[REVIEW] “A Laboratory of Fine Imagery: Reviewing JinJin Xu’s There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife” by Vania Tabanelli

{Written by Vania Tabanelli, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

JinJin Xu, There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife, Radix Media, 2020. 35 pgs.

JinJin Xu is a writer and filmmaker born and raised in Shanghai. Her lyrical voice gives birth to There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife, one of the winning manuscripts of the Own Voices Chapbook Prize. Though it is a debut publication, her poems teem with the wise sensitivity of an experienced writer.

The page is not a boundary, but an immense and powerful weapon, a source of endless potentiality that Xu deftly and ambitiously manipulates, experimenting with uncommon forms such as erasure poems and film scripts. The free verses fluctuate without constraint, but they confabulate between each other, harmonised as if dancing a ballet.

“When I say words out loud they become real,” Xu declares in the poem “To Red Dust”. Words and language are the rapturous elements that underpin Xu’s poems and musings. As a bilingual writer whose poems are in English, the language that comes out from her is an amalgamation of selves that coalesce in a desire to hear, and be heard, by both. English is to her the place of self-determination, the sanctuary in which to mould her creativity. The singing that spans the collection is the poet’s longing to express what she cannot articulate in ordinary language, what she yearns to sing, what she is fearful of saying, what she does not yet have the language for, but desires to pull into the known world.Xu’s universe, built on the startling power of words and language, insistently includes “The Forbidden Word”, as the reader can witness in “To Red Dust”.  The feeling conveyed is that after the wavering between the dread and the yearning of saying “The Forbidden Word”, she forthrightly pours out the Forbidden, as if singing the unspeakable was a gushing and urgent desire of her confessional voice.

“There they are”, the first poem, sets the tone for what is to come. The line “my mother, my father” opens the poem. The verses emanate from an intensely private viewpoint, encapsulating deep feelings. The reader is driven by the intimate, deeply felt, poignant cosmos of her family. There are poems written for a friend who passed away. It is a thread through Xu’s personal life, where the reader meets ghosts, as if the death was refusing to leave, as depicted in the poem “To Her Brother, Who Is Without Name”. The poet forms a tether between the living and the supernatural, drifting back and forth between them as if this was how life was always supposed to be perceived. Xu’s poems aren’t restricted to the material realm but rather transcend it.

A glimpse of personal incidents is perceptible between the verses of the poems. The lines “A lump hardens in my mother’s breast” and “mastectomy, what my mother had in secret when I left” stir the reader. These scattered details, like buds of real life drifting in the poems, help Xu render an authentic yet haunting image. The sense of innocence and eeriness that pervades many of Xu’s poems coincides with the poetic perspective of a wide-eyed young artist.

Sensual elements in her poems are allowed to shine in ambitious statements. Sensuality and even sexuality are depicted when she refers to her mother (“her body running dry relieves her the sin of sex”) and in the relationship with the father (“This is not the first trip people have mistaken me as my father’s lover”).

The book is a laboratory of fine imagery. The poet’s choice to include footnotes is evidence of her endeavour to explain the meaning of the vivid images and sharp metaphors of “Red Dust” The term arises from poetry influenced by Taoism. There is a journey through Chinese cultural history within this book, like the Chinese epic Dream of the Red Chamber and Mao’s Little Red Book. For the Chinese Zen poets (and poets inspired by them) the “world of red dust” refers to the world of human agitation and deluded activity toward accumulation, possession, a manifestation of greed, a seeking of power.

In the title poem,“There is still singing in the afterlife”, and in the chapbook itself, Xu’s aim is to preserve narratives beyond the passing and to resist the erasure of memory. There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife exhibits an array of themes that dance together in one great ballet: elegy, birth family, chosen family and sisterhood, Chinese cultural history, memory and censorship.

Xu is a writer possessed with rare sensitivity, and the poem is a glimpse of her inner and outer world where she balances personal memoir and history, where poems dangle between the living and the non-living, between remembrance and imagination. She has created a sensory and transcendent reading experience. It fills the mind with a sense of poignancy and quiet tenderness.

How to cite: Tabanelli, Vania. “A Laboratory of Fine Imagery: Reviewing JinJin Xu’s There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 08 Dec. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/12/08/afterlife/.

Vania Tabanelli is an Italian Sinologist. She holds a BA in Asian Languages, Cultures and Economies from the University of Bologna with a focus on Chinese language and economy. She is currently an MSc student in International Management at ICN Business School in Nancy, France, and is enrolled in a triple degree programme with the University of Bologna and the East China University of Science and Technology of Shanghai, China. She is an editor for European Guanxi, a non-profit organisation focusing on EU-China relations.

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