Flesh, Tongue


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In this brilliant and provocative first collection, Yaya Yao confronts a hunger for home using scraps of personal and communal memory to bridge languages, worldviews, and physical distance from her ancestral home. Bits of Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Shanghainese are translated and altered to explore the dynamics between language and identity. In this collection, Yaya Yao has created a unique and authentic voice.


With the lightest poetic touch, Yaya Yao weighs the heaviest of subjects—death, grief, violence, longing, displacement. Found text from language lessons in a variety of Chinese dialects represent a search for language, but also springboard Yao to a set of spare and beautiful poems in which she traces how languages and dialects carry common human losses, including the loss of language itself. ‘… the ancestors / look at us from the damp depths / of the inadequacies we were so /relieved to find names for,’ she writes. Her poems are like knowing glances, shot through with compassion and insight. Yao brings remarkable clarity and a tensile energy to her work, and makes of Flesh, Tongue a poignant poetic project.

— Maureen Hynes, author of The Poison Colour

From the globalized rush of gaining adulthood between (too) many Chinese dialects, these poems find home in the self when it is watchful and observant, and in sharp images of the precious details of family ties.

—Paul Yee, author of A Superior Man

Alternating delicate observances of language and sensual imagery, Yaya Yao skilfully navigates a tale of the diasporic. In her poems we travel, we reflect, lost in a journey of migration, of family, of origins, of ourselves.

—Marjorie Chan, author of China Doll

Yaya Yao’s debut, Flesh Tongue, is the record of a process: a self being translated from one language to another. In “transplanted tongue, or, tongued” she writes: “english,/ sometimes/ I can’t hear myself in you.” And earlier, in “English” she asks: “what do you think it’s like/ to trust every mouthful of it?” The source of this poetry’s tension is a seemingly simple paradox: the English language is both her antagonist and also the means to subdue this slippery adversary.

—Moez Surani, author of Floating Life

Simple yet piercing, filled with sparse, pungent details these poems remind us of the loss that makes life so painful and yet so sweet. Yaya Yao both confronts us and comforts us with the double-edgedness of immigration and its legacy, offering us a way back to where we never left.

—Thea Lim, author of The Same Woman


On the CBC’s 15 must-read new poetry collections

On the League of Canadian Poets 2016 Year-End Reading

Literary Press Group’s Top 10 Books by Asian Canadian Authors

New Canadian Media’s review

She Does the City’s interview

Looseleaf’s interview

Brockton Writers Series’ coverage of the launch