To Embrace and To Occupy: An Interview with Chen Chen
The charming and candid Chinese-American poet Chen Chen is on his way to Aotearoa for the first time. Vanessa Crofskey sits down over Skype to speak with Chen about language, permission and what it means to be as fearless as a mango.
It’s been a busy past few months for Chen Chen. He’s spent the last month travelling across the globe for his writing, has been confirmed as the Jacob Ziskind Visiting Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis University, has released a collaborative chapbook Gesundheit with Sam Herschel Wein, and is coming to New Zealand for the first time ever as part of Verb Festival in Wellington. Chen Chen’s acclaimed first book When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017) won the A Poulin, Jr Poetry Prize and was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry. It’s a book that is tender and fearless, colloquial and clever. It’s the voice of a better future America, told from the perspective of a young, queer, fashionable Chinese-American immigrant.
VC: I read your first book and it was so, so good!! What struck me was the way you were able to speak so candidly to the queer experience and to being a Chinese immigrant. You write very openly about your family, too, and how certain identities complicate your relationship to them. What is compelling to you about poetry in terms of the way it’s able to unpack complex feelings?
CC: I love poetry for its compassion and intensity. Even when I write longer poems, I’m reminded, because of poetry’s formal constraints, to pay attention to the language I’m using very closely and attentatively, and really try to hone in on the heart of the matter as immediately as I can, and to start from that place of intense emotional complexity. I return to poetry over and over because of that demand and the challenge: How do I think through something as huge as queer Chinese-American identity and experience, about family and memory? How do I do that? In just a couple of pages?
VC: Are these themes intentional, or do they unfold as you go?
CC: I think it would be too daunting and overwhelming if I sat down each time to write and thought, “Oh, I need to tackle this experience.” I try to start somewhere really small or seemingly so. As I progress, I discover the true subject of the poem. It sort of reveals itself through the act of writing.
Even if it’s on a subject that I’ve thought about a million times before: with each new poem I know that I’ve really arrived somewhere if I’ve discovered, if I’ve learned something new.
VC: Has creating and publishing these poems helped to process any pain for you? Or has it complicated anything?
CC: Hmm, I think it’s both. Writing about my family has definitely helped with processing my feelings toward them, toward those memories. I often get asked, how do I know that a poem is done? A big part of that is whether I’ve surprised myself. Whether something occurred in the act of writing that I couldn’t have anticipated. Even if it’s on a subject that I’ve thought about a million times before: with each new poem I know that I’ve really arrived somewhere if I’ve discovered, if I’ve learned something new. That always happens. So it definitely helps me process, to articulate what’s happened. But it does complicate things. I might realise that I feel a certain way about something more precisely, or feel more of that feeling than I did before. With a lot of the writing about my mother, I realised how often I came back to some of the same moments. There are a bunch of poems in the collection that return to the same night, that same initial conflict. To the younger version of myself who is thinking about running away, leaving home, thinking about what that would look like, but ultimately returning. That’s not something I could have planned for.
VC: What was the experience like, of going back to China as a fully formed adult? Did you feel a sense of home?
CC: I went back to China three years in a row, from 2008 to 2010. The first time was with my family. We all went, my parents and I, plus my two younger brothers who were born in the US.
I was born in China but came over when I was very, very young. Going back made me realise how much this idea that being American meant one thing, and being Chinese meant another. I felt like there was very little space given to be Chinese-American. Both by the people around me, and also by myself to some extent. It felt like there was a lot of simplifying happening, but that both of those identities and experiences were true, valid, and complicated.
For my parents, they had been away for so long. Their Chinese is much better, and they have a stronger sense of that connection to our relatives. But they still felt out of place. I remember going around, and how much the city where my family was from, Xiamen, had changed. It had rapidly expanded and developed into more of an urban centre. There were whole areas, streets and neighborhoods that were gone or looked completely different. That was a huge adjustment for my parents: walking around the place where they’re from and they feel a deep connection to, but it being completely different. I think that was difficult for them to fully acknowledge.
VC: There’s such a nostalgia for returning to a place or home country, that sometimes you forget that these places change too. There are new Chinese, new ways of doing things. It’s not just the traditions you take with you when you leave one country and move to another.
CC: Even when you do speak the language very well, language is constantly changing. It’ll be seemingly small things like slang, changes in everyday vocabulary and the things that people talk about. When you’re not in that country, when you’re away for 15, 20 years, there are just things that you haven’t been around. The political situation, the social climate, what school is like. It makes for a very different kind of conversation that you’re able to have.
VC: Do you feel very Chinese-American?
CC: I think so, and also queer. All of that is jumbled up and shifts around together. In ways that I don’t know if I can fully or easily articulate. Now with being a writer, and having this book come out into the world, that is also a part of my identity. That’s the context I’m coming into and the context that I bring with me.
When I started to write more closely to how I talk, and how I am in conversation with people that I’m close to, that’s when the writing really came alive.
VC: I feel like the language you use is very novel. It was surprising and delightful. What is your relationship to newness, and what is pivotal about that sense of surprise? For me it speaks to this newness of being an immigrant, being queer and constantly reinventing yourself.
CC: Wonderful question. I definitely think so. It took me a while to figure out what it was I wanted to do with this kind of voice. A lot of the work that I read is not that similar to mine. So when I was imitating the styles of other poets, I felt like I was trying on a costume. And it’s not that this voice isn’t also a style or a costume – I think every approach is, to some degree – it’s just which one fits, or which one serves the purpose of telling the truths that I’m interested in. When I started to write more closely to how I talk, and how I am in conversation with people that I’m close to, that’s when the writing really came alive. I think, in the past, what I would write would feel kind of truncated, cut off, and not fully realised. When I let myself write in that more conversational voice, I became much more interested in continuing to work on a piece. All sorts of things started to be let in. Pop-cultural references, humour, associative jumps, these fast turns from something funny to something more serious; something absurd, to something sad. It allowed for a greater deal of flexibility to occur. And I think that’s what lends it that ‘new’ feeling.
Recently, I’ve been using some Chinese in my poems.
VC: Is that new?
CC: I tried to in the past, but I didn’t really know what I wanted. I just knew that I could. Part of that was figuring out what my relationship to the language was.
I grew up speaking Chinese at home, and conversationally I’m still okay, but my reading and writing is not great. I can like, text very brief sentences. So I always felt very self-conscious and insecure about using Chinese in my writing. But I realised that the language I could put into my poems was that kind of not-very-polished, still elementary, way of speaking. What I grew up with, what I spoke, what I was capable of speaking. A Chinese that’s very mixed with the English, that feels closer to the bilingual household upbringing that I had, where my parents would be switching back and forth. There’d be this kind of in-between space, where English phrases would be used in a Chinese way or vice versa. It’s not the correct, official version of either of these languages but it’s what we used. I think that there’s something true and beautiful in that. Instead of trying to polish up or deny the existence of this kind of language use, just embracing it.
I’ve been thinking lately about how much humour has to do with vulnerability. It comes from that place of being willing to speak in a way that is maybe more private or potentially embarrassing.
VC: I think a lot of people can resonate with that language mixing, even if it’s not shown very publicly. Jenny Zhang talked about something similar, growing up with a really unique language between her and her parents that will be lost with new generations. Are there any new understandings that have come to you through using another language in your writing?
CC: I think so. Especially having the Chinese side by side with the English, there are things that occur to me about sound – the music of language. I have this one poem that really goes back and forth between Chinese and English. At one point the Chinese actually rhymes with something in English. I love that moment because the two languages are often thought of as very distant from one another. They sound very different, they have different writing systems. So to actually find this point of connection on the level of sound was really wonderful to me. I’m like, well that’s how my brain has worked, that’s how my family has worked: that these things are side by side, they’re neighbours, within the same family. Not a whole ocean apart necessarily. It was great to be able to show that connection sonically.
VC: In terms of both Mandarin and poetry being quite musical, is sound something you’re interested in?
CC: Yeah, definitely. The musicality of language, especially when spoken and heard out loud. This brings us back to this conversational style. The Chinese I’m including is very conversational. It’s not the Chinese that a newscaster or professor would speak in the classroom. It’s a very everyday, personal, at times private, language. That’s what I find most moving too, when people are speaking in this more vulnerable way. I think that has to do with humour as well. I’ve been thinking lately about how much humour has to do with vulnerability. It comes from that place of being willing to speak in a way that is maybe more private or potentially embarrassing. That intimacy is what I’m interested in.
VC: What does it mean to be as ‘fearless as a mango’?
A mango is a very sexy fruit!
CC: [laughs] What I was thinking about was that, the fruit is so soft and exposed.
VC: A mango is a very sexy fruit!
CC: Yeah, and the juice just goes everywhere. That lack of self-consciousness and what I see as a kind of brazenness, this bold fruit. I thought of that as a kind of fearlessness.
VC: I enjoyed that about your book – how many food references there were! Are you big on food?
CC: Yeah, I think so. My partner told me that I basically have two moods, ‘full’ and ‘not full’. And I can get quite hangry.
Emotionally, Chinese food still holds a special place for me. I was recently in Flushing, in Queens, NYC, and they have this amazing Chinese mall, The New World mall. In the basement is this incredible food court. I went there with a friend of mine who is also Chinese-American and we got these dumplings. I remember tearing up eating the dumplings, I was so moved. I realised how long it had been since I’d eaten freshly made dumplings, because a lot of the time when you get them in restaurants –
VC: – they’re frozen!
CC: So it was just incredible. The dough was perfect, it was soft and so delicate, and the dumpling skin had just the right amount of chew. They were just these egg and chive dumplings, very light and a little soupy inside. The simplicity of it brought back so many memories of growing up and making dumplings with my mother. Food holds so many powerful memories and associations. I don’t think that really ever goes away. I think as a Chinese-American writer, there’s a bit of an expectation to represent food as a topic in my writing.
I’ve wrestled with that because I don’t want to rely on the stereotype or what’s expected of me in writing, but at the same time, I do want to write about my actual experiences. And so it can be tricky, ‘cos how do I go about this in a way that hasn’t been done already? Or is not, you know, the regular expected way of doing it.
VC: What are your tips on defying those expectations on what you’re going to write about?
CC: I think like, letting it stay messy, without coming to a neat resolution. Letting those questions and complications sit in the poem. Rather than trying to present a very neat package to the reader, instead of making it seem like I’m somehow an expert on these things, whether it’s food or other sorts of cultural markers. I have a complicated relationship to particular dishes, the kind of memories they bring up. It makes me think about my family. There’s a nostalgic aspect to it, but there’s also a lot of conflict and pain when it comes to thinking about my relationship with my family. So, all that comes into the poem, rather than it being just a pristine clean thing.
VC: What are three adjectives to describe the flavours of your writing?
CC: I love that. I think maybe squishy. Like there’s some firmness to it, but you squish it and it kind of gives. Textured comes to mind. Jenny Zhang has this essay called ‘How It Feels’ and it's about many things, but really about making art. At the end of it, she includes this email from her mother, who makes this mistake in her English. Instead of saying “it was very touching”, she says “it was very touchable”. She ends up loving that as a word, and at one point she says, “I think everyone wants to make something touchable, but most of us don’t out of fear of being laughable.” Squishy, textured and touchable.
VC: What are you interested in right now that has surfaced post your first book? Considering the political context we live in now, what has re-emerged with greater gravitas?
CC: The 2016 US election has been pretty much present for everybody. Gun violence. It’s just reached this national consciousness. The 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting especially, at the queer nightclub in Florida. What it means to be a teacher in this political context. I was an instructor at Texas Tech University, in writing, and many of the students there were conservative in their politics and upbringing. I’ve written about that. The ecological climate. Family. As an adult, really considering the agency and the knowledge that I have now, what kind of relationship I want to have with my family. What can be repaired, or restored, what can be created, moving forward?
The poem that I’ve just been working on has to do with middle school, 7th and 8th grade.
VC: Was it a hard time for you? I feel like people are evil during those years. Like humanity is just at its worst.
CC: It was a difficult time. I felt very aware of being Chinese in a predominantly white school. I was taking piano lessons, and my parents wanted me to be very good at math and science and sort of choose a career path along those lines. So I was very rebellious against that, but looking back on that time, it makes me wonder. Did I push those interests away mainly because some of that was forced on me? Or because I genuinely wasn’t interested in them? How much did it have to do with not wanting to be the nerdy Asian kid?
VC: I think at that age, there’s such an innate knowing and rejection of what will make us vulnerable.
CC: Yeah, like what’s expected of you? But now as an adult I’m like, I would LOVE to be able to play the piano.
VC: What about Verb Festival are you most looking forward to?
CC: Meeting other poets, especially New Zealand poets. I feel like I have so much to learn, from poets writing in English in other countries. I think the conversation with Chris Tse will be great, funny and lively.
VC: Last question. What advice do you have for younger queer Chinese writers, on how to move forward and move comfortably in the world?
CC: I think really valuing and paying attention to what it is that you actually care about. Which might be different from me! Whatever it is that is particular to your life, how you’re living, where you’re living, your community, your concerns, your day-to-day life. Really taking those as valid and serious in your thinking. I think, still too often in the writing world, we’re made to think that in order to be legitimate and to be taken seriously as writers and to be ‘successful’, we have to write what has already been deemed serious and successful. If I had gone along with that, I wouldn’t have written my book. I wouldn’t have continued to write in the ways that I do. If I didn’t trust myself. If I didn’t trust that what I had to say or what I cared about would be interesting enough – just for myself.
Just start with the audience of yourself. If you write something and it brings you joy, or it moves you, if it shows you your experience and your imagination in some more nuanced way, that is already a success. You’ve allowed yourself to inhabit your own freedom and your own agency as a writer. Rather than thinking, oh I have to mold this into a more acceptable and recognisable shape. Embrace the shape that you fill, the space that you occupy.