy who did not speak, he is perhaps in a metaphoric sense, aspects of all his richly fleshed characters. They are real to us because Quan has an ability with his language to present them without any trappings; they are those people a child witnessed, they are the pieces of his culture adrift and at the same time, very much alive.
Spit is the story of a young Quan in a car, crying out not to let another car into the queue, inadvertently causing the wrath of the other driver, he is unwillingly a witness to the hostility and strangeness of his adoptive culture, who are possibly angrier toward his family because of inherent prejudice; “We shut ourselves back in, could not speak, his / salvia still not dry, its separate bubbles like sad / jewels or the eyes of an insect.” What’s especially powerful about reading this confrontation between Quan’s family and the other driver is the shame and disgust felt by a child witnessing his parent’s humiliation and the power of his vignette. Spit captures the impotent sense of a family shutting out the world, hiding in their car from a sudden and shocking assault by the outside world.
Quan illustrates the subject of societal-estrangement through his ability to articulate those experiences often overlooked, of Chinese families in their gradual assimilation into a foreign land. Like a Girl does not fit as smoothly as the other poems in the first section entitled What We Live With, however in Elementary there is a good study of the infantile-method of making people feel like an outsider. Chronicling the taciturn activity of school-yard torment, be it upon insect or new boy, Elementary relates to the experience of being picked on; a universal temptation to find a smaller scapegoat; to pick back out of frustration, making oneself feel bigger by reducing another.
In Reprimand Quan refers to the perplexing loss of cultural identity and his memories of how his culture was experienced by his grandparents, in musings about cultural stereotypes: “Words about her were scarce / what they say about Asian women.” There’s a sense of loss, and losing words to stereotyping. The landscape of Quan’s family memories are encapsulated here: memories of his father’s many different Station Wagons throughout the years in Smelt, the sad irony of time passing in limbo; the experience of witnessing death through a child’s eyes; “fry them hot enough and their bones / melt into the grain of the smelt’s body.’ One cannot help but sink into the gathering imagery, like quicksand, into a nameless place. One of the strongest poems of the book, Aftertaste deals with the loss of Chinese culture very directly; “As adults, this tongue stilled in their jaws / their ears grasp only infant fragments … leave an aftertaste they mistake for MSG.” Here Quan pulls no punches, and again we see his vivid ability to be the memory and voice of his family experience, to lucidly describe cultural friction, the shame and simultaneous relief experienced by those coming to a foreign country, trying to lose their “old ways” to fit in, and finding instead, an emptiness, that “stilled tongue.”
The title poem, Bowling Pin Fire moves from Quan’s parents to himself, where he writes; “my own / network is unanchored and rootless. My friends stop / at random airports, fight to pay for meals. We email / and skype. I seldom know where they live.” Although Quan is conversational, his reflections on the shift from his parent’s cultural experience to his own, completes the circle, with his portrayal of our individual and ancestral past as the kindling that consumes our memories. The image of a bowling pin — again another emblem of North America — is contrasted with his own increasingly rootless life spent outside culture, conjuring up images of a phoenix able to rise from the ashes. We witness a sardonic writer’s ability to deftly describe his contact with Francophones and French emersion, in contrast to the loss of his own Cantonese origins.
Quan is a rare voice in Canadian poetry, both of Chinese background, and gay. As an unconventional individual, he’s able to dive to the bottom of the surface and bring up the alternative truths to the rhetoric we’re commonly fed: “The Catholic service confused me / I felt we should scream until the air around us shook.” His views allow for a fresh take on ordinary life. His mother was unable to voice her experiences, but Quan doesn’t hold back, so that others may know. His tenderness toward those he loves and awareness of the fragility of life are potent: “I still wonder at how / I clawed into the narrative of death, how you stayed / with me, how I turned into one of those men / who drag around melancholy and nostalgia, / luggage too heavy to be allowed on board.” In an era of HIV and AIDS the fragility of life runs concurrently alongside the blossoming and wilt of relationships. But categories aside, Quan is in his own right a gifted and candid writer able to tenderly and honestly describe passion, and put observation into different kinds of poetry, conversational and otherwise, even while pricking conscience and memory. Not all Quan’s poetry appeals, but it is important for being generational, and speaking of Gen-X dilemmas alongside Quan’s own unique heritage and cultural experience, covering diverse and modern subjects like drug-taking in European clubs and that ceaseless desire to travel and find continents without borders, families without pain: “So jealous are we of those who know our cities from the air.” Quan is bilingual in his ability to voice juxtaposed cultures and people, but his most authentic voice is best found in the beauty of his observations: “In Ottawa, they feasted, / told stories: it had been a long illness. In accordance / with tradition, the daughter cut off her long dark hair, / the young grandson stoked embers the night through. / I’m not even sure where the last father lived. His son / only wrote of the news and after, there was quiet.”
Quan excels at rendering his love for his family, and observations that are both astute and crushing: “my latest family joke / father slowing down / mother speeding up / will they miss / each other mid-orbit … mother looks back / not wanting to fuss / sinks out of sight.” His humor is transcendental and gives the serious nature of the subject a necessary relief without diluting it, much as the Beats writers were able to be at once humorous, socially astute and sometime gut wrenching: “Cocktails at a birthday celebration: / What kind of writing do you do? / I write poetry. / We change topics quickly.”
Quan’s voice also picks out mature experiences and reflections with the accuracy of a bird looking for worms: “I am dismayed I have so little memory / a mountain lost its top, an uninformed / tourist surrendered his eyeglasses to / a monkey in Ubud, there’s carelessness / but also stupidity, a mouthful of clouds / I have bee told is delicacy and I / choke instead … I am galled at what I get away with, / small-brained and grasping, shallow / as weak light, a misplaced battery unable / to spark energy.” He’s at once able to comprehend the existential nothingness that accompanies the bright lights of modern living, even as his poetry is a tour of his life in snapshots that are always relevant to the overall picture, that of “small rewards” and the strangeness of life. As Quan describes his brother; “the only party in our family able to negotiate normalcy” who is later diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, he remembers the tenderness of their blood-pact years before, the humanness of hoping against hope, and gives pure and honest words to the pain: “Don’t worry. We’ll be okay. My nod also the same.”