Pink roof, white pills, orange jumpsuits, red juice, green body. Black hair, black wire, black keys, black tide; Black hair, black gully, black nozzle, black calligraphy. Black mane, blackest hair.
Fulbright grant and Edna Meudt Memorial Award recipient Carlina Duan’s debut collection of poetry I Wore My Blackest Hair is built upon colourful landscapes of joy, loss, and eventual repair. The poems paint scenes within intricate worlds of both small pleasures and deep loneliness. Duan’s collection sets up two main, but related, streams of conflict with the eponymous poem “I Wore My Blackest Hair”:
His face did not quiver, only his hands. Dinner with Father: I left; I did not leave. On the driveway, a black stone sat. Father coughed a mouthful of rice.
Here, dark, empty spaces between lands, identities, generations, and languages, expand and contract from negotiations within the family to negotiations with nations, the one left and the one arrived in. In “Pledge Allegiance,” Duan writes:
don’t ask me where my solitude comes from—in this country I know we floss our teeth. in this country I know how to swim, how to part my lips. What’s black, what’s bent. What’s not mine to touch.
References to the colour black holds the collection together as it symbolizes forms of her identity, such as her black hair, but also points to absences. This darkness, to Duan, is a family inheritance, containing both the joy and defiance of her Chinese American girlhood. The darkness is also home to the sea of grief and rage that carries along unspoken words, and desires through the generations.
I am the daughter of black tide / an immigrant
- Everything's a Fly
I was her American
daughter, my tongue
my hardest muscle
forced to swallow
a muddy alphabet.
The inevitability of loss is addressed by the writer through missing, untranslatable words and fading characters. The father figure, eminent in the first part of the collection, becomes robbed of words and slowly withdraws to give space to explorations of relations between Duan and other family members, friends, and her city itself, Michigan.
with a rod-or his hands.
the corn came in husks,
which I tore off.
my father’s tongue was not
torn but rather steamed
- When I Boiled the Corn
This distance also presents the reader with a looming sense of absence that textures the redefinition of Duan’s character and identity as a Chinese-American. As much as her collection embodies a personal self-reflection, it is also an unflinchingly honest portrayal of relationships within a first-generation Chinese immigrant family. I Wore My Blackest Hair is deeply entangled with questions of what love and relationships look like when subjected to a relentless othering by those outside the immediate family — questions which many diasporic peoples can relate to.
CARLINA DUAN hails from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she earned her BA from the University of Michigan. As a 2016 Fulbright grant recipient, she lived and taught in Malaysia before returning to the States to pursue work as a literary arts educator and freelancer. Her poems have been anthologized and published in Uncommon Core, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Margins, and Berkeley Poetry Review, among others. I Wore My Blackest Hair is her first full-length poetry collection. She is currently an MFA Candidate at Vanderbilt University.
SUBHANYA SIVAJOTHY is a student and media-maker based in Toronto. She holds an undergraduate degree in Biology and English Literature from McGill University and is working towards Masters in Information Studies. Her research is focused on the environmental humanities, particularly postcolonial and queer ecologies. She explores the relationships between war, displacement and landscapes. Out of the office you can find her reading old science fiction novels, or trying to bake the perfect macaron.