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Ambivalent Inheritance:
Mercedes Eng's my yt mama

Mercedes Eng's "my yt mama"
Mercedes Eng, my yt mama
Vancouver: Talon Books, 2020.

Calling something a “myth” or a “legend” is misleadingly aggrandizing; it elevates while also implying that the thing being elevated is something other than the truth. In my yt mama, Mercedes Eng emphasizes mythologization’s long history as a colonial tool, and turns its destabilizing logic onto her own personal origin story as the “non-yt” daughter of a “yt mama” born in Medicine Hat. She ravenously forages knowledge from family hearsay, childhood memories, Wikipedia, a colonial history of Medicine Hat written for Canada’s centennial, and observations of family members, friends, celebrities, and craft-brewery bros. The strongest sense of authority among all these knowledges comes from the unspoken memories of childhood: in poems such as “race according to my yt mama,” an adult Eng restores the child’s narrative by drawing attention to what her mother was not seeing in their offhand exchanges about race.

Poem titles like “how my yt settler mama met my Chinese immigrant dad,” “yt prairie mamas and five generations of Ellens,” and “the places we come from” clearly mark the collection as an origin story, or rather, an origins story, drawing from both sides of a mixed-race family. For example, “rice” is a poem about Eng’s father’s mother, and “potatoes” is about her mother’s mother. But Eng’s identity is shaped not only through inheritances from both sides of her family: it also emerges through alienation affected most strongly by her white mother, grandmother, and ancestors.

Eng owns and challenges the hegemonic histories of both the white side of her lineage and her hometown of Medicine Hat: she centres her mother’s perspective and a colonial perspective of her hometown, narrating from the margin to point out the inadequacies in the traditionally authoritative sources of mother and white male author. But the personal dimension of Eng’s commentary is further complicated by acknowledgements of her mother’s socioeconomic and gendered vulnerability: for example, in “the places we come from/0,” she recounts her mother being “‘in trouble’…nineteen and unmarried and pregnant with me,” and explains in the poem “the crazy things my mother told me when I was a kid” that “my mom was an orphan, was adopted, so that’s the place she’s coming from”—another complex origin story within Eng’s complex origin story.

Eng’s ambivalent inheritance from her white relatives is mirrored in her relationship as a settler who is “often misread as an Indigenous person” (“I got the yt supremacy blues”) to her hometown’s colonial romanticization of the Indigenous roots they overwrote. Eng’s mother “tells [her] in a so-there tone/ that Mariah is a mixee and people love her” (“Mariah according to my yt mama”), just as colonial historian Gershaw tells his readers that the “Indian” heritage of Medicine Hat is “wrapped in the mysteries of long ago and lost in the limbo of forgotten things” (“the places we come from/0”). Both authorities mistake their own perceptions, and ignorance, for an absence of trauma that Eng inserts into the narrative in obscuring language: explaining that “Mariah has talked publicly / about feeling some type of way about / being what she calls biracial” (“Mariah according to my yt mama”); and simply undercutting Gershaw’s account with the remark “mysteries of long ago, eh?” (“the places we come from/0”). She later parses these tensions to the reader with more directness: “I wish her first response wasn’t a disavowal of my experience” (“Mariah according to my yt mama”) and “the legends of how Medicine Hat got its name don’t explain how ytness invisibilized Indigenous Peoples and people of colour” (“the places we come from/0,” emphasis in original).

Eng’s epigraphs and acknowledgements, as well as some in-text citations, explicitly and enthusiastically claim her intellectual lineage from primarily Indigenous writers. She directs her accounts of her blood lineage, her links to “yt”ness, towards a process of uncovering Indigenous authority over the places that Canadians call hometowns, just as she articulates her own experience in a mixed-race body that her mother unintentionally covered over with her white perspective. But even though these poems are saturated with ambivalence, sometimes crystallizing into outbursts, like “Tupac’s mama was a Black Panther who resisted the system / my mom is the system” (“a song for my yt mama”), they own the origin story they present to the reader. my yt mama is a confusing, ambivalent legend, but it is also the truth.

 

Carolyn Nakagawa is a Japanese-Anglo Canadian settler poet and playwright, the third generation of her family to make her home in unceded Indigenous territory that was colonized as Vancouver, BC. Her poetry has been published in magazines including The Malahat Review, Poetry is Dead, and The New Quarterly.

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