An Engagement with Monica Ong's Silent Anatomies

Stigmas and Silence

by Grace Hsieh

Monica Ong, Silent Anatomies (Kore Press, 2015)















Dr. Martin Luther King once said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” Poet Monica Ong has chosen not to be silent about things that matter to her: gender roles, social hierarchies, mental illness, and domestic violence. Ong seeks to examine the cultural stigmas that surround these topics in her poetry book, Silent Anatomies, by drawing upon traditions and mannerisms prevalent in her Chinese heritage and accounts of patients who sought her father, a physician, in secret. Ong intertwines medical visual art with dialectical poems to dissect her Chinese culture and expose what is not being explicitly said about topics such as mental illness or domestic violence. Although Ong cannot change long-held ideals, she aims to persuade readers to acknowledge stigmas too and create support for those living in silence.


From the outset of Silent Anatomies, Ong is concerned with breaking cultural silences. In “The Glass Larynx,” the contrapuntal structure contrasts the speaker’s outward stillness with a strong yearning to speak out building up inside. The anatomical illustration of a larynx that separates the quiet-toned right column and intense-toned left column symbolizes the speaker’s, and possibly Ong’s, internal and fierce desire to speak, as initiated by “lips part.” Additionally, the larynx acts as a blunt, bold statement of vocality, which the speaker does not plainly state in the text. The poem progresses down the left column with chaotic diction--“disrupt / the rapture of / our falling / is quiet”--until the speaker wishes to “[shatter] the vicious stars.” Prompted by the image of being vocal, the “falling” can allude to the negative facets of Chinese culture that Ong may wish to expose by challenging social norms and speaking up for those who are “quiet,” advancing the book's exposure of cultural taboos. In the right column, an unknown “sage…is quiet because he / is not moved,” which implies that to be silent about the problems in one’s society shows that one does not care. In contrast, Ong encourages readers to acknowledge the problems in their society, just as the speaker will not be silent about the stigmas that she cares about.

One of these social stigmas that is prevalent in “Metal Lungs” is the one surrounding domestic violence, an issue for which some women do not seek help because they fear being looked down upon. The women in the poem must deal with “discomfort” when “the wind had been knocked out of her,” or when “his thick fingers…snap her head off.” The violent diction and visual imagery suggest that the women are victims of domestic violence, and the understatement, “discomfort,” may imply that they are expected to describe domestic violence as something minor. This disregard and stigma of domestic violence leads to “uncounted testimonies” under the “armor of anonymity,” where we would not know “all the floods that get trapped in the lungs.” Although the title “Metal Lungs” can refer to the lungs of victims being strong enough to take another breath, Ong implies that enduring suffering for so long is unnecessary if we know that women are being abused. The significance of acknowledging the social stigma around domestic violence is further emphasized with the parallel of microscopic lung photos on the left pages and enlarged family photos on the right pages. Afraid of Chinese stigma, some women form a secluded world of pain, unseen by the naked eye as represented by the microscopic lung images. This once-silent world of pain is paralleled by real-life family photos of various people, which may reveal that a victim of domestic violence could be anyone. Because of this anonymity, speaking up about one’s problem of domestic violence is crucial to getting the help one needs. Even more so, acknowledging that domestic violence is a problem in one’s society will encourage victims to be brave about receiving help.

In addition to discussing the stigma surrounding domestic violence, Ong addresses the stigma surrounding mental illness in “Silent Treatment,” to provide awareness to those who suffer from it. In an interview, Ong reveals that the speaker is her aunt, and in Chinese culture, there is a superstition that if a family member has mental health issues, people will not want to marry into that family. The speaker wants the reader to “forget [her],” and “Pretend [she] had an accident by a swimming pool […] tell them I am possessed by spiritos.” The pain of mental illness has become so great that the speaker wishes to die, and “spiritos” may be the speaker’s excuse for her mental illness because she may not want to acknowledge that she has mental health issues. The speaker’s fear of this stigmatism keeps her silent about her illness, which prevents her from receiving medical help. Similarly, a photo of a medicinal bottle with a faceless Chinese girl on it mirrors the text: “my face is now long forgotten. How long will you be able to save yours?” To lose face means to be ashamed or embarrassed, which suggests the “faceless” speaker is ashamed of her mental illness for a long time because her face is “long forgotten.” The medicine bottle image reveals what is not being said: the remedy for mental illness is breaking the silence and admitting the state of one’s mental health so that others can support him or her. Ong draws upon her family’s history to reveal that saving face is not worth dying for and that de-stigmatizing mental illness by talking about it will provide help to the mentally ill.

In a culture where males are valued more than females, women are taught to be submissive, despite mental and physical pains. The fear of public shame keeps women from speaking up about their problems and from receiving medical help for their illnesses or injuries. “The Glass Larynx,” “Metal Lungs,” and “Silent Treatment” all reveal what is not being said openly to provoke thought and discussion, and to challenge readers to have the courage to address uncomfortable topics, such as mental illness or domestic violence, that may not be explicitly discussed as problems in today’s society. By having authentic conversations about social stigmas within communities, we can create a safe environment for those shamed by their culture to no longer be silent.

Grace Hsieh is a first-year student of biology at Boston University and comes from California. Other than enigmatic quotes and attempts at typography on her Tumblr blog, her work has never been published. When she is not dodging cars on Commonwealth Avenue, she is scavenging for quarters to do laundry or practicing hip-hop with her dance troupe. Currently, she is anticipating the coming winter and storing up fuzzy socks.