Dženana Vucic reviews Echoes by Shu-Ling Chua
by Shu-Ling Chua
Reviewed by Dženana Vucic
I raced through Echoes the first time I read it. Raced through it the second time, too. At under 85 pages it’s a short book—a chapbook, almost—and easily inhaled over an idle afternoon. If you can resist, the three essays can be spread over a few idle afternoons. But it’s hard to resist—Shu-Ling Chua’s writing is compelling, the kind of simple but lyrical language that propels you through the text at pace. It’s not exactly sparse prose, but unadorned, elegant like a figure-hugging structured dress from Cue. Chua is economical with her words, and direct. She avoids heavy description or lapsing into discursive commentary and instead, she takes the concrete and mundane—clothing, songs, water—as the loci from which to gently probe her broader concern, crystallised in the book’s blurb as ‘what does one unknowingly inherit?’
In the first essay, ‘(Im)material Inheritance’, Chua searches for an understanding of self in photographs of her grandmother, in her seeming divergence from her mother. The essay circles questions of glamour and the feminine, and what it means to dress for the world or for the self. Her economy of language leads to moments of ambiguity and momentary discomfort, as when, for example, Chua writes that she ‘was not like other girls’, a sentiment that lives in the space between the then (she is writing of herself in school), and the now (she is affirming, in 2020, that she was different). It is a niggling tension felt on a personal and political level: we at once know that this is an unfair and sexist disavowal of womanhood and know, too, that we have felt this way, have felt our failures to live up to idealized femininity, and have felt our refusal of idealized femininity as a special badge of honour (indeed, some of us still do).
In another instance, Chua tells her mother ‘You’re lucky I’m not anorexic,’ and soon after notes: ‘My stomach is not as flat as it used to be. (Neither is my mother’s),’ and the lack of contextualisation, explanation, makes the reader wince. This is intentional, Chua is not attempting to save face; she offers the self in all its embarrassing exceptionalism and cruelty, setting in relief our imposed relationship to beauty, a relationship which sets us to defining ourselves in relation to others in ways that make us feel better and worse, but which also denies us joy in our physicality. The essay traces Chua’s (self-)consciousness of this tension, played out through three generations of women in her family. And though Chua ultimately finds connection to femininity through her grandmother, and with her grandmother to femininity, she lets the tension linger on the page, unresolved.
In ‘Echoes’, Chua sifts through Chinese pop songs and their modern iterations, exploring her interweaving past and present to push at the limits of language and translation, and the gaps in between. Chua was born in Australia to Malaysian-Chinese parents and, like many immigrants and children of immigrants, she inhabits a space of linguistic inbetween-ness, a space whose contours she maps out through her relationship to Chinese music. Chua describes listening to songs whose lyrics she doesn’t fully understand, lyrics that she must google and google-translate and ask friends about. It is an exploration of second language that is full of the wonder of discovery, with that special attention to meaning that non-fluent speakers often have, a tentative peeling back of definitional layers to grasp a word that native speakers take for granted. In this, there is a nostalgia—and hunger—for something only partly-known that I, an immigrant to Australia who lost much of my mother tongue in the move, recognise.
Though Chinese characters or anglicised Chinese words (Cantonese and Mandarin) appear throughout the book, they are most common in ‘Echoes’. It is a choice that reminds me of Gloria Anzaldúa’s germinal Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), in which Anzaldúa used Spanish and Chicano dialects alongside English in parsing through and representing her multiply inflected Chicana identity. Languages co-existing on the page, without italicization or footnoted definition, is becoming increasingly common as publishers become aware of the othering and English-language hegemony that these choices represent. However the decision to slide between languages is not just political, it is deeply personal too. As Chua, and Anzaldúa before her, show, multi-lingual works are a textual performance of the in-betweeness and multiplicity of their authors’ linguistic and cultural identities, a way of letting aspects of the self sit together on the page without subordinating one to the other.
For Chua, the decision seems also to perform her coming-to-language, and, in this, a coming-to-be. She is always googling, translating, looking up, asking for help, for information. She takes lessons, practices. Chua is always active in her linguistic and cultural inheritance and she has to be—unlike English language songs, which are so ubiquitous in Australia that you neither have to try (nor even want) to learn their lyrics to absorb them; Chinese songs require effort from Chua. She is forced to use the internet, and youtube in particular, as access points to a culture that she is very much a part of but which a predominantly white, Anglo-centric Australian (and western) media attempt to obfuscate, if not override. Hence the importance of movies like Crazy Rich Asians, the sound track of which is fundamental to Chua’s essayistic musings.
The decision to leave lyrics untranslated, or partially translated, enacts instances of exclusion for readers who aren’t familiar with the script, forcing them to sit in the discomfort of not knowing and affectively bringing them into an experience paralleling Chua’s own language-acquisition. It forces them into participation. To know how the words are said, or what they mean, the reader must act, must watch the youtube video, must flick between pages to find where a line has previously been given meaning, or look up the songs and seek translations for themselves. The uncertainty and insecurity of this process, felt keenly by Chua, is offered to readers, too.
For me, it is Chua’s attempt to render as whole a self which is often split into parts that is most moving. Chua describes calling herself ‘half Chinese and half Australian’ in grade 3, while her mother suggest she use ‘ABC… Australian Born Chinese’. Both iterations split Chua in two, both evoking the neat split suggested by the hyphen in ‘Chinese-Australian (or, indeed, Chinse-Malaysian), as though anything could be so neatly parsed or disentangled. Chua does not describe herself, in any bio that I could see, as any iteration of the above, nor does she do so in ‘Echoes’. She has no time for the lazy signifier that is this hyphen and, in each essay of her collection, she speaks to, without directly speaking about, how poorly such a forced construction captures the breadth of her cultural relationality.
The final essay, ‘To Fish for the Moon’, details domestic life, habits and rituals, through water and washing. Chua describes water being saved in her parents’ home, the washing machines she has had, her (great) grandparent’s laundry business, sipping hot water, baths. Each anecdote is dropped into this flow of water and let go. Chua is gentle in this release, but unsentimental. To me, she doesn’t seem to be yearning for an imagined intimacy with the past, but rather seems to create and inhabit a present-future dimensionality that extends in all directions and take all things with it. Water is ordinary but it is also, implicitly, a connecting force, ubiquitous and mundane but life giving. To quote Anzaldúa, ‘I struggle with naming without fragmenting, without excluding… Identity flows between, over, aspects of a person. Identity is a river—a process.’ Chua takes this river, acknowledging the ways that it is communal and ongoing, and offers readers sips along its path.
Chua is an essayist and poet and in Echoes, her debut collection, these two worlds converge in an unexpected way. Rather than writing poetic lines into the essay form (and thus bearing the risk of sounding overwrought, tedious), Chua seems to do the opposite by writing essayistic sentences which slowly combine and accrete into a poetic form. She favours a sort of nimble restraint and the immediacy of concrete imagery on a sentence by sentence level. This is something of a contrast to the essays themselves which feel uninhibited, with a tendency to drifting: tangents, digressions, fleeting connections, departures and returns. They aren’t meandering per se, but multi-directional. Chua is writing towards knowledge, forgoing conclusions in favour of continuation and discovery. In tracing her connections and inheritances, she documents herself striving towards both, a process of self-actualisation rendered through her familial relationships and connection to things (tangible and otherwise) that bring her joy and pleasure.
Dženana Vucic is a Bosnian-Australian writer, poet and editor. Her work has been published in Cordite, Overland, Meanjin, Stilts, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Australian Poetry Journal, the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Rabbit, and others. She is a 2020 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow and tweets at @dzenanabanana.