On 9th November 2021, the Consulate General of the United Arab Emirates co-hosted an online event in partnership with Hong Kong International Literary Festival (HKILF), aptly themed “The Rebound Edition” this year as society slowly adapts to the post-pandemic new normal. Titled “An Ocean Away”, the event featured Emirati-Italian author and artist Alia Alshamsi, and Hong Kong poet and translator Jennifer Wong, in a cross-cultural poetic journey with Poet and Associate Professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University, James Shea.
Alia Al Shamsi read her poem “Bedouin” first in Arabic and then English, a tribute to the ancestors of her tribe who migrated across the desert to settle in Al Ain Oasis, navigating by starlight. The poem is included in her latest work, a poetry anthology, The Ocean Sees Through My Soul, written in Arabic and English over ten years. Sharing intimate feelings of heartbreak, frustration, self-reflection and redemption, the author describes the book as being “made up of little parts of me, in every poem a little story of a place, a time and an emotion gone by...the book follows my personal journey through finding strength in my own vulnerability.” She spoke about the therapeutic value of taking inspiration from moments of introspection into the trials and tribulations of life’s events and relationships, and how writing these poems allowed her to find hope and meaning and to reinvent herself.
Jennifer Wong also shared a deeply personal reading, “A Personal History of Soups”, evoking the taste and smell of her mother’s homemade soup – a labour of love. The poem is from her recent collection Letters Home, which is a personal history focused on the poignancy of living away from home and the complexities of being caught between nations, languages and cultures. She spoke about the collection as a journey in forging her own identity as part of the Chinese-British diaspora, which induces a sense of being in two places at once and not quite fully in either. With references to both her origins from Hong Kong and her new life in London, she explored through her poetry how relationships are built and maintained.
Moderated by James Shea, the poets participated in a discussion around language use and form. Being multilingual, it is perhaps no surprise that both poets employ code-switching to some degree as a literary device. Chinese words and phrases are sprinkled throughout Jennifer’s work. Even though some readers may not know Chinese, seeing these words on the page or hearing them spoken aloud can conjure up for them memories or images of places and people, and allow them to share in the authentic lived experiences of the poets. Jennifer has included a glossary for the Cantonese and Mandarin terms that have appeared in Letters Home, and she invites readers who do not know Chinese to “solve the puzzle together”. For her, Cantonese is very direct and straightforward is a way for her to express her bond to the local culture, while Mandarin tends to be more subtle and reminds her of memories with her mother and grandmother. On the other hand, Alia has not only mixed Arabic and English in her writings, but each poem itself also exists as two bilingual versions. She explained that the two versions are not word-for-word translations and instead may be appreciated as two different works. For instance, stylistically, the Arabic version tends to be free verse while the English one features more rhyming. Alia stressed that no matter one’s linguistic or cultural background, human emotions, and thus the subject matter of poetry, are universal.
The poets concluded with a few words of advice for aspiring poets: Jennifer named sitting at cafés and people-watching as a rich source of inspiration, while Alia is often moved by the beauty of art from which she creates narratives.
About the speakers:
Alia Al Shamsi is an author and artist currently working as a Cultural Programming Manager at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Her book, Alayah, has won the Dubai Culture Publishing Award 2017. Night&Day is one of the first UAE silent books. She published her first poetry book, The Ocean Sees Through my Soul in 2020.
Jennifer Wong was born and raised in Hong Kong. She has several collections including Goldfish (Chameleon Press), Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry), and the latest collection Letters Home (Nine Arches Press) won the UK Poetry Books Society Wild Card Choice. Her works have appeared in many journals including Oxford Poetry, Under the Radar, Poetry Review, Magma Poetry, Asian Cha, The Rialto, World Literature Today and others.
James Shea is Associate Professor, Department of Humanities and Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University, where he is also Programme Director of Bachelor of Arts in Creative and Professional Writing. He is the author of two poetry collections, The Lost Novel and Star in the Eye, and the chapbook Air and Water Show.