Why I Wrote This Book

Why I Wrote This Book: Issue #23 (Special Edition)

(Editor’s note: this is a special edition of Why I Wrote This Book featuring Kate Rogers. TMR is publishing it in its entirety.)

A series of losses and discoveries led me to write my new poetry collection, The Meaning of Leaving. One catalyst was the death of an abusive ex-partner during the pandemic. Another catalyst was arriving at a fresh understanding of how the dysfunctional nature of my family had impacted me and influenced my choices. Living in a culture different from my own, witnessing intense political dissent in another country, returning to Canada and witnessing my own society in crisis were among the reasons for writing my collection. Experiencing violence firsthand and observing its impact on others compelled me to write the poems in The Meaning of Leaving.

 During the first six years of my two decades teaching abroad, I met and married a man who was manipulative and abusive. I was blind to how he kept me psychologically off balance. Like many abusive men, he used gaslighting to undermine my confidence and sense of self. He was hyper-critical and needy at the same time. The physical abuse ramped up when I was struggling to get pregnant. Only after I left him and went into counselling in Hong Kong did I recognize the psychological patterns between us as the same patterns I had grown up with.

One major reason I wrote The Meaning of Leaving was to chronicle my journey of leaving my abusive ex-husband. During the pandemic intimate partner violence surged across Canada. In many cases, women in such relationships found it even harder to leave abusive partners. Anxiety about COVID and financial limits played a big part. Currently, one in four Canadian women has been physically abused by an intimate partner. I hope my poems about living through, leaving and transcending domestic violence will help other women who are experiencing abuse feel less alone.

One tactic abusive partners use to maintain control is to isolate the partner they are abusing from friends and family. Isolation means she has no external validation for her feelings and doubts the reality of her suffering. I hope reading my poetry collection, reading this essay, or hearing an interview with me helps a woman in an abusive relationship who needs to feel she is not alone. I hope she will be empowered by that recognition and ultimately, leave her abusive partner. My poems about intimate partner abuse in The Meaning of Leaving assume that the personal is universal.

Many of the poems in The Meaning of Leaving are set in China and specifically, Hong Kong. During my two decades teaching in China I fell deeply in love with Hong Kong. It was a bridge between the East and West. Its colonial history was familiar and unsettling—like that of my native Canada—for how it trampled over the rights of the indigenous people. I was very fortunate to live in Hong Kong during the heady years after the Handover from British colonial rule to China. Hong Kong was a borrowed place, on lease from China. Yet during the first 15 years or so after the 1997 Handover, there was tremendous optimism that the full democracy which Britain had failed to grant Hong Kongers before handing it back would finally come to pass. Those years were exciting. Hong Kong Literature was gaining international recognition. Hong Kong was becoming autonomous. That is until Hong Kong’s growing independence led Beijing to crack down on freedoms—of the press and of assembly.

A newspaper editor was stabbed to silence him. At the behest of Beijing, the Hong Kong government tried to bring in a pro-China school curriculum that ignored major events in China’s history like the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. Highly organized pro-democracy protests started in 2014. Some of my students took part. Occupy Central shut down Hong Kong’s business district for 79 days and paralyzed much of the city. Publishers who released books critical of China’s leadership were kidnapped by Beijing in 2015. There were more protests in Hong Kong.

I was inspired by the courage of protest organizers and protesters fighting for their freedoms. By 2019 I was taking part in many protest marches myself. But my poems about the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests were inspired by my students who took part. It was very difficult to watch violent clashes with police and know more and more young Hong Kongers were being imprisoned and beaten by authorities. Many remain in prison without trial even now.

Art helps victims of different kinds of violence validate their reality. When I lived in Hong Kong I was part of a poetry collective called Poetry OutLoud. Until 2019 when I left, Poetry OutLoud gave voices to many young poets who were active in the pro-democracy movement. Six months before I left Hong Kong I was interviewed by the Globe & Mail about the role poetry can play in protest. As a teacher of literature and creative writing at City University, Hong Kong, I was asked to stop teaching political poetry in 2018. The article refers to other educators who felt silenced and at risk of arrest for supporting their students who were involved in the pro-democracy movement. There are half a dozen Hong Kong-based poems in The Meaning of Leaving. One is the title poem for my collection, a glosa, which riffs on the poem Requiem by dissident Chinese poet Bei Dao.

Another theme in my book is the meaning of home. Living abroad meant I came to see another country as home. At times, while I was adapting to another culture, I felt displaced. That is one reason I am sensitive to the state of homelessness. But more importantly, I have felt afraid of becoming homeless—as a woman leaving an abusive partner who controlled our finances. After leaving Taiwan I had to take my ex-husband to court in Hong Kong to get a small financial settlement. During that time I slept on a friend’s couch until I could afford to rent a flat.

When I encounter unhoused people now I often think that could be me if I’d had different opportunities, including access to education. My poem “The Nose-ring Girl” shares a moment when I encountered a young woman outside Tim Horton’s who reminded me of myself as a young teenager.  I could have gone the direction she did and ended up living on the street if I had fallen into addiction.

A few months before The Meaning of Leaving was published I co-wrote a chapbook entitled “Homeless City” with a friend. We were moved to write poetry about our encounters with unhoused people because we wanted people to see them, not just turn away. The lack of compassion in Canadian society disturbs me. This is not the country I left to teach in Asia more than 20 years ago. I hope more people who engage with poetry will also feel moved to notice those in our society who are vulnerable: women in abusive relationships and unhoused people struggling with addiction and mental health. I also hope that people do not turn away from the story of Hong Kong because there are now new conflicts in the world. The loss of freedom in Hong Kong is a warning that dictatorship can overwhelm democracy anywhere in the world.


Three poems from The Meaning of Leaving

Derrick’s Fist

in the orbit of my right eye.

Molar fractured.

We were in a jeep

on a mountain road.

Married.

Mist gauzed the trails.

Later, I tripped

over a tree root,  

yelped. No pheasants

bustled past for him to note

in his fucking Twitcher’s book.

After dark the bruise spread.

I stood before the bathroom mirror—

Stupid girl.

For one week

I left the lights off.

He entered, I left.

I wandered the trails above our house

to let evening spread

its violet afghan over me.

Would strangers think

a birthmark?

My eye faded yellow.

I walked the gravel verge to the market.

A woman holding a star fruit

her cheek black and blue

would not meet my eye.

In Taichung, Taiwan where we lived

earthquake-emptied houses hung

on the edge of the gorge.

At every intersection

of the mountain roads

offerings of snow pears, incense

for the earth god.

My suitcase in the hall,

taxi pulling up, Derrick

came in from work.

His fist a shadow puppet

on the wall. A meteor

flaming out as I walked

through the door.

 


The Meaning of Leaving                                                                                

“The wave of that year

flooded the sands on the mirror

to be lost is a kind of leaving

and the meaning of leaving

the instant when all languages

are like shadows cast from the west.”

—Bei Dao

The wave of that year

hurled me back to the country of my birth.

I swim the old lake, back-crawl into chop,

suddenly swamped by a memory

of buoyancy in the South China Sea.

Cheung Sha beach sticks to my skin, salty ear.

Along the shores of Algonquin’s lakes

Inukshuit[i] sculptures—settler stacked.

Motor boat oil slicks the water,

flooded the sands on the mirror.

To be lost is a kind of leaving,

an echoing departure, train

smoking in the rock-blasted

tunnel. Hong Kong mountain

cliffs. Skirting the edges,

scattering rubble. Believing

in my right to walk there,

not looking where it fell.

Tripping, always clumsy, on the stones

and the meaning of leaving.

The instant when all languages

opened their mouths in my class,

I glimpsed the heart of Hong Kong.

I hold the door open for students

in dreams, even today.

Bound by bandages,

they climb a precipice.

Falling is safer than waiting.

Their lithe silhouettes

are like shadows cast from the west.


The Nose-Ring Girl                                                                            

In front of Tim Hortons

most days with her supermarket

shopping cart. Two pyrite rings

in each nostril.

Her age?

Seventeen? Nineteen?

She stretches out her skinny hand,

palm cupped, for coins.

Her sleeve rides up, a bracelet of scars

binding her wrist.

I buy her a bran muffin

which she drops at my feet,

shouting, “They use lard!”

That is our second meeting.

The cardboard cup of squash soup

she knocked

from my mitten yesterday

like vomit on the sidewalk.

It will seem strange to her

when I try again tomorrow.

Ask her name, as I must.

How much of her rage

can my pockets hold

after I empty them of coins?

I watch as she uncrumples foil

from a takeaway meal,

folds it into a flat silver cone,

pinches triangles from the edge,

spreads open a shining snowflake,

tucks the corners

into the steel bars of her cart.

Was she evicted by her landlord

for non-payment of rent?

I picture her sweaters crocheted with holes,

jeans torn at the knees,

falling from green garbage bags

as she dragged them into the savage cold.

At nineteen I had an attic room

in an old row house,

no insulation: Major Street, Toronto.

I was thin—layered sweaters, tights

under trousers in winter,

making my rent by lifting spines

from fillets of salmon

and sole in Kensington Market.

Party, common room, Rochdale College!

A high-school guy held out

a silver foil boat

with a long line of coke.

Like icing sugar!

I dipped my index finger,

rubbed some on my gums.

My heart leapt me over

couples entwined among

boots in the hall. I forgot my coat,

sprinted down Yonge

to the ferry docks.

Watched the sun

fry its yolk

on the dark grill of the lake.


[i]  “Inuksuit” (plural of Inuksuk). Inuksuit are stacks of stones or boulders originally created by the Inuit people of the arctic. The stone figures were built by the Inuit “to act in the capacity of being human,” or function as navigational aids for hunters. Some settlers to Canada now also build Inuksuit as a gesture of friendship, or to say they have been in a wilderness location. However, some Indigenous Canadians see such settler-built Inuksuit as cultural appropriation. See page 14, http://www.canadianculturalmosaicfoundation.com/uploads/5/1/1/9/5119051/reduc

James M. Fisher

James M. Fisher is the Editor Emeritus of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. He works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane, their tabby cat Eddie, and Buster the Red Merle Border Collie.