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  • My father cut my tongue to say … (six estranged sonnets)
  • JinJin Xu (bio)

一 / yi

The English language spoken in a slighttranslation is made foreign to itself—My professor asked me about the plightof my birth language, the secret welton my tongue, no longer of my mother,its anchor swallowed whole by a white whaleand dragged toward stories of a creatorwho taught me the meaning of betrayal.I look for familiarity in poetry,images and sounds written in strange lilts,the space in between louder, more gravitythan these words built dead on stolen-gold stiltsabove an ocean salted with sunken tongues,concealing the echo of mermaid songs.

二 / er

My father took scissors and cutthe flesh that anchored my tongue to the floorof my mouth, just so I could flipthe slight lilts, say er instead of ah,gege instead of dede, regurgitate the moons,geese, wars, loves of dead poets—Did he know this cut would allow me to say sirinstead of see, here, twenty years after?Every three years, my tongue grew back, [End Page 254] stubborn, stronger, red like Guan Gong's anger—and when my words began to slip and slur,he held my head back with one hand, cut- cut - cut -This third and final time, I remembered the taste,a rootedness untethered, gone.

三 / san

My friend tells me that diasporic poets writingaway from home are inevitably chained to wordslike tongue, land, mother, un-making themselves intoworn tales of homecoming, exile, strangers,selling themselves for blue-eyed recognition,building a traitorous home from stolen metaphors,accents, voices, that echo a no-belonging,a no-trespassing until the body is left behind.I am told bilingual children are smarter—learning at birth to carry two languages,the first of home, the second of exile,tucking beneath the tongue, the self.In between one / yi and two / er—infinity screechessilent, beyond the tip of arrival.

四 / si

There are words I dare not speak in daylight,conjuring grammar books, English teachers,restless in death, waking to seek delightin my teething grapple of lie vs. lay vs. lain.Past perfect, they whisper, is beyond the present,un-grounding me from time, crossing overtomorrow into yesterday intowhat has been and what never will be—sweeping memories into reversal,burying mispronunciations inside termite nests,un-naming the collapse of my existenceuntil I gingerly misspeak my own name.Plagued by its aftertaste, I lickthe stomach of an opened honeybee. [End Page 255]

五 / wu

The lure of the English languageis its alphabetic certainty.The orderly curve of each lettercontained within the weight of its own breath,tied by cursive so thin I feel the pullof an umbilical cord pre-separation,untangling without law, linking myselfto an ancientness whose life announcesmy own—returning me to that firstinkling of sound, a persisting hotnesswrapped like skin, uniting throat with foot,crying with kicking, sound with being—I hear the murmur of voices that never become—syllabic breaths gush half in—half out—

六 / liu

To un-erase the number of Death,I slither si between the crevices—waitfor the gods to turn against me with eachtabooed count of / four and / death,the fateful rhyme slapped out of my girlhoodlips, so I learned the dead cannot be calledinto homes, banished outside the doorwayof language, from the words of the living.Yet, words un-spoken do not forget—within the repetition of four, I count tothe slow dying of my namesake,a poem, Ming Dynasty, un-inherited by English—JinJin sings TodayToday—a shadowside by side with itself, my own ringing echo. [End Page 256]

JinJin Xu

JinJin Xu is a writer from Shanghai. Her work moves in between language and memory, poetry and documentary, and has been shown in Berlin, Hanoi, Shanghai, and New York. A former Watson Fellow, she is currently an MFA candidate at NYU, where she received the Lillian Vernon Fellowship. She can be reached at



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