A world in perpetual translation

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The Family China  by Ann Chin


Book Review
The Family China

by Ann Shin

Published by Brick Books


I cracked open this collection where many stories about families often begin: at the end. The brief paragraph of biography on Ann Shin telegraphs her growth from farm to city, Toronto, where she now lives with her family. One may be quick to read this summation of her life and follow the linear logic of time. The categorical division of time that follows her transition from a daughter to a mother, from a child with family to a parent with family, is a form that is easily consumable as a reader—the thematic decalcomanie writes itself. This doubling, however, seems to be the intrinsic form and internal logic of the collection, where phrases and motifs invoked in earlier pages of the book is used again, reframed in a subsequent entry in a slightly re-dressed phrase or new context.

The collection would start out with moving into a new home and the labour of cleaning; and one sees this fixation with cleanliness eventually evolve into the surgical sterility of her mother’s failing health. The elbows that greased and waxed the floors and tables become the author’s insensate limbs that grow numb at the news of her mother’s accident.

A migrant that stumbles into a new language repositions the world that he has since accrued up till then. In Shin’s world, even a monolingual may enter into new languages— “How a stranger becomes a love, / and love becomes familiar, / the familiar hated.” As a daughter of South Korean migrants she must be keenly aware of the way a word acquires meanings different from its native soil, this sensitivity to language that perhaps bears a poet (or perhaps all poets become a migrant) imbues tender playfulness to even the gravest scenes. Shin’s world, in short, is always in translation, even at the moment of its inscription. This is ever more apparent in the way she uses the margins of the book.

With a tiny gloss that sutures the pieces into extraneous narratives standing beyond, marginalia redoubles as a site of untold stories, accessed through a single word, written like a dictionary. And often these words are ones that do not require additional gloss. They are well defined in our everyday vocabulary, with carefully delineated usage in the routines of our lives. But of course, Shin’s care is in showing that the process of growing means colouring the language anew. This process, we must know instinctually, is at once universal and unique. We go through this process of colouring our worlds different from the kid whose desk is next to ours— “My sky is purple, yours is green. It’s all shade of blue somewhere.”

The collection extends beyond simply chronicling the experiences of migration, the loss, and the jarring initial days of joy and the resolute hearts required when facing one’s brave new world. It breaks open what a family is, how it shapes the intimacy and deals with violence. The ebb and flow of her writing dismantles what she tries to define, one watches the tides come in again and start over.

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