To Whitey and the Cracker Jack

reviewed by Stephanie Burt

This debut from HAUNTIE (the nom de plume of the Hmong American writer May Yang) puts its performance of outrage at center stage and justifies its stances thoroughly too. At once a revenger, a ghost, and an auntie, helping younger women kept down by powerful men, Yang’s HAUNTIE persona attacks patriarchy and racism in very general terms. “[T]his heat which scorched my father’s spirit down / will look onto you and take you like it took me too,” she writes; “[I] can be silent, no more! // to this white lie // or give me death.” She also declares her resistance, and sometimes her witness, to particular ills, among them the unconscionable, sometimes murderous treatment of Hmong people in Laos, the denial of opportunities here, and the American misunderstanding of Hmong religious practice, including spirit belief: “our totems are not absolute…their sounds are our own ghosts, // which refuse to hide.” Sometimes self-confident, sometimes bent double with doubt, HAUNTIE’s self-presentation make it easy to imagine her (even though she’s a character) onstage, “straddling memory and the present tension / muscles turning into stone from the weight of time.” And yet, with its sharp illustrations, HAUNTIE’s collection flaunts its design: it’s a book, not (or not just) a script for performance, and it invites us at once to contemplate her representative angst, to shout against injustice, and to see ourselves: “Look into / the vastness of nothing, / and think // that could be you.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2017.