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The Bare Life Review

Jianan Qian


[Editor's note: This is the first installment in a special series on the coronavirus pandemic, featuring original poems and essays by contributors to The Bare Life Review. New entries will be added every Tuesday and Friday.]


There are two times I have felt the most vulnerable as a Chinese national living in the United States. The first time was in 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected. Perhaps I was just over-sensitive, but as I walked down the streets in Iowa City, I felt that people were looking at me differently, with contempt and bitterness. Do you hate me, I said to myself. Do you hate me because of my skin? Do you hate me because of my accent? Because my decision to pursue my ambitions in your country?

I had this same feeling in 2020, when I found myself facing rows of empty shelves in a Walmart in St. Louis. Trump had recently begun calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus.” I know I have nothing to apologize for, but, because I am Chinese, I somehow still felt guilty.

Recently, a friend told me a story about a young Chinese man who runs a cafe in Melbourne, Australia. The cafe has been popular since it opened two years ago. But, on March 22, when Australia decided to shut down all of its bars, restaurants, gyms, and churches, the young man found himself suddenly lost. After a long deliberation, he decided to close his restaurant temporarily. On the last day of business, he decided to donate the frozen food in storage to his regular customers, his staff, and the elderly people in the neighborhood. The customers and senior citizens not only insisted on paying for the food, but they also tried to comfort him: “The virus comes from China, but the Chinese are its first victims. This is not your people’s fault.” After the employees had left with their last paychecks and government allowances, the young owner found that they had left the money for the food in the register. He burst into tears.

That night, he called his father. “Pa,” he said, “Why are we having this virus? How am I going to explain this to my kids?”

These two questions sadden me. Growing up, I witnessed my father’s generation lose their jobs during China’s early Reform and Opening. This young man’s frustration is familiar to me. “I’ve been working hard all my life,” my father used to say. “Why is this happening to me?”

The tragic nature of life is a question that has no conclusive or easy answers. As James Baldwin puts it beautifully in his essay collection, The Fire Next Time, “Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.” But humanity won’t succumb to the capricious forces of fate. In our best moments, we learn to fight against hardship, expand our knowledge to reduce the uncertainty, and support one another until the storm passes and the sun rises again. Still, there is a dark side to life’s many inexplicable tragedies. To fight back against despair, we are quick to seize upon easy answers to the source of our current woes. In China, for example, my father’s generation liked to blame their troubles on the young, non-native laborers who came to the cities and “stole their jobs.” The customers and elderly folks who visited the young man’s restaurant in Australia are kind and wise, but the growing numbers of people who are out of work because of COVID-19 might not remain as reasonable. People want their pain to have a justifiable cause, and they want their hatred to have a deserving object. “The Chinese virus” gives them both.

In 2016, during the frightening time after Trump’s election, when racist sentiments were on the rise across the United States, I had a fierce fight with a close friend in China. I found his dark views of humanity—that hatred and bias are irremediably linked to human nature—to be cynical and cruel. My faith in the best of humanity struck him as naïve and idiotic. Unable to understand him, I called one of my workshop friends. He asked me whether my Chinese friend had experienced racism.

“Yes,” I said, “in Australia, when he was a freshman in college.”

“His experience may have impacted his views,” my friend explained to me. “When people talk to you, they are not talking about their views, but their pains.”

Now, four years later, like every responsible resident, I stay at home to practice social distancing. When I go out for a short walk, I always put on a face mask, to protect myself and others around me. I have been met with eye rolls and curses from random strangers, but I keep reminding myself: They don’t hate me. They simply don’t understand their pains.


Jianan Qian writes in both Chinese and English. In her native language, Chinese, she has published four books. In English, her works have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, Gulf Coast, Guernica Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a staff writer at The Millions and holds an MFA degree in fiction from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her short story, "The Night All Devils Wept," appeared in TBLR Volume 2.

At The Bare Life Review, as we pause with the rest of you to shelter in place, our thoughts turn increasingly to the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on artists all over the globe. Of course, we fear especially for those most vulnerable among us: the stateless, the unsheltered, those pushed already to the borders of society and now pushed further by the hardening of those borders.

To help us make sense of the crisis, and to conceive a response, we asked our family of contributors to submit original poems and essays: reflections on the politics of pandemic, thoughts on its impact on their countries of birth, or simple dispatches from their own home confinement. Beginning this Friday, April 10, on The Latest, we will be publishing their responses, which reflect the same diversity of perspective and tone that these authors have brought to our pages. Taken together, we hope their contributions may form an artifact of this strange and difficult time, testifying to our shared vulnerability and resilience.

Entries in this special series will be published twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Fridays. We hope you will join us in reading.


Three Poems by Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu

I. ገጣሚት ኣይኮንኩን

ግጥሚ እፈቱ’ምበር ገጣሚት ኣይኮንኩን

ገጣሚ አድንቕ ግን ‘ገጣሚት’የ’ ኣይበልኩን።

ኣነ ድኣ ትብዓተይ ቀቲለ

ሕልናይ ኣቝሲለ ዓይነይ ዓሚተ እዝነይ ኣሚነ

ልብኻ ዓሚጽካ ምንባር ክኢለ፣ ንሓቂ ከይስየፍ ደኒነ ‘ናኸድኩ

መቓብር ስምዒተይ ኰይነ ‘ናሃለኹ

ተጋጊኺ`ለኺ ተጋጊኻ ኣለኻ ኣነ ኣይኰንኩን እታ ትብላ ዘለኻ!

ከመይ ድዩ ገጣሚ!፧

ከመይ ድያ ገጣሚት!፧ ንህይወት ሽፋና ዘይኰነ ዕምቈታ ልሳና ዘይኰነ ስምዒታ ኣንቢቡ᎓ መርሚሩ᎓ መዝጊቡ ሓቅን ፍቕርን᎓ ሕልናን ፍትሕን ኣዋሲቡ

ምእንቲ ጽባቐ ዝነብር ኣብ ገድሊ ንልቡ ዘዳምጽ እኮ’ዩ ገጣሚ።

ጠበቓ ውጹዓት᎓ ልሳን ዝተዓብሱ

ትንፋሱ ከኽትት ዝሓጸየ ነብሱ

ብርዑ ዝጥዋፉ ስምዒቱ ሴፉ፣

እኮ’ዩ ገጣሚ ብርሃንን ቀንዴልን ዘይነብሮ መዓርግ ኣነ ኣይቅበልን

ክኸውን’ምበር ክመስል ኣይደልን!

(ካብ መጽሓፍ ይርጋኣለም ፍስሃ: ኣለኹ (ሽወደን: ኣሕታሚ እምኵሉ: 2019): ገጽ 88።


I am not a Poet


I love poetry, but I am not a poet poets fascinate me But I never said, ‘I am a poet’: because I have sabotaged my courage, wounded my conscience, closed my eyes, trusting my ears, learned how to live, deceiving my heart.

Because I refused to sacrifice for truth, I walk down cast.

I have become the grave of my emotions. Sir, Madam, you are wrong! I am not who you say I am.

What is a mere poet!? What is a mere poetess!? Life’s surface is not its true depth

The tongue is not the emotion.

Having read, examined, and documented

truth, love, conscience, and justice combined

the poet abides in struggle, listens to his heart

for the sake of beauty advocates for the muzzled, oppressed

his gasp as self-sabotaging payment.

The pen is his candle, emotion his sword

the poet is the light and the candle I cannot accept an honor that I cannot uphold--

I do not simply want to be but to act.

- from Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu, I am Here, Sweden: Emkulu Publishers, 2019) p. 88.



II. ዓቕሊ ጽበት

ሸላይ ክንዲ ቍመተይ

ምድራ ክንዲ ዓራተይ።

ኣየራ ብቝንጣሮ ምቘታ ከም ጸበል

ውሻጠኣ ገሃነም ማዕጾኣ ኣፍ ገበል።

ሎምስ መሪሩኒ ክጾራ ኣይከኣልኩን

ሰብ ገዲፉ ዋላ ሰይጣን ይዅን፡ ‘ንዕናይ’ ተዝብለኒ፡ ‘ናበይ፧’ ኣይምበልኩን።

(ካብ መጽሓፍ ይርጋኣለም ፍስሃ: ኣለኹ (ሽወደን: ኣሕታሚ እምኵሉ: 2019): ገጽ 73።)



Nervous Conditions



The prison cell fits my body height

its mud floor serves in lieu of my bed.

Suffocates, sickly atmospheric overwhelming, like a bad effect of traditional medicine, hell in the inside, caged by a door in the shape of a serpent’s mouth.

Too much sorrow, I can’t bear. If anyone would call, “Come with me!” I wouldn’t want to ask “where?” But would rather concur To go along. Never mind: with Demon or Man.

- From Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu, I am Here, Sweden: Emkulu Publishers, 2019 p. 73.


III. ትጽሕፍዶሎኻ፧

ትጽሕፍዶ ’ሎኻ ትሕንጥጥ ትጭሕግር

ብዘይ ድምጺ ትንድር ትምድር!

ትጽሕፍዶ ’ሎኻ፧ ንዕምቈት ስምዒት ለዊስካ ብንብዓት!

ምስ ሃፈጽታኡ ምስ ምቘቱ ኣብ እዋኑ ኣብ ሰዓቱ፡ ሓቂ ተሳሒጋ፡ ፍትሒ ’ናተጨውየት

ሓልዮት ተረጊጻ፡ ፍቕሪ እና’እወየት፡

ነገራት ስኢኑ ቀይዲ ጐፍ ምስ በለካ ኣብ መገዲ፣ ከም ሰብካዶ እዝንኻ ትውትፍ ብቓንዛን ጫውጫውታን ነፊጽካ ትሃትፍ

ወይስ ርግእ ኢልካ ትዕዘብ ትጽሕፍ፧

ነቲ ሓሶቶም ሓቂ፡ ነቲ ሓቅኻ ሓሶት

ምስሉይነቶም ክብሪ፡ ትብዓትካ ድማ ሞት።

እናበልዎኸ ከመይ ’ልካ ክትሓልፎ

ብደውካ ኣብ ቅድሜኻ እንከሎ መሕልፎ

ትጽሕፎ’ምበር ከመይ ዘይትጽሕፎ፧!

ጽሓፍ በል ሓንጥጥ ኣፈልፍሎ ወረቐትስ ካበይ፡ ኣብ ኣእምሮ

ጽሓፎ’ሞ ኣብ ጽቡቕ ኣንብሮ ‘

ንፋስ’ ኣብ ዘይረኽቦ ‘ውሑጅ’ ኣብ

ዘይፍሕሮ ንግዜኡ ኣብ ልቢ ቅበሮ!

(ካብ መጽሓፍ ይርጋኣለም ፍስሃ: ኣለኹ (ሽወደን: ኣሕታሚ እምኵሉ: 2019): ገጽ 80።


Are You Writing?

Are you writing, sketching and scribbling,

Silently roaring and arguing?

Engraving your deep emotions with a dough of tears!

That give off steam and heat there and then When truth battles to speak, and justice is hijacked

compassion is trampled, and love screams when the center cannot hold and anarchy is loose do you shudder away by the pain and noise? Or do you withhold, observe, and stay and write?

Their lie is called truth, your truth falsehood their bigotry is called honor, your courage is paid in death.

How could you then not not-write-- while standing there and it is fleeting before you--

of course, you would write. How couldn’t you!

Go then and write, let it flow. But where is the paper? just write it in the mind, or conceal it in the heart for now The safe store, where the wind cannot reach and the flood cannot destroy.

- From Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu, I am Here, Sweden: Emkulu Publishers, 2019, p. 80.


Four Poems by Haile Bizen


I. ካብ ፍቕሪ ወይኸኣ ሞት

ኣብ እንዳ ማርያም ነይሩ: ጆን እንብሎ ከም ግዛዕ ዝገብሮ። ካብ ዝነገረኒ ዘይርስዖ--

ኣብ ጸሎት: ብፍቕሪ ከላግጽ ማርያም ሰሚዓቶ:

እቲ ጽፍዒት ዘላደደቶ፣ ኰይኑ ከም ዘጽገቦ

እንጀራ ምስ ሕምቶ።

---ነዚ ዕልላ ግልብጥ ነብሎ፣ ማለት ፍቕሪ

ዝሕጭጨሉ ንነብሱ ባዕሉ ዝጸፍዕ

ስሑው ንግበሮ--

ዛንታይ ከኣ ከምዚ ምዀነ-- ኣብ መንደቕ ተላሒጉ ዝተረፈ: ቅጥኒ ጸሎት ‘ተሸንከሮ: ብደዉ ዝገርነወ--

“ፍቕሪ ወይኸኣ ሞት!” ተጽደቖ: ሱባኤ ዝኣተወ።

-ካብ መጽሓፍ ሃይለ ቢዘን: ፍቕሪ ወይኸኣ ሞት ሽወደን: ኣሕታሚ እምኵሉ: 2019 ገጽ 14።

John

At St Mary’s, there was a man we called John he was someone lacking a filter. Somethings he told me, I never forget.

When, during prayers, Mary heard him being cynical about love

she gave him a hard slap in the face but the slap would nourish him like a delicious dish of injera and fried meat sauce, nevertheless

--Let us flip the conversation. Make love the ridiculer of the self-slapping fool—

And so my story would be hence, of someone standing-still against a wall

nailed by prayer-yarns, unaware of sounds, and longing “Love or Death” to deliver he who enters devotional life.

-From Haile Bizen, Love or Death, Sweden: Emkulu Publishers, 2019, p. 14.


II. ዝተኻዕወ ስምዒት

ናተይ። ኣይናተይን። ወዘልዘል ዝበለ ሓሳብ ጋሕመጥመጥ ዝበለ ስእሊ በሰሮ።

** እዋን ዘላህመሞ: ሓዊ ዘይሰምዕ ፈጋዕጋዕ ዝበለ

ተቐባሊ: ውሉድ ክልተ ቀዝሒ **

ስቕ ስቕ ** ሕንክርክር

** ግብ ኢሉኒ። ጸሊም መንደቕ: ጸኒሑ ጸሊም ማዕጾ:

ጸኒሑ ጸሊም ጐልጐል: ጸኒሑ ጸሊም ሰማይ። እቲ

ጸላም ኣብ ትሽቱሸይ ኣትዩ ቲኽቲኽ ኢሉኒ **

ክርትም ኢለ ስሒቐ ** (ካብ መጽሓፍ ሃይለ ቢዘን᎓ ብድሕሪ ማዕጾ ኣስመራ᎓ 2008᎓ ገጽ 6-8።


Poured Out Thought

Mine. Not mine. Scattered thought incoherent picture of a neophyte.

** Worn out by time, unresponsive to flaming fire

a recipient child of sorrow on top of sorrow

**

Silence Silence ** Entangled ** I entered darkness. Black wall, then black door, then black field, then black sky. And then

darkness entered my armpit and tickled me. ** And I burst with laughter ** -Sections from a poem by Haile Bizen, Behind the Doors (Asmara: 2008), p. 6-8.


III. ዘወንታ ሓሳብ

ሰብ? መገዲ? ሰብን መገድን?

መገድን ሰብን?

ምሕርፋፍን ምልማጽን

ምግፋሕን ምቕጣንን ዘመሳስሎም።

ዝውዳእን ዘይውዳእን

ዝዅየጥን ዘይዅየጥን ዝፈላልዮም።


ግልል ጐሪሐ ግልል

ገጸይ ብቕድሚት

ኣነ ኾይነ ብድሕሪት ተኸዊለ

ዘወን ዘወን

ዘወን

ዘወን ዘወን

ዘወን ካብ መጽሓፍ ሃይለ ቢዘን᎓ ብድሕሪ ማዕጾ (ኣስመራ᎓ 2008)᎓ ገጽ 2።

Strutting


Man? Road?

Man and road?

Road and man?

Roughness and smoothness

breadth and shallowness make the semblances.

Transience of man and the road’s infinity

(And either can rise up or stay even)

make the differences.


I am staying away; being clever, I am staying away


My face is in front

I am behind Hiding

Strutting, Strutting

Strutting

Strutting, Strutting

Strutting -From Haile Bizen, Behind the Doors (Asmara, 2008), p. 2.



IV. ስርዓተ-ነጥቢ ግፋ



The Punctuation of Rounding Up

Knock Knockknock knock knockknock

Boomboom boom boomboom boomboom Knockknockknock

Boomboomboomboom

Knockknockknockknock

Boomboomboomboom

Knockknockknock

Boomboomboomboom

**


OpenOpenOpenOpen QuickQuickQuick

OpenOpen Come on Come on

OpenOpen Come on Come on

QuickQuickQuick

OpenOpenOpenOpen **

Woofwoofwoofwoowoo

Who is there? Who is there? Woofwoof Woofwoof

Who is there? Who is there?

Woofwoof Woofwoof Whoistherewhoisthere?

Woofwoof WhoistherewhoisthereWhoisthere?

Woofwoof Whoistherewhoistherewhoisthere?


Woofwoof

Whoistherewhoistherewhoisthere?


-From Haile Bizen, Love or Death ((Sweden: Emkulu Publishers, 2019), pp. 122-124.



BIOS:


Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu is an Eritrean poet, who lives in exile following her release in 2015 from the government’s prison where she languished for six years for her poetry and critical journalism. Since 2018 she is a scholar of the Writers-in-Exile Program of the PEN-Center in Germany. She has extensively written about her prison experience, and performed her poetry in several events in Europe and elsewhere. In 2019, she received the first PEN Eritrea’s Freedom of Expression Award.

Haile Bizen is a poet, journalist, art critic and translator. He has published three books of poetry and short stories; translated two children’s books and co-authored three. Before fleeing Eritrea in 2009, Bizen has served in different capacities and positions, including as editorial board member of Hiwyet magazine from 1995 to 2001. He also served as editor in Hidri Publishers from 1996 to 2007; jury member in Eritrea’s highest literary award, Raimock, and various national literary contests. Since 2011 Bizen lives in Norway, where he was invited to come as ICORN guest writer. He is the current president of PEN Eritrea.


Ghirmai Negash is a professor of postcolonial studies and the director of the African Studies program in Ohio University. He was the president of PEN Eritrea, 2014-2015, and he is the current vice-president of the African Literature Association (2019-2020). He has written and edited several books and articles on the literatures of the Horn of Africa and South Africa, and translated African poetry and fiction into English. His translations include Who Needs a Story? (translated and co-edited with Charles Cantalupo, 2006), and his critically acclaimed translation of Gebreyesus Hailu’s 1927 novel The Conscript (Ohio University Press, 2012) from the Tigrinya language into English. Among numerous praises, The Conscript was described as a “novel of great irony and power [and] its translation into English [as] a gift to American readers” by Laila Lalami, the author of The Moor’s Account.

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