It is unfortunate that in certain circles, diaspora poetry has become a bit of a meme. It is also unfortunately easy to see why; while some charges against the genre seem downright mean (that it is disrespectful to launder familial trauma as art; that the constant invocation of a flattened, romanticized homeland is its own sort of exoticism; that there are too many mangoes), the criticisms gain traction because they feel, to some extent, true. Of course, the argument goes, this isn’t to suggest that diaspora poets shouldn’t write from their point of view, or that the other poets are doing any better. But the question remains: couldn’t immigrant poets be trying something different?
Susan Nguyen’s Dear Diaspora flies in the face of this question. Winner of the Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, Dear Diaspora (as the name suggests) is unapologetically a work of diasporic literature. In poems like “If I Say My Body Is Grieving,” and “Questions I’ve Never Asked My Father,” there are the personally particular but nevertheless recognizable explorations of familial trauma. Other poems, like the third and fourth “Letter to the Diaspora,” or “Ode to Hunger,” contain the food images readers may have come to expect:
“Praise SPAM fried with fish sauce and sugar / jackfruit, 25 lbs. Of it carved on newspaper, latex sap sticking fingers”
But to dismiss these poems as merely more food porn is to ignore the strength of Nguyen’s craft. Throughout Dear Diaspora, Nguyen chooses details – like these 25 lbs., the background of newspaper, the “latex sap sticking fingers” – that creates a sort of specificity while remaining open for further interpretation. Her images feel both particular and representative. This is especially clear when she explores the personal experiences of a character, Suzi, who we might read as a stand-in for Nguyen herself. “What Suzi Believes,” for example, depicts the innocence and uncertainty of youth via both the specific and the general. One moment, Suzi has her mother’s tape measure, “a Burmese python she drapes / across her shoulders / à la Britney Spears,” the next she is contemplating death:
“The more she thinks about her mother / or father / dying / the more likely it will happen / God can hear her / thinking of sex / during Sunday Mass / but not when she prays / for her parents’ safety”
These poems about Suzi also serve as a sort of guiding structure throughout Dear Diaspora, being its clearest narrative line. While time doesn’t function linearly throughout the work, these poems still provide a rough sense of order, moving from what appears to be a young, schoolgirl Suzi in poems like “Cicada Summer,” “Wish List,” and “HAGS,” to a more mature Suzi in “Suzi Grows Older,” or “Suzi Searches for Ecstasy.” Nguyen is thus able to not only explore girlhood but also adolescence and desire, and how America and immigration can shape them.
These poems focused on Suzi are interleaved with other meditations, including multiple “Letter to the Diaspora,” and “You Google Vietnam,” and separated into the second and fourth sections of Dear Diaspora. Separating these two is the third section, which consists entirely of a standout poem in the collection, “The Boat People.” Here, Nguyen dials her perspective further out to a larger, historical view. Obituaries inspired by real life are interwoven with interviews and official government statements, inscriptions from memorials, and quotes from articles on the topic of Vietnamese refugees. The poem serves as a sort of grounding for the rest of the work, giving further context for Suzi’s upbringing and reminding the reader of the reality of it all, building the necessary ties from the aesthetic to the historic.
It’s the lack of these larger ties – the elision of labor, war, history, and the broader picture in favor of fixating on the experiences of oneself, or one’s family – that often makes bad diaspora poetry feel so flat. With Dear Diaspora, Nguyen shows that this need not be the case, and that the genre has plenty more to offer.
(University of Nebraska Press, Poetry, September 2021)
Jefferson Lee is a Korean American, born in a small town in Western New York called Canandaigua. He has writing in Maudlin House, AAWW’s The Margins, and The Rumpus. He lives and writes in San Francisco. His Twitter handle is @jlee4219.