Once, the past was in dialogue with the future, a hybrid form. The origin of the word hybrida is Latin, from ibrida, or ‘mongrel’—a creature of mixed breeds. Open interpretation of violence, collision of selves, histories, and languages. Is language a movement of spirits or bodies making themselves known through their outward mutation? My parents came from China and migrated to Taiwan, ultimately arriving in the U.S. I was born in America, contributing to a long line of mixed culture, crossed boundaries, the collaborative and combustible nature of words. If I grew up with dual language, dual identity, how can anything feel both one and unified?
The fragmentation of the zuihitsu welcomes me randomness, collage, a piecing (and piercing) of memory and imagination that adds up to feeling akin to liberation. The liberation of imagination is the body’s response to dominance and containment. To build, speak, and write a way through each darkness. Zuihitsu, erasure, re-imagined ekphrastic poems, words in movement, journalism in conversation with invented narrative, fairy tales fused with the lyric imagination, language in dialogue with visual art—much of it isn’t entirely new, but now, written with a singular hand, calls to me. I think of discomfort, creating spaces where one is uneasy in order to change.
Immigrant body, female body, mother body.
Is the creative body inherently vulnerable?
Damaged body. Dream body. Fluid body. Boy body.
During a recent panel discussion about hybrid forms at Sarah Lawrence College Aracelis Girmay described the present generation, as made up of not two arms, but many appendages, like octopuses. She was careful not to say octopi. That wasn’t quite the word she envisioned as she held out her arms as if to touch something multi-limbed, iridescent.
In the same discussion, Rachel Zucker said, “Motherhood is a hybrid form and there haven’t been enough discussions about this language.” This utterance struck me: lexicon of mother, collage of maternal self, fusion of artistic forms made manifest through the lens of protection. But this language is often ignored, buried, dismissed or dismantled. Mangled by teeth. An entire landscape of language.
Raising a boy who is black and Asian in this country, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I never truly confronted the full spectrum of race in my past, at least not enough. Race was never a vessel but a land that bled into the tide. It surged, carried me forward, and then I arrived at my body. I try not to cast my own identity aside to understand my son’s. Sometimes, I feel that old self fading away. I attempt to hang on and let go at once. Sometimes, when the room is populated, I search the borders for my own disappearance.
Anyone who has ever been born of mixed race feels this inheritance. Often, gestured as an in-between state, it’s unlike having one foot in one territory or another. Anyone who has been born of several races, cultures, reaches for a bottomless depth. I sit before a large scale illustration made into a postcard. It’s a detail from a children’s book by Jostein Gaarder called Questions Asked. The illustration by Akin Duzakin shows a self and what seems to be a shadow-self diving into the depths of water. It feels like this: questions with no end. If one lives within this feeling, it doesn’t provide comfort but being. The diving down does not come without breathlessness: Fathomless foundation of questions, and a wooden trunk filled with more gleaming questions.
Perhaps there is a world down there.
By raising a boy, do I understand what it means to live as a black boy? How do I speak of his existence without appropriating his existence? I return to the language of mothers.
At a reading, I spoke about giving birth and raising a black son. I was told that someone in the audience Googled, “Tina Chang and Black Son.” I don’t think anyone will find any information anywhere about this except in my poems. It’s not Google-able, Google searched or defined: My son found within a search engine. When he was born, our mutual exhaustion was a hybrid sound.
Media can obliterate a spirited word (world).
I am not the same person I was yesterday and form allows me to speak this fact.
My longest poem focuses on a boy rising from his beginnings in the womb and living in a body made vulnerable by authorities. There are clippings, diagrams, evidence that speak toward the poems that surround them. The fragmented form like zuihitsu has a place here. How can we make sense of chaos? What is the form for that?
Google-able fact: “Unarmed black people were killed at five times the rate of unarmed whites in 2015” (Mapping Police Violence).
Google-able fact: “There is no federal database that tracks the number of people of any race killed by police. Some individuals and groups have compiled their own databases, such as The Root and Hiphopandpolitics.com, using information from media and law enforcement reports” (Los Angeles Times).
Non-Google-able fact: When my son wakes from his dream, he finds me in another room folding clothes. He lies down next to me on the sofa. In his dream we are separated. There is an elsewhere, he says, where children sleep and never wake. I touch his forehead which now feels hot with fever.
List of the times my son has registered hurt:
- His friend kicks him in the spine. The mother of the boy does not notice.
- A neighbor asks him if he has a gun in his pocket.
- He realizes we are not the same person.
- He walks up to a group of boys in his class. Turns back to me, asks me to say goodbye one more time.
- He mentions under his breath that I never listen to his stories.
- When I defend him too fiercely. He storms away. Locks the door.
- A white boy steals his school snacks and he is hungry. When he tells a head teacher, she doesn’t believe him.
- My mother calls his hair crazy. She asks him to cut it each time she sees him.
- We play basketball and when he can’t get the ball in the basket, he runs away and hides.
- My friend tells me that all the girls like the blonde, blue-eyed boy in the class. When I’m silent she says, “They like your boy too, of course.”
- I asked him to get out of bed. Instead, he stood on his mattress and raised both arms up.
- Outside his window, he views police officers surround a man. He doesn’t know if he should feel for the officers or the man standing at the center, panting hard.
- He often tells me he doesn’t understand the meanness of boys. Mentions maybe it’s better to stand somewhere in the middle or somewhere alone.
- In the basement of my home, his friend straddles him, punches him in the head over a dozen times. He did not sound out or call for help. Later, he said my husband told him never to hit a girl so he laid there waiting for the punches to stop.
- I was far from the house.
- I was not home.
I sometimes try not to register his pain. When I do, I often find myself immobile.
Hybrid forms leave fences open. They are wide fields with snow leopards, wolves, and honey bees. The combustion of imaginings forms a lake, water spreading, explosions on the surface of an oil slick.
Hybrida is the change of properties. Long ago the earth plates shifted, came together in new permutations. New land. New World. It permits a space to be wounded, sutured, broken again, and untied to float to a beyond.
This mixed presence is a ghost, converses with the living. What lingers sounds like leaves crushed beneath feet, or the light that remains on after you’ve distinctly shut it, the house in the field over there, the one that keeps living whether you view it or not. Lights in the upstairs room. Shadows move when the wind changes its mind. It seems inhabited, doesn’t it?
I am afraid for vocabulary and its presence in the struggle. It lives at the center of a circle and it’s been bred to salivate, primed for impatience, with a hand at its back coaxing it toward its gritty death. We could say this hand is history but this isn’t true. Vocabulary is the future we’ve all been waiting for. It lunges at the throat of man’s deepest intentions. I hear the crush of cartilage, an ankle wobble for recovery, the quick intake of breath. There is a fall but the crowd is so thick now, I cannot see. I rely on my other senses to brace myself for what’s about to happen.
Look out and look backward. The story we are living now is an ancient one. It has been lived before but feels new in this present existence. Open the books. This already happened, in different guises, on the shores of other lands, evolved forms hemorrhaging before it sprouts new wings, before the beak breaks through the surface, a new oration, legs jutting from an interior rush of nomadic longing. Hybrida’s translation: Wilderness of the mind. But it’s changing.
“Hybrida: A Zuihitsu” reprinted from Hybrida: Poems by Tina Chang © 2019 by Tina Chang. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.