Jennifer S. Cheng, House A, Omnidawn, 2016
Reviewed by Nick Greer
Immigration narratives, almost by definition, lack a center. Even the simplest migration—between two points, a here and a there, the old home and the new one—isn't so simple. A narrative caught between two worlds (or more) must bilocate, trilocate, and so on, a kind of quantum art in which the felt impact of any one locality falls away and the concept of home is distributed and diluted. Often this is a source of conflict and strife, "[b]ut what if," Jennifer S. Cheng wonders in House A, "the absence of a point of reference is not something to be lamented but a structural foundation on which to build a house we fill with water?"
The decentered home is central is House A, both in concept and execution. When Cheng lists the many places she's lived—"Delta Court, Tai Tam, Outer Sunset" (33)—considering their names and their "varying terrains: New England lawns, fields of Midwestern estrangement, Southwestern skies that never end" (30)—she's not taking the reader on a grand tour so much as she's questioning how the ways we tour define our sense of home. She lists to explore how a list is more technicality than reality but is still reality-constructing.
In House A's reality, the informational and the experiential are presented as parts of the same whole, the studium of names and terrains sharing space with the punctum of the memory of a paper lantern catching fire, the smell of a grandmother's carpet, a collection of things lost: "my fingernail moon…the dark spot inside my mother's throat…house inside my seams" (35). Home is many metaphors: like the ocean, a migration of birds, the feeling of sleep, a secret language. It is mind and body. It is here and there. It is all of these things and so it is none—that is, no one—of these things.
To Cheng, home is the experience of wandering between these many unhomes, but this doesn't make for an especially unheimlich reading experience. What she calls "a poetics of distance" (70) is more bittersweet, defined by longing, but like the feeling of home it defines, this longing is hazy:
In a house built on absence, the alienation one might feel when faced with the uncanny is an old friend and, by extension, anything too settled cannot quite be trusted, like when Cheng's "mother first told [her] the folktale of the woman in the moon, [and she] thought it was a story of the evils of man" (20).
This inversion is something that carries into the book's sense of genre and tradition. The book itself is not a book but a triptych of lyric essays—"Letters to Mao," "House A; Geometry B," and "How to Build an American Home"—comprising smaller lyrics essays so distilled and pluralistic they're more lyric than essay. House A inherits many tropes from the essay, especially its more formal, intellectual rhetoric, but the writing's movement is more liquid, more ruminative. Where an essay might position itself as an argument, a procession of points that builds on itself through causality—if this then that—Cheng's writing is more like the immigrant's decentered network, a collection of and's and or's that are too intimate, too contradictory to build up to something as singular and definitive as a thesis. Just like Cheng's concept of home, the essay is a structure too rigid to house her experience, but one that has defined it nonetheless. It's an institution to be cherished and subverted, sometimes in the same breath.
This is especially evident in the book's first third, "Letters to Mao." An epistolary, each essay begins with the salutation, "Dear Mao," though Mao is conspicuously absent otherwise. Cheng isn't exactly addressing her letters to Mao the person, but Mao the character, an icon she grew up with. In [an interview with Rusty Morrison], Cheng describes thinking of Mao as "a specter, a tenor that drifted in and out, vague but formidable background sounds to my childhood, like white noise." Mao, like Home, is a mythology, an ambiguous absence, but this doesn't mean he doesn't influence our narratives. Addressing a letter to him is an empty ritual but a comforting, necessary one. It gives a "story grammar" to what is otherwise an "interconnected sea" (20) that resists this organization.
If "Letters to Mao" is a sea, the fragments of text that comprise "House A; Geometry B" are driftwood, the remains of a structure no longer a structure. The fragments are technically "definitions," an ekphrastic response to the New Oxford American Dictionary, but where the sentence fragments of a dictionary entry feel, well, definitive, Cheng's aren't so stable. She laces the dictionary's analytic, technical language with the personal and imagistic—"the father is a convex polyhedra, or, he lay out the living room in tetrahedron composed" (65)—and interrupts their declarative syntax with the speculative—"a series of connected points might look like a mountain range" (65). These altered definitions allude to the structures they came from, but have lost their original meaning, taking on new ones in the process.
"How to Build an American House" reads like an attempt to actually build a home from all the driftwood. The tone is more practical and hopeful, the voice of someone who has—if not answered—come to terms with the initial question: "what if the absence of a point of reference is not something to be lamented but a structural foundation…?" Another ekphrastic project, this section responds to public domain blueprints, maps, and other diagrams, not mirroring their instructional affect so much as, again, reconsidering their "grammar" while, again, still being beholden to it. In response to a diagram of an amphitheater: "Children of immigrants take their house wherever they go, its sounds patter and shake like a drawerful of dishes, cups, spoons" (80). The writing is assertive and definitive, but in the service of complicating the given image, redefining the amphitheater as an imaginary, personal space.
As you might expect, these personal interpretations always seem to win out over mythologies and technicalities. Though home, Mao, and the definitions of New Oxford American Dictionary, are rigid structures, we still create intimate relationships with them and from them. Cheng accepts this and makes the choice to include these too in her sense of home, as in the essay that begins "How to Build an American Home":