Merle Woo’s poetry achieves a rare combination of substance and style. Undoubtedly political, often shocking, Yellow Woman Speaks is a pleasure to read. Her conversational, open, no-bull tone made me feel, as I turned page after page, that I was not sitting alone in my room reading, but engaged in an intense and wonderful discussion with an inspiring new friend. Merle has no hang-ups about saying what she thinks. Her daring poems charge headlong at issues that most writers would shy away from. The result is engaging, exciting and empowering. Reading Merle’s poetry, I am not only awed by her strength, intelligence, creativity, courage and revolutionary achievements, but helped to realise that I too am capable of making these same achievements — as indeed all people are.
Merle’s personal background is as a Korean-Chinese-American, same-sex attracted woman, living and teaching in the U.S.A. As one would expect, Merle writes about her experiences of racism and homophobia. But Yellow Woman Speaks goes far beyond an account of personal battles. Merle also examines issues that affect everyone — war, class inequality, workplace exploitation, the inadequacy of healthcare, injustices within the American education system, the struggle to free political prisoners, gender discrimination, and the many issues surrounding reproductive rights. She even touches upon the rarely-mentioned topic of female sterilisation and the struggle for transsexual rights.
This is what I find truly mind-blowing about Merle: she connects her experience with others’ and identifies with everybody’s oppression — even, as she expresses in the insightful On the Front Line of Freedom, with those who take the side of the oppressive system against their own working class sisters and brothers:
And who will be with me on the Front Line of Freedom? Will it be the white lesbians and gays who oppress people of colour, the poor and disadvantaged? Will it be the people of colour, my people my Asian brothers and sisters who hate and despise gays? who look with disgust upon me, who see my lover as a ghost? a devil? Will it be working men who are sexist? Who treat me with disrespect, call me names because I am a woman? An Asian woman? A Chinky China Doll? A Slant Cunt? Comparing me to a pug dog? with buck teeth? Dehumanizing me? Will we be on the Front Line Together? I don’t think so. And yet, I am fighting for the rights of just these people who oppress me. Because I am a lesbian mother, an Asian, and a worker. I stand with those who are the most enslaved — who have no say in the determination of their bodies’ choices; their minds’ wills.
Merle draws these struggles together, illuminating the fact that they are linked by a common source: capitalism. No single-issue battle can ever achieve lasting change on its own, nor within a system that benefits from unequal power. For real change to occur, we need a movement that addresses all these injustices, recognising them as the very bricks and mortar from which the capitalist structure is built. We need a revolutionary movement that is multi-issue, multi-faceted, feminist and socialist.
Merle’s poetry highlights this revolution as not only necessary, but possible. In a collection that covers such a wide range of alarming topics, it would be easy for the tone to be depressing, frustrated, fatalistic, hopeless, even angsty. It isn’t. There is anger, yes, but never angst. This anger is polished, sharp, displayed with pride, it gleams. It is honest, reasonable, natural anger — the sort that politicians and employers want us to believe we ought not have — the sort of anger that translates into strength, and action. Merle’s anger incites my own and reminds me I am not alone in, nor should I feel ashamed of, feeling this anger. She affirms that I too am capable of drawing strength from my anger, of pushing for change in the face of fear. The poem, Whenever You’re Cornered, the Only Way Out is to Fight, particularly demonstrates this. Qi, a 77-year-old woman from North China, and disabled by her feet being bound since birth, was attacked by a leopard. She chose to fight the animal and defeated it.
There are moments of pure joy, too, and this is another way in which Merle inspires me. She dares to celebrate difference, strength and defiance in the face of a system which attempts to homogenise humanity under the power of a white, patriarchal, capitalist elite, and therefore to weaken and silence us. She celebrates everything she is as well as the diversity of society. She expresses admiration for her same-sex lover in the positively sensual Polymorphously Perverse. She also celebrates the varied cultures, sexualities, genders, and desires of people around her in a playful (and mouth-watering!) poem, Jellybeans. She celebrates personal victories, such as standing up against her boss in Class Szechuan-Style, as well as the victories of the feminist and other mass social movements. She celebrates the strength and determination of these movements, of her fellow activists and comrades. The result is uplifting and empowering — though never over-simplified. Merle makes no pretence that change will be easy. But it is possible.
Merle doesn’t just speak out — she does it in style. Her language is original, honest, accessible, yet undoubtedly poetic. At first glance it might seem deceptively simple: there are no grandiose flourishes or literary pretensions, no need to work within a prescribed form or include witty devices. Merle is clearly intent on conveying her message, rather than showing off her skills with language. Yet it is this directness, this humane and honest approach which makes Merle’s work so easy to enjoy. She speaks to her readers on an equal level and does not preach. Although her language may seem simple, it is in fact very tightly constructed. Merle is economical with her words: there is no junk, nothing unnecessary, no room for indulgence. It is — as poetry ought to be — the right words in the right order.
Special highlights of the book, for me, include Jellybeans, Polymorphously Perverse and her highly evocative Mumia Imagines Freedom, which calls for the release of African American revolutionary, Mumia Abu Jamal, who’s been framed and on death row since 1981. If I had to pick a personal favourite, though, it would be Class Szechuan-Style. In this poem, Merle writes about two different scenarios, both of which involved workplace discrimination and the unfair dismissal of her co-workers. The first time Merle encountered this situation, she said nothing, because she was frightened for her own job. She regretted this, and when the same thing began to happen in her next workplace, she decided to stand up and defend her colleagues, even though it meant taking a risk.
...this time, it will be different. Whether we go or stay our course will be directed by: integrity, visibility and revolutionary possibility.
As a newcomer to Radical Women, I am particularly inspired by this poem, because it demonstrates that being revolutionary and taking risks is not about being fearless, but about exercising courage in the face of fear. Just because someone has submitted or given up in the past doesn’t mean that they are capable only of repeating the same behaviour. Absolutely everybody has the ability to stand up and make a noise, to be revolutionary.
Yellow Woman Speaks is a book I know I will want to re-read time and time again. I encourage high school teachers to use the publication in class. Its themes are relevant, not only to feminists and people who have experienced racism but to all people who have ever been, in any way, oppressed by the capitalist system (and honestly, who hasn’t?). Perhaps, the more people who read Merle’s poetry, the sooner it will be until we all stand together — On the Front Line of Freedom.