Quill and Quire

Gillian Sze

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In her new collection, Gillian Sze ruminates on family and origins

Gillian Sze has returned to the sentence.

In Quiet Night Think, her genre-bending sixth collection out now from ECW Press, Sze explores her own creative and biological origins through both poems and essays.

Sze, who studied with novelist David Bergen at the University of Winnipeg, started off writing fiction that she noticed was “very, very, very short.”

“It was only attending classes at Concordia [later] that I went: Oh wait, the poem is more my speed – these short texts that you can hold in the palm of your hand,” she says.

Sze, who lives in Montreal, wrote the titular essay in the collection in 2014 to answer the question “Why write?” without knowing it would be part of a larger project, turning to the sentence to revisit her first brush with poetry as a child. Growing up with Chinese immigrant parents in Winnipeg, Sze attended Saturday Mandarin lessons where she learned Chinese texts, including a famous five-character quatrain by Li Bai that is often translated as “Quiet Night Thought.” 

“My connection to poetry started there, in a language that wasn’t even my mother tongue,” says Sze, who grew up speaking the Hokkien dialect at home. “I was really puzzled by this poem, even as a child, because it was so short. I appreciated its rhyme, but I struggled with its meaning because I didn’t know how to translate.”

In the essay, Sze describes how she sat down with her mother, trying to get her to translate the poem, and how frustrated the process made her. Her mother was trying to translate each character directly into English, but as Sze points out, this doesn’t work very well. “Sometimes a [Chinese] character just doesn’t mean anything by itself; it has to be connected to another character to mean something,” she says. “That in itself, just linguistically, was very hard for my mother to express.”

“It was the process of both of us trying to come to one meaning that was most memorable for me, because I started to see some of the spaces in language, spaces in experience, but also spaces in poetry itself,” Sze says.

Sze is no stranger to writing about very personal subject matter; her third collection, Peeling Rambutan (Gaspereau Press, 2014), deals with the gaps that arise between immigrant parents and their Canadian-born children and was born out of her first trip to China. But this new collection, which Sze sees as her return to the sentence, feels more intensely personal than poetry ever has.

“I certainly feel a lot more exposed in this book,” she says. “With the essay [form], I feel like I’m really holding [readers’] hands and taking them with me from one idea to the next. I feel like there are fewer holes for a reader to fall through, even just in the way the essay looks on a page.” 

Quiet Night Think is structured in an episodic format, with each of its six essays followed by poems. In prose, Sze writes about that first encounter with Li Bai’s famous poem, the origins of her parents’ names, and the time she spent after her son was born observing the Chinese tradition where new mothers spend the first postpartum month housebound, recovering from the rigours of labour.

Throughout the book, in poetry and prose, Sze deals with the process of loss – whether in the process of translation or in the move from one life stage to another – and finds that losing something can also mean gaining something new.

This is apparent in the way she writes and talks about her father’s response to her leaving the University of Winnipeg after one year of pre-med studies to pursue creative writing in Montreal. He “took it as a personal affront,” she writes.

Losing her father’s approval of her studies is something Sze is grateful for now: she left Winnipeg with something to prove.

“I think that’s what keeps me writing,” she says. “It made me fearless in some ways. I just had to try; I had no choice. Otherwise, I would have had to become a doctor, and I’m afraid of blood.”