Leona Chen is the author of Book of Cord, her debut poetry collection from Tinfish Press. The poems tackle family, culture, language, migration and history in a non-prescriptive way, relying instead on emotions embedded in precise, culturally coded details–quotidian (but not ordinary) objects such as tiger balm, prince noodles, tea eggs. For me, these mentions triggered what I can only describe properly with the Portuguese term saudade, roughly translated as a deep nostalgia for something lost, or perhaps for something that never was. An intellectual view of history lies alongside the poems’ emotions too, such as when Chen confronts Taiwan’s complicated interactions with its indigenous peoples in poems such as “What’s in a Name (2”) and “To Know, at Last:”
the subversive mapping of my people, finally named
my uncle says it is only painted on, but still this is
acrylic birthright, i trace each letter home:
In sum, Book of Cord is an invigorating, deeply moving collection and an auspicious and impressive debut. On behalf of TaiwaneseAmerican.org, I talked with Leona Chen about her poetry, influences, and Taiwanese American identity.
Shawna Yang Ryan: Hi Leona. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk about your new poetry collection Book of Cord. Let’s jump right in. For you, what is the meaning of a diasporic Taiwanese identity in America?
Leona: Taiwanese identity is complex because it’s something to be discovered and contested again and again. There are elements that are fragile, and others that are familiar. We don’t agree on a flag, or an anthem, or even a name on the global stage. We divide ourselves into blue and green. My family will not visit many of the monuments in Taiwan – unless ironically, like for a pro-independence protest, nor are we allowed to see the pandas at the Taipei Zoo. Of course, not every household is exceptionally political — but if you know my mother, you know that mine doesn’t believe we have a choice. How we choose to identify ourselves pledges a contemptuous allegiance. And we confront that allegiance for the rest of our lives. This is the Taiwanese America my mother built for my sister and me, one that was equal parts both, non-negotiable, ever. Aggressive, assertive, proud as hell. And so this is the Taiwanese Americans we became.
For some time, I was pretentious about condemning what I called “performative” identity among Asian Americans – claiming heritage only in its simplest terms, in ways that could be worn or eaten. I felt it disgraceful to blindly carry a flag that most Taiwanese would associate with a violent, oppressive regime. I was sick of bubble tea being heralded as our only worthwhile achievement, and even more sick of white girls posing with their gentrified $8 boba in milky pink whatever tea. I loved the scattering of angry Asians, but was dismayed that they were often angry for inane reasons (like not getting into Harvard). I did the whole “azn pride” thing, and then I grew up and did the whole “yellow peril” thing. I would look at movements like #blacklivesmatter, which seemed to echo and reflect our own histories and feel a strange ache that my people would never confront our ghosts as eloquently, powerfully, bravely.
I think all of that was just misguided resentment at the fallibility of a mosaic history like Taiwan’s. I wanted us to be angry about the missiles and the massacres, damn it, but I was naive to how viscerally painful those memories might be. I wanted to identify with something stronger, more powerful than haphazardly crisscrossed layers of colonization and occupation, an ocean removed.
But such is the Dao of diasporic Taiwanese identity: you will want to cling to something that tells you who you are, that validates why you feel different, and Taiwan cannot do that for you. Taiwan’s resilience is in her negative space, her mixed blood, in the many hands always reaching, closing around her throat. In her determination to breathe, still. In us, always looking to her. She is alive because we, the diaspora, insist upon it.
That’s beautiful. How did you incorporate these illuminations in the poems of this collection?
When I was writing, I never wanted to say, look, I’ve figured out who we are. I want us to focus more on being sensitive to the silence, on the simple reality of not always knowing where to look but believing that there is something worth finding about ourselves and our people.
Your writing is passionate without being maudlin and it conveys a deep respect for family and generations of struggle. What do you hope readers will take away from the collection?
I wasn’t sure who would read it, until my sister had posted one of the poems onto her Instagram story, writing “I’m not the type of person to cry while reading a book, but this time it did actually did make me cry.” And then her friends were writing that yes, this poem touched them, too.
Which poem was that?
The poem was Love Letters, a short four-part series written in English and Chinese and taken from letters I’d written to my mother’s late parents in Taiwan. They are simple sentiments and simply written, but I think (hope) what touched my sister and her immigrant friends was this shared sense of longing, of wanting to be close with someone oceans, languages, generations away.
I hope readers revisit this type of love that perseveres and takes shape in empty, stretched out spaces.
Can you talk a little about the challenges of writing about migration?
I think a lot about resisting the crude impulse to romanticize the suffering of migration, especially when we as children of the diaspora have known relatively little of it. Of times when privilege and comfort are things that are purchased for us, not passed down. A professor once commented that my poems were full of conceit, and I think a lot of my earlier (and maybe some current) work was guilty of this. I remember writing, as many of my friends did, smug college application essays about standing on the backs of our parents to become better than them. But tropes like broken English, tiger mothers — carelessly wielded, they can be such cruel caricatures, dismissive of those who sacrifice and the sacrifice itself.
And so when I was writing Book of Cord, what I wanted most desperately was to look my elders, my ancestors, in the eyes, and say – in my own small way – “I will not leave you behind.”
There’s pride and dignity in that statement and also, I think, a commonly shared sense of wanting to honor the generations that came before. It’s hard to believe that this is your first poetry collection. The poems are so fully realized and beautifully constructed. Who or what are your influences (as a poet)?
I sometimes make sad jokes about little Asian girls who never see themselves in the traditional literary canon, and so must write themselves into being. And so first and foremost, my influences are that Plath and Dickinson were never enough, and white authors with Chinese pen names somehow were, and I had to plow through volumes of American Girls before finding one that somewhat resembled me (but was called Jade because of course). I studied Walt Whitman and Rilke, but never felt in true conversation with them. It was like being lectured by somebody who would never consider you their equal. I got workshopped by brilliant white classmates who just didn’t get what I was trying to say, and then I had to turn in revisions that were forcibly transparent and accessible, watered down shadow puppets they wanted to hold in their hands. But then I found Ocean Vuong, Jess X. Snow, Marilyn Chin, Cathy Linh Che, Hoa Nguyen, Kenji Liu, Quan Barry – poets who, beyond profound dexterity with and sensitivity to language, carved out a literary space I hadn’t realized existed.
I definitely hear that. It’s transformative to reorient toward a different literary conversation. How do you think that discovery will influence your future poetry?
If I could find within myself a second collection of poems, I would dedicate them to my mother. Everything that is good and brave and sensitive in me, every lullaby I know, every language I have, they were hers first.
That’s really lovely. I can see how you are already paying tribute to your heritage in these poems. Speaking of heritage: in what ways has your indigenous background influenced your work/sense of identity?
My indigenous background is shaped by loss and silence, and so when I write of being Ketagalan, it is never to claim their histories or glories as my own. It is to mourn their exile, their shame, and the emptiness I have inherited as a result. My uncle reminds me that Ketagalan Boulevard (formerly named “Long Live Chiang Kai Shek” Road) was not renamed in honor of our people, but in spite of us — to this day, the government has not recognized the Ketagalan tribe as an official indigenous group. The Ketagalan Culture Center in Beitou makes no mention of us. We see our name everywhere, and find proof of us nowhere. Reparations are impossible when the trauma itself has not been acknowledged. And so I wanted these poems to be specific, to speak to a specific pain, to honor a specific people. We lose so much when we generalize, when we want to be everything to everyone. I think there is strength in solidarity, but so much honor in looking straight at the one person who has always felt invisible.
Because of colonization and occupation, my people are absent from history books and official documents, let alone the literary universe. Brief footnotes indicate “extinction” because “genocide” would raise too many questions.
How does poetry speak to this absence?
If I write of them – if we write of them always – maybe we will keep looking, and maybe we will find what is left of them. I want to keep them alive despite never having seen their faces. They are my greatest, truest love.
I feel as enlightened by this conversation as by your poems. Thank you.
Book of Cord is available for purchase at:
Tinfish Press: https://tinfishpress.com/?projects=book-of-cord
More commentary on Book of Cord by author Shawna Yang Ryan (Green Island, Knopf 2016): https://galatearesurrects2017.blogspot.com/2017/12/book-of-cord-by-leona-chen-1.html