It was the closing of an unexpected year I had spent in my parents’ Michigan home, when I opened Carlina Duan’s second collection, Alien Miss. Elsewhere in the world beyond our garden’s sleeping seeds and the garage’s old roller blades, hate crimes against Asians in the United States began to spike. Six Asian women were killed in Atlanta. Videos and stories took over every inch of our news feeds. Who among us Asian women has not felt, or been made to feel, alien?
Alien Miss epitomizes the feeling and the history of us, for us. It sheds the weight of the archetypal immigrant narrative and starts doing so with six poems featuring the titular character, Alien Miss. In these poems, Alien Miss visits Angel Island, faces immigration questioning, and interrogates prepositions. It’s in her speaking that her range is evident; she practices some words carefully, declares some defiantly, and knows that her speech belies the powerlessness others project onto her at first impression, something every non-English-speaking immigrant is too acutely aware of. All the while, the sound of the poetry behind the telling is sharp, rhythmic, and controlled. Duan writes: “…she was in love. she was in pain. A woman in her state needs nutrition, needs soil for her feet. a woman in her state needs a country. aisles…”
Duan deepens her approach to subjecthood in the poem “Alien Miss Confronts the Author.” The book’s structure is turned on its head as the poem asks: what right does the author have to this story? Her first collection, I Wore My Blackest Hair, explores some of the themes seen in Alien Miss, but this poem in particular and Duan’s second collection as a whole work to highlight the power of a poet’s second book: to address the reader and the poet’s own work, directly. Duan interrogates:
Why are you even interested
in writing about this? Beyond
just being Chinese?
reader, how many times have
I accrued words only to suck
them back through my teeth?
As a writer myself, and a Chinese person, I know too well the taste of this question on my tongue. In this poem, as throughout the book, Duan interweaves stories of a Midwestern life with the life of Alien Miss, along with undeniable documentation of the United States’s racist history. Timelines are collapsed, situating the lives of every-day Chinese Americans, and of the speaker, in the context of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In my reading, Duan’s answer to the question of who can tell the story in the rest of the book is centered on the idea of lineage, and in the specificity of tradition that lineage carries on.
The book continues with the vignettes from the speaker’s life, all undergirded by the context set by Alien Miss. Reflecting on days spent in Chinese school, in fancy restaurants, at fish markets and on Mackinac Island, I drank in Duan’s attention to detail. Duan’s motifs of blood, mouths, and water carry through the big moments of death, life, and change but also the little moments of a mosquito bite, a car ride, a date, a song. The motifs underline that there is “so much to feast on, in a life. the intimacy / of breath, the rippling kindness of white dough, the forward slope of the living.”
In both her first collection and over the course of Alien Miss, Duan uses pinyin to represent some Chinese and incorporates more Chinese characters as the poems evolve. She plays with the idea of one’s “mother’s tongue” versus a mother tongue, where the language that one might be expected to know can’t find its way out of one’s mouth. In “None on the Rooftops”, the speaker pleads,
o chinese god I have a fist.
I wanted to be good at this.
There is a deep desire to be rooted in lineage and the home it creates, of which language is a primary expression. There is a tension in how much there is to say in the language that is known to us, versus how little we can say in the language that is expected of us. Between “Pinyin1.com” and “I-94”, Duan juxtaposes the eager hum of a pinyin learner’s “mā má mǎ mà!” with the taunting chorus in “Who Let the Dogs Out” of who, who, who, who. Within the context of Alien Miss, we can understand through Duan’s poems that we can’t blame this tension entirely on our own failure to listen in Chinese school; there is the historical weight of assimilation behind us: “my country’s name on my lips. / guilty with blood.”
In thinking of what words are allowed to leave the mouth, Duan plays with restraint and emptiness in Alien Miss’s diction. “Rein” is short and sharp, written in couplets with lines no longer than six words to evoke the space of what is left unsaid by the character of baba and about the nature of death. This is followed by a more free “I Make a New Song for Myself,” split into six sections, an anthem for what needs to be said. In “Do You Have a Grammatically Correct Response to the Question?” Duan subverts traditional form by leaving empty, underlined blanks to replace the racial slur thrown at the speaker and reflects on the grammatical composition of the sentence. The speaker’s awareness of each word that is chosen to be written versus left blank—of “Which tense would you like to use to describe the incident above?”—highlights the repetition of history, and the place of the poet and of the poet’s rage in it.
The speaker calls on Chinese women across the years—Clara Elizabeth Chan Lee, Teresa Teng, her Nainai, her Waipo, other aunties, her sister, her mother—to carry her across the work. The use of italics in several poems brings in passing words of care from others. Even though some are kept unattributed, their inclusion in the work marks the overheard as a crucial memory, sometimes even serving as the volta of the poem. The poet’s ancestral lineage is both of blood and of the ones who came before, who made their way as firsts. These poems make the argument that we have not only the right, but the responsibility, to tell the stories of our ancestors and our own, tied to each other, and loved by each other, by demand of history.
“I sit / with all my mothers perched atop my tongue,” Duan writes. “The tongue knows: it is daughter / of a mother of a mother of a mother.” And it is only through them that Duan’s stories can be told. The repetition in “of a mother” is a refrain throughout, emphasizing the depth of lineage. Only through those mothers, through their “blessing me to move / move move!” that “oh, I am possible again.” The closing of “Attending Compline Service as a Nonbeliever” underlines the thesis:
in me lives
an entire spool of thread: I am
a daughter of a daughter of a daughter
of a daughter and yes, they
survived so I could sit on a bench
in another country watching
women pry open their lips to leak it
out: as it was in the beginning
as it always is
I begin with a woman
inside of me
turning on the lamp
reciting the words.
As a fellow Chinese American daughter, sister, and writer by way of Michigan, I should be only so lucky as to have the honor of being in the lineage of Duan’s work. Alien Miss reminds us that the hate is not new. But what we have in us are the lives of those who came before us as a source of strength; we are not alone in whatever alienation we may face. Duan confers that understanding generously to the reader in a collection filled with love, language, and lineage.