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  • Writer's pictureProject Voices

Bonnie Li

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

My name is Bonnie Li, and I’m a rising senior at the Winsor School in Boston MA. Outside of school, I often find myself swimming, baking, or playing the piano. I chose to write this essay because I felt inspired by the difficulties my mother had overcome as a woman and an immigrant. When I read Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival,” I thought that this poem’s powerful language could connect to my mother’s story and the story of many other Chinese immigrants.

Why Chinese Immigrants in America Should Read Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival”

Dear Mom,

I want you to think back to 25 years ago when you first spotted American land through the tiny plane window. Try to recall the iconic Statue of Liberty welcoming you with her torch to a new country 5,947 miles away from China, your homeland. But, instead of running out of the plane with a suitcase in tow, ready to breathe in the fresh American air, you refused to leave your seat even though you were the only one left on the plane. When you told me this story, you said you felt frozen with no concept of place or time. The only thing you were doing was holding onto your last memory of China, the memory of staring down at the runway before the plane took off while imagining the tear-stained faces of your parents waving goodbye. The flight attendants likely blamed the language barrier when you failed to tell them why you were not moving, but I’m sure something in you knew it was more than just a language barrier. It was an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty crashing down all at once.

Audre Lorde’s poem “A Litany for Survival” powerfully illustrates those feelings of uncertainty, as well as numerous other meaningful experiences, that many Chinese immigrants, such as yourself, have. Although Lorde may not have originally intended for her poem to connect so strongly to the experience of Chinese immigrants, I believe this poem is extremely relatable for you and other Chinese immigrants. Despite that “A Litany for Survival” was written over 50 years ago, this poem is still relevant to the lives of Chinese immigrants today as Lorde weaves in inspiring calls to action throughout the poem. Mom, by reading “A Litany for Survival” as a Chinese immigrant living in America, you will not only be able to relate to the challenges and fears described in the poem, but you will also feel empowered by Lorde’s motivating remarks.

Lorde starts the poem with the lines, “For those of us who live at the shoreline/standing upon the constant edges of decision/crucial and alone.” The poem establishes a sense of unity by addressing “those of us” as “us” typically refers to groups of people who share similar experiences. I think the “us” can refer to Chinese immigrants as the first stanza successfully represents the challenges that you and many other Chinese immigrants have faced. The image of living “at the shoreline” connects with the idea of being at the “edges of decision” as at the “edge” of the “shoreline” is the ocean. While the shoreline may symbolize a safe area with solid ground, the ocean represents a place of uncertainty because one does not know where the waves or their decisions will take them. Lorde’s also describing these decisions as “crucial” further emphasizes how certain decisions can be life-changing. However, “those of us” who must make these decisions often find ourselves “alone.” Although there are shared experiences as implied in the use of “us,” in moments of struggle, people often find themselves without a support system to help them leap into the ocean of uncertainty. I believe this feeling of being “alone” and left to fend for yourself in a world of uncertainty and “crucial” decisions speaks to your immigration experience, Mom. I remember sitting at the dinner table, listening intently as you described in detail how you came to America with only thirty dollars in your wallet and the name of the university you were attending. I now realize that Lorde’s poem captures your experience of coming to America with no resources, family members, or friends, yet having to make countless decisions to create a new life for yourself in a foreign country.

You came to this country chasing the American dream, but how often does the American dream come true? Lorde comments on the concept of dreams by describing “those of us” as people “seeking a now that can breed/futures/like bread in our children’s mouths/so their dreams will not reflect/the death of ours.” The word “now” directly contrasts with Lorde’s use of “futures.” Similar to how “bread” provides nutrients to help children develop, the subjects of the poem are using “now” or the present as a tool to develop their children’s futures. Lorde suggests that “those of us” focus on their children’s dreams instead of living in and valuing the present for themselves because they believe in the “death” of their own dreams. To prevent their children’s dreams from dying as well, the parents “breed” a future for their children. By using “breed” instead of give birth to, Lorde highlights that these parents are building a future for their children, rather than letting their children’s future unfold more naturally like a birth. Sometimes, I feel your dream of becoming a doctor flowing into my life. I know that you did not have the resources to complete medical school in America even though you had already attended medical in China for multiple years. It hurts me to know that you had to choose the “death” of your dreams and become a computer scientist even though the reason you came to America was to pursue your dreams. While I’m comforted knowing that you want me to live out the future you dreamed of having, and I understand the pressure you put on yourself to make sure I live a happy life, I wonder if becoming a successful doctor is your dream or my dream. However, I think Lorde’s poem speaks to the enormous sacrifices you made as a Chinese immigrant, specifically how you had to give up your American dream so you could fulfill mine.

Lorde highlights not only the passing of dreams across generations but also the passing of fear across generations. At the beginning of the poem’s second stanza, Lorde writes, “For those of us/who were imprinted with fear/like a faint line in the center of our foreheads/learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk.” In the second stanza, the “us” seems to refer to a different group than in the first stanza. In my opinion, the “us” refers to the children of the people who “lived at the shoreline” and had to give up their dreams. As a child of immigrants and a first-generation American, I have internalized some of my parent's fears. That the children are “learning to be afraid with [their] mother’s milk” suggests that the mother is feeding or teaching her children her fears which are symbolized by the milk. Nursing a child occurs when a child is only a baby, so Lorde is highlighting that fear is taught to the next generation when they are very young. That fear ultimately follows the younger generation as they grow old as their “foreheads” are “imprinted” or marked with fear. Furthermore, if a mother marks her child with her own fear, then the mother’s “forehead” should also be marked with the same fear she is giving to her child. At first glance, the passing of fear seems negative; however, in a way, I feel comforted that you and I are in the struggle against our fear together. Mom, I hope you can also gain some sense of solidarity, with both me and the rest of the Chinese immigrant community, from this idea of sharing our fears as I’m sure that overcoming our fears will be easier together.

One of the fears Lorde spotlights is the fear of speaking out. Lorde writes near the end of the poem, “And when we speak we are afraid/our words will not be heard/or welcomed.” When your voice is not “heard,” your voice is ignored, and your experiences are invalidated. Being heard by those who have different points of view is important for promoting understanding between people with different values and cultures. However, even if their words are “heard,” there is still the fear of rejection when words are not “welcomed.” For Chinese immigrants in America, this fear is especially daunting as not being heard or welcomed by American society suggests that the sacrifices they made to come to this country were not worthwhile. Sometimes, I look back at the late nights when I’m about to go to bed, and I see you crouched over your computer while reading the same email over and over again. When I asked if you needed help writing the email, you would respond that you wrote it already. So, why spend hours reading over the email when you could just press the send button? Through the context of Lorde’s poem, I see that the fear of your thoughts not being “heard” or “welcomed” was holding you back from trusting yourself and your words. Yet, Lorde also writes that “when we are silent/we are still afraid.” Lorde is essentially demonstrating that the fear of speaking up leads to a lose-lose situation because whether you speak or not, fear is still present. The final result of speaking or staying silent is the same because both situations result in a risk of not being “heard.” Due to this challenge, Chinese immigrants often feel trapped as they have to choose between expressing themselves in a potentially unsupportive environment or suppressing their opinions.

Despite the multitude of challenges Lorde details in her poem, Lorde completes this poem on an empowering note. The final lines of the poem declare that “it is better to speak/remembering/we were never meant to survive.” These lines highlight that even though there is always the possibility of our voices being rejected, “it is better to speak” because then at least there is a possibility of being heard or welcomed. Lorde’s use of “meant to” suggests the presence of an outside force that is trying to control the subjects of the poem and intends for them to “never…survive.” Once you read this poem Mom, you will realize that simply surviving is a triumph to be celebrated as that means you overcame the outside forces pushing for your failure. Lorde implies that by beating a system that was working against you, you have proven that you are important enough to not be ignored; therefore, your words are important too. Lorde also emphasizes the significance of the word “remembering” by isolating the word on its own line. “Remembering” means that one is looking back at the past. The end of the poem comes full circle with the beginning, where the focus is on looking toward the “futures.” Mom, your past is proof that you have survived every obstacle you have faced, despite the odds being against you.

Being proud and confident enough to speak up for yourself are not easy skills to learn, but I believe reading “A Litany for Survival” is the first step in helping you overcome these challenges. By recognizing the strong connection between your experiences and the experiences the poem describes, you will see that the poem’s empowering and encouraging lines also apply to your life. I understand that your experience as a Chinese immigrant does not represent the experiences of every Chinese immigrant living in America; however, I think many Chinese immigrants have suffered from the same challenges and fears as you. Chinese immigrants must read this poem to surmount their fears and reach their full potential by recognizing the power of their voices. Mom, I’m so proud of how far you and all the other Chinese immigrants have come, and you should be extremely proud of yourself too.


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