Thursday 13 December 2018

There’s no Poetry in a Typhoon by Agnès Bun

Agnès Bun is a video journalist for Agence France-Presse, a literary critic for the Asian Review of Books and a published poet. Before the age of 30, she had: reported on the aftermath of the 2013 typhoon which devastated particularly the Philippines; come under fire in Eastern Ukraine; covered fatal earthquakes in Nepal and floods in Sri Lanka; filmed the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Her memoir, There’s no Poetry in a Typhoon: vignettes from journalism's front lines, translated from the original French by Melanie Ho, enables Agnès to reflect on the moments of guilt and grace she experienced as a reporter, and on the haunted, hopeful faces she came across during her extraordinary assignments.

It also enables her to confront her own identity.  Agnès is a French citizen born of Chinese parents who escaped the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s. She here describes how writing There’s no Poetry in a Typhoon provided an opportunity for her to reconnect with her multiple roots.

I left France in my early twenties and have lived overseas for years, working as a journalist in Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, and now Washington DC where I just took up a new position at Agence France-Presse’s regional headquarters for North America. Over the years, English has become my primary writing language. I took up the habit of writing poems, literary reviews and articles in this language that has always fascinated me but has never really been mine.

When my grandfather sank into the disease that is Alzheimer’s and when my father died suddenly, I turned to English to write cathartic poems, my grief reduced to a few published pages (Desde Hong Kong: Poets in conversation with Octavio Paz, Chameleon Press, 2014 and Quixotica: Poems East of La Mancha, Chameleon Press, 2016) and confined to the borders of a foreign language.

My Chinese Teochew dialect, which I write and speak only rarely, but which I hold onto sentimentally, allows me to build relationships with my family in all four corners of the globe; I have hundreds of relatives scattered in Australia, Cambodia, China, France, Hong Kong, New Zealand and the United States. Most of them do not speak French, and the older generation speaks only broken English. Teochew is perhaps the most powerful thing that connects us today—a language which has been deployed around the world like an oral family tree.

By contrast, French, a language I know better and which I consider my mother tongue, has often been too intimate for me and its vocabulary has skimmed too close to my heart. It is English that has offered me the required distance in which I have sought refuge, like a cocoon. I tame and evict pain by writing it down on paper in this other language, as though it was someone else who was suffering.

When my publisher proposed I write this book, he suggested that I write in French with an
English translation to be undertaken afterwards. To fill its pages, I resurrected memories and narrated them—many for the first time—in my mother tongue.

This experience affected me more than I had expected it to. Writing this book in my own language, which I had even physically fled when I left France, was like dragging me out of the chrysalis where I had confined my feelings and my questions of identity. A few years ago, I could not have written this book in French.

In writing the final lines of my book, I thought of the conclusion to Joyce Carol Oates’s Wonderland: “The melancholy we feel when completing a novel is akin to the melancholy we feel when, by the inexorable process of time, we are expelled forever from home.” But the exact opposite is what has happened to me. This is the greatest gift of my profession: travelling around the world has allowed me to end this long, linguistic fugue, and find a way back to the language in which I had first learned to formulate my emotions.

Details: There’s No Poetry in a Typhoon is published in paperback by Abbreviated Press, priced in local currencies.