Ed Bok Lee

Real Karaoke People

May 1, 2006

Much journalism has been published about Ground Zero in New York City. That work has its own poetry, drowned in the stories of writers and photographers on the scene, the church across the street, the elementary school nearby, the chaos emerging after the settling of dust and debris.

In Museum of Absences, New York City-based poet, writer and teacher Luis H. Francia writes from the very familiar space occupied by immigrants and lost souls: the space of exile. In this poetry collection, the Philippines-born Francia is an exile writing of a war in his new residence. In “Two Houses,” he writes: “In this house each death has a double/Each blast, an echo/It will not hold, no matter how/many rooms, all our names.” Francia’s newly ravaged city is populated by “Mongol, Aztec,
Berber, Cherokee, Zulu, Zuni, Semite, Aborigine, Malay, Han, Viking,” the various peoples who helped build
New York.

After 9/11, news reports broadcasted the faces of the terrorists who flew planes into U.S. landmarks, and one realized how they were able to freely roam Francia’s New York—they blended in. To the government authorities removed from the streets, the next terrorist could be any one of us.

Francia does not lament. In language deep and furious like the Amazon, he protests current ways of thinking that perpetuate fear. If one virtue of immigration is courage and victory—one might escape a war-ravaged land or circumstance to emerge “victorious”—Francia’s poems illustrate how, in a nation built by immigrants, this virtue has been all but forgotten in the mainstream rhetoric of war and freedom. —Yvonne Hortillo

There are many reasons to try and appreciate Laila Lalami’s prettily titled new work, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, a group of interconnected short stories about a small boatful of Moroccan immigrants risking their lives to cross the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain. A timely piece of writing, Hope brings some fiction to a conversation that has taken place largely among politicians and in the news media.

Unfortunately, Lalami’s prose is not one of them. Much as I wanted to like Hope, my efforts were thwarted by such non-descriptive descriptions as, “Her knuckles were frozen and red,” and by such superficial interior monologue as “Aziz imagined that maybe one day he would be like them, have a car and a place to go.” The beautiful Moroccan names and occasional word in Arabic don’t compensate for the dull, atonal thud thud of dead writing.

Perhaps an understanding of the inner lives of migrant workers and undocumented immigrants might be better nourished by the periodic human interest stories in the New York Times.

Part of the trouble is that Lalami’s structure and setting promise so much that her writing fails to deliver. Built on a structure familiarized by films like Steven Soderberg’s Traffic or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, several different characters and story lines converge around a single incident, in this case the crossing of the Gibraltar. It’s the perfect way to write about immigration, because it allows for movement between the personal and the political, from the individual stories to the climactic event and back again. And as in Traffic and Amores Perros, it allows an artist to develop characters within the settings of their completely different socio-economic backgrounds, using the device of one event to show how the characters are all affected by the same larger issue. Lalami divides Hope into two sections, “Before” and “After,” but Hope never really gets personal, nor does the boat crossing ever become climactic. The specificity and textures of lived experience are missing, and we can’t quite imagine the dramatic boat climax when we haven’t even been able to visualize a character walking down the street. —Mary Ellen Obias

In the prairies of North Dakota, single-roomed churches rise out of the wheat. Some are the only buildings along long stretches of road. Some are squat with stained glass. Some are wooden, painted white with one steeple. Built in the late 1800s and early 1900s by European immigrants, these structures are the lone attesters to the existence of many small prairie communities. In Ed Bok Lee’s poetry collection Real Karaoke People, this is the setting of “Year of the Dog,” which tells the story of young soldiers escaping wars in Vietnam and Los Angeles only to end up in towns whose center used to be the decrepit church down the street, crumbling in its obvious not-belonging. Most churches ring with silence, heavy with memory. Lee mixes the memories of new immigrants washing dishes in their new towns, how the same Guangdong hands that used to separate fish from nets now separate plates from glassware at the only Mexican restaurant in town.

Fishermen may not have imparted their memories in the same careful and gentle language in which Lee translates them for us, but he clearly takes pains to do justice to their experiences. In “The Secret to Life in America,” he tells the story of a mail-order bride who saves up enough money so she can order her friend from Saigon, remembering the words a would-be older brother who showed scars from life on the streets and said, “Go off and write/Poetry/And when you do, do me this one favor. Lie. And make our father and me/the heroes/you always needed us to be.”

Just when Lee’s collection convinces his reader about the unhappy lives of his subjects, he rises and sings a song with the title poem: “when you’re singing karaoke/really singing from the center of your being/in whatever town you’re in, whatever bar, club or smoky poolroom/the only thing that really matters is/Destiny.” And readers can’t help but smile, because even if poetry were invented to make you despair or invented to jolt you awake, then poetry is life, and all our despairing, expiring lives are poetry. —Yvonne Hortillo

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