Read This, Then That: Reflections on Diasporic Identity
If you enjoyed the feminine energy and the tantalizing tastes of tea and sugar that run through Natasha Ramoutar's poetry collection Bittersweet (Mawenzi House), try Grace Lau's The Language We Were Never Taught to Speak (Guernica Editions)—a debut with a similar mouthfeel that works to find its own recipes for home and belonging.See more details below
The 2020 debut collections by authors Natasha Ramoutar and Grace Lau display an exuberance in recalling and inventing the details of their ancestors’ search for home. Ramoutar and Lau take up that search in youthful cityscapes both with an attunement to the role tastebuds play in distinguishing home from exile.
Ramoutar plays with anaphora and list poems to guide readers though the streets of Scarborough. The taste of sugar and bitter tea runs throughout the collection, setting a moody spectrum in which what is sweet is also rough. Maps abound: frayed, embroidered, and granular. From the colonized land of Scarborough, Indo-Guyanese Ramoutar recalls the Caribbean Sea.
There’s something triumphantly boisterous in the way Ramoutar brings feminine energy to this collection, which, by the way, is remarkably cohesive and consistent for a debut.
Geographical place and the ghosts who haunt those places are central to the speaker’s layered perception, but the method of interacting with place comes most richly through taste. You’ll even find a recipe in Bittersweet, though it’s not one you’ll want to make at home.
Lau’s collection is, perhaps, smoother, in that it inhabits a world that is as much digital as physical, where emotional stakes are high and the ghosts that haunt the ones and zeros are in fact our hearts tethered to each other, where sometimes that tether is cut. In this collection as well, the author addresses Canada’s colonial history.
One of Lau’s exquisite recurrences is to ask questions. It’s pop-song accessibility undercut by deep philosophical and sociopolitical yearnings, and brilliant syntax choices and enjambments.
Like Bittersweet, if this collection were a body part, it would be a tongue: pulsing, searching, tasting, and in the case of The Language We Were Never Taught to Speak, kissing, two mouths full of lip gloss, two tongues creating the other’s fullness.
“How many letters will you write / in your profile, love notes / to a better version of you / that doesn’t exist / yet— Could you birth yourself / with your fingers and die / in another’s? (p. 4)”
Throughout The Language We Were Never Taught to Speak, Lau balances a queerness that romps joyfully through McDonald’s parking lots, pho restaurants and her grandmother’s home with a grief that goes “round and round” as a queer child of Christian parents. Generational trauma and belonging are two sides of Lau’s coin.
The Language We Were Never Taught to Speak and Bittersweet are two phenomenal debuts.
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A special thank you to Margo LaPierre at Guernica Editions for sharing these fantastic debut collections for this edition of Read This, Then That.
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