La Mystérique, Jennifer Lee Tsai
Guillemot Press, 2022 £8.00
The word mysterique is a difficult beast to track down online. Google, in its wisdom, insists on changing it to ‘mystique’.
I did, however, manage to find a definition of it in French: relatif aux mystères religieux. So, while English has just the one word ‘mystery’ to describe both a puzzle to be solved and a reality to be celebrated (religious mystery), the French have the useful word mysterique to describe the latter.
Actually, the spiritual epiphany implied by this title is only one of the themes that link these poems and short prose pieces. The other is that stated by Anne Anlin Cheng in the quotation that heads the opening poem, ‘The Yellow Woman’:
We say Black women, brown women, white women, but not yellow women.
It is this elusive ‘yellow woman’, who is the subject of these pieces. (She’s ‘a girl like you or me, except (s)he is not you or me.’)
This ‘girl’ then, who both is and is not the author, has an English self and a Chinese self, and (like those two countries) their co-existence is precarious. Returning to her roots, she finds her Chinese self ‘floats off into the ether like a brightly coloured kite’ (‘Wild Horses’), while her English self can’t articulate itself to her Chinese mother.
Sometimes the ‘yellow woman’ identifies with the Hakka people, a peripatetic tribe from North East China. Like them, she feels she was ‘condemned and doomed to wander looking for her place in history’ (‘About Chinese Women).
In ‘Tso Kin Tsai’ and ‘Origins’, we learn some telling details of the lethal effects of the communist regime on Chinese traditions, and in ‘Risk’, the author tells us that the traditional Chinese character for love contains a heart in its centre, but in the 1950s, the Communist Party simplified the written script to encourage literacy. The character for love lost its heart.
This simple fact seems to sum up the dehumanising effect of a sterile ideology. Remove the heart from love, and all you have is a duty to the state.