Flesh, Tongue

In this brilliant and provocative first collection, Yaya Yao confronts her inherited fragmented self and her hunger for a home, using scraps of personal and communal memory to bridge languages, worldviews, and physical distance from her ancestral homeland. 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.

“Yao’s work plays freely with line breaks and treats the printed page like a canvas, engaging with both the translinguistic and the spatial aspects of reading.”

“Yao’s poems, 44 in total, tell of the need for a continuous narrative and context for one’s place in the world.”
New Canadian Media

“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

“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

“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

“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


Publication Date: October 2015

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-927494-67-7
Page size: 5.5″ x 8.25″
64 pages

eBook ISBN: 978-1-927494-73-8

Yaya Yao was born and raised in Toronto’s Parkdale and Little Portugal neighbourhoods with a lot of languages around her: Cantonese, Mandarin Hokkien, Shanghainese and French and English. Yaya’s poems have been published in several journals, including TOK7Contemporary Verse 2, and the Toronto Review of Books. Her short play, Tongued, received staged readings through playwrights’ units with Nightwood and fu-GEN Theatre companies, and she is co-author, with Helen Anderson, of the Educator’s Equity Companion Guide.