Whose Fantasy Is This? On Sally Wen Mao’s “The Kingdom of Surfaces”
By Hazem FahmyAugust 28, 2023
The Kingdom of Surfaces by Sally Wen Mao
This pain is given a politico-historical dimension: “My century of humiliation began with my body.” But it has also seeped into the speaker’s relationship with the realm of nature. The parasitic fungus cordyceps eerily appears across the book, giving language to the bitter ambiguity of these fraught intimacies. Any reader attuned to American popular culture in 2023 will be thinking of the speculative postapocalyptic rampage of the fungus in the 2013 video game The Last of Us and its HBO adaptation from earlier this year. When the speaker asks, “Is this meeting an ‘infection’ or a ‘possession,’” the stakes are calamitous. The danger of beauty lies within the natural world, but also within the speaker herself: “The tree inside me isn’t loquat / but strangler fig. A tree so pretty and snakelike / it renders you breathless, then worthless, all at once.”
No image, however, repeats more across these poems than that of porcelain. As both object and symbol, it obviously looms large over the book—quite literally on the cover featuring the work of Ah Xian. At times, the material is embedded with lush historical narrative. “On Porcelain,” the first of several poems that take the shape of a porcelain vase, identifies the foundational role that literal looting over centuries of colonialism and orientalist writing has played in the historical development of aesthetic appreciation in the West, the very ways in which these cultures understand beauty itself. When the speaker remarks that “[p]lunder is in the language of naming,” it is not a metaphor. Elsewhere, the speaker ascribes divinity to porcelain, as when she speaks of “the porcelain goddesses” in “On Shards.” This likens its theft to an unholy act. The speaker returns again and again to the looted artifact, and the thieves who price it exorbitantly. In “Batshit,” a porcelain vase is “[s]tolen several times in its lifetime” only to be “sold at a Christie’s auction // for $20 million.” The follow-up thought can only be blunt: “Enough to feed a village and supply / its hospitals.”
Mao is careful not to let her historical allusions slide into wide-eyed nostalgia. Looking back on the quasi-legendary tale of Yang Guifei in “Romance of the Castle-Toppler,” the speaker laments how the imperial consort “could not flee her kingdom. Her love / ordered her to die, so she obeyed.” In sharp contrast, the speaker writes, “I have never lived a sorrow / that deep. To romanticize history / is to forget it / That’s the privilege of nostalgia.” The past is anything but a site of longing. The spectral presence of Anna May Wong, a central concern of Oculus, returns in the last third of the book. In “Minted,” the speaker skewers the stale representation politics that would have anyone believe that placing an Asian woman on American currency is something worth celebrating: “O, to be the face of money!” she exclaims, “newly / minted, you are a new woman. The face / of capital. The face of lucre.” The actress’s inclusion is rendered a form of assimilation into empire, the use of an iconic woman’s face to beautify the American dollar.
The book’s strongest and most incisive section by far is a sequence of prose poems–cum-lyrical essays towards the middle, beginning with “Poppies and Jade.” Reflecting on the imperial nature of museums and their capacity to whitewash the crimes of families like the Sacklers, the speaker is struck by the steep cost of acquisition: “So many have died for a symmetry like this.” This price is, of course, not paid equally. The speaker recounts observing “an older European man” frantically browsing an antiques shop for a Chinese armoire, blurting: “Money is no issue, […] I just want to buy it.” Chinamania is revealed to be at the heart of mass consumer culture’s origins.
Within these pieces, the relationship between theft, ruination, and desire is firmly established. In the titular poem, the speaker finds herself frustratingly awed by an exhibit whose curatorial practice is rife with orientalist apologia. Regarding the mirrors that adorn the space, she confesses to be “in love with [them] the way I am afraid to love another human. To love a pretty object that is not allowed to be touched. To love a pretty object as time colludes with its disappearance. To disappear into enchantment.” So much of what we deem beautiful is inseparable from destruction: “There are no wild silkworms left in the world. […] Everything beautiful contains in its kernel a suggestion of suffering, of death.” Excerpts from the exhibit’s atrocious synopses open the prose poems in this section, the curators desperately searching for a “a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity.” Rather than attempt to hide the nakedly imperial nature of the space, the author Mao cites makes it clear they are working towards “a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East.” Lost in this haze of historical revisionism, it is no wonder the speaker asks: “Whose fantasy is this?” The curator’s disdain for the critiques presented by the likes of Edward Said is made plain in cowardly statements like this:
Postcolonial discourse perceives an implicit power imbalance in such Orientalist dress up, but designers’ intentions often lie outside such rationalist cognition. They are driven less by the logic of politics than by that of fashion, which typically pursues an aesthetic of surfaces rather than an essence governed by cultural contextualization.
This doublespeak that Mao interrogates finds beauty in the way aesthetics are ripped from one place in service of another. In “Humpty Dumpty,” the ostensibly critical language of deconstruction is weaponized towards colonial ends, for in the museum, “[t]he China that unfolds before our eyes is a China ‘through the looking glass,’ one that is culturally and historically decontextualized,” the objects thus becoming “[f]reed from settings, past and present.” Hence why the speaker knows better than to relish the spotlight: “The laws of predation know / a carcass can’t be harmed.” These incisive ruminations on optics are punctuated in the final poem when, observing a war memorial for Chinese American veterans in Manhattan’s Chinatown, the speaker remarks: “I noticed that the American obsession with freedom is the American obsession with death.” It is an obsession that cannot be overcome without a radical rethinking of beauty itself.
Hazem Fahmy is a writer and critic from Cairo who runs the literary newsletter wust el-balad on Substack. His debut chapbook, Red//Jild//Prayer, won the 2017 Diode Editions Contest.
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