Award-winning poet Frances Kai-Hwa Wang claims her identity and experience as an Asian American woman in You Cannot Resist Me When My Hair Is in Braids through beautiful and thought-provoking lyric essays. She tells her story navigating through her life as a Chinese-American, divorcee, mom, writer, teacher and lover.
The opening essay, Dreams of Diaspora, sets the stage for the piece. Wang personifies the diaspora, saying it dreams of “recapturing what never was.” She feels as though she is the dream of the diaspora but has become lost. She brings in the questions many people of color are asked and struggle to answer: “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” Her answer: “I was born here. But I feel so far from home.”
Wang explores this messy identity further, often through connection to food and her parents. She tells a story of her and her father buying the perfect tea set for her to take for grad school, only for her white neighbor to break it and insist on replacing it. The neighbor bought what she thought was a nice tea pot, but it was the Blue Willow pattern. Wang explains the Blue Willow pattern was actually designed in England and the western world developed a whole star-crossed lovers backstory to go along with it. This story demonstrates how difficult it can be to navigate between cultures, and how much gets lost or made up in between.
This idea of being in-between is also addressed with her thoughts while in an airport. The airport is where she finds the lover she keeps going back to through the essays, the one her mind never wants to leave. It is in the transition that she texts them, a brief interaction of where they were and where they are going, and then they are in the air and gone. In these pieces featuring this lover, Wang uses second person, using “you” to address the reader as the lover. This creates a mystical aura around this lover, allowing the reader to imagine who this “you” is.
Later, her essays dive into the mess that this decade has been, addressing Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, and anti-Asian hate. Her talented writing weaves parallels between her experience raising her kids and the paralyzing fear of the world around them, so violent to people that look like them. She describes her feeling of almost relief to be in quarantine, keeping her kids at arm’s length where she can protect them. Quarantine gives her a bit of calm amongst the chaos.
The second to last essay, Breath Rises, begins with a scene of Wang walking early in the morning during quarantine, when everything is quiet. She looks at her neighbors’ gardens, having recently created a large home garden of her own. This garden represents peace for her, providing an abundance of food as her elders did before her. She ends with a rumination on anger, saying that anger is not chosen, it is something rises up inside you, and breath rises. Her anger rises and manifests into writing. She takes this a step further, saying: “I write myself into existence every day. And I breathe. Breath rises.” This powerful ending thought leaves the reader reflecting on their own identities and how they will write themselves into existence.
You Cannot Resist Me When My Hair Is in Braids is an important and enjoyable read as the world opens back up from COVID-19. Wang’s vulnerable writing is awe-inspiring, and her expertise shows easily on the page. Wang’s work has been featured in many publications, including NBC Asian America, Center for Asian American Media and Detroit Journalism Cooperative.