Mirror mirror: who am I?
Leanne Dunic’s debut collection of poems is a post-modern take on the oldest story of all: the search for identity.
April 20th, 2021
Leanne Dunic’s ‘narrator’ seeks a spiritual twin, someone to validate her existence by reflection and to relieve her loneliness in One and Half of You (Talonbooks $16.95).
Review by John Moore
In theory, growing up biracial should be a double jackpot. Two different genetic and cultural heritages to discover and explore. Twice as many options for self-definition. A life infinitely more complex and richly textured.
Before you start shouting “Where can I get some,” read Leanne Dunic’s One and Half of You (Talonbooks $16.95) and think about how much fun it wouldn’t be explaining that you identify as a Croatian-Chinese Canadian to some cranky, brain-dead passport control officer at an international airport after midnight.
Dunic’s laconic compressed imagery makes it clear that growing up biracial is more often about rejection rather than enrichment; being treated as ‘neither fish nor fowl’ by both one’s inherited communities.
“Games passed down from our parents: a box
of Tressette cards and a jewelled cookie tin
full of mah-jong tiles. We didn’t know how
to play with either.” – Leanne Dunic
She recounts how her mother pulled her out of Chinese language and writing classes after a year: “Mother said, We speak Cantonese, not/ Mandarin./ And now I speak neither.”
This kind of parental ambivalence can condemn a child to the worst loneliness of all — self-alienation.
“My neighbours had blue eyes and light-
blond hair and took me to worship with
them once a week. I prayed to their god,
giving him an ultimatum that if he was real,
he’d make me blond like my Barbie doll.
Blond like the girls I kissed in class.” – Leanne Dunic
One and Half of You is a post-modern take on the oldest story of all; the search for identity, a theme as ancient as the stories of Theseus and Oedipus. Seeking a spiritual twin, someone to validate her existence by reflection and relieve her loneliness, Dunic’s ‘narrator’ looks for her mirror image in other women, then in a similarly biracial male lover she calls Snake, from the Chinese zodiac symbol of his birth year. She calls her brother Rat for the same reason.
Rat shares her unique genetic heritage and childhood memories, but he’s a reversed image — brash and ambitious, the kind of cocky young dude who buys a Ferrari because he wrecked his BMW. He brags of his sexual exploits, but is uncomfortable hearing about her’s. He admits he only dates white girls because Asian girls all remind him of her. She finds out how much he loves her from one of his ex-girlfriends she encounters on a modelling assignment in Singapore. If this sounds like a novel, it probably could have been.
The Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing data describes One and Half of You as “poems” but it’s a mistake to confuse it with the slim volumes of random squibs and squirts assembled by most young scribblers on the make. There are no titles every page or two: this is a single integrated work, like a three-act play or three-volume novel, divided by non-emotive Roman numerals.
While it may look like poetry on the page — terse jagged lines separated by lots of white space in the modern mode established by e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams — One and Half of You could probably have been typeset as prose and won a major short story prize. (Dunic won the Alice Munro Short Story Prize in 2015). Instead, she chooses to adopt the typography of poetry to s-t-r-e-c-h what could have been just another ‘poetic’ short story into a single more emotionally resonant work.
Dunic is a multi-disciplinary artist, one who likes to push, warp and break the boundaries of conventional artistic forms, and that’s what she’s doing here. Prose is the medium of reportage, journalism and fiction. We read blocks of text faster than we read poetry. We skim, turn pages or click the mouse too quickly, which blunts nuances or makes us miss them entirely.
Poetry is like Slow Food: the short lines and scattershot typography pioneered by e.e. cummings and W.C. Williams and widely adopted by Beat poets of the Fifties and almost all poets since, isn’t a cutesy mannerism. Its purpose is to slow the reader down. Because you’re forced to read it so slowly, One and Half of You leaves you feeling as full as if you’d read a novel.
It’s also a reminder that sometimes even Hollywood gets things right. More than a decade before Dunic was born, during the Sixties and Seventies, the angry self-conflicted biracial was a stock character in fiction, film and TV. Paul Newman in the 1967 film Hombre, and Charles Bronson in the 1972 film Chato’s Land, played young half-Apache men who stood up against the injustice and racism of an expansionist United States. Both these ‘revisionist westerns’ echoed issues raised by the Civil Rights movement and the unpopular war in Vietnam. Burt Reynolds, who proudly claimed Cherokee ancestry, got his acting break playing the testy biracial blacksmith, Quint Asper, in the 1960s Gunsmoke TV series. (After playing a biracial police detective in the TV series, Hawk, and the lead in the spaghetti western, Navajo Joe, Reynolds declined roles that threatened to typecast him in Native or biracial parts.)
The character of the biracial outsider became a sly ‘safe’ way of expressing the wider social dissent of a whole generation of young people of every race and combination thereof. A biracial hero could be the conscience of a culture and still represent the solid American virtue of Rugged Individualism. At the same time, as an existential ‘loner’ marginalized by both his inherited cultures, the biracial character was often used by writers and directors to make high-minded statements with less fear of creating a flash-point for what seemed, in those days, to be impending civil and/or racial war.
Of all biracial characters created by Hollywood in those years, the uniquely intelligent exception was Kwai Chang Caine, protagonist of the 1972 TV series Kung Fu. Played by David Carradine, who despite his lack of Asian DNA was made up to look pretty convincing as the offspring of an American man and a Chinese woman, Caine was a Shaolin monk trained in martial arts and imbued with Taoist wisdom. Significantly, Caine was the opposite of the aggrieved loner of most series set in the American West. He travelled the Wild West like an offbeat synthesis of mendicant monk and the Lone Ranger, defending the weak and oppressed and righting the wrongs of late19th century America along the way.
That, and the martial arts, is all most people remember of the series. What all but die-hard fans forget is that the object of Caine’s quest was to find his brother, his father’s other ‘American’ son. Like Leanne Dunic, like all of us, Kwai Chang Caine was just trying to find his family. 9781772012866
An edited version of this review will be published in the 2021 Summer issue of BC BookWorld.