Intersection of Poetry and Movements: An Interview with Author Kenji Liu

As we celebrate Taiwanese American Heritage Week and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, is pleased to feature accomplished individuals of Taiwanese descent who have used their voices and talents to highlight the histories and legacies of our community.

Kenji C. Liu is author of Map of an Onion, national winner of the 2015 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize. His poetry is in, among other places, American Poetry Review, Action Yes!, Split This Rock’s poem of the week series, three anthologies, and a chapbook, You Left Without Your Shoes. He has received fellowships from Kundiman, VONA/Voices, Djerassi, and the Community of Writers.’s Ho Chie Tsai interviews Kenji to find out more about his life path, motivation, and recent work:

kenjiliu1H: Hi Kenji. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I don’t often come across poets in our community, but I certainly am glad to see that you’re doing something off the beaten path!

K: Thanks Ho Chie, I really appreciate it. My life has often been off the beaten path.

H: So, how did you find your way into creative writing and poetry?

K: My mother, who was a painter, nurtured me on the creative path. I was drawing and collaging at an extremely young age, which lead to painting, sculpting, and eventually graphic design and video editing. My entry into creative writing came much later, though like many immigrant children I was writing and editing my parents’ English-language letters from early on, and writing emo poems in high school. I didn’t take creative writing seriously until after starting a graduate program in anthropology with a focus in postcolonial studies. That might sound a bit counterintuitive, but the wide variety of thinkers we were introduced to in the program sparked an intense love for the written word as a way to investigate and create new ways of seeing and being. Also, involvement with Asian American community activism and multicultural alliance-building provided an important experiential context, one that I tried to explore and think through in writing.

H: A lot of your work has been influenced by your heritage, family history, and Asian American community issues and perspectives. Tell us a little about your background from both the Taiwanese and Japanese side, and how that has shaped your views and interests.

K: I was born in Japan. At the time, Japanese law excluded me from citizenship due to my father’s “alien” status—which I have always found ironic since he was born in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period. My father’s side is Hakka and has been in Taiwan for several centuries. He is from Miaoli County, and my mother’s side is from the Kyoto area.

During graduate school, I became interested in the Japanese colonial era in Taiwan and studied whatever I could find about the politics and economics of the time. As a person of mixed ethnicity, the intermingling of Japan and Taiwan during colonization—ranging from military violence to language imperialism and government intervention into private and public spheres—was fascinating to me. Simultaneously I began to ask more about our family’s experiences during that period. I began to write about all of this and more, which is reflected in my poetry book, Map of an Onion.

H: I’ve read several poems from your book, and that’s what drew me to you! It’s not every day that you find the history of Taiwan and its relevant identity/ethnicity issues reflected in poetry. Bravo to you! So, I have to ask, because every Asian parent out there will want to know… how do you pay your bills? I mean, what do you tell a young person who wants to write creatively for a living? How do you make it work?

K: Hahaha. Being able to make a living off of creative writing is a unique challenge and one that I have not tried to take on. My day job is as a graphic designer—though I grew up essentially a fine artist, I decided to go into graphic design because it was the art field most likely to allow me to make a decent living. As an adult now, I am very glad about that decision, though not just for financial reasons. For me it’s important that I don’t rely fully on creative writing for income because I don’t want all my creativity to be completely tied to the market. I don’t want writing to become just a job, an alienated activity, subject to whatever fashions are current. The benefit is a sense of creative independence.

That said, clearly this is not the only way to do things. I have many colleagues who supplement their writing with writing-related jobs, like teaching. Or like me, they work in other arts fields, so the creative life is never too far away. Or, they work in completely unrelated jobs, which I appreciate because I also think writers need to be exposed to a wide variety of thought and ways of life in order to avoid writing the same thing over and over.

H: Tell me about your most inspired moments as it pertains to your work in poetry and writing.

K: One of the poems in Map of an Onion, “So that you are always sir, dear sir,” was written in solidarity with protests in Mexico against the disappearance of 43 teacher’s college students. It was partly a response to a call for artists outside of Mexico to generate work to be distributed within the country. It was wonderful to know that a Spanish translation (first by Diego Flores Magón and later by Jen Hofer) of the poem was being handed out on risographed broadsides during the protests. To me, this is one version of an ideal life for a poem—being given directly to the audience, and then having it become a thread in a larger movement.

H: That is amazing. It speaks volumes about how your words and ideas can resonate and inspire the masses. In many ways, I’m hoping your book of poetry, Map of an Onion, might do the same for the Asian American community. It has received wonderful praise from other fine accomplished individuals, such as poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. Tell us a little about that project and what inspired you.

kenjiliu2K: It can be a difficult thing to get a first poetry book published through the traditional publishing route. There are vast amounts of deserving manuscripts out there, but a limited number of presses and resources. It’s not uncommon for a manuscript to take four, five, or many more years to find a home. So I am very grateful to Chad Sweeney, Cati Porter, and Inlandia Books. I am also grateful to the US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, Bhanu Kapil, Don Mee Choi, Timothy Yu, and many others for their support. Each of them are also inspiring writers and I urge everyone to check them out.

Map of an Onion is an altar to my family, and a poetry collection about ephemeral spaces that have real physical and psychic effects on individuals. Most evident are national, postcolonial, and corporeal spaces, their intersections, and my family’s migrations between them. The intertwined histories of Taiwan, Japan, and the United States are present throughout, not to mention references to new wave, disco, and science fiction. Map of an Onion is also a visual and physical object. As a graphic designer, it was important that the kinesthetic experience be a part of the book.

H: I appreciated the fact that many of the poems literally take the readers into a Taiwanese or Taiwanese American experience. What does being of Taiwanese heritage mean to you? How do you navigate those spaces between the Taiwanese and Japanese side, and how does it fit into the whole Asian American identity?

K: Being Japanese and Taiwanese are important to me, but when it comes to Asian American identity, it is less about heritage and more about which histories, communities, and movements inspire me as someone concerned with social justice.

I think as Taiwanese Americans we need an ongoing discussion of how we fit into the larger Asian American community’s history and legacy of social justice organizing. The PRC-ROC legacy in our communities in the US is complex. KMT-Communist antagonism caused major splits within the Chinese American community, with KMT supporters violently suppressing communist organizations and individuals, even passively supporting FBI crackdowns. I’d argue that contemporary Taiwanese American history and identity begins within this conflict. While much of the Asian American movement of the 1960s and 70s was strongly inspired by left-wing, anti-colonial, anti-imperial movements such as Chinese communism, liberal democratic resistance to the KMT’s US-backed dictatorship in Taiwan was a different path. However, ultimately it’s a question of what our political commitments are, and which ideas and movements help us move forward to achieve social justice for Asian Americans and other people of color in the US. In general Taiwanese Americans are a relatively privileged group (though not all), many of us beneficiaries of post-1965 US immigration laws favoring educated professionals. How should we use our position of privilege?

H: Exactly. I totally agree…

K: Japanese Americans, who in today’s climate have some measure of racial privilege relative to 60 years ago, have used the WWII history of US internment camps as a reason to speak up against post 9/11 profiling and repression of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. APIs for Black Lives inspires Asian Americans to speak up against anti-Black racism and police violence.

On a different note, I am currently reading about Japanese-language poetry written by Taiwanese during the Japanese occupation. It is fascinating to learn how Taiwanese poets reframed Japanese poetry, subtly writing against colonization. It reminds me that resistance also happens in small and persistent ways, and that writing can be a decolonizing practice.

H: Well, I certainly admire how you have integrated your work and talent into a meaningful force for challenging the way we see the world. Now, if you could share a piece of life advice to one of our young readers out there, what would that be?

K: Writing and art is a worthwhile vocation. Don’t let anyone tell you differently!

Also, if you pursue writing—find your community of peers, a network of support. I found mine through places like VONA/Voices summer workshops for writers of color, and Kundiman, which is dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian American literature. If you’re not a writer, but are looking for an opportunity to cultivate your generosity, please donate what you can to these very worthy organizations.

H: Kenji, thanks so much for taking the time to share your story and thoughts with me and our audience today. I wish you the brightest future inspiring the people with your words!

Website: Kenji C. Liu – poetry and graphic design
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