Hua Shi Hua
In her debut collection, Hua Shi Hua, Jen Hyde examines how the mechanisms of language shape worlds. This four parts of the collection, “speaking / China / transform / flowers,” unfolds in a precise lyricism that never shies from confronting the stubbornness of translation while Hyde wields it as her own to claim literacies of heritage and art. Dividing the book’s sections with Mandarin Chinese characters (all of which sound the same to the Western ear) and drawing from both classic Chinese and English texts, Hyde synthesizes and bisects biracial identification to culture and belonging. With Hua Shi Hua, Hyde responds to cultural pasts that advance an ongoing conversation. “To be biracial in America is a beautiful and terrifying experience,” says Hyde; “it calls into question the right to one’s own cultural ideologies.”
“Throughout Hua Shi Hua, Jen Hyde stitches the marvelous image of a yellow crane—only this yellow crane, by virtue of context, becomes tower, bird, or machine. The images become converted variously, as do her ‘generative translations’ of Chinese poets. In this debut collection, we have a lyrical quest for heritage, for language, and for poetry itself.” —Kimiko Hahn
“These deep, clear, attentive, gorgeous poems explore Hyde’s liminal position as a half-Chinese woman living in Shanghai, and also themselves exist in spaces of transition and betweenness. Hua Shi Hua is the result of a sustained, necessary, generous, honest engagement, one the poet was courageous to undertake, and one which we are fortunate to be able to experience.” —Matthew Zapruder
“In Chinese, 化 can mean to assimilate or to transform. Using 化 in Hua Shi Hua, Hyde teaches us how transformation is the process of growing a new heart.” —Wen Jin, Professor of Comparative Literature, East China Normal University
The Construction of a Mechanical Crane
In a hangar in Baoshan Steel City
twenty miles northwest of Shanghai
a worker sleeps in a truck bed
beside machines. To come here is
to say I will look at light
through simple trees, count
the dust masks I have been given
iron particles syphoned
into ivy tunnels
and the machines that cast
the machine I know
In the hangar its torso, hollow,
into a screw thread
to form itself. In Shanghai,
when the crane lifts a glass pane
across the sky,
this man dreams a room
rises from a hole in the ground.
I step inside it while another crane
cuts through a cloud.
Is my curiosity mechanical? Yes,
my own body is a defeated animal.
The next day I read
a red-crowned crane in captivity
has lost half her beak.
I return to the factory to wake
the man from his dream.
He prints a titanium
replicate, attaches it
to her injury. As I watch him,
my own mouth stings—
Copyright © 2017 by Jen Hyde
I was born in Anaheim, California to a German American father and Indo-Chinese American mother. I am often asked where my family is from, and when I tell them Southern California, I’m asked where they are really from. Even though questions like this one are part of my everyday experience they have caused me to question, for most of my life, the validity of my heritage.
I am, by nature, a cautious person; I do not like confrontation, competitive sports, or driving fast. I studied creative writing and printmaking with Jen Bervin, Christian Hawkey, and Robbin Ami Silverberg at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn where I earned my BFA. I graduated at the start of the great recession. After temping at a consulting firm in Manhattan for a year, and teaching English in China for another, I began studying poetry at NYU where I earned my MFA. There, I studied with wonderful poets, Meghan O’Rourke, Matthew Rohrer, Kimiko Hahn, and Anne Carson. I fell in love with Adrienne Rich and Li-Young Lee as well as the work of my teachers. I met collaborators and lifelong readers and friends including Emily Brandt, Axel Wilhite, Amy Bonnaffons, and Jennifer Nelson.
At NYU I learned so much about sustaining a writing life, and about sustaining a book-length inquiry, but it was not until a few years after I graduated from the program, and was offered the chance to live China and work for NYU Shanghai, that I tried to write a book myself. Hua Shi Hua is my attempt at a first book, and my attempt to render the simultaneous comfort and alienation I find in claiming my right to my identity every time I am asked to account for it. What I learned writing these poems is that my selves may always be fraught with insecurities, but giving language to these emotions has given me a confidence to advocate for other people who may also question themselves or their rights to their identities as a result of being questioned everyday.
I have, since 2012, collaboratively published chapbooks with ND/SA, and since 2016, I have been an assistant poetry editor for The Bellevue Literary Review and a Heart Valve Ambassador for the American Heart Association. My current writing project is supported by a Margins Fellowship from the Asian American Writer’s Workshop. In it, I am investigating health equity and the biotech industry from my perspective as a biracial adult living with a congenital heart defect. I would not have the confidence to pursue this inquiry had I not given myself the chance to sustain writing Hua Shi Hua.
At the end of 2013 I moved to Shanghai. I wanted to teach myself how to read a language of my heritage and to understand my Chinese identity. In Mandarin I am called a huaren, an ethnically Chinese person who was not born in China; in English I am a person of the Chinese diaspora by way of my mother, who moved to the United States from Indonesia. As a biracial American poet and book artist, I have felt illiterate in the language of my own culture—a language that, nevertheless, belongs to me.
In Shanghai, I audited a book arts class taught by Marianne Petit at NYU Shanghai, and I assisted with the launch of university’s first student-run news publication. While I experimented with book forms and storytelling, I was learning about free speech in China, a concept more complex than is (or can be) depicted by English-language media. Those complexities shaped the way I began writing about the Shanghai landscape; I became invested in depicting the liminal life moments and interactions and stillnesses between me and the people I encountered in the city, and how such encounters enabled me to think about my own family and cultural history. I began to think about freedom of speech as not just the right to discuss, critique, and advocate for a variety of human voices in a political conversation, but also as one’s personal right to her own experience.
Around this time, I began reading about the small press publishing practices in the Ming Dynasty. At that time, the cities around Shanghai were known for producing prolific poetry, and for manufacturing materials (paper, ink, and brushes) to make books. I read the Chinese printing scholar, Chow Kai-Wing, who explained why woodblock printing became a popular and affordable publishing method for small presses in China: despite Gutenberg’s development of moveable type in Europe, “woodblock printing remained the most attractive technology to most Chinese printers without substantial resources.” Because “a carver did not need to be literate, illiterate workers, including women and children could and did become carvers. A book could be produced by one person—from copying the text to the block, printing copies, and finely stitching up the pages.” In Chow’s description I felt I’d found myself, a maker of books and an illiterate person who was both inside a cultural landscape I had been born into and outside of the immediate cultural and historical fluency of that language. I transformed Chow’s description into a recorded performance of illiterate book publishing in which I played the role of publisher, printer, and illiterate writer. I printed five copies of this manuscript using woodblock plates, a laser cutter, traditional relief printing techniques, and bamboo paper which I sourced from a paper village in Suzhou. The paper village remains an independent publisher today, though due to copyright and publishing laws in China, it prints only classic texts. They are beautiful.
The poems in this printing of Hua Shi Hua are an artifact of my performance. Through a process I call generative translation, I interpreted classic Chinese poetry written at the site of the Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan City, and I used the image of the crane, whose presence is now that of a machine in the Shanghai skyline, to explore the city’s landscape and to find my own relationship to my mother and our heritage as I moved through it. This method of exploration enabled me to render a range of my own selves in the landscape of my poems. As an adult with a congenital heart defect, I have undergone two open-heart surgeries in my lifetime, and I will continue to undergo these procedures as new advancements in the research for my condition are made. I recently received a bioprosthetic heart valve made with the pericaridum tissue of a cow. I was also born in the year of the Ox, an identity that gives me hope in the face of always questioning my health and my right to call myself an Asian American woman. When the speaker of my poems claims she is part animal, she may be reaching for the most literal version of her physical self. This is, at once, armor and armament because the right to a cultural self can be more easily dismissed by others both in the reality of these poems and in real life.
The title of this book draws on four characters that, to the foreign ear, make a similar sound (hua), yet each of these characters is distinct in writing and distinguished by its tone when spoken aloud. I used them as an organizing principle for this book, and I combined them to write a bilingual poem. When I finished the performance, I realized that perhaps I am not so much an illiterate writer, but one who is unable to fully understand both my first language and the languages of my heritage, and that this is an identity that requires lifelong mining. In Shanghai, I’d just found the beginning of my work as a poet.