Sundress Reads: One and Half of You

Leanne Dunic’s One and Half of You explores the tensions of boundaries, belonging, and identities through an innovative multimedia experience; it is a hybrid form of poetry and prose, accompanied by three musical pieces and a sensory memoir that engages multiple cultures and contradictions. Croatian and Cantonese in heritage, the narrator describes the experiences inhabiting interstitial identities on Vancouver Island. “Sometimes I forget that I’m Chinese. That I’m not.” From the perspective of dual identities, the narrator shares simple poetic phrases with powerful and elegant complexity. For example: “Faces mixed.” “Landscapes shifted.” At an early age, the narrator naturally discovers a sexuality that does not fit into heteronormative assumptions.

Another theme in this work is the forbidden or taboo—from sexuality to biracial identity to speeding. The narrator and brother, “Rat”, are born into a world where they don’t easily find belonging, a world where they can’t completely fulfill expectations, a world where others make false assumptions about them. They are Chinese but can’t use chopsticks properly. Inherited Tressette cards and mahjong also represent this tension: “We didn’t know how to play with either.” People assume the siblings are Hispanic or Indian, and call “Rat” a variety of names from “Elvis” to “Chinatown”. Mistaken identities and assumptions are a sustained theme: “If you wear this print of peonies people may call them cabbages.”

The narrator defies definitions and is questioned: “Are you a boy or a girl?” Instead the siblings experience ghosts and “inherited sadness”, unspoken losses, symbolic amputations. There’s also a sense of confusion as well as humor in living in these identities: “When someone commented on how lesbian it was, I didn’t know what to do with the shame, or the bandana.” The adult narrator dwells “in the Chinatowns of port cities” – more references to dynamic worlds, coming and going. Headlines from the recent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes (even more relevant since the publication of this book in March 2021) add to the tension of their lives. 

One and Half of You is shaped into three sections, perhaps as homage to pioneering Canadian novelist Wayson Choy whose novel The Jade Peony also has three sections (Dunic references Choy and peonies more than once). The narrator crafts intense sensory language, acknowledging and celebrating the physical, tangible body and its needs as well as intangible realities and connections. “Nourish body, nourish spirit. Attract a lover, attract divinity.” 

Dunic is an innovative multi-sensory artist, and the accompanying three musical tracks add vibrant explorations and engagement for the reader with “Nostalgia Distorts”, “Yoyogi Park”, and “The Sound of Waves”. The first piece seems to possibly be a cautionary warning or sorrowful acknowledgement but also rich with innocence of bird songs and flute reminiscent of children’s tales. “Park” has a playful feel while “Waves” sustains a musical dialogue between two different melodies, along with a sense of mystery, tension, and the passage of time.

For the narrator in One and Half of You, the natural world offers a dynamic and comforting model of “movement between” different identities. “Rat and I played where freshwater flowed into the Saanich Inlet – mixed salinity. Here life evolved to endure movement between: fresh to salt, wet to dry, warm to cold, land to sea.” Later, the narrator and a lover “become bays”, continuing this illustration taken from the mix of waters and geography in the homeland of the Pacific Northwest. Danic refers to characters by their animal Zodiac names, further emphasizing identity and connection in the natural world. Starting in the second section, axolotl and amphibians become a clear metaphor: “Amphibious, dual-world dweller.” Water easily illustrates the fluidity, flexibility, and even playful joy of multiple identities: “Evaporation, I rise into the clouds. Now, I can be a pillow, a tendril, a thunderstorm.” The Pacific Ocean too holds multiple identities based on relationships, time, and physics:”I dream of the sea: keeper of bones, micro- plastics, absorber of light”.

When asked about gender identity (and, indirectly, sexual orientation), the narrator responds, “I loved to love”. One and Half of You ultimately is a love story, a love story to Chinatown and to biracial and bisexual identity, a love story to the brother and also the narrator’s lover, and a self-love story to the narrator, accepting the complexity of crossing boundaries and navigating mixed identities. Love transcends and extends beyond the challenges and contradictions of definitions and identities — love, like water, like the Pacific Ocean, fluidly accepts and embraces all. 

Available now from Talonbooks.

The photo of the author at the beach.

Julie Jeanell Leung received her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in a number of publications, including Bellingham Review, Blue Lyra Review, and Grist: The Journal for Writers. Julie lives with her husband on an island near Seattle where she volunteers as a citizen scientist and counts sea stars on the rocky shores.


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