With poetry, child of immigrants ponders idea of home

In the beginning of her first book, House A (Omnidawn), Jennifer S. Cheng writes: “It is important to note that before language, children experience memories as image and sound, which is to say they experience them as poetry.”

Composed of three sections, each written in a different form, House A reconstructs this childlike experience of the world by blending the literal and metaphorical ways in which we build our houses and our selves.

The first section is a series of letters written to Mao, intimate and conjectural, that investigate the overlapping natures of memory and longing, history — both personal and cultural — and rootedness.

By phone, Cheng said, “I think a lot about how — in my particular immigrant household, how does history and how does trauma and how do all these things that I never really heard about explicitly from my parents … how do those things become part of me?”

She ponders how the historical figure of Mao could be a huge presence in her house, even though her parents did not tell her stories about him.

“I somehow still knew about it,” she said. “I start to think about it as if that knowledge was built into the objects in our house, or the shadows in our house, or the way my parents moved around, or the way that they structured the furniture.”

Cheng was born in Texas and moved to Hong Kong, where her father grew up, when she was 8 (her mother is from Taiwan). They moved back to the U.S. four years later.

“We moved around a lot,” Cheng said, “so the idea of home or house was never necessarily a stable, physical structure. I think this is often the case with immigrants and children of immigrants, and it makes me wonder then where does our sense of home or house come from, and what are we then rooted in, or what roots us? I’m really interested in that question.”

In “House A,” she asks: “What if 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?”

In another letter, she writes: “Dear Mao, I hope you understand that what I am doing is trying to give you a history of water, which, like memory and sleep, is fluid and wafting in refracted light. History as water, so that I am giving you something that spreads.”

“House A” was selected by Claudia Rankine as the winner of the 2015 Omnidawn 1st/2nd Poetry Book Prize, but Cheng is “a little distressed” by the idea that they represent something permanent.

“I’m still rewriting some of these poems, and I’m still moving them around, and they’re still very fluid to me in a way,” she said. “But because we live in the world we live in, they have to have some kind of semblance of completion or permanence. But I don’t necessarily feel that that’s true with a capital T.”


Book party for ‘House A’: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21. Free. Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St., S.F.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Gary Tsang

Other book events

Emma Donoghue (“Room”) reads from and discusses her new novel, “The Wonder” (7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, free).

Books Inc. Laurel Village presents a panel on the theme of body, with Jen Richter (“No Acute Distress”), Matthew Siegel (“Blood Work”), Vanessa Hua (“Deceit and Other Possibilities”) and Ingrid Rojas Contreras (7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, 3515 California St., S.F., free).

Slovenian Lidija Dimkovska discusses her novel “A Spare Life” (Two Lines Press), which won the 2013 European Union Prize for Literature (7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, Diesel, A Bookstore, 5433 College Ave., Oakland, free).

SpeCt Books celebrates the publication of an uncollected prose piece by Jack Spicer called “The Wasps,” with readings by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian (3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22, Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St., S.F., free).

André Alexis, author of the Giller Prize-winning novel “Fifteen Dogs,” reads from and discusses his new book “The Hidden Keys” with Karen Joy Fowler (“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”) (7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22, Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 Ninth Ave., S.F. free).