In Melody S. Gee’s The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat (Driftwood Press, 2022), her conversion experience becomes as tangible as a warm meal. Gee, a Chinese American and convert to Catholicism in adulthood, sees the generosity of God in overflowing dishes of Chinese food: “fill rice over the lip, / A strained seal says, see how much / was poured out for you?” (“Liturgy”).
Through The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat, Gee collects pre- and post-conversion stories and asks, as she does in the interview section of the book, “is there room for all the past and the present?” Can “the immigrants’ daughter [who] doesn’t know Easter / or egg hunts” (“The Convert Receives the Sign of the Cross on Her Feet”) hold onto her childhood while also full-heartedly embracing “Jesus… / eternally / wounded, eternally weeping / from his gashes” (“The Convert Wants Wounds, Not Scars”)?
In order to explore these questions, Gee starts with her childhood. She describes Easter egg hunts, games of hide and seek, and grade school science experiments. These stories show how Gee, even as a convert, is separated from American Christian traditions, like Easter egg hunting for “silver wrappings / or shiny plastics.” (“The Convert Receives the Sign of the Cross on Her Feet.”) “No one has told her these eggs will not be / the raw, white ones / her dutiful mother tucked by the longbeans.” As a child, Gee is separated from the Christian community around her, distinctly set apart from their traditions, especially surrounding Christian holidays and food. Inevitably, the speaker of “And So More” calls the reader to “Begin with before you / are made.” As Gee reaches adulthood, wonderings about what came before childhood leads Gee to discover “some directive” that speaks to bodies and “says heart and not nail.” Gee begins the conversion process when she considers her earliest being.
Yet, regardless of her faith, there is still a separation between the pre- and post-conversion selves. Gee repeatedly turns to food to bridge this divide. From the first line of the opening poem of the chapbook, “The convert hid within her grandfather’s / restaurant… / while their mothers fried in oil and sweet / and sour.” Food becomes a comfort, a sustenance, and a connection to childhood, family, and spirituality. Gee uses imagery and metaphor to shift not only “wine” and “wafer” (“The Convert Receives the Sign of the Cross on Her Feet”), but also “celery slices and chicken cubes” (“Liturgy”), into spiritual food. Gee’s otherwise “non-religious” family and upbringing become spiritual in “The Convert Desires Her Way Into a First Prayer,” where “her mother’s first lesson / was chew your wants and spit / the pulp…”. This lesson was always relevant to the speaker, but becomes distinctly religious after her conversion. Food is the spirituality of Gee’s non-religious childhood, and through the culture, relationships, and traditions surrounding food, Gee reunites her childhood and adulthood.
Gee’s faith also gives her a new understanding of struggle. In “The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat,” she reminds the reader that “What happens inside a body happens / in darkness.” Why “Does the Lord ask her what she wants / when he already knows its name?” (“The Convert Desires Her Way Into a First Prayer”). The Lord is the provider, and the speaker wonders why He does not provide. Nevertheless, it is in struggle where she sees the Lord revealed. She is not only thankful for struggle, but prays for it: “Let me oil. Let me wash. / Let me want with a full throat / even of hopeless warbling. / Let You do nothing about any of it.” Darkness and hiding shift when there is a “Lord… in the garden calling,” but “The girl knows being found is the part / you wait for but is not the best part” (“The Convert Learns to Play Hide and Seek”). The speaker does not only want to be found; somehow, in some way, they also want to wander and be lost.
The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat is unquestionably about the divine; Gee nudges and considers God through and after her conversion experience. However, the chapbook’s vividness comes from its distinct humanity. In “Love Outnumbers Us,” Gee writes that “pain exposed will blend with tender fingers / sealing the bandage over salve.” Human pain does not disappear in the face of Gee’s Lord. In fact, the presence of pain becomes perhaps more pronounced through the Lord’s healing of her. Nevertheless, Gee’s experiences are concrete, complicated, and nuanced. The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat does not preach about identity and spirituality, but explores these topics with all the honesty of a confession.
Hailey Small is based in Wilmore, Kentucky, where she writes lyric prose and watches gingko leaves turn soft each November. Hailey is a junior at Asbury University working towards a BA in English and History. She enjoys working in Asbury’s writing center, where she partners with remedial English students to make academia and creative writing more accessible. Most recently, Hailey was published in The Asbury Review, where she also serves as the creative non-fiction editor, and anthrowcircus.com.