What We Owe Each Other

Anxiety of influence in writing from the diaspora Jane Shi 

I am afraid of ancestral debt. The debt that does not come in the form of money, though it is often steeped in it. The debt that is not knowing – of how to ask and where or why exactly it hurts. An inheritance that cannot be thrown out, a thing more ceaseless than ocean and more anguished than birds swallowing plastic. 

What is ancestral debt? To whom are we indebted, and how? Over time, as I come into my voice as a Chinese Canadian writer and poet, I learn that the central questions of diaspora are best attended to through metaphor. The movement of a vehicle (ocean, birds) as it reimagines a tenor (inheritance of debt) is much like what happens when bodies migrate across land and water to reimagine belonging. If a poet’s job is to bear witness and reassemble everything that gets tugged away and lost through displacement, what happens when the poet herself houses the memories, stories, and hauntings of that loss? What does she do with images that keep coming back and refuse to let go?