Reviewed by Eric Schmaltz
Jason S. Polley
cemetery miss you. Proverse Hong Kong, 2011.
Jason S. Polley’s latest book of fiction, cemetery miss you, offers, through a series of transcribed audio recordings, an account of a Pakistani man’s first year of experiences living in Hong Kong illegally. The narrator, a “boy-man” (xii) named Saa Ji, is exiled to Korea by his father after a series of life-threatening incidents. On his way to Korea, Saa Ji makes a planned stop in Hong Kong, where his guide abandons him and leaves him stranded. With limited funds, no passport, no friends, and a tongue that is unaccustomed to both the food and the language, Saa Ji literally and metaphorically loses his way in Hong Kong. With few options for survival, Saa Ji integrates himself into the city’s underground world of organized crime, drugs, and excess. cemetery miss you presents Saa Ji’s tragic tale of survival, a story that is shared by many illegal aliens in China. The story is somewhat predictable–as Saa Ji goes deeper into the underworld, more trouble arises–but that does not make the subject matter any less important.
cemetery miss you is a sharp departure from Polley’s 2010 book of poetry, refrain. While travel, first-hand experiences, and language continue to be predominant areas of focus for his writing, Polley approaches these subjects differently. Polley writes cemetery miss you by adapting a process from American expat and Beat-associate Paul Bowles. Like Bowles, who tape-recorded, transcribed, and translated Driss ben Charhadi’s own tale of survival, Polley has attempted to represent faithfully (with the help of his sister Krista) Saa Ji’s transformation from a young schoolboy into a reputable criminal in his own international-English. Polley only took creative liberties in the story’s organization and form. The resulting work is quite unlike refrain. Allusions, neologisms, and other literary flairs remain absent from cemetery miss you. The language is left unadorned and honest.
Ina Grigorova’s anecdotal “Preface” usefully highlights how issues of identity and borders are crucial to the story; she writes that when we cross a border “we begin to re-package ourselves into pieces that can be smuggled across the internalized border of our new language. In that process we not only rebuild ourselves, we also rebuild the world” (vi). As readers we witness how this process of transformation occurs on various levels. Saa Ji relays his story and we learn how, as he moves from his home in Pakistan to Hong Kong, he adapts to his new environment. Without any valid claim to work in Hong Kong, and with no means to return home, he is forced to work illegally with a well-respected hash dealer to survive. cemetery miss you also documents Saa Ji’s transition into the role of a storyteller and autobiographer. As Saa Ji assumes the role, we see him repackage himself, not as a villain, but as a victim of his social conditions. Saa Ji’s retelling of his life adopts a confessional mode of writing in which he simultaneously celebrates and regrets his life in Hong Kong. He says:
dont have anything. (118)
Presenting Saa Ji’s struggles, cemetery miss you prompts the reader to question the conventions and boundaries of authority and identity. These issues are complicated by a figure that quietly emerges in the paratext: Catalino Catalino, a pseudonym Polley employs when writing the “Introduction” but quickly drops by its end. Polley does not reveal the function of the pseudonym, but its subsequent and swift redaction destabilizes Polley’s own identity, suggesting that it, like Saa Ji’s identity, is malleable and multiple. The gesture is somewhat confusing considering that Polley is identified as the sole author of the work on the copyright page; however, it usefully draws attention to the politics of identity. Polley (writing as Catalino Catalino) recognizes in his “Introduction” that these are issues that “we all criminally ignore” (xxi). Polley informs the reader that Saa Ji is a pseudonym “adopted by a host of Indian Subcontinent illegals and refugees in Hong Kong” (xii). Saa Ji’s story, then, is both a story of personal struggle and an allegory for larger global concerns.
Polley’s efforts are commendable. The paratextual experiments he employs in his “Introduction” complicate notions of ownership and identity and foreground the complexity of these issues in Saa Ji’s own story. However, Polley abandons his potentially interesting treatment of these issues once Saa Ji’s story begins. As a result, the text feels stilted and it seems like the meta-gesture made in the paratext could have been more fully developed by the story itself. In effect the story demonstrates the harrowing conditions of illegal aliens face on a day-to-day basis, their struggles for sovereignty, for legal recognition, and for survival. Polley, however, does not offer a solution to the problems presented in the story, but cemetery miss you does usefully provide a forum in which these issues may be explored. More immediately, it offers a glimmer of hope for Saa Ji and suggests that he may transform himself once more to achieve a life that he no longer regrets.
At press time: Eric Schmaltz is a writer, reviewer, curator, and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow at York University. His work has appeared in various places online and in print including Open Letter, Rampike, Poetry is Dead, dead g(end)er, filling station, and ditch. His first chapbook MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems is forthcoming from above/ground press. Eric lives in Toronto where he co-curates the AvantGarden reading series.
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