In debut poetry collection, Yale staff member gives voice to ‘cultural silences’

Years ago, Yale staff member Monica Ong Reed found a photograph of her mother as a young child that shows her dressed as a boy. In the family portrait, she stands with her two brothers, dressed, as they are, in white shirts and shorts, her dark hair cut short and parted on the side. To her right are her four sisters, wearing identical, sleeveless summer dresses and frilly white socks.

For Ong, a graphic designer at the School of Music, the photograph was one of the inspirations for a journey of exploration — through poetry and visual art — of  “cultural silences” in her own family’s history and, more broadly, among those who share her Asian heritage.

That exploration has resulted in her first poetry collection, “Silent Anatomies,” which also features Ong’s own collages and illustrations, along with medical ephemera and family photographs that, she says, give voice to subjects that have often been culturally “taboo to talk about.” (She uses her maiden name, Ong, as her pen name.)

The photograph of her mother, born to Chinese parents who fled to the Philippines during World War II, is one of several that Ong found of her mother dressed as a boy. The image is accompanied in “Silent Anatomies” with Ong’s poem “Bo Suerte,” in which she tells of her grandfather’s shame about having too many daughters. “Bo,” the Yale staff member explains in her poem, translates from the southern Chinese dialect of Hokkien as “without” or “not enough,” while “Suerte,” for Spanish Catholics, means “karma.”

In seeing the photograph, “I felt for the first time I was witnessing a kind of erasure of the body,” Ong told her audience at a recent book reading for “Silent Anatomies” held at New Haven’s Silk Road Gallery.

“Silent Anatomies,” which Ong describes as a “hybrid literature” for its blending of text and image, was a creative means for her to “examine cultural silences and the way they are written in the body,” she says.

 “Created as an assemblage of poetry, archive, and medical ephemera, [“Silent Anatomies”] unpacks silence not only as the absence of language, but also as the historical erasure, the loss of cultural memory, reconstructed truths, and ghosted identities,” writes the publisher, Kore Press of Ong’s debut collection, which poet Joy Harjo selected as the winner of the 2104 Kore Press First Book Award in poetry. Since 1993, Kore Press has published literature by women writers with the goal of deepening awareness and advancing social justice.

Among the poems in Ong’s collection are “Catching a Wave,” about the many girl babies (an estimated 13 million) who have been aborted in China due to the culture’s strong preference for sons and the government’s one-child policy. The poem unfolds on a series of ultrasound images. The text for “Innervation,” a poem that features some of her mother’s admonitions about marriage, family, and dating, is set on Ong’s collage composed of a family photograph and a drawing of nerve endings and flying birds. In “Profunda Linguae,” a poem about her relationship with her father, Ong describes how silent affection can find expression in food; the work is illustrated with Chinese-Filipino recipes her mother typed on his prescription pads and anatomical views of the tongue from a 1908 medical chart, among other illustrations. Intermingled in the poetry collection are photographs of vintage medicine bottles on which Ong epoxied archival prints for Chinese beauty potions that lighten the skin or remedy mental illness, among other unwanted flaws or maladies based on multicultural folklore and belief.

In her own culture, says Ong, publishing a book of poetry on subjects people learn to be silent about was an act of boldness.

“The model minority ideal is that you are obedient; you follow the rules and keep your head down,” she explains. “If something doesn’t look right you look the other way and don’t cause a fuss. It’s reinforced in our culture, and reinforced in us as immigrants, not to cause a ruckus. With ‘Silent Anatomies,’ what I’m hoping is that [my readers] will step back and ask: Is silence really the way? Is it productive? Or is it time to participate in dialogue? The book was my own catharsis, too, in dealing with those silences.”

Personal heritage: Raised in a Chicago suburb by her Filipino-born parents (both sets of her grandparents fled there from China), Ong initially set out only to be a graphic artist, receiving her training at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She recalls that she was one of few minority students at her schools in Chicago.

“There was an interesting dynamic for me growing up, where a need to preserve my identity and my history rubbed against the need to assimilate and be accepted,” she explains. “I think that tension is something that made me think very critically about my identity as an artist, and it is definitely something that carries over into my work.”

She also remembers hearing her mother talk about some of the patients her physician father treated, often “in secret,” for problems related to mental health, domestic violence, or other concerns.

“These things were so taboo to talk about, and I think being able to seek help or care out in the open — whether going to a hospital or to the police — was perceived in the Asian-American community and by some other communities as some kind of failing,” comments Ong. “My mother would say that if it was openly acknowledged that someone in the family had a mental health problem, it would not only dishonor the family, but people would avoid marrying the children in the family out of fear that their bloodlines would be tainted. So there is this sort of fear.

“Sometimes people would come to my father for help and he would treat them, and then they would kind of go back into their lives as though nothing had happened,” she continues. “As a young woman, I noticed that there is so much about female trauma, particularly among women of color, that is constantly underreported, and I think there is a self-censorship that works alongside health systems, which are just not aware of what goes on, especially because these systems are primarily designed for mainstream, English-speaking communities that have fewer barriers to voicing their issues.”

Ong notes that statistics released by the American Psychiatric Association demonstrate that Asian Americans are much less likely than their white counterparts to report mental health problems to friends or relatives because of stigma and shame, and only a small fraction report mental health problems to mental health professionals or physicians.

In her own family, the experience of a maternal aunt who suffered from mental illness also influenced Ong’s thinking about female trauma and health.

“In her 20s, my aunt started showing symptoms of what my father believes was schizophrenia,” remembers Ong, who met her mentally ill relative a handful of times in the Philippines. “My grandmother was very superstitious; she believed my aunt was seeing spirits and was able to communicate with deities. She and my father, who rejected Chinese medicine and superstitions, were always butting heads, and an uncle, who was also superstitious, would mix my aunt’s [anti-psychotic] medicine with Chinese medicine. My grandmother’s family wanted to be the ones in power over her care, so there was a lot of push and pull. My aunt never really received proper diagnosis or treatment and over the years her health deteriorated, and she just recently died.

“My aunt, in a way, is a muse for ‘Silent Anatomies’ in the sense that when we bear witness, we can help change the cultural discourse and narrative about women’s bodies and women’s health so that there can be better health outcomes in the long haul.”

Merging her art and words: Ong says that even as she trained as an artist at RISD, she continued to explore writing, partly as a means to articulate the messages and topics she wanted to address in her artworks, and partly due to the encouragement of her writing teacher there, Wendy S. Walters, who stressed that working at her writing was as important as advancing as a visual artist.

“She gave me permission to really just explore that literary space and also to try to look at visual training as a benefit because it offers a different approach on words,” says Ong. “The visual context of words and the presentation of words can imply just as much as what it says, but we still have to work on what it says.”

Ong later joined Kundiman, a national organization dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian-American literature. There, she met other Asian-American writers who were similarly grappling with “the challenges of multilingual writing and also with how best to contribute their own voices in American literature,” she says. Ong eventually became part a diverse community of poets and writers, including Latinos, African-Americans, and other minority groups. Her poetry has been previously published in journals such as the Lantern Review, Drunken Boat, Glassworks Magazine, Loaded Bicycle, Tidal Basin Review, and the Seneca Review.

The encouragement she received from mentors and other writers she met convinced Ong that she didn’t have to choose between being a graphic artist and a poet, but could instead be both. For “Silent Anatomies,” Ong also designed the cover for the book, and she collaborated with New Haven’s Dexterity Press to create limited edition artisanal letterpress broadsides of some of the poems/graphics in the book.

Beyond the personal: As Ong has increasingly shared her work at readings, exhibitions, and at other venues, she says she has learned that those in other minority communities have also experienced silence and shame about bodies, health, and mental health issues, particularly women.

“I’ve discovered that people are sharing in these struggles in a broader way than I initially thought. It has made for rich conversation and cross-cultural conversation,” she says.

Ong hopes that her book will encourage women from all ethnicities and races to speak more openly about their particular challenges, ranging from misogyny to rape to health matters.

“I’d like to think of ‘Silent Anatomies’ as a book for any person who is at the crossroads of whether or not to speak out,” she says. “So many people feel paralyzed by their health choices, by the cultural and social consequences of making the choice to speak up, particularly women, because any time there is visibility given to their voices, there is a quick backlash to suppress those voices, including victim shaming. I think it is particularly important for women of color to know that they are not alone and to know that their work to voice what has happened, to participate in self-care, and to ask for help is very important to moving forward.”

Ong is currently planning collaborations with health organizations to combine readings of “Silent Anatomies” with audience conversations about health concerns and presentations by the organizations about the services they offer that can be of help.

“I realized that I have a commitment to women who have kept silent through their sufferings and through all kinds of injustices, and to try to contribute to some kind of progress,” Ong comments, adding that poetry serves as a particularly useful way to begin conversation about difficult subjects.

“Art has a way of creating a space to have dialogue about the things that we are not supposed to talk about,” says Ong. “It can create interesting spaces for empathy, where we can participate in shared vulnerability. I see a lot of artists actively engaged in work that can be very productive in terms of the national discourse that we are having about identity and race right now. What I find distinct about poetic spaces is that it allows us to move out of the spaces of spectacle and to actually focus on why we need to have these conversations. I think the only way to help us not go blind or tone deaf is to constantly find ways to empathize, to imagine ourselves in another person’s place, and that happens either through face-to-face discussion or by reading and listening to voices other than our own. So I think poetic spaces are really, really important for our culture, and I think this is a critical time for different voices in literature to emerge.”