David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between The Covers is brought to you by All Lit Up, Canada’s independent online bookstore and literary space for readers of emerging, quirky, and acclaimed indie books. All Lit Up is your Canadian connection for award-winning fiction and poetry, author interviews, book roundups, recommendations, and more. The only online retailer dedicated to Canadian literature, All Lit Up features books from 61 literary publishers. All Lit Up makes it easy to discover, buy, and collect exciting contemporary Canadian literature, all in one place. What’s more, for a limited time, listeners of Between The Covers get 10% off all books on All Lit Up with promo code betweenthecovers. Check out All Lit Up at www.alllitup.ca. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Bianca Stone’s What Is Otherwise Infinite, a collection of poems which Dorothea Lasky calls, “Legendary. Written in four sections with incisive and vivid lyrical language, Stone’s poems consider how we find our place in the world through themes of philosophy, religion, environment, myth, and psychology.” Says Eileen Myles, “This is like moral baroque and also an invitation to make things. I feel enclosed by something guiding here in these poems which feels deeply experienced and it may sound corny but I think Bianca Stone is raising the possibility that writing poems (or writing these poems) is an opportunity to give. Does that constitute a philosophy or a craft. She’s making that.” What Is Otherwise Infinite is out on January 18th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. First off, happy new year everybody. I’m excited to kick off the 2022 season of Between The Covers with a conversation with none other than Victoria Chang about her new book Dear Memory, which just came out before the turn of the year. This book is unlike any book she has written so far. A book that shows how engaging with similar material but with entirely different forms can create very different results. Similarly, Victoria’s next collection coming out in the spring is yet again nothing like the one we discussed today. She reads from this forthcoming collection The Trees Witness Everything for the bonus audio archive. Her reading is prefaced by a discussion on writing with constraints about the constraints that went into creating these poems, formal constraints, visual constraints, and constraints regarding W. S. Merwin. This discussion and reading joins a robust supplementary archive of resources, readings by everyone from Richard Powers who himself read W. S. Merwin, Garth Greenwell reading Frank Bidart, Natalie Diaz reading Borges, Jorie Graham, Robert Creely, discussions with translators, craft talks, and much more. This is only one of the potential benefits of starting off the new year by joining the Between The Covers community, whether that be rare collectibles from past guests to becoming an early reader for Tin House, receiving 12 books over the course of the year, months before they’re available to the general public. Whether you are a long time listener or a first time listener, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers and check out all the things people have brought together in the hopes that you become part of what keeps Between The Covers chugging along in 2022. Now, for the first episode of the year with Victoria Chang.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning. Welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, the Poet Victoria Chang, earned her MFA from the Warren Wilson low-residency program. But prior to poetry, she pursued a BA in Asian Studies from the University of Michigan, an MA in Asian Studies from Harvard, and an MBA from Stanford Business School. Victoria Chang is currently a faculty member and program chair of Antioch University’s Low-Residency MFA Program whose alumni include everyone from Khadijah Queen to Daniel José Older to Wendy Ortiz. She’s the author of a middle grade novel and verse Love Love, and the picture book Is Mommy? She’s the editor of the anthology Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation but she’s most known as a poet. Her books include the 2005 collection Circle, winner of the Crab Orchard Review awards series in poetry, Salvinia Molesta, The Boss, which won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the California Book Award, and 2017’s collection Barbie Chang. Her poems have appeared in poetry, the Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and Best American Poetry. She’s won a Guggenheim, a Fellowship from MacDowell, the Lannan Foundation, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. But it’s with the publication of Obit, her 2020 poetry collection from Copper Canyon Press, that the world really stood up and took notice. A best book of the year at The New York Times, Time Magazine, Publishers Weekly, The Boston Globe, and NPR, long listed for the National Book Award, finalist for a National Book Critics Award, and a winner of the Los Angeles Times Poetry Book Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for a work of poetry that has made an important contribution to our understanding of racism, and the PEN/Voelcker Award for a work that expands the scope of American poetry. Obit is described by Anna Deforest at bookpost this way, “The book, thin with wide margins and heavy as lead, is a collection of losses: a father, aphasic after a stroke, a mother’s death from pulmonary fibrosis. A collection of poems in the form of dozens of obituaries, for parents, for selves, for language, Obit is easily the most apt and soothing (soothing like chopping wood, like carrying water or yelling into a well) work I have read since before the world upended … Chang’s poems provoke a needed catharsis … There is no way around the work of grief.” It is with no exaggeration that there is a lot of anticipation about Victoria Chang’s latest book, her first book since Obit, a book that seems in conversation with its predecessor, even as it couldn’t be more formally different. A true book of indeterminate genre. A book that is her first venture into prose, written in the epistolary form but a book that continues with new poems, as well poems that become collaged as part of the visual art Victoria creates from the mementos and artifacts that she discovers in her family’s storage locker. Victoria Chang is here today to talk about this uncategorizable book of prose and poetry, and image text called Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief, just out now from Milkweed Editions. Thúy Đinh for NPR says, “Resuming the expressively compressed approach of her 2020 Obit, the poet’s latest work represents a dual articulation of remembrance and creation, as if “[e]ach word, a clavicle, a femur, [and] each sentence, an organ.” In defining language as the nucleus for experience, Chang’s innovative montage brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges’ The Aleph. Like Borges’ notion of oneness as embodied by the letter aleph א in the Hebrew alphabet, Dear Memory achieves the holistic concept of yuánmăn 圆满 — roundness, completion, arrival — by dispassionately exploring its antitheses: gaps, severance, and departure. In this sense, Chang’s lyrical experiment memorably evokes an individual family’s time capsule and an artist’s timeless yearning to shape carbon dust into incandescent gem.” Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong adds, “In Dear Memory, Victoria Chang writes letters to her late parents and mentors, daughters and friends, knitting matrices of intimacy that utterly captivate me in their vulnerable honesty. Her searching speculations act as surrogates for the silences that pock her family history. Her melancholia vibrates beautifully off the page alongside adjacent racialized effects of envy and shame, resulting in wisdom that seems both freshly discovered and fathoms deep. Ultimately, these letters seem written to me and to you.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Victoria Chang.
Victoria Chang: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
DN: After you finished Obit, writing using obituaries as the form and written in the shadow of your grief about your mother dying, and all that you’ve lost of your father from a stroke that affected his frontal lobe, you said you didn’t want to write more about it, more about grief or more about any specific thing at all. But in emptying your mother’s storage locker and finding all sorts of letters, photos, and mementos, objects that raised all sorts of questions you have for your parents about your family history that you never asked them, that they never spoke freely about, and that you could now never ask them, that has led to the project or it’s one of the things that has led to the project that we’re talking about today, Dear Memory. But reading this book, it feels like it could have just as easily been called dear post memory. That’s a term I only first encountered when I was in conversation with Brandon Shimoda several years ago about his book The Grave on the Wall. I want to read the description of the class he taught called About Our Ancestors: The Poetics of Postmemory. Brandon writes, “How do (or can) we write about individuals—ancestors, in particular—whom we never met, but to whom we feel an intense connection? How do (or can) we write about an event or experience—a communal or ancestral trauma, for example—that happened prior to our being born, and yet about which we feel the intimacy and pressure of a memory? And what are the ethics of doing so? This course will explore the poetics of postmemory, which Marianne Hirsch defines as being connected to the past not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation. We will consider poetry, and writing in general, as a ritual, memorial, and post memorial space; as a form of reclamation and realization; and as the site of a potential collaboration with the dead.” You in Dear Memory also quote Marianne Hirsch. But even if you hadn’t, when I read Shimoda’s questions and concerns, the ones that are animating his class, I think immediately of your book. Maybe we could start here with postmemory, what hearing Shimoda’s words might spark in you about it and how postmemory, if it is, is one way we could enter Dear Memory?
VC: Wow, what a great class. I would have loved to take that class. [laughs].
DN: Me too.
VC: The thing I think about knowledge and information is that it’s hard to know everything. Each of us is on our own journey toward some understanding of ourselves. There are people studying all these interesting things that we feel and they have been studying these things for so long, and it’s hard to find all of these things. But I had written that entire book and in terms of the Dear Memory, all the epistolary letters, and was fumbling around in a very organic way as I typically do, which is fumble around, then occasionally, I do what other people do. I do research. I have a great respect for scholars who do research and study all these things that we experience. I stumbled upon this anthology. It wasn’t just about memory but it was specifically about my creation and memory. It looked so interesting to me that I just ordered it, then once I started reading it, it was like someone just slapped me in the face and said, “Oh my gosh, this is everything that you’ve been feeling your whole life and everything that you’ve been fumbling through in Dear Memory.” I had no words for any of that. Here were all of these interesting artists and scholars who had been thinking about this long before I had, and I suddenly felt a connection. That’s when I wrote that last letter in the book to the reader. That’s when I quoted postmemory. But yeah, it’s that sudden awareness that we can have an epiphanic moment of understanding of oneself through the language or the visual art or the description or anything of other people who have been thinking about these things too.
DN: But do you know the name of that anthology by chance?
VC: I do. The book is called Memory and Migration. It’s an anthology. That’s what makes it so interesting to me. It’s edited by Julia Creete and Andreas Kitzmann. It’s such a great book. It’s not just one person writing about postmemory but there’s a visual artist, Yvonne Singer, whose parents had left hungry for Canada during World War II. She wrote, “I was between worlds, alienated from the Canadian world of my peers and excluded from the history and culture of my parents, who placed a veil of secrecy on the past.” When I read that, I was like, “Wow, that’s my whole life right there in those two lines.”
DN: There’s an epigraph from Brandon’s class from Rea Tajiri that goes, “There was this place they knew about. I had never been there, yet I had a memory for it.” I’m thinking of this quote and also about the notion of being connected to the past, not by recalling an actual memory but as Hirsch says by imaginative investment projection and creation. I was thinking maybe before we go further into this, if we could hear the opening letter, Dear Mother.
[Victoria Chang reads from her latest book, Dear Memory]
DN: We’ve been listening to Victoria Chang read from her latest book, Dear Memory. When you were in conversation with the Poet Rick Barot, he characterized your book in relation to this absence and silence we hear about, not just in this letter you just read but throughout the collection. He thought the first part of the book was an engagement with silence as a problem or obstacle. That in the later parts of the book, things shift or evolve and silence becomes what he described as an active resource, the material within and from which we write. I want to spend time with both aspects of silence but starting with silence as a problem to be faced. Quite clearly, we have the silence of what you don’t know about your past because of your mother’s death and because of your father’s stroke, and we have the silence of what they wouldn’t readily share about your family history, perhaps because of the trauma of it or because of the experience they wanted to create or protect you from. But we also learned that your mother is very secretive. That even though your alma mater is University of Michigan, you never knew and she never mentioned that she once worked for the same university, or she would drop you, and your sister off regularly at the public pool, tell you to do 50 laps, then come back in a couple hours and you never knew if this was a mundane thing or she had some secret unspoken about life during those times. But on the level of writing, you also portray silence and the retrieval of memories or post-memories from the silence like a presence but also a presence that poses an existential threat. For instance, you say, “Am I willing to write about the dead? Will the language that I make murder me?” and “Finding memories is a bit like free diving, although I’ve never free dived before. You jump in the water and hold your breath as long as you can without dying and hope you come up with a memory or two. Then there’s the problem of opening the memory.” And maybe memory doesn’t linger and return over again but it’s more like a homicide, killing all the memories before. When you write to silence directly in your dear silence letters, you speak of circling silence but fearing what lies at its center. I’m hoping we could talk about silence in this light; the paradox that the silence you lived in prevented you from knowing things but also the knowing of things felt like it might put you in mortal peril.
VC: When I was listening to you talk, I was thinking you’re describing what it feels like to be a writer and how much we yearn to write, and putting language in incisions on the Earth really is what we’re doing when we write. Yet when we do so, we avoid, a lot of us do, at least, very difficult subject matter, either subconsciously and sometimes, very consciously because we’re afraid of what we might discover, not just about knowledge or facts but about ourselves. Then there’s the aspect of sharing the possibility of sharing your work, whether it’s in a workshop or with your friend or if someone finds it. In my case, whether I even want the world to read anything about me at all because I’m actually exceptionally private, which is a strange thing to be, yet so honest in my work. Writing for me feels like a way to self-discover but I didn’t really imagine that people would actually be reading it. There is the paradox of writing for me and the struggle of it. This book was so hard to put together. I struggled so much with it that I’ve written this before and talked about it. Then I actually went to dig up my contract and see if there’s a way I could get out of it. This was at the 11th hour because it just wasn’t working at all, just the whole thing, then all the things that I had written about were just really personal, then I even took out a whole bunch of stuff so that maybe 20 more pages just never made it in.
DN: That’s really interesting. Hopefully, the experience of being out in the world hasn’t confirmed your worst fears about it being out in the world.
VC: I think I was just worried that it just wasn’t working. Whatever I had started writing, it was such an organic process. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’ve described this book as being like a moving x-ray I guess. You can actually see the book being made if you look closely and if you’re a close reader. I’m very comfortable as a person with spontaneity, process, play, and experimentation or just very organic. I don’t feel like all the readers in the world might be that way. I feel like a lot of readers like things neatly packaged and tied the little bow on it. I think that discomfort of knowing this could be just really messy and that it maybe wasn’t even any good at all, really struck me as being problematic. It was very close. I decided just to let it go.
DN: I want to ask you about risk in this regard. The idea of moving from silence as a problem in the first half to silence as a resource in the second half makes me think of something that Mary Ruefle has said, describing her own writing practice—I don’t know if this was on one of the times she was on the show or whether this was in Madness, Rack, and Honey—but she describes dividing her day half into writing and half into erasing, erasing other people’s texts to create erasure texts. There’s something that feels almost shamanic, imagining her removing words half the day and adding words the other half of the day. But you yourself also mention her in one of your Lithub essays called It Begins with Silence where Ruefle suggests, “We should write to put language at risk,” and you quote are saying, “The torment, pain, torture of what poetry does to the world, what poets do with words, and what words will do to a poet,” and you thinking about the line, “What words will do to a poet. Can I be the hawk and the storm that tries to kill the hawk? Do I want to risk going into you in order to come out with words? To let the words build into something that is no longer me? Am I willing to write about the dead? Will the language that I make murder me?” How do you see putting language at risk and by extension putting oneself at risk with language?
VC: That’s an interesting letter because it started off as a letter to a student, a particular student actually that I had been working with that semester and a really, really brilliant, and talented young woman and just with all the facilities of language. But there is something missing. I think I feel like when I read sometimes, I think I was just talking to someone about this yesterday, that I feel like I’m very intrigued by what differentiates a really capable and competent—I would say nearly competent as to add insults to the competence—nearly competent writer or merely competent artist or merely confident whatever, from the writer that does something that really is special. We all have the same tools. We all have the same language. For me, it’s about putting that language at risk and really going—to me, at least, for me in my process—it’s really seeing how close you can get to telling the truth, whatever that truth means. I think that’s really hard to do. I think it’s really hard to be truly vulnerable and to tell the truth, yet also making art. Obviously, we all do that all the time with journals, diaries, and in our own heads and things like that, but the combination of the two I feel like is somehow putting language, and yourself at risk at the same time. It sounds really easy but I think it’s really hard because there’s something about the alchemy of the two together and it’s hard to create if that makes sense, but I think a lot of people, including myself get stuck at the, “I’m going to make a poem.” or “I’m going to write an essay.” But I don’t think that’s what we’re doing at the end of the day. We go to these MFA programs and we learn how to write. I don’t think we’re learning how to write. I think it’s much, much beyond that and figuring out how to get there, and what that is the journey of living. It’s a journey of growing. It’s a journey of dying, which is really the same as the journey of living.
DN: When thinking about self-evaluating, so your work isn’t out yet and you’re looking at the text with a different point of view or a different mindset than you that was writing it in the first place, and trying to evaluate whether you’ve put the language at risk or put yourself at risk. I would love to hear about that. Is that a matter of time and thus distance through time or trusted readers that you hand it to, then sit with their feedback? How do you yourself re-encounter your writing to evaluate it in this regard?
VC: I don’t evaluate my own writing at all. While I listen and obviously hear other people’s evaluation of my own writing, I truly don’t care what anyone thinks. I never have. I think that it’s hard to believe as a writer not to care. I sometimes will get angry though if someone gets it wrong. That’s where I do have emotion is that sometimes, I’ll read a review or something that someone wrote. I was like, “No, no, no, that’s not right. You missed the nuance there.” Or if they criticize me, “Have at it but get it right. Make me think a little more deeply but don’t just get it wrong.” That’s when I get frustrated but that’s not caring about whether someone likes my writing or not. I was actually talking to someone yesterday about this now that I think about it. We were talking about how scary it is to have a book come out into the world. I said, “I don’t actually feel those fears because I always loved the process of making something so much that I’ll always have that love for that process more than I’ll care about what other people think.” That’s why with the response that Obit had, it was actually very shattering for me as a person. I went into a pretty deep depression for two years because of that, or it’s not been two years, almost two years because of that response because I never wanted or yearned or thought or imagined that response. For me, it’s so much pleasure, joy, and challenge in writing, that’s where my happiness lies. Having suddenly all of these eyes on me and my associated with the writing made it very difficult actually.
DN: That’s so interesting because that was the praise that the attention and praise led to depression. [laughter] I want to return to one of the blurbs that I read from Thúy Đinh for NPR because I think it might serve as an interesting hinge between silence as absence or silence as threat on the one hand and silence as resource on the other. I’m curious what your thoughts are. When she said that Dear Memory achieves the holistic concept of yuánmăn 圆满 — roundness, completion, arrival by dispassionately exploring its antithesis, gaps severance, and departure, I’m not familiar with yuánmăn beyond this blurb and I don’t know if I’m saying it right but the subtext for me around this is that perhaps, one creates a sense of self, one creates the sense of oneself as a self within and through the silence that silence, severance, departure are the active resources, to use Rick Barot’s words, from which to forge selfhood. It made me think of my recent conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop where her whole poetics is created around this notion, something that she calls gap gardening. That it’s in the gap between words that the creation occurs and resides, even that death, not life is the source of the creative impulse. Or even Hirsch’s definition of postmemory as being connected to the past via imaginative investment, projection, and creation, particularly the word creation that postmemory is perhaps generative in a weird way out of the absence. But speak to us about this, does this ring true, this blurb or this notion that you would find roundness, completion, arrival perhaps as a self through the exploration of its opposite?
VC: Absolutely. I think as an immigrant’s child and also an Asian-American woman that grew up in the Midwest, I feel like I’ve spent my entire life trying to fill things in and I’ve been made, and I’ve been very clear about how I phrase this to feel less than. I don’t feel less than. I’m very proud to be who I am and I always have been, but I’ve been made to feel less than all my life. You feel as if you’re an empty container and you’re just needing to fill it in, and to complete it because you’re always not whole. It took me a long time to realize that wholeness is not something useful to chase after. I have all of these resources to use Rick’s words in silence. Silence is a resource itself. Because of that silence, I think I became a writer or a creative person, an artist. Without that absence, I think I would be like a lot of the people walking around that always seem so damn happy and so fulfilled. [laughs] They really are. I occasionally ask people, “Are you ever sad? Are you content?” “Do you ever know?” They’re like, “Yeah, sure.” Even some writers I know, I’ve asked some writers who seem particularly happy. I’m like, “How can you be a writer and be like that?” They’re like, “Yeah, I feel happy.” That just shocks me.
DN: It shocks me too.
VC: Doesn’t it?
DN: It does.
VC: Artists, writers, and creative types are always in this existential fraught relationship with everything and even something like success. I think no matter what it is, we’re always scratching at the wall of whatever that is and trying to rub it out. Yes, I think that it took me a whole lifetime to realize that I have a lot of resources, inner resources and outer resources. Maybe it had to be this way instead of trying so hard to fill myself in. That was also writing about some of my early childhood experiences too. I’ve been in so many environments and cultures where I’ve had to perform a certain perfection or a certain persona. Writing those things debunked fake stories and narratives that I’ve been telling everyone for my whole life. Actually, an Asian-American friend who met me when I was 18, I saw him recently, said, “When I first met you, I thought you appeared ostensibly, superficially like all the other Asian-American women that I knew or that I am friends with, but then shortly after you opened your mouth, I realized you were nothing like them.” He said that recently. This was when I was 18. I thought about that. I was like, “Yeah, there’s something about writers, artists, musicians. We’re different,” I think in general. It’s not just me and my family in silence. It’s all of us. I think we all navigate within the world of silence and within the world of this desire to make something out of that gap, those gaps that Rosmarie Waldrop was talking about. The in-betweenness of things is where many of us reside and like to reside, and create within those spaces.
DN: I want to spend a good amount of time connecting questions of form in relationship to identity, like you’re bringing up around seeing your friend again and the way they reflected things back to you, and around the construction of self. But I think as a preface to some of my future questions, I was hoping we could hear a poem from Obit, not only because it is a different form, so we’re moving from the letter to the obituary, but also because there’s a sense of form as content within this as well. I was thinking of OBIT [The Clock], which is on 82 I think.
[Victoria Chang reads a poem called OBIT [The Clock]]
DN: We’ve been listening to Victoria Chang read from her 2020 collection from Copper Canyon Press, Obit. At one point in the book you say, “An elegy reflects on the loss of a loved one. What form can express the loss of something you never knew but knew existed. Lands you never knew? People? Can one experience such a loss? The last definition of absence is the non-existence or lack of see how the of hangs there, like someone about to jump off a balcony.” I wonder if this is a more beautiful way of saying that because we’re talking about postmemory and not memory about the loss of something one never knew, that elegy isn’t the right form. Maybe you could talk to us about elegy but also in relationship to these two other forms of public address, the epistolary form and the obituary form that you’ve chosen instead to explore this material.
VC: I think I tried—and this goes early on to what you’re saying before about not really wanting to write another book or stuff, I mean you don’t really write a book, at least, I don’t about my mother or her passing or her illness or my father’s stroke, which I started writing about way back in The Boss, which is my third book. He’s still alive too. That’s the thing of it too is why I still write about him—but I mean I think that for me, form is so important for so many reasons but in this particular case, I think I really tried avoiding writing any elegies at all for my mother. I actually actively refused to do so because I just didn’t feel like I could do any better. I’ve said this before, the Walt Whitman’s of the world, they’ve all done it better than me. I couldn’t do what they’re doing any better than they have already done. It’s such an old form. It has such a long tradition. I mean contemporary poets, I think Brenda Hillman wrote this great book Death Tractates, which I really enjoyed, and Mary Jo Bang wrote a book, Elegy, that I thought was also very, very good, then they’re all the individual poems and all these other books. There’s no need for me to go in there. But it wasn’t until I was listening to NPR and they were talking about this documentary, Obit, the documentary which I never watched was about obituary writers. It sounded fascinating, how ideas come, which is for me, they come all the time. It’s like rapid fire. This idea, that idea, it’s like all sorts of things, but that one’s stuck and I went home, and I wrote 70 of these little obituaries over a two-week period. For me, in retrospect—and I’ve heard a lot of other people talk about this too—but in retrospect, I actually think that it wasn’t that I wasn’t wanting to write about my mother’s death or my experiences through that but it was that I couldn’t find a way in and I couldn’t find a way to do that. For me, oftentimes, finding a way into it is like a writing prompt. I have a lot of natural resistance and also the resistance of time. I don’t have time, so you don’t have a choice, you just can’t write anyway, which is a great reason not to write. You have excuses. These little triggers which are like these artificial or organic writing prompts that suddenly appear are actually a way to get me to sit down and start writing. I think the epistolary form, I never thought I am going to sit down and I’m going to write an epistolary. I just thought I’m going to talk to my dead mother and the only way in which to do so besides verbal is to write it down. The only way to do that is to say, “Dear mother,” then there you go.
DN: Brandon Shimoda described his class saying that he had 15 students, all of whom were writing to and alongside their ancestors, like you just described, and one of the assignments was to generate 30 to 50 questions that they wanted to ask directly of their ancestors. They shared them going around the table, each person speaking one question at a time round and round, “Until it felt like the table was spinning, buoyed by the energy of each question, and the accumulation of all the questions.” When I think of your book, it feels like you, too, are conjuring spirits in this way. It is your voice but because you’re using the epistolary form, you’re addressing people who aren’t there and conjuring them from their absence or in their absence, whether it be letters to your mother, your grandmother, your daughters, your sister, your teachers. But I wanted to ask you about writing to your bullies and more generally about form in relation to self-expression or self-investigation. You grew up in a largely white and Jewish neighborhood, and were bullied throughout your childhood based on your physical appearance, or at least, partially based on your physical appearance as a Chinese-Taiwanese-American girl. In the book, you say, “I didn’t know what was happening at the time, but I see it now. The language of poetry reminded me to stay alive. It reminded me that, when it felt like I had nothing, I was nothing, I still had words. I could ride language as if on horseback, and it could take me anywhere, including more deeply into myself.” You’ve also said more provocatively, “I don’t know if I would be a writer if I were not bullied. In a very odd sense, I feel immensely grateful to those that bullied me,” which again reminds me of finding wholeness and arrival through severance, and departure but talk to us about becoming a writer, partially because of your often racist bullies.
VC: I think by nature, I think before we started I was telling you how I’m actually just really a loud chatty and constantly making jokes kind of person and full of mischief. I think that between the bullies, then also growing up in the family that I grew up in, and I had to take a letter out that was about my sister because I was afraid that she was going to get mad at me, and she already has gotten mad at me about another thing that I wrote, but because of her secret illness, there’s just a lot of tension in the house growing up. Then combined with all of these things that were happening in my childhood, just constantly, I felt like I was constantly being picked at and constantly being verbally assaulted actually by some of these kids who are just kids. But it took all those wonderful spikes that we all have in our personality, just shaved them all down, all the way down until there’s nothing but maybe little specks of dust left. That was my baseline I think. There’s just a lot of confusion as a child, not understanding why things were the way they were. That was hard to write about because, again, I’m really good at performing happiness, performing perfection, and performing X, Y, or Z. It’s like I went to business school, I mean 99% of the women that I went to business school are like these perfect women, and they are, they really are and these perfect men, and perfect non-binary folks, etc. They were just perfect in all ways. I was this whole time performing that perfection. To write that letter, it was shameful and embarrassing to me but I kept it in there because I felt it was important to keep it there. It was an important part of the story that I was telling or trying to tell.
DN: You mentioned the ways your personality was shaved down to this minimal baseline from someone who is maybe more naturally an extrovert, but talk to us about—I know this is a qualified and provocative statement—but feeling grateful as a writer for having been bullied. What about it inadvertently has been a resource rather than something you withstood?
VC: I look around and I think it’d be really boring to be anything else. I have just a handful of writer friends who had really functional childhoods but we all sometimes talk about how we have one thing in common. There’s trauma. Whether it’s family trauma or something, there’s trauma there somehow but I just think that it’s so much more interesting to be who I am because of the experiences that I had gone through. Instead of viewing those experiences as shame, I now view them as a resource. I feel even bad using that word but I love how that word sounds, which is really mostly why I’m using it. I think that if we just take what we have and try to make something from that detritus, I think it can be really interesting, depending on what we have. I think what I have is not shameful. It’s really interesting. I can’t change it. I can’t go back. I can’t tell those people now to stop. Even if I did confront those people now, I don’t think it would change the past. I might as well use the little small pieces of dust I have and try, and make something interesting with it, make a piece of art that someone else can look at and view, and maybe feel something out of my detritus and that feels like it’s somewhat useful, otherwise, it’s like sitting with my trauma. Not doing it feels awfully sad to me, whereas I feel grateful, I do, that my life experiences have been the way they have been because what’s the alternative? There is none.
DN: I’m hoping you’ll read another excerpt from Dear Memory. I was thinking of part of a letter that is about your parents’ Chinese restaurant, the Dragon Inn.
[Victoria Chang reads from her latest book, Dear Memory]
DN: We’ve been listening to Victoria Chang read from her latest book, Dear Memory from Milkweed Editions. Before we talk about some of the specifics of what you just read, I wanted to connect form and identity or see if there was a connection between the two for you in this way. You’ve talked before how it wasn’t until your third collection, The Boss, that you began engaging with questions of identity in relation to power. But at that point, it was mainly hierarchies but not explicitly questions of race. But since then, it feels like you’ve increasingly done so as we move from Barbie Chang to Obit to Dear Memory, with Dear Memory, most fully going into anti-Asian racism and questions of identity, and assimilation. But if we look at the progression, book to book, your books have also progressively moved toward prose in that sequence of three books with Obit leaving behind line breaks for prose poetry and Dear Memory’s main texts becoming full-on prose. I wondered if the change in form is foregrounding a different part of you if moving toward prose also unlocks story in a different way or if these parallel tracks of form and content are just coincidentally in tandem in this case, if this increasing interest of putting your own experiences with racism on the page, if those would still happen even if you were writing these books as sonnets or haikus, or if something about moving into more and more into sentences is also unlocking these stories.
VC: I think you’re right. I think that’s a very smart thing to notice. I think that I’ve tried to write about race or those kinds of things in small little bits, little concisions, little concise moments. There was one really racist moment that I experienced at a writer’s conference that I wrote as in a little tiny tanka in Obit, then it blew out and grew into itself when I gave it more physical space, and gave it more complete sentences and less fragmented space. I think that’s what writers do a lot. I actually tell my students to do this too, is that, “If you are feeling the itch to approach a material and you try it in this way, and you feel like really it’s not working for some reason, give yourself some time and try it in another way. It could be a different genre.” Genres are all human formed. I say that all the time too. There’s no such thing as genre but try different forms because sometimes, the subject matter has to find its form to really find itself. I’ve written about the same stories but in different ways. Each time, it’s angled slightly different through a different prism, a different crystal or this other side of it. Each time, it shines in its own miraculous way but I think this material really needed something bigger and more physical space for me to truly explore it because it’s very nuanced. I think that you can’t just say, “Oh, this is racist” or “This happened.” It’s just I wanted to do more exploration. Obviously, I’m not an Asian-American Studies scholar but I really wanted to do the reading, do the research, and to think a little bit harder about nuance and build upon some of the things that other people have been working on for a long time. To respect that knowledge, that research, and the thinking that all of these scholars have been doing since I was born and before my time, largely anonymous, and to not give it that space that I’ve given it, which is this pro space, I felt like would be disrespecting the material. I’m limiting it but also disrespecting all the people who have been doing all this work before me.
DN: Thinking about the ways that you’re continually shifting from book to book, writing in lines, writing prose poems, writing epistolary essays, writing image text, writing in syllabics, writing tankas, writing poems that all contain the titles of W.S. Merwin poems, I want to ask you another question about form and identity, thinking about this history of yours, a restlessness around form perhaps. One of the things you say for instance is that bullying turned you from a naturally extroverted person into an introvert, and that as a result, the tension between inward and outward is important in your work. Then in the Lithub essay, you say, “Because I was trained to assimilate at such a young age, I think I can be anything anyone wants me to be, meaning I am keenly aware of how other people feel or what other people want.” Then in Dear Memory, you say, “Saying things others want to hear is easy for an immigrant’s child because for an immigrant’s child, Language is theater. We are always performing.” When I read this and think about your work in relation to this, I also think of my history of being bullied, whereas you were bullied as an Asian girl in a white and Jewish neighborhood, I was bullied as a Jew among almost entirely non-Jews. My strategy for survival was never to center myself too, instead make friends by centering them, by becoming a good listener, or as you say, being keenly aware of how other people feel or what they want. Much of my life has shaped itself in this way. My previous work for two decades in healthcare, listening to others and interviewing them about what was going wrong for them, and now also with the podcast, interviewing writers. On the downside, I think the reason I became a writer so late in my life is because for so long, I would avoid self-expression or being on the stage because of the fear of being ridiculed or mocked if I’m standing in the center. But while writing itself I think became for me the remedy for the fear of writing or self-expression was ultimately its own remedy, the more I wrote, the less that became a problem or the more I worked through that fear. I found a way to find self-expression through interviewing, so through this form that I’ve inherited through trauma where I’m not just listening but the way I’m asking questions or how I’m listening feels authentically like something that is both other centric, yet not self erasure. This is my long way of asking if the way you are a shapeshifter formally, if something similar is going on for you, if the way you could be anything anyone wanted you to be—which I’m sure has all sorts of downside legacy for you—has also become the many different ways you could be that are also the way you yourself want to be on the page and off the page.
VC: There’s so much there. Oh my goodness. [laughs] Thank you, first of all, for sharing that with me. While you’re speaking, I felt this kinship with you in many ways. When you were talking and working through that, I was thinking, “Well, there you go. Here you are doing this incredible podcast that’s become so beloved amongst writers.” I regularly hear people saying it’s like the podcast that writers or people who are interested in writing should listen to. You’ve become quite good at this thing where you ask questions to other people but I like how you have thought about it as it’s also a form of identity making because you’re not really just asking questions about the work without an investment of yourself. You’re working through your own questions of identity and self-hood through the literature, and through the process of asking questions. But I just identified with you so much because I do the same thing socially, which is why I think the reception of Obit was so difficult for me because I actually prefer to do what you’re doing. I think it’s so much easier and more interesting to me as someone who learned how to make myself small to avoid attention, to be the one that’s querying and asking questions. It’s a sense of power. It’s a sense of control. It’s also a way to deflect and not be vulnerable. I remember many times in my adult life where I would just ask people really interesting questions. I’m sure you’re good at this too. You find the heart and you’ll find this to be interesting. Before I quit my other jobs, I was basically writing for business schools in other places, like articles, case studies, a lot of writing, which required me to interview people my whole life. I’ve interviewed over a thousand people. I counted at some point. They’re all CEOs, they’re senior managers, nonprofits, for-profits. I’ve interviewed some really, really, really famous people. I only had in some cases, 30 minutes, at most, an hour. I had to interview the head of NBC Universal. These are major, major organizations. You only have so much time, so you have to find the center, the thing that’s going to make them say something and get to the heart of what is keeping them up at that particular moment or something that’s impacted them from the past. I became really good at that, so good at that. I started doing that socially, then when someone flipped it around and realized that’s what I was doing, they would ask me a really tough question. I would feel this flush across my face and I immediately felt really hot because suddenly, someone had done that tricky thing of turning the camera on me, then I immediately turned it back to them. I did that for my whole life. I still do that now. It’s like it’s really easy. I’m sure you know this, to get people to sit there and just talk about themselves for hours and hours, [laughter] then it’s like you’ve somehow made them feel really great. It’s like a therapy session in some ways if you can find those nuggets. When you’re talking, I was like, “Oh wow, I totally identify with this personality.” [laughter] Then you choose things to do in your career path and things like that. It goes back to what I was talking about earlier. It’s like my mother should say, “Someone has to bake bread,” meaning someone has to be the interviewer, someone has to be the interviewee. One cannot exist without the other. That’s true with everything. I found that to be really interesting. Now, I’ve totally forgotten your question.
DN: It’s about this idea and shape-shifting because your forms keep changing. Each book is very different formally. We can recognize voices and concerns across books but when I was quoting you as saying that you could be anything for anyone, which I imagine has a painful legacy but it also feels like you’ve flipped the script on that in terms of you can be yourself now in many different ways.
VC: I think it’s like what you’re saying about how, when you interview people, you’ve figured out that it’s also a way to make yourself and to learn about yourself. I feel like I’m a total shape shifter. I can be anything that anyone wants me to be. I can identify immediately what is necessary in a particular situation that I’m in. Thus, I think in general, I’ve always been very “likable.” People always like me. It’s because I’m who they want me to be at that particular moment or who they need me to be at that particular moment. I always have a ton of friends around me. I’m very social and enjoy those instances. I think it can definitely take its toll but I think what they always say is your greatest thing is your other weakness or strength or whatever. That’s when I’m really terrible at these [1:12:36] because my parents didn’t speak English at home, but there’s that great saying. I think I’ve learned that anything can also be a benefit. That I’m also really good at listening to what a particular work wants to be. I’m very good at understanding the writing in a way that I might understand a person. People always ask this question here, “Do you think about the audience?” I said, “Not consciously.” But because I’m the person that I am, the shape shifter, very much, so probably, like yourself, I’m exceptionally good at understanding other people around me all the time. That comes in the revision process. I think about how things may be received. It’s not that I care or that I’ll change things but I have an awareness about those things naturally, probably too much so because I’m such a shape shifter. I think the formal adjustments too are this not having one static identity. Who really does? But I think there are different ranges of that. I certainly feel like I’m a little all over the place. I always say I could have been a filmmaker. I could have been a visual artist. I could have been a CEO. I could do so many things. I could have been a chef. I could have done anything. I was literally unmoored. I feel like I could do anything. I could be anyone. They’re about a thousand thoughts that go through my head in 10 minutes about everything. It’s rapid. I think that’s where the shape shifting and the form comes about too is that I get bored so easily, that I’m always wanting to try new things. Things just feel so dull to me. Just to keep myself feeling alive is why I like to try new things. Whether they succeed or not or the degree in which they do so, it doesn’t matter to me because I think that’s what actually keeps me alive, is that shape shifting that you mentioned.
DN: I want to take these notions of inside, outside, public, private, introvert, extrovert in your work back to this question of silence but there’s a different notion of silence that you also explore in the book than the two types that Rick Barot is talking about. That’s the silence as self-erasure or silence, then feeling compromised because one was silent afterwards. Back to this question we discussed earlier, if going into the silence that might kill you, that puts you in peril, it makes me wonder if this has to do with questions of both shame and assimilation in relation to silence. You bring up shame a lot in both your conversations around the book and within the book. I’m thinking of long ago now with Rachel Zucker on Commonplace Podcast. You talked about how saving face is a big part of Chinese-American culture. That it was a big part of regular conversations in your family and that you were always dealing with masks, and the desire to, as you’ve discussed today, present the most professional face. More recently, you’ve talked about how your desire to be overeducated was part of your assimilation, of your belief that if you got all of these degrees, then you would be taken seriously because of them and the subtext being that you wouldn’t be if you didn’t get them. I wonder if the part of Dear Memory where you discover your dad’s perfect attendance awards at the Ford factory where he worked, I wonder if his drive to never miss a day, if that came from a similar place as this impulse for over education. But either way, I think about the ways in the book, you try to be still silent and invisible as a survival strategy but then are left with shame. The shame itself feels really complicated to me. On the one hand, there are scenes from when you’re younger where one line goes, “I turn my head away from Asian people on the street. If I don’t look at them, I won’t have to see myself,” or the way you avoided jade or the color red, which seems to be a shame from being seen as Asian from not being able to disappear but then there are scenes in the book where you experience anti-Asian micro or macro aggressions and don’t speak up, then feel the shame for not speaking out. This feels like it lies at the nexus of silence, identity, and shame, the shame of both being too visible and for not being visible enough when the context demands it, but talk to us about shame in regard to all of this.
VC: Listening to you talk about it I think, “Wow, that sounds so exhausting.” That’s exactly how people like me probably feel. It’s exhausting to have to navigate all of these things on a daily basis in micro ways and macro ways. It’s been exhausting. I think it’s complicated. I think, like you were saying, each context demands a different relationship with shame, so at the end of the day, can one say—I mean I know I said that I don’t feel shame for being Chinese-American. It’s true. That I can say 100%. No one is born feeling ashamed, which is a really crazy thing to think about. It shows you that a life and the environment in which you’re in, that’s how those things are created. It’s interaction. The odd thing is we’re such social creatures. We need each other yet we kill each other. We need each other yet we harm each other. It makes no sense at all. We need each other yet we shame each other. It is complicated but I do know again, that I wasn’t born feeling shame. It’s like we’re sitting on Zoom and I’m looking at my own face, and your face and I feel no shame. I’m quite proud of the way that I look. I’m happy having black hair and all those things. I never really spent a lot of time thinking about it but then there are all these different contexts in which you are forced to think about shame. The shame is thrust upon you. It’s the emotion. I guess my relationship with shame is situational versus systemic, yet the racism is systemic. Maybe using systemic and to confuse it within this context might confuse other people but I do think that I wanted to write into those complexities, and not think too much about it. Something that I do is I walk, then I can’t remember what happened behind me. Even just reading about these passages or thinking about this again, I don’t remember it that well. When you’re talking about it, I also think how interesting in that because of not looking back as much while writing and not self-revising or not thinking about it but living in the process, what happens is that you collect and basically collect nuance or write into that nuance. You could basically counter what you just said in the last paragraph and not even know it as much or care. I think that’s what I ended up doing in this book. The result is that it probably does paint a more complex picture. You picked up on some of that because the situations led to different kinds of feelings of shame, then I had to reconcile those situations. I was always told to assimilate. It’s like I grew up in Michigan. We didn’t have a choice really. But I do remember, there is subversive anti assimilation happening all the time. It’s just that there’s that, to go back to what you’re saying, the public assimilation and the private celebration. It’s like with the food we ate, the way we spoke Chinese in the house, my Chinese mother is as strong as it is because she spoke only Chinese in the house. Growing up actually until the day she died, it was mostly Chinese. My dad who is more assimilating I guess spoke English, chinglish, but I think we went to Chinese school every Saturday. They taught us how to write calligraphy, which I loved and which is actually some stuff I’m doing now with the new manuscript I’m working on with some visual art, and stuff, very much stems from what I learned when I was a child. We were doing plays and sword dancing. My mother noticed that my sister and I had a facility for music. I had more of a facility for visual art, is what she noticed, and writing but she had me learn how to play the moon guitar. She had me take lessons with a Chinese opera musician from China who had been studying in America. They all became really close friends. I grew up learning how to play the moon guitar, which is literally what it looks like. It’s a round moon. I can still play it to this day and still have it with me. It survived 30 moves kind of thing. We were subversively focusing on our culture and all those things. I look back at that with a lot of happiness and pride, but really it’s fear, and I write about this in the book, is this trouble with racism is that you really do. It’s like the inside is great. The minute you open that door and you walk out, it’s anxiety. It’s like you just never know. Even to this day, I could go walk into an elevator at this hotel that I’m at and I feel fear. I just don’t know what someone’s going to think, what they’re going to say, what they’re going to do. All the time, all day long, 24 hours a day, it’s other people’s perception of you and how that manifests itself verbally, physically. That’s why that event that happened at the writers conference was so traumatic because you could have all these degrees and work so hard, and do all these things, yet some white woman could just come up to you and lecture you in public in the way that she did without thinking twice about it. That’s the stuff that I think makes racism so difficult.
DN: I should just mention, for people who don’t know what you’re referencing, it is something that gets described in the book, this incident that happens at the writer’s conference. I want to spend some time with the visual art, collage, and poetry in the book but I do want to ask a final question first about Asian-American identity in relation to post memory because in looking up Marianne Hirsch who you quote and Brandon Shimoda’s quote about postmemory, I learned that this term came out of holocaust studies, and that Hirsch first used it maybe 30 years ago in reference to art, Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus and has since made it more complicated, and developed it over time. When you were talking with Dana Levin, she could very much relate to your discussion of postmemory for her own Jewish family, the gauze that was cast across the past with nothing that one could grasp onto beyond a certain point. I can relate to it with my own ancestry, an absence and things spoken to in really unsatisfyingly general terms in my own family story. But I also realize that almost all the times that I encounter postmemory by chance, just moving through my life, it’s in an Asian-American context. I think of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee with lines like, “To extract each fragment by each fragment from the word from the image another word another image the reply that will not repeat history in oblivion,” or Don Mee Choi in DMZ Colony who engages with Postmemory Han, phenomenon that combines the notion of post memory, in this case, second generation Korean immigrants being haunted by historical traumas they didn’t experience directly with this Korean notion of han, which I talked about with E.J Koh—I know we were talking about E.J Koh before the show today—but we talked a lot about han when we were in conversation, which is a hard to describe concept in English but some have tried to describe as collective, yet indeterminate grief. Don Mee Choi has lines like, “Memory’s memory. Memory’s child. My memory lives inside my father’s camera, the site where my memory was born.” Lastly, I think of the poet Jane Wong who wrote a thesis on the poetics of haunting for Asian-American poets. She asks, “How can haunting and moving toward the ghost be productive, not a burden?” I guess it’s my long way of asking, do you think there’s something unique about the Asian-American experience or some subset of it—because I don’t want to generalize about it, as if there were an Asian-American experience—that makes this connection to postmemory poetics so foregrounded? It’s also very possible I’m just encountering all of these things by chance. Perhaps the Arab-American community and the Latinx community have this very same engagement, that I acknowledge that’s possible, but I’m curious because that’s what I’m encountering randomly as I move through the world.
VC: Thank you for all those lovely quotes. I actually remember Don Mee Choi. That was one of my favorite lines in that book. When you read it again, I said, “I remember that line.” It’s hard to say but I think he may be on to something. It could be the relationship we have to silence, which is what I write a lot about in this particular book and communication and the cultures of communication. I do obviously have a lot of different kinds of friends and their family cultures. Sometimes, I’ll meet a Chinese-American person or a Taiwanese-American person and they’ll be like, “Oh yeah, my parents were like a diary of the mouth.” They told me everything. It’s very rare though, but that’ll surprise me because I think that a lot of us grew up in families that didn’t really say much. I think that’s true with a lot of families but then having grown up in a predominantly Jewish community, that seemed different for some of my Jewish friends. Like my roommate in college was a friend from high school, she used to always comment about how her mother knew everything. It’s like, “It’s a TMI, please do not tell me this” or “Why are you telling me this? This is not something I need to know.” Then when I interacted with some of those parents, which I did, obviously, the parents came to visit in college, I had interaction with them, they definitely did not seem like my parents. I do think there are for certain, not only cultural differences but family differences and all those dispositions, differences, and things like that, I do see this thread too. I’m always looking for those connections, even if people are different in terms of Asian-American, like what kind of Asian-American they are but class differences too. Many of us are different in terms of class and educational background. Someone like Ocean Vuong and I have a really different background, yet we’re both classified as Asian-Americans. Our parents are totally different. My parents were from two different countries even to begin with and spoke two different languages. There are also sorts of differences, but I think you’re not wrong to see those threads because there probably are those threads and it has something to do with the cultural mores in how we communicate. I have some Latinx friends and it’s totally different too. It’s fascinating to think about those things and how they manifest in terms of memory, and postmemory. So much of this book is really about silence. I think that’s not by accident.
DN: I’m going to insert one more thing before we move on to visual art, collage, and poetry, but I think my favorite part of Dear Memory are the letters to the teachers, to your past teachers. I think it’s because perhaps being a reader who’s a writer, seeing all these questions we’ve discussed so far get employed or the way they inform your own questions as a person becoming a writer, then engaging with the people who taught you felt so satisfying. Let’s hear a Dear Teacher letter, then we’ll move on and have some real curiosities about the visual part of the book. I was thinking of the one on page 76.
[Victoria Chang reads a letter from her latest book Dear Memory]
DN: We’ve been listening to Victoria Chang read a letter from her latest book Dear Memory. I love that one so much. I love, “I eat leftover snacks from the pockets of dead riders.” That’s so fantastic. Let’s spend some time with the images. When I think of Obit, which is mainly in the obituary form, these obituaries are periodically interspersed with a different form, the tanka and these tankas give us not just a different form, a different syntax, and a different music but a different content as they were often about your children. There’s a way it feels like the collages you’ve made in Dear Memory serve a similar function in this book. We have the letters, which are largely, even while being addressed to a specific person, written into the void without expectation of a response and liberated from the real person in some way. But the images you are working with to create your collages are concrete things, documents, mementos, and photographs from your family, and you’ve chosen to include, at least, two modes of writing among the images and only among the images, so we get short poems that are made out of cut out pieces of paper unattached to the images, lying atop them, and transcripts from one recorded interview you did with your mother long ago. It is here outside of the letters that we get the tangible substance that you’re engaging with within the silence, whether that’s mementos or your mother’s actual narrative in her own words, so things that she actually spoke. Talk to us about the images in light of this.
VC: I wrote all the letters first. I really had no knowledge of what I was doing. I was just writing letters really is what I was doing. They just kept on coming, but then at some point, I felt like what was there on the page was asking me. This goes back to being a good listener. I’m a really good listener but I think I’m a good listener with the things I’m working on too because I think of them as being their own entities and their own shapes. They’re alive. They really are. When you’re working on something, it is like I have a constant companion. It was telling me that it wanted and needed something else. I had slowly just collected all these little small stacks of things, the photos, and things that really resonated with me. At some point, when I had a draft of these letters, I started putting some photos into them. I should revise what I just said. First, I actually put my mother’s transcription because I had remembered after I written all these letters like, “Wait a minute, I think I talked to her once,” and I couldn’t find that interview but that stemmed from a card or a letter that she’d received from a long-lost cousin in China. I took that opportunity to record it and ask for more questions, and things. Obviously, there’s a lot of reluctance but I finally did find it. It was on my Google Drive. I put those in first, but I used the shapes that you have on Word, like rectangles and squares. I put things inside. It was really bad, I would say 1990s, 1980s clip art. So bad. [laughter] That’s actually what I turned into Milkweed. Daniel Slager, the editor there, wrote back to me pretty quickly and said how much he loved the manuscript. I was really surprised actually that he had reservations about those clip art, thingamabobs. He did it in the most gracious, nice way. That really teaches you how to give constructive feedback, but it did stay with me. Over time, I started playing with other things, collaging. I had asked a visual artist friend for advice about things along the way. It was a long process. It was within the process of the visual elements when I thought to myself, “This is all junk.” By then, the manuscript had been accepted. It was going to be published but it was when I started moving into the visual components. I just didn’t know how to put it together in a way that would make it feel like it was one thing versus 8,000 things. I didn’t know how to think about the problems that I had. I had these letters that I had already written, then I had this interview with my mother that was not super long but long enough, like how do you break that? Do you break it? Then I had all these photos, then Dana Levin, the poet at some point, had read the whole thing. She was like, “These photos, why don’t you write some poems?” [laughter] I was like, “Okay.” Again, that’s me being like, “Sure, sure,” so I wrote these poems, then I was pretty proud of myself. I wrote these little poems. I put them in the little boxes and put them up there but then my visual art friend, Monica Ong, was like, “No, no, no, no, no, these are speech bubbles. You must not do this. You need to tackle this problem first.” It was like these few people that I had shown this manuscript to were basically telling me all these problems I need to fix. Normally, like with Obit or something, I don’t send it out to anyone for any opinions until I feel like it’s pretty much done. This manuscript was very different. It needed a lot of help. I had to fix things. People were giving me instructions. In that way, that’s how it formed. I can’t remember who but they were saying how I had a lot of insecurities about the book, even when it was already in production and things like that because I still feel like it’s like Frankenstein but some readers have said they found it to be very cohesive, surprisingly. Other people have just surprisingly leaned into the complexity of the structure. They’ve written things like, “Structurally complex.” It’s a great example actually of what I tell my students all the time too, which is, “You can trust the reader. You can trust them to fill in those gaps on their own. The gap can be quite wide and they can still amazingly figure things out in their own way, and interpret it in ways that are extraordinary because this book is really motley,” is what I would say.
DN: I definitely am a reader who thinks it coheres nonetheless. Speaking of gaps, one of the things we learn in these sections because of your conversation with your mother is about the gap between your family’s life in America and the part of your family that didn’t leave, so this shadow narrative, the mainly unspoken shadow narrative of your family, an alternate life you could have led. I was hoping maybe you could orient us to Mother’s Cousin on page 47 and read us the words within that image.
VC: Sure. This is Mother’s Cousin speaking. It was translated from a letter that she had written to my mother when she had found my mother.
[Victoria Chang reads from her latest book, Dear Memory]
DN: Talk to us about the delivery in the syntax of this for you. Does anything come up? Because stuff comes up for me, I mean obviously, the content, a lot comes up for me but also the way it’s spoken, either because of the translation or simply because of the person who’s speaking it but what comes up for you around it?
VC: Flatness. The diction and the syntax is flat. I don’t have the original. I’ve looked for it but I don’t have it. It’s somewhere. I remember seeing it at some point and I’ve lost it because I’m so disorganized. I wonder sometimes if my mother’s translation was flat or if the writing itself was flat. That’s something I’ll never know unless I find it and actually get it translated or read some of it. I can read some but not a ton. I think with all of the translation of the letters, there’s one where she literally goes through history, 1960 to 1970. In the way my mother read it and I saw the recording, I remember it was just being very clinical. It’s like I was an East Asian Studies major in college and even have a masters in Asian Studies. That’s the stuff that I studied. The reason why I didn’t pursue East Asian Studies, I realized I wasn’t really interested in studying it, I was interested in learning about my history. [laughs] It was all part of the same process that came out in Dear Memory but I do think that the language of trauma can be very flat sometimes, therefore, I think it is more powerful.
DN: In your conversation with E.J. Koh, you said something that blew my mind about the images. You don’t always present the photos of your family as is but you sometimes cut out and remove a figure or scribble out somebody’s face. In your conversation with E.J., you said that when you replace the actual face in a photograph with a cut out representation where you’ve replaced their faces with a representation of silence or the unknown, that you’ve both found it comforting and activating for you. I wanted to hear about that, how you’re confronted with these documents with a presence and that you insert an image of your own, which is an erasure in order to engage with them better or more or in a way that works best for you.
VC: It’s a form of violence I’ve done to these poor people in these photos. I sometimes think about that with Obit too. I actually started writing a little bit about that. These new poems I’m working on, it’s like I’ve sold my grief for public consumption. It’s an interesting thing to think about. The challenge of writing about these things and having other people receive them, what you’re doing is you’re cutting people up and putting them on display. Maybe I should have done it with my own face, not their faces but it’s an act of reclaiming but it’s also erasing because one, you don’t know what really happened, then you’re overlaying what really happened, what has really happened anyway, but you’re overlaying their stories with your trauma and your questions. The act of cutting these faces out felt like a representation of those things, an acknowledgement of what I was doing in some ways and shaming myself in some ways for doing that but acknowledging too that perhaps an understanding of the self is in some ways a form of violence on other people, other stories, and other histories. It’s like if my mother were alive, she’d be so mad at me. Knowing that is something interesting to think about. Knowing that my mother had to die for me to write this book that was so well received is really gross when you think about it and disgusting in some ways, and also really tragic that I can’t share that with her. She would have been so proud of me in so many ways, in ways that I couldn’t care less about in the way that parents love to be proud of their kids. They love tangible accomplishments. Every parent does. She would have been so excited, but the tragic comedy of the whole thing is that I can’t share that with her because she’s dead because she’s the subject of that book. In some ways, cutting and changing these photos was a way of maybe acknowledging that I’m changing things, I’m changing history. I’m probably getting it all wrong but it’s okay because I’m making this thing a new thing out of it. Some people who are the subject of things being written about, I think that’s where they misunderstand what we’re doing as writers. They misunderstand. They think we’re trying to tell their story or make them look bad. I think they miss the whole point of what we’re doing. We’re making something new. What comes out of it, it no longer has anything to do with them. They were just the trigger and now they’re gone.
DN: In light of this, Diana Khoi Nguyen, the author of Ghost Of, has a question for you. This is me reading her question to you. “Victoria, thank you for your moving collection of letters and querying across time, space, and generations. I’m struck, not only by how the letters as essays reach out into the gaps and silences of memory and familial history, but how the letters themselves begin to fill in some of the space in these fissures. Similarly, the tracing of familial bodies in some of the archival photographs reveals a void patched by Chinese characters. In removal, there is not nothingness but what remains, the materials and archives we are left to piece together. As someone who has also been tenderly tracing the lines of familial bodies in photographs, I’m curious to hear what you did with the faces and bodies set free from their photographic contexts?”
VC: That’s a lovely question. I think I kept them all. They’re in a Ziploc bag. I didn’t toss them. I think she knows this because she’s been exploring similar kinds of things related to her brother and her family in beautiful ways. You always know someone, that nuance that we were talking about earlier, it’s like they understand something a little too well perhaps, and that they’re able to ask these questions that go beyond the question. She wonders where those severed heads are. They’re in the little Ziploc bag in the garage, in the box. [laughter]
DN: I want to end with you as a parent. You parenting your children while your own parents are disappearing is a big part of your last two books. Obit opens with your father’s frontal lobe dying and the technician ultrasounding your baby in utero, dropping their wand and leaving the room when they can’t find your baby’s heartbeat. This question of what has been passed down from your parents to you and what will be passed down from you to your children is constantly present with lines in Dear Memory like, “The sicker father becomes, the more American I become,” and “Maybe my children are already American, but a different kind of American. And maybe my children are not really themselves. They’re thousands of years of other people. Cultures. My trauma. Mother’s trauma. Father’s trauma. Their silence. Passed down through me.” I also think about how until recently, you not only didn’t call the bullying that happened to you bullying but that you always told everyone that you had a great childhood. This impulse feels like it might be a kindred impulse or produce a kindred impulse to the silence. Your parents raised you in a gauzy history where your kids might feel comforted but also prevented from knowledge. But on the other hand, you’re openly questioning how to break the cycle. I think of when you’ve quoted Mandelstam who said, “What tense would you choose to live in? I want to live in the imperative of the future passive participle – in the ‘what ought to be,” and you say, “That’s where I want to live too, in the what ought to be. I don’t know where this is or what it looks like but I know somehow it begins with language.” I think about you cutting out these faces and bodies from the photos, setting them free of their context as Diana describes, or in your recent Bread Loaf talk on Joy in Poetry, perhaps paradoxically, that maybe the loss of self is inherent to joy and that joy is transient because we have to go on living with a self. But I want to hear about breaking the cycle, breaking the impulse to say, “My childhood was fine,” or not using the word bullying, not passing on a gauzy past to your own children, which that anxiety around what’s being passed down now multi-generationally through your choices seems really alive in both of these books.
VC: Absolutely, yeah. I also feel like I try to model a lack of shame, if that makes sense. When Dear Memory comes out, I’ll show my children the book, then I’ll give them a copy. They don’t have to read it, but one actually was reading it and brought it into class to read during reading time. I asked him, “Oh, you’re reading it.” Because they’re women enough that they have self-determination. They always have self-determination but just this idea that “Here are the things that I think about and you’re welcome to ask me questions about them at any time. You’re welcome to read it or not read it. I’m working through life and things like that through writing,” is important to me. I don’t think there’s a week that goes by where I say stuff like, “There’s no shame in that. There’s no shame.” You can’t help people or you can’t fix them or you can’t feel better if you don’t name it. I’m really into naming things, acknowledging them, and facing it. Problems cannot be solved in many cases but I think you can feel better or feel connected or build community or have some relationship with the trauma that you’re experiencing and things like that, that is more healthy and beneficial than tampering it all down or putting a blanket over it. I think the way that I was raised and the way I think about my own experiences very much shapes how I think about my children but also everything that I do, even the program that I work in at Antioch is very much, so I say that at work, “No shame, no shame. No mistakes. It’s not a big deal.” Again, there’s no shame. It’s like they did everything they could and they did a great job but I don’t want to do what they did because I’m different. I was born in a different place. I experience things differently. I now can take all the resources and things they gave me, and make my own life. There’s not a lot of runway left though. I feel like I was a little late in coming through to this point but it’s a beautiful place to be right now. I think this book helped me get there.
DN: Let me ask you, maybe this is a tangent but when you say, “Maybe my children are not really themselves,” then you say, “My trauma, mother’s trauma, father’s trauma, their silence passed down through me,” it made me think of something that I still haven’t wrapped my brain around but feels true to me though I haven’t seen it reflected elsewhere in what people are studying or talking about. When C.A. Conrad was on the show, they brought up this thing that I’d never thought about, which was, “Why do we only talk about negative things being passed down?” Like if someone’s traumatized, we’re talking now in actual science, otherwise, there’s obviously the behavioral stuff that passes down but also epigenetics, let’s say you experience the Irish famine and four generations later, you have a higher risk of diabetes, but I wonder if there’s this bias baked in, that in terms of how we even are able to see about what’s passed down, why couldn’t, as C.A. Conrad might suggest, something that we solve or are really good at experiencing in a delightfully, indulgent way be something that gets passed down epigenetically also? It would seem bizarre that the only things that would be passed down intergenerationally in terms of gene expression would only be bad things. That would be really bizarre.
VC: It’s not as interesting to talk about. It’s not as interesting to study. Of course, there are things that get passed down. It’s almost like that’s so obvious. I don’t want to criticize C.A.Conrad because I’m not doing that at all. It just feels like it’s such an obvious thing. Of course, there are all sorts of genetic traits and things like that that get passed through that are positive.
DN: But if you were to think about like, it doesn’t seem obvious to me in the sense of like of course, there’s genetic things but with epigenetics, what you’ve experienced in your life passing down a different way, genes get turned off, of or on. Not the genes themselves, which of course, you’re going to pass down good and bad traits in the genes but in terms of gene expression, if you became a really good listener or you became a really good reader, that could actually change gene expression.
DN: That seems magical to me. Of course, epigenetics seems magical to me too.
VC: It does. I think too, the things that keep us awake at night and the things that eat away at us or that we think about are oftentimes things like trauma. I think those are where some of the obsessions come out from. I think it would be interesting to study what you’re talking about too but I also feel like the thread might end at some point because I don’t know if those things would keep people awake. It’s like the rabbit holes that we go down are because there’s more to them. It keeps turning into this thread or that thread and this or that. I think it is the same reason why it’s like it was hard to find poems of pure joy to talk about my Bread Loaf talk. It’s hard to write purely funny poems. I just think it’s like the thread just ends sometimes. With trauma, it’s like it never ends. [laughter] It’s not that the thread of joy ends or the thread of whatever, some other thing we’re talking about, being a great reader or something ends. It’s just not as interesting. It doesn’t tangle as much in interesting ways. Therefore, I think it might not be as interesting to study. Even if you were to study that, you would study it and be like, “Here’s the evidence. There you go,” then what? Whereas with trauma, I think the “then what” is where art is made.
DN: Right. Can we end with the Dear Daughter letter?
VC: Sure. You’re amazing though by the way, with all the research that you do. [laughs] You’re like, “In this interview,” or “This video,” I was like, “Oh my God.” [laughter] Like you’ve done a lot of research.
DN: I think that, at least, my aspiration is to make the show distinctive in that way.
VC: Right. Long form, in-depth nuance, all the things that our cultures aren’t really always celebrating right now.
DN: Also staying attentive to the text because I think you can have an in-depth conversation with a writer that floats above the text.
VC: Totally. I actually am that person. I like to float above things because I think it’s easier. It’s pontificated about all things, I can go off on all sorts of tangents but you do a really good job of getting like, “Here, look at this word,” kind of thing.
DN: There’s also just a lot of really good podcasts that are conversational that float above the text. I’m not saying that as a criticism of them. I enjoy them but I don’t know if I want to add another one if that makes sense.
VC: I appreciate that, someone who likes to write criticism, it’s that same impulse. It’s like going a little more deeply into things and thinking about things, and in a more in-depth way at the word level but then bringing it out, then seeing the context in which the book sits too. It’s like this macro, micro thing, going back and forth.
DN: I did love your reviews in conversation.
VC: Those are fun.
DN: The Douglas Kearney, the Arthur Sze, and the Jorie Graham. I don’t know if you’ve listened to the conversation with Jorie Graham on the show.
VC: I have listened to some of it. I didn’t listen to all of it but I did listen to some of it. She’s the best.
DN: She is the best. She’s one of my best for sure.
VC: She’s one of my best. She’s actually probably my favorite living poet. I’ve been saying that.
DN: She might be mine. I love her poetry.
VC: And her brain.
VC: Okay, I’ll read Dear Daughter.
[Victoria Chang reads from her latest book, Dear Memory]
DN: Thank you so much for being on the show today, Victoria.
VC: Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.
DN: We’re talking today to Victoria Chang about her latest book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief from Milkweed. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener sponsored, full strength makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. More of Victoria Chang’s work can be found at victoriachangpoet.com. For the bonus audio, Victoria reads from her upcoming collection, The Trees Witness Everything, a collection of tiny poems that were constructed using visual constraints, formal constraints, and titles from W.S. Merwin poems. We discuss all of this as part of this supplemental recording. This joins bonus audio from Jorie Graham, Natalie Diaz, Alice Oswald, Rosmary Waldrop, Ted Chiang, Ross Gay, Layli Long Soldier, Arthur Sze, N.K. Jemisin, and many others. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so by PayPal at tinnhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog Et Sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.