PAUL LAI Reviews
Automaton Biographies by Larissa Lai
(Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2009)
[Previously published in THE ASIAN AMERICAN LITERARY REVIEW, Winter/Spring 2011, eds.Gerald Maa and Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis]
As in her two novels When Fox Is a Thousand (1995) and Salt Fish Girl (2002), Larissa Lai explores the limits of the human in its interface and overlap with other animals, machines, and technology in Automaton Biographies. The context of such exploration spans narratives of Chinese and Canadian history, colonialism, capitalism, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and racial states. What distinguishes this book from her earlier work, of course, is its form. Comprised of four long poems—“rachel,” “nascent fashion,” “ham,” and “auto matter”—Automaton Biographies creates textual bodies that pierce and permeate subjectivity at the level of words and syntax. The long poem allows Lai to sustain and problematize narrative over the course of hundreds of lines of verse.
The poetic language in this collection picks up with the strong attention to word play developed in Lai’s collaborative long poem Sybil Unrest (with Rita Wong, 2009). As the title of that poem demonstrates, words accrue an unruly collection of meanings based on proximal sounds and analogous syntactical structures. “Civil unrest,” a phrase that suggests people’s revolutionary response to political and social oppression, echoes with the famous popular culture figure of Sybil, a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder. In citing this figure, the title and phrase raise critiques of gender oppression, subjectivity, and a sense of restlessness with perceived normative social structures. In Automaton Biographies, Lai also draws references often from critical discourse, history, literature, film, popular culture, and contemporary politics such as in mentions of Blade Runner, Monsanto, CNN, Marxist critique, and the Kuomintang. The embeddedness of her poetics in language of various contexts creates a collage-like quality to some of her verses, one in which significant words draw in meanings from other texts and cultural objects to create new conceptual relationships in the lines on the page.
Lai’s opening up of words to meanings and sounds that are adjacent offers a kind of sideways thinking about language, an approach that highlights and traces relationships between concepts by making semantic leaps via sounds, gaps, and shuffling. Lai pushes on the meanings of words that refuse to settle down into singular definitions. In this way, her writing deconstructs language, showing words to be self-contradictory or to be complexly indeterminate rather than straightforwardly simplistic, even as it multiplies the possible meanings of words and phrases. By frustrating expected meanings and syntax, Lai’s poetics dynamically subvert the normative function of language and offers instead a generative vision of alternative worlds. This play with language mirrors Lai’s longstanding commitment to messy origins and the complex vectors of influence that determine national, cultural, and individual identities. Her writing often creates queer genealogies of identity and embodiment, for example, offering a hybrid human-durian fruit-snake goddess protagonist in Salt Fish Girl to comment on mythologies and histories of colonialism, modernity, and genetically-altered futures.
The first poem in Automaton Biographies, “rachel,” turns to the cyborg figure of Rachel, a replicant from Ridley Scott’s science fiction film classic Blade Runner. Drawing also from the film’s source text, Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Lai sketches out Rachel’s interiority as a blend of human and machine-like thoughts, where nouns and verbs in particular swap places to undermine the distinction between subject and action. At other moments, adjectives become verbs or nouns become adjectives, and the slipperiness of parts of speech creates a distinctive speaking voice for Rachel as the poem’s narrator. For example, she says, “i athena my own sprouting / this knowledge colds me / in my ice-fringed room / my asian fits this frost” (16). In this stanza, her narrative of self resonates with a mythological story of parthenogenesis, twisting the proper noun of Athena into a verb that suggests grasping for agency and self-knowledge. Athena, the Greek goddess whom the Titan Metis conceived without sex, famously sprouted fully-grown from the head of Zeus after he had devoured Metis to prevent Athena’s birth. The next line of the stanza offers “colds” as a verb, asserting that knowledge chills her even as the not-quite-right word choice suggests other words such as “scolds” or “holds” in its place and shifting the meaning of the line into other possibilities. The final line makes the word “asian” fit into the coldness of her knowledge and room, even as the place of “my asian” in the line fails to fit grammatically.
The second poem “nascent fashion” begins, “case stated in white and white / nation born off a boat / all contention and emergent / clauses our ambulances / claim soggy sailors / slow separations” (45). These lines highlight Lai’s play with common phrases through substitution of particular words within a given phrasal structure. These lines also signal a shift to more familiar territory in Lai’s writing—commentary on contemporary cultural-political matters in Canada and the effects of neoliberalism and multinational corporate dominance on agricultural, economic, and cultural life. As the first line suggests, it is not the case that we can state things in “black and white” because it is always stated in “white and white,” referring to the privileging of white people in discourses of history and politics in North America. The next line then riffs on the idea of a nation of immigrants, translating immigration to a kind of birth “off a boat,” a phrase that echoes the characterization of immigrants as “fresh off the boat” and that privileges birthplace for definitions of political and cultural citizenship. This poem as a whole brings in a “we” and an “i" frequently, but those first-person pronouns are not fixable to a discrete entity, instead referencing an anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-capitalist critical perspective on the country and world.
The final two poems in the book offer extended reflections on what constitutes a subject, first from the perspective of a non-human primate and second from the author’s own. The third long poem, “ham,” takes up the historical figure of the first hominid to go into space—the chimpanzee Ham—and explores a range of issues about the space race, culture versus nature, racialization, and genetic research. The final long poem, “auto matter,” transforms the “I” of the ethnic subject’s autobiographical lyric poem into a startling commentary on the historical and social forces that create limited possibilities for the Western subject. In this poem, Lai traces the histories that both enable the singular first-person narrative voice and make it impossible as a discretely identifiable subject. This final poem also plays on the sounds of words in Cantonese, offering up foreign words in alphabetic transliteration but without translation, and as with her play on the sounds of words in English, suggesting multiple meanings based on the sounding and spelling of those words.
Automaton Biographies is a welcome addition to the growing body of poetry by Asian North American writers that explores the complexities and imbrications of language, critical histories, and technology. In Canada, such poets include Fred Wah, Roy Miki, and Rita Wong. In the United States, poets like Cathy Park Hong, Brian Kim Stefans, and Sueyeun Juliette Lee also trace queer genealogies of Asian America through innovative poetics and the messiness of individual, national, textual, and technological bodies.
Paul Lai has published essays on the work of Asian Canadian writers Fred Wah and Larissa Lai. He is the co-editor of essay collections on the topics of "Theorizing Asian American Fiction" and "Alternative Contact: Indigeneity, Globalism, and American Studies." He is the fiction editor of The Kartika Review, a literary journal of Asian American and Asian diaspora writing. He spends his non-textual time with his partner and dog on the couch.