Book Review

Whenever I read John Yau’s poetry or fiction, I am reminded of Johannes Gӧransson’s “foreigner,” who is a grotesque, bastardized version of the citizen, seemingly permitted by society to do wrong and be wrong because his motives and intentions cannot be understood, and for the citizen to empathize would be, of course, an impossible act. Yau’s Genghis Chan on Drums strikes notes of a kind of immigrant lament, but there is something unapologetic, playful, and celebratory in the text that is far more complex and demands to be heard. As much as this is a book about the immigrant reckoning with his identity and asking others to bear witness (something Yau has done in nearly all of his poetry writing), this is also a book about radical acceptance—a narrator demanding acceptance in the sea of prejudice and absurdity that threatens to drown him. But not an acceptance from any external citizen; rather, from himself, that complex system, at what may be the dusk of life—before it’s too late.

Yau’s Genghis Chan on Drums is written in eight parts, following a narrator who is painfully human and contradictory, at times waxing nostalgic, philosophical, artistic, self-deprecating, enraged, hyperbolic, obscene, and politically critical.  As he has long done in his writing, as in Hawaiian Cowboys and Borrowed Love Poems, Yau devotes forceful energy in Genghis Chan on Drums to deconstructing the prejudice he has encountered his entire life, living as an American who both appears Asian under certain scopes and then is told he “doesn’t look and act Chinese.” The very first poem in “Part I,” following the prologue, immediately silences the deep childhood memories of China Yau sentimentally opens with. It lays before the reader the invalidating reality the immigrant must constantly be obliged to correct and accept in a country that is home, but never feels like home:

I am deeply grateful for your good opinion
I am honestly indignant
I am, I confess, a little discouraged
I am inclined to agree with you
I am incredulous . . . .

At the end of the poem, Yau’s narrator sardonically explains how he “stands corrected” by the judgment of others, who seem to desire to explain his identity to him. Yau continues “Part I” as a series of tongue-in-cheek, Confucian-like morsels in a series called the “O Pin Yin Sonnets.” As Anne Waldman points out in her blurb for the book: “Pinyin started as a way to explain Chinese to Westerners.” In these sonnets, Yau lays out perceived ethnic and cultural ludicrousness of the Chinese people, as misunderstood by a Western audience:

Their eyes aren’t big or straight enough
To let them crocodile slippers slide out
In Eastern Noodle where every dentist is Wong
You can always buy samples of boiled dog squalor . . . .

Let them enjoy the fruits of overpopulation
Let their countryside fill with falling sheep
Let them crawl over each other—rapacious bugs think
They can warm their spreading butts on America’s corpse

Yau goes on to elaborate on the political atrocities of American politics as the Western voice in these poems tries to implicate Chinese culture for the Coronavirus pandemic. It feels crass to say, and it is crass, because this is an undying and real representation of the immigrant’s story in the West, but Yau seems to be in his element here. This is Yau playing his “greatest hits” because yet again his narrator, who is undoubtedly a projection of Yau himself, appears to have encountered prejudice his entire life, and he has had to be self-effacing about it.

Genghis Chan on Drums is not a book about convincing anyone of one’s identity, however. It is Yau standing in the foothold of a more accurate, multifaceted identity: the artist, the critic, and, maybe most importantly, the American:

If you live in your car, I don’t have to worry about where you will sleep at night
If you live in your car, I won’t have to concern myself
With where you will be found once you are dead
Another petty thought that takes up too much of my precious day
When I have the untrammeled happiness of my constituents to think about
If you live in your car, I don’t have to worry about the next election
Because you will be gone, one way or another

Here, Yau attacks the American political system that causes real human erasure. Without a physical address, politicians are effectively rid of impoverished constituents (in many cases, the immigrant) who would otherwise vote to have them removed. In Genghis Chan on Drums where true violence emanates is not from the immigrant nor from China, as demonized as it is by the West, but from the American body politic via citizen erasure or through violent inaction: ineffective, emotionless presidential briefings following countless school shootings. Yau seems to be saying, “Rather than criticize China, you ought to take a look at your own inadequacies, America”:

Unfortunately, early reports of school not looking good
Unfortunately, this loss of decades has been going on too long
We’re with you forever in the sadness school
We’re affected by this absolutely terrible heartbreak hour
We send our love to everyone affected by our country

What seems absurd to Yau, who is perhaps an embodiment of the true American (from an immigrant family, educated, participatory, patriotic, etc.), is not a lack of ability for the American to be represented or be heard in their own country—as true as that may ring—it is the governing body, which speaks a language more broken (i.e. nonsensical) than the immigrant’s version of English in “Bloken Exhaust”:

Don’t sell me
you don’t
already know
is a fantasy
on paths
to yellow
road warrior
on and on

“America” is the name that, for the American people, is their “every invisible enemy.” It is a concept that exists in different hues for each person. This is what creates the dissonance for the American. America has a body politic that simultaneously does and says all the right things in the minds of some, while in the eyes of others it is actively committing crimes against humanity and dismantling all of its progress. It exists at two ends of an impossible imagination. It is, again, the immigrant’s duty to explain to the very entity that demonizes him how this thinking is contradictory and flawed.

So, if America is the immigrant’s workplace, where he must constantly do work to be understood and fight to be heard, how does an immigrant find home in such a flawed place? In the end, it is not the immigrant that finds it, and not the one who is told he doesn’t look and act Chinese, but the realized individual who is simply a product of everything natured and nurtured: the self is the tour de force to reckon with in Genghis Chan on Drums. Genghis Chan is Yau’s narrator’s self, as monumental and unforgiving a figure as the actual Genghis Khan, who has been present and relentless throughout his entire life.  In order to contend with this volatile self, one has to allow him to just be, to just riff, in order to find any real sense of acceptance or joy in life. Genghis Chan is the immigrant post-immigrant, the immigrant living as himself, unapologetically, accepting something like defeat, a human and not a western sentiment even after the western sentiment has already been bestowed upon him, the person who walks “lonely as a shroud” in “After Wordsworth,” whose past is happily riddled with “blackened winter” in “My Multitudes.”

As Yau’s narrator turns sixty-nine, he tries harder and harder to accept himself as an almost impossible amalgamation of the stacked-up years before him:

I will never join a woodpecker in an intermittent percussive search for protein
I will think different about foul emissions and bodily eruptions from this day
Hence . . . .
I will try and burn whatever may be construed as a statement of personal

What becomes most crucial for Yau in Genghis Chan on Drums is that the self be remembered for who he actually was, for at least a somewhat comprehensive list of accomplishments and memories of naivety and loss of innocence. In recalling these memories, in letting these be the memories that play out, rather than focusing solely on the disruptiveness of prejudice toward the immigrant, one can find the only kind of solace that exists: a cacophony of trials and errors that more or less make up a life in the end. This is the luxury the non-immigrant is afforded, after all, so the real act of defiance, if there has to be one besides radical acceptance, is that the immigrant is allowing himself this luxury here:

Fuck “flaunt”

Fuck “perfectly my type” and “got to go for what you want”

Fuck “meant to be” and “forever”

Fuck “haven’t stopped smiling”

Fuck “has my back” and “always there for me”

Genghis Chan on Drums at surface level is a play on the immigrant lament—the common lifelong fight all immigrants in the United States must endure to be validated. But what plays out louder than any eulogy for the immigrant’s bygone self, who had an assured identity when he was someone with a singular point of origin before he bifurcated it in his move abroad, is a rearranged call for acceptance. Our contradictions must be acceptable because we are innately contradictory, and the world is a place of hypocrisy. To be and let oneself be is an effort in achieving a true crystalized sense of self, and for the foreigner, who has been endured a lifelong silence, this may be the most difficult act of honesty.

About the Reviewer

Viau holds an MFA in poetry from Louisiana State University. His work has appeared in New Delta Review, HASH, and In Parentheses, among others. He is a French and Spanish teacher in Baltimore, MD, where he lives with his family.