WONG, Rita

Author Tags: Chinese, Poetry, Women

Born in Calgary in 1968, Rita Wong grew up in Calgary and moved to Vancouver where she studied for her doctorate at Simon Fraser University. Her first collection of poetry, monkeypuzzle (Press Gang, 1998), reflects 'on the politics of race and time'. It pieces together ancestral history in the vein of Larissa Lai's fiction and Denise Chong's non-fiction. It received the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop Emerging Writer Award. Her follow-up collection, forage (Nightwood, 2007), won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2008. Described by Wong as "impassioned rants against the abuses of power," forage is a culture-crossing commentary on international politics and social injustice. Later, in 2011, forage was announced as the winner of Canada Reads Poetry, a new online initiative presented by CBC Books and The National Post. Following its defense by poet Sonnet L’Abbé, forage was chosen by public vote as the poetry book that Canadians should read.

Wong has worked as an English teacher in China and Japan, as an archivist and has been a coordinator for the Alberta/NWT Network of Immigrant Women. She received an Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop Emerging Writer Award for poetry in 1997. She lives in Miami and Vancouver where she teaches Critical and Cultural Studies at the Emily Carr Institute.

Her collaboration with Larissa Lai, sybil unrest (New Star 2013), was orig­i­nally pub­lished in 2008 by Line­Books. Son­net L’Abbe described it as “A witty, often tren­chantly funny repar­tee on main­tain­ing a resis­tant spirit in an envi­ron­ment of aggres­sive glob­al­ized con­sumerism” in her review for Cana­dian Lit­er­a­ture.

In Undercurrent (Harbour, 2015), Rita Wong’s third book of poetry explores water through “personal, cultural and political lenses.” From publicity materials, we learn that “though capitalism and industry are supposed to improve our quality of life, they’re destroying the very things that give us life in the first place. Listening to and learning from water is key to a future of peace and creative potential.” Wong examines the sacredness and power of water, and implores us to honour this precious resource.

Co-edited with Dorothy Christian "downstream: reimagining water" (Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press 2017) brings together various artists, writers, scientists, scholars, environmentalists and activits to explore the key roles that culture, arts, and the humanities play in supporting healthy water-based ecology.


monkeypuzzle (Press Gang, 1998)

forage (Nightwood, 2007)

Active Geographies: Women & Struggles on the Left Coast, editor, with Jo-ann Lee. (West Coast Line 58, 2010).

sybil unrest (LineBooks 2008 / New Star 2013) with Larissa Lai $18 9781554200696

undercurrent (Nightwood, 2015) $18.95 978-0-88971-308-6

perpetual (Nightwood 2015) Illustrations by Cindy Mochizuki $18.95 978-0-88971-313-0

Co-edited. downstream: reimagining water (Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press 2017) co-editor Dorothy Christian. 978-1-77112-213-9

[BCBW 2017]

Review (2008)

Having won this year’s Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for Forage (Nightwood $16.95), Rita Wong has proven that a challenging and somewhat flawed book can win an important prize. Unnoticed poets take note: originality still counts.

One hesitates to open a book of poems if the back cover blurb announces “an important book for an important time,” but Forage comes close to justifying the hype.

Alongside a list of Monsanto patents on transgenic plants, Wong has placed instructions on growing basmati rice on your own vegan poop in a Vancouver sewer.

Several pages of references indicate her main concerns: industrial toxins and human health, genetic engineering, colonization and the destruction of indigenous cultures, sustainability, linguistics, globalization, biopiracy and civil disobedience. (Not to mention Chinese poetry both ancient and modern.)

For a mere 66 pages of poems, that’s a staggering weight. The commentary of outraged protest usually overtakes poetry, so how does Wong keep the full-out accusation and rage from sliding into a tirade?

She eschews conventional poetics, slips into humour, variety and even love poetry, often employing unique forms and language. Though occasionally just skirting rant and inaccessibility, this poet‘s energetic ethical indignation shakes the reader up. Her aphorisms are striking, at times bordering on sloganeering,

“Profound mistrust of fashion is healthy.”

“Assume poison unless otherwise informed.”

When the public ear has been deafened you have to be outrageous to be heard. So who can blame her for trying? There are many pages of clever but also daunting wordplay:

“intermittent insistence sinister complicity stillborn mister minister toxic tinctures stinking pistols stricken cysts”

The density of her unpunctuated prose pieces does not always surrender to comprehension, even upon re-reading, and the hand-written marginalia can be a bit coy. Transliterations are not always offered for the Chinese ideograms that exclude many readers. So this is a difficult book for a difficult time.

Toxicity and its toll on our health is one of the main connecting themes. Dioxins and exponential mistakes “magnify their way up the food chain/ into my mother’s thyroid/ my neighbour’s prostate/ my cousin’s immune system/ my aunties’ breasts/ my grandmother’s cervix”… “industrial food defeats nutrition/immune systems attrition…brain murmurs tumour.”

This jeremiad verges on apocalyptic prophecy. After the devastation that is “more disfigurement than development/ we summon precautionary principles/ in agriculture, manufacture/ voluntary simplicity/ coyotes bare their sharp teeth/ have the last howl.”

So out we’ll go, not with a whimper or a bang, but a coyote’s howl.

Given the language needed to describe the toxicity of circuit board recycling villages, benzene in aquifers or the disposability of Shenzens’s factory girls is different from the language generally used to describe mountain mists and ocean’s drama, Rita Wong has emerged as a valuable counterweight to the nature poets so plentiful in B.C.


by Hannah Main-van der Kamp, BC BookWorld

sybil unrest
Publisher's Promo (2012)

Originally published by LINEBooks in 2008, sybil unrest by Larissa Lai and Rita Wong draws out the interconnections between feminism, environmentalism, and personal–political responsibility, highlighting and questioning notions of "human" and "female" evident in contemporary North American culture. It does so by referencing "Popular cultural icons, political figures, business slogans, transnational corporations, and other presences in our media–saturated world [which] populate the lines," in the words of a reviewer from Asian–Am–Lit–Fans online journal .

Yet sybil unrest is more than a glorious odyssey through contemporary culture. Reviewer Sophie Mayer, writing on her blog on Chroma, compares sybil unrest to works by Anne Carson and Mary Shelley. And Lauren Fournier, writing in the Fall 2011 issue of West Coast Line, draws attention to the way sybil unrest unlike the traditional avant–garde poetics, focused only on the cultural and aesthetic, expands outward into the cultural and political social worlds.

This book marks its space in 21st century poetics in indelible ink. The focus away from an "I" and onto an interactive and malleable subjective takes this foray into the avant–garde and makes it into "a critique of 'human' as a species", as Sonnet L'Abbe remarks in the Autumn 2011 issue of Canadian Literature. sybil unrest is clever, filled with delirious wordplay, deprecation and a subtle humour that will catch you unawares and make you laugh out loud.