Responses / December 2015 (Issue 30)

Response-to-Response (February 2016)

by DragoČ™ Ilca

Foreign Skin, Aeolus House, 2015. 83 pgs.

I must confess I was taken aback by the volatile nature of Kate Rogers's response to my review of her latest collection Foreign Skin. For a while, I considered not even "fighting back"; however, due to the personal tone it takes, I saw myself picking up the collection a second time, as ironic as that is. This response-to-response is by no means a text that apologises or even defends both my claims and Cha's standard for publication, as I still think the case for Foreign Skin can be made.

The simplistic approach to reviewing ultimately answers one question in my opinion (note: my opinion): Should one read this book or not? Given today's context in which poetry is not marketed or read as widely as prose, the question does seem to point towards larger concerns about the popularity of the genre. However, I will return to that later.

I decided in my review to focus primarily on the setting where Foreign Skin is based, partly because of the length of the review I was writing. (I am guessing that a deeper analysis would have required something along the lines of an essay or a paper.) To return, I think the images of Hong Kong and China are not neutral. This was the premise of the review which influenced the way I (again: I) read Foreign Skin. Indeed, Rogers does give the textbook definition of Orientalism and the way art was used to depict the "other" and through that help build "the empire." While arguably the empire has changed, I believe the depictions still occupy a political place in the Western imagination. Among others, Edward Said analyses Gérard de Nerval and Gustave Flaubert and their writings on "the Orient," pointing out the fact that they portray Arab women as little more than sexual fantasies, as well as romanticising the various cities they travelled to. Later on, the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk revisits the writings of Nerval and Flaubert via Said in his Istanbul: Memories and the City (which is, by the way, so close to my Central/Eastern European origins), once more demonstrating how ingrained and romanticised the understanding of the city is, even by the locals. This form of nostalgia that engulfs Istanbul (with a particular emphasis on the poorer parts of the city) is called by Pamuk hüzün.

The point I am trying to make is that the depictions of the city and later on in the Ah Ku section in Foreign Skin feed into a preconceived notion of the Far East. I used a couple of examples in my review: the contrast between the very rich and the very poor, women picking cardboard, the daipaidong, wet markets, religious cults and so on. As such, the setting makes me question the involvement of the narrative persona in the poems. Foreign Skin is considerably softer and even self-conscious at times in its depictions of the city when compared to Flaubert and Nerval; however, that should not be an excuse for not scrutinising the history and complexity of the representations.

When writing the review, I was aware (surprisingly so) of the fact that I might "level the charge of Orientalism at expat poets living in Asia without much thought" as Rogers states. However, I arrived at the last section, namely Ah Ku. The notes on page 81 translate "Ah Ku" as "prostitutes." The motif of the prostitute, "spreading … petals / for men with jade rings / who make music as they walk – / their pockets full of coins" (61) appears in several other poems. "A Concubine's Diary," talking about the practice of foot-binding and red lanterns by the door, "The Fisherman," a motif very popular in the Tang dynasty, catching "only what you can eat / and camp on the bank / under the fig tree alone" (67), "The Fan" opening its "silken wing" (69) and so on, ask for a reconsideration of the "accusation" of putting forth "the idea of China (or at least a portion of China)" as written by John B. Lee on the back cover. It is worth mentioning that some of the poems are written after notable figures in China's literary history. While I am immediately suspicious of the stylistic appropriation, Rogers "only meant to express empathy and admiration for the women portrayed." And if Orientalist depictions are not about diminishing, categorising, imagining and sexualising the voice of "the Other" under the apparent guise of empathy and admiration, then I do not know what is. Is this the idea of China Kate Rogers has in mind? Surely living in Hong Kong for fifteen years and teaching at a local tertiary institution would have yielded a different picture.

To address the issue of relevance, having a Toronto publisher and being paid to read in front of a sixty-plus audience hardly qualifies for the stadiums I declared, given the state in which contemporary poetry is being marketed and consumed. At best, I think it deserves a niche, both in Hong Kong and outside of it, as demonstrated by the various journals, newspapers and anthologies in which Rogers's work has been published. In other words, I believe the bulk of the audience is the people of Hong Kong, both local and expatriate.

I should not conclude this response without addressing the personal tone that Rogers's response takes, as I can almost sense the finger pointing at me through the screen: "You" are not a Hongkonger, why come here, why choose Hong Kong? While I am sure there is a story behind this, how do my origin, gender and educational choices influence the way I read Foreign Skin? In fact, why is my living here so important, since I believe (I) what I've read feeds into a preconceived image and setting of the Far East and Hong Kong? We're all strangers in here, aren't we? I do not see the point in turning the discussion to my person and my comings and goings, and I do not see how it benefits Foreign Skin and its dismal review. Suffices to say that I do not identify myself as a Hongkonger (a concept with its own history and representations), and I have a geographical region somewhere in Eastern Europe that qualifies as "home." Second, I have not read Pico Iyer or George Santayana, so thank you Kate Rogers for sharing this with me and salvaging what is left of this review.

Speaking of which, I was amused when Rogers said she doesn't want to give my review of her collection too much importance. If the lengthy reply, personal attack and a soft Another-Brick-in-the-Wall-esque kind of education stand for something, that is not a lack of importance. Since other poet friends encouraged Rogers not to take the review too seriously (and I was immediately reminded of a story about an emperor and some clothes), and since I have done such a dismal job at it, I would like to invite other people to comment (preferably in a more positive manner) on the irony, humour, cover design and the female expat experience of Foreign Skin—Oh, wait.

Editors' note: Foreign Skin can be purchased here.

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