We Follow the River plunges into language, loss, and love

The Shan Canadian writer dedicated this poetry book to her parents and homeland

PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

By: Petra Chase, Editor-in-Chief

Content warning: mentions of military violence.

Pictured on the cover of We Follow the River are a young woman and man surrounded by a smoggy jungle of green brush strokes. The man wears a Shan State army uniform — the woman, a longyi (or hsin in Shan), a traditional fabric worn as a wrap-around skirt. This is a portrait of Nu Nu and Chao Tzang Yawnghwe in the ‘60s in their ancestral homeland of Yawnghwe, Shan State, Myanmar. They are the late parents of author Onjana Yawnghwe, painted in watercolour by her brother, artist Sawangwongse Yawnghwe. The poetry collection tells stories of their family heritage, from Nunu and Chao Tzang’s “escape from military violence in Myanmar” and “their exiled existence in Thailand,” to immigrating to Vancouver when Onjana was seven years old.

In our interview, Yawnghwe said she uses language to find home. The book, a poetic stream of memories and experiences, takes the reader through time and across continents as she grapples with “growing up as a foreigner in a foreign land.” Like a river that flows and picks things up into its stream, she sprinkles in details of place, like growing up in Southeast Asia: the lurking geckos, the flavours that come together in a large wok, and a whole poem dedicated to the giddiness of eating a perfect “Green Mango.”

Having taken 20 years to write and publish it, she describes this collection of poetry as a “retroactive prism of experience.

“I started writing it in my early twenties, when I was just beginning as a writer, and had sent the manuscript out to various publishers without much luck,” she said. When Yawnghwe’s mother passed in November 2022, she was prompted to review her poems with “fresh eyes.”

“The book is a time capsule within a time capsule — a 40-something version of me looking back at the 20-something version of me writing about the six year old version of a yet younger self.”

The selective memories captured in these earlier poems highlight the confusion and isolation of a child in a new environment. When expecting to see snow landing in the summer of Vancouver, she found only a “shirtless boy / skateboarding” (“Landing”). She also explored what it was like being in a class where students and teachers whisper trying to figure out if she’s Chinese.  

“Growing up with such a complex cultural identity was a real mixed bag; I never felt connected to any group nor felt I ever belonged,” she said. “We as a family tried to connect with the Asian folks around us. For example, we’d go shopping in Chinatown every weekend to get familiar groceries and to see a community where people looked like us.” Such feelings are explored in later poems through visiting her brother in Italy and returning to Thailand as an adult.

Her poetry also recites what she calls memorized “mouth shapes” of Buddhist scripture — she spoke to me about the “ambivalence” of language. It’s “the discovery and love of English while at the same time the betrayal of forgetting the language of your birth,” she explained. 

“What little I know of Shan culture I learned from my family, and of Thailand, my childhood experiences.” In one untitled poem, she writes about how her mom described Shan State: “how raw mist would ride over the valley and lag, leaving skin glistening like it’d been dipped in stars.” I could feel the jasmine mist of Inle Lake hugging me while I read that piece.

The poems are all this rich. Yawnghwe ties words together in ways that unexpectedly makes sense. Lines like “hips that swing like a word on a Bangkok street” and “mortar and pestle thoughts in our pockets” made me physically stop reading to soak it in.  

We Follow the River is grounded in a connection to land. Yawnghwe describes how “she witnesses Burma change from white-gloved / British hands meticulously picking rubies from the land / to clouded Japanese faces drooping with hunger and war.” This stems from the intergenerational grief of stolen land. There are also the “countrymen / all rebel-hungry and wanting,” which describes the repressive military regime continuing to cause plight for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Vividly, she imagines the sensations of digging into the earth. “To me, land is connected with a sense of home and place,” she said.

Water is also a running theme. “There is something about its perpetual movement that calms me; to me it suggests a way of living, of accepting things as they come, no matter how difficult, with the idea that these things will pass, that nothing is permanent. In general, the two ideas sort of collide: the desire to hold on and the need to let go.”

What stands out about Yawnghwe is her ability to say so much with so little. In an introductory poem called “Crossings,” she describes her parents as “loss unnamed.” 

“There is an unknowable quality to our parents,” she explained. This could be trauma “hidden under many layers, or kept locked and secure within themselves.” It could also be “how the act of becoming a parent is on some level a loss of a parent’s life.” She added, “This is often not really acknowledged.” Losing her parents was a “cascade of loss” that led to this book being dedicated to their memory.

“People who pick up this book will know my family, if even a little, and in that way, a tiny part of my parents will live on, even though they are no longer on this earth.”

Discover more about Yawnghwe and her poetry books at her website, onjana.com. Find out where to buy We Follow the River at caitlinpress.com/Books/W/We-Follow-the-River, and attend one of her upcoming poetry readings:

-Twisted Poets Literary Salon at Britannia Library: July 10, 2024
-Word Vancouver Festival: September 28, 2024

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