First published at Singapore Unbound's SP Blog.
In Mother of All Questions, acclaimed Singaporean writer Grace Chia boldly examines notions of motherhood, national identity, and the complexity of female selfhood. This is Chia’s third collection of poetry, though she has also published in a variety of genres. Her recent books include the novel The Wanderlusters and the short story collection Every Moving Thing That Lives Shall Be Food, featured by SP Blog in this review by Diane Josefowicz. While Chia is native to Singapore, she lived and traveled for many years throughout North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia, and her poetry and prose have received wide international recognition. Her writing reflects a unique insider/outsider perspective, delineating both self and nation as entities that can be traced across a multiplicity of identities, as well as through various points in time.
As the mother of two children, Chia has spoken elsewhere about the challenges of juggling family life and a writing career. She has also observed that few writers in Singapore are mothers and that domestic life is seldom addressed in contemporary Singaporean literature. In Mother of All Questions, Chia poignantly invokes the struggle to maintain one’s identity amidst the pressures of family life, speaking of the mother who “shelves/ her own needs and forgets she is/ woman before wife, human before mom.” The speaker observes “now that I have become both,/ I am disappearing too into the roles.” Except that she doesn’t.
Instead, in her manifesto-poem “Not a Story,” Chia writes:
I am not a story.
I am flesh and bone and skin with pores
that breathe and block like floodgates
damming my throat as I speak to you…
I am not your creation.
I exist with grace and flaws and jaws…
With these words, the speaker powerfully asserts her voice and her story, claiming an embodied self that is full of agency, “flaws and jaws.” The speaker is distinctively “woman” and “human,” not just wife and mother. Throughout the collection, it is this persona that maps the vivid contours of family life, including the vexed terrain of slammed doors, strained relationships and loss. Chia rewrites our conception of family life, not to mention our understanding of where its boundaries lie; that is to say, where the wild begins and where home ends. In “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Child,” the speaker examines her daughter’s drawings and identifies
a caterpillar frozen in motion;
long turd green, pink lips, curled limbs,
his turn next to bear wings.
A daisy of carmine
salutes a bendy tree,
brown-barked with lime leaves,
ochre sacs of round fruits
pregnant with spindly secrets…
This is not your average drawing, nor is it your average description of domestic life. Instead, it startles. Pink-lipped caterpillars, ordinary oranges recast as “ochre sacs… pregnant with spindly secrets.” With these vivid details of flora and insect life, the speaker’s daughter, rendered in the drawing as an “imp with two seeds for eyes,/ moon mouth, hair in a top knot/ of burnished terracotta,” is more wild than child.
In remapping notions of domestic space and of family, Chia’s poems incorporate conversations with the dead, whose memories—and ghosts, even—endure as a part of familial life. Much of Mother of All Questions is imbued with an acute sense of longing, which encompasses both language and loved ones. In some cases, as in “Gwóngdūng Wá” and in “I Am My Mother’s Child,” the two are inseparable. A bereaved daughter addresses her mother, crying, “Is it too late for me to learn the words/ of your tongue?”
Teach me how to talk to the dead.
How to translate Ghostlish into English
and vice versa when you say you talk
to your mother who is no longer here
The estrangement of the living from the dead, as well as the fissures of lost language and homeland across generations are prominent features of Chia’s world. As suggested by the book’s title, these concerns and others represent an interrogation of self and home that is both deeply personal and boundless.
At its best, Mother of All Questions is like the “wild imp” in the daughter’s drawing: playful, speculative, and unfettered in its address. In “To Holland from Singapore,” Chia’s homeland/city adopts a wry, post-colonial voice, riffing on features of the Commonwealth to remark smartly:
Queenstown is so Victorian
I wonder if the monarch has
come this far; of course, we must
have Victoria Street, as every
Commonwealth country does,
parallel to Queen Street leading
right to Bugis where you’ll find
queens of the feather-boa kind.
In this poem and in others on the subject of Singapore’s national identity, Chia tends toward the pithy, the wisecrack, and even the aphoristic, shrugging in abbreviated shorthand, “No worries. Don’t fret./ It’s okay lah, mai hiam./ Have will; will travel.” Here, she explores “the disjunctive realities of Singapore,” an entity that is both nation and city, a dynamism of “new versus old, nature versus city, beauty versus grotesque, rich versus poor.” She speaks freely about the city, or perhaps for it, constructing her own narrative about who and what Singapore is in relationship to the world. Affectionately, she remarks on both the smallness and expansiveness of Singapore:
We’ve got it all, tiny Singapore,
not forgetting our Little India to
Chinatown to Arab Street,
the world as an oyster is right
in our palm, our fingers five,
from equator to rest of the globe,
I don’t need to travel far
to be far away from here.
Reading Chia’s poems, I felt the eclectic energy of a city like Singapore and the tenderness of domestic space. Memories of my own transnational upbringing, which located me in both Southeast Asia and the United States, came wildly alive, as did a stirring recognition of my experience as a mother-artist. I found myself identifying strongly with Chia’s undaunted explorations of female subjectivity as mother, as daughter, as poet, and as citizen, even as I found myself at times questioning her poetics.
Like the speaker of “Not a Story,” Mother of All Questions exists fully with its “grace and flaws.” There are moments when the writing loosens, slacking into slip-shod line breaks. Images are summoned with such urgency that missteps occur: metaphors run disjunctively into one another, and at times Chia reaches for lines like “I swam upstream to meet/ you Against All Odds/ in the words of Phil Collins,” when, really, we wish she wouldn’t. Yet, Chia is unafraid of plain-spoken bluntness, of statements that startle or puzzle. She doesn’t shy away from broad, abstract claims, or sentimentality and hyperbole, and for the most part, her poems’ energy, enacted in many places by her use of the monostrophe and even the one-sentence poem, is enough to carry us through.
In an interview for World Literature Today, Chia argues that, “A writer needs to be open-minded about a city like Singapore, which is constantly changing and thus unsure of itself in the dialogue of the world. Where does it stand? Who is it? How does it go forward (and backward)?” One might argue that the same open-mindedness is requisite in reading a book like Mother of All Questions, which sets out fearlessly to undertake a lyric staging of the self, revealing the poet’s subjectivity in full, uncensored glory. The final poem, though it represents a significant departure from the rest of the book in tone and poetic mode, bluntly dramatizes the book’s central ambition: to participate in an interrogation of one’s self. Written as an interview, the speaker’s older self dispenses professional and personal advice to her younger self. We, as women, much like the city of Singapore, are continually evolving. We are dynamic, dialogic selves that are ever in the process of remaking ourselves, and as the poet says, the fact that we have “multiple exits and entrances from tip to toe. . . a mystique/ with no neat strings to tie up, tie down or tie around”—well, that’s something to celebrate.
by Mia Ayumi Alhotra
Mia Ayumi Malhotra is the author of Isako Isako, winner of the 2017 Alice James Award. She holds a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of Washington, and her poems have appeared in Poetry Northwest, The Yale Review, Indiana Review, and elsewhere.