Books

How recounting the past in poetry form helps Grace Lau find peace with her family and identity

The Toronto poet spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote The Language We Were Never Taught to Speak.
The Language We Were Never Taught to Speak is a poetry collection by Grace Lau. (Guernica Editions)

Grace Lau is a poet and marketing director based in Toronto. Her debut poetry collection, The Language We Were Never Taught to Speak, was published in May 2021. 

The book is a form of therapy that, according to Lau, few Chinese Canadians ever get to experience. It delves into the shapes that love and apologies take: the eternal debt one takes on knowing they'll never be able to repay their parents, the coming out journey in a traditional household and the never ending task of trying to better understand the perspectives of your elders. 

Lau spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote The Language We Were Never Taught to Speak.

Life up to this point

"When I first started writing, a lot of it was me trying to process my life up until that point. I never got to talk and process it out loud with my family and with people growing up. When I first started writing poetry, it was very piecemeal. It was very like, 'I'm thinking about this a lot recently, and I need to somehow get over it or just get past it.' That was how a lot of the early poems came to be.

When I first started writing, a lot of it was me trying to process my life up until that point.

"When I first realized it could be a book, it was more like, 'I have a lot of poems now that the only cohesive element of all of them is that they're all about my life up until this point.' They're all about things that I cared deeply about, but didn't necessarily have the ability to talk about with other people.

"If you don't deal with it, it's going to sit there and it's going to come out in another way. It'll find a way to come out."

The language of care

"For a lot of Chinese Canadian or Asian families, we express love and care through actions, as opposed to saying 'I love you.' This definitely was my experience growing up. I didn't start saying 'I love you' until we started using WhatsApp. You were typing it on WhatsApp first. Then we graduated to saying it at the end of a phone call.

Even the language of care that our parents can speak to us is by showing actions.

"Even the language of care that our parents can speak to us is by showing actions. That's also a language that I didn't learn for a very long time, until it clicked for me. That's the language that I should have understood and should have learned, but I'm only learning to speak that now as I'm older.

"They could do it through words, but it's not the way that they, in their hearts, would communicate to me. If action is what they prefer, I've made my peace with it now. I can accept that love."

The idea of repayment 

"The coming out journey was tough. It didn't happen all at once. The misconception people have is, 'Oh, you come out and you're done, that's the end of it.'

"With my mom, I came out and I had to do it again. And again. And again. She'd be in denial, or she'd pretend that it's not happening.

Your parents sacrifice their lives to try to give you a better life when they moved to Canada.

"Your parents sacrificed their lives to try to give you a better life when they moved to Canada. It's not like they ever said, 'I expect you to repay me for trying to give you a better life,' but I think it's an innate understanding that immigrant kids have — thinking about the stuff that they gave up, the more comfortable life that they might've had. It's hard to think about. The one thing that they want, having a grandkid, is that's the one thing you can't give them.

"I think that is a conundrum that a lot of queer immigrant kids might have."

A fresh start

"This came up in a conversation I had with another poet a couple of weeks ago, and the last poem ends on an image of a baptism. Very religious, but I think I chose a baptism for the ending — because the baptism is also in a sense a beginning. You're a clean slate, you're a fresh start.

Hopefully there will be another journey — and another book.

"That was what I hoped this book would be for me. It's this life and this journey that I had. Hopefully there will be another journey — and another book. Maybe one that is a little happier and a little more accepting of myself and my family and all the stuff that we've gone through, and we'll still go through."

Grace Lau's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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