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The Chinese-Peruvian poet Julia Wong Kcomt wrote two poems for Words Without Borders about her experiences as a product of two different cultures. I'm particularly interested in the first of them, entitled "The Red Rooster", which begins and ends with the following two verses:

Peru dies.
Like garlic bulbs
this whim of blouses
cut so masterfully.

Our Peru is dying.
The rooster’s crow will return when the stone flies.

What is going on in this poem? Why is Peru dying? What is the relevance of garlic, blouses, iron windows, paint, and ovaries? What do the cherry tree, the sakura, the lotus flower, and the olive bush symbolise? Why is Jesus Christ sifting through grape seeds? Why is the rooster important, and what does "the stone flies" refer to? What is the poet indicating about her feeling regarding Chinese culture and Peruvian culture - does the poem suggest one as more important than the other?

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There are many questions here! Most of them come down to questions of interpretation, which will be different for every reader - as Morris Zapp would say, “Every decoding is another encoding”. Nonetheless I will give my own impression of the poem, in the hope that it may help others come to their own conclusions. For many of the questions I fear there are no easy answers.

The first thing to note is that the poet, Julia Wong Kcomt, is of mixed heritage, being born into a tusán (Chinese Peruvian) family in Chepén, Peru, in 1965. Many of her works deal with alienation and the politics of being mixed race, and this poem is no exception. The Red Rooster deals with racism, identity, change and decay, and a cautious hope for rebirth.

The second thing to note is that although The Red Rooster was published in 2020, this is the date of the translation of the work from Spanish to English by Jennifer Shyue. The original poem, El Gallo Rojo, was published in the poetry collection “Bi-Rey-Nato” in 2009, and the poem itself was actually written in the 1990s. I believe this is of particular significance to the metaphor used in the poem that “Peru is dying”. The 1990s were hard times for Peru. In 1992 Fujimori took power in a coup d’etat, and instituted a highly authoritarian form of government, combined with widespread human rights abuses, including several massacres, as part of the antiterrorism measures.

With these points in mind, let us turn to the text itself. As in the question I will be referring to the translated version, but will occasionally refer back to the Spanish original.

The Red Rooster

To Wata, in memoriam

“Wata" here is José Watanabe, a distinguished poet, who like Wong was of mixed race (Japanese-Peruvian in his case). He died in 2007, two years before the poem was published.

Peru dies.
Like garlic bulbs

this whim of blouses

cut so masterfully.

As I remarked earlier, Peru at the time was in chaos, with an authoritarian government, terrorist atrocities matched by military reprisals, and a failing economy. At the time it could indeed seem as though Peru were dying. If you keep a garlic bulb ("un ajo") in the kitchen too long, it goes soft and rots. This is the first image of decay we encounter in the text. “This whim (“albur”) of blouses” I interpret as Peru’s geographical shape resembling a dressmaker’s pattern for a blouse.

Papá told me to detest the Japanese

like everyone says to hate Chileans.

But with so much love,

I find no difference

between the cherry tree, the sakura, the lotus flower, and the olive bush:

In the Atacama, Jesus Christ sifts through red grape seeds.

Wong’s father was Chinese (from Macau) and there is a strong historical animosity between the Chinese and Japanese. This old hostility is repeated locally in the rivalry between Peru and Chile - the same ideas just with different protagonists. “The cherry tree, the sakura (cherry blossom), the lotus flower” are symbols of Japan, while “the olive bush” is a symbol of Hispanic culture. If we love both, there is no necessity to fight and hate.

Peru dies, Wata,
and all I remember is what you said about my aunt:

“She was hot, your aunt Carmen,

she didn’t look Chinese.”

I smiled unoffended, because in Peru nobody looks like anything.

Again we have the image of Peru dying. Wong recounts a thoughtless comment which could have been a cause for aggression “You aunt was pretty - she didn’t look Chinese”, but fizzles out peacefully into ambiguity.

There was a chifa restaurant.

A “chifa” restaurant fuses traditional Chinese cooking with Peruvian ingredients.

You ate wonton soup

with your Chinese friends,

and as we searched for an emblem
to overcome the centimeter and a half of difference in our eyelids,
a red rooster loosed a sound louder than nothingness.

A rooster calls as dawn breaks, when sunlight chases away the night. I see this as a hope that in the future the darkness which Peru was plunged into will end, and the country and its people will come into the light again.

There is a subtle point of Spanish here. In the original Wong writes “un sonido mas fuerte que la nada”. Shyue translates this faithfully as “a sound louder than nothingness”. I would say that the line is a double-exaggeration, a common Spanish form, and would render it instead as “a sound louder than anything”. [Translation is not an easy business… ]

Our Peru is dying.

The rooster’s crow will return when the stone flies.

The old Peru we knew, of tolerance and democracy, is dying. But here Wong gives a note of hope. Peru will be renewed when “the stone flies” (cuando vuele la piedra). Having a stone placed on your chest is an image of suppression and confinement, and when it is removed it is a moment of liberation. It is interesting that Wong uses the metaphor of the stone flying, rather than rolling off or being lifted. This possibly references a famous poem by Watanabe, La piedra alada (“The winged stone”), in which the wing of a dead pelican becomes stuck to a beach pebble, which concludes:

During several days
the sea wind uselessly flapped the wing,
flapped without understanding that we can imagine a bird,
the most beautiful,
but not make it fly.

This would be appropriate, given that the poem is dedicated to Watanabe.

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  • Nice answer, thanks! To your first paragraph: the interpretation tag is generally like this, for open-ended multi-part questions requesting a detailed interpretation of a particular short work. It still feels a bit experimental, but at least so far it's mostly worked well, in the hands of good askers and answerers.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 13:02

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