Cathy Xinman is doing something unusual in the Canadian literary world. The longtime Vancouver resident writes poems in two languages with radically different alphabetical structures.
Xinman, a director of the Chinese Poetry Society of Canada, recently talked to Pancouver about her passion for writing, which began in her childhood in China’s Hunan province. (Pancouver associate editor Becky Tu provided translations when Xinman spoke in Mandarin.)
According to Xinman, she grew up in an isolated, small community, not far from the bustling metropolis of Changsha.
“You can only reach the town by the river,” Xinman says.
Because it was so shut off from the world, she spent enormous amounts of time in nature, reading poetry. The beauty of the Chinese countryside inspired her to write her own poems, some of which were published in a local newspaper. Later, more work was published in Singapore.
“The central theme would be love—love for life, for nature, and the ability to love each other as humans,” Xinman says.
About 20 years ago, she immigrated to Canada.
“I was thinking about children and their education,” Xinman says. “One of the bigger thoughts was having a different kind of education.”
She has a son and a daughter. However, she still acknowledges feeling a sense of isolation as an immigrant to Canada. This is reflected in one of her poems on her website.
Xinman highlights beauty
“You Will be Amazed by my Poetry” reads like a child’s letter to her mother, commenting on majestic maple leaves, including one that lands on her nose.
“Even though there are a lot of painful things that might have been an inspiration, I want to highlight the beauty,” Xinman says. “I used the children’s point of view to express these painful things because I want to hold onto the hope. We can still be children.”
Xinman works as an accountant and for many years, some acquaintances didn’t know she was a writer. She only shared this with close friends.
Then about five years ago, Xinman began writing in English. This came after her grandmother and father died within six months of each other. In processing her grief, she attended church, where the ministers spoke English.
“I listened in English and the poems came out in English,” she says.
In recent years, Xinman has become alarmed by anti-Asian hatred. Once again, she has put her feelings into words in poems such as “I Shall Raise My Fist” and “I Still Believe”.
“How can I help you arise and resist?” the poet asks in one verse. “All I have is poems. / Let me recite one for you / a poem by Martin Luther King / a poem that still raises my spirits. / You have suddenly awakened me / awakened me in a dream / and now I have no alternative / but to raise my fist / in protest.”
Responding to racism
The other poem, “I Still Believe”, includes this stanza:
“You have taken my clothing / sneak-attacked my dark eyes / called me a cursed Asian / called me an ugly barbarian. / You will go on being shameless / and I shall go on believing in justice.”
Over Zoom on November 30, Xinman spoke about these poems in a speech entitled “Poetry Creation and Sharing Against Racial Discrimination”. She delivered it to Chinese Age-well Research and Education, a Toronto-based nonprofit that offers lifelong learning to Chinese seniors.
University of Toronto sociology professor Weiguo Zhang hosted the event. During this session, SFU professor emeritus and Sinologist Jan Walls offered English-language translations of “I Still Believe” and “I Shall Raise My Fist”. According to the centre, Walls described these works as “ying” and “yang”, offering a “combination of rigidity and softness”.
For inspiration, Xinman often reads Pablo Neruda’s poetry. She’s particularly impressed by the deceased Chilean’s passion for life, imagination, and authentic emotion in his words.
Xinman says that his poems on love have had the greatest impact on her. In fact, she reveals that they are almost like a lens for experiencing the world.
“Poetry is healing—not only for me as a writer but also for readers,” Xinman declares.
Cathy Xinman says that some of her poems have been poorly translated into English on the Internet without her consent. As a result, she encourages people interested in reading her work in English to go to her book, Where You Love Yourself. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.