Reading Kristin Chang’s work revives all the little things we lose: our names for nation. Yeye and his ghosts. Papaya in Taiyu meaning wood/melon. She doesn’t tackle, but instead deftly burrows into bodies of queerness, identity, immigration, and colonialism, a laundry list of tropes Chang has somehow resurrected and dissected in new, astonishing ways.
I know it’s selfish and absurd to suggest a book of this artistry might have been conceived just for me, but I swear I once begged the universe for a collection of poems to destroy every sense of loneliness and otherness that has ever haunted me, and it returned to me Chang’s Past Lives, Future Bodies. Her work — in particular, Yilan — elevates the Taiwanese American literary canon in all the right, shuddering ways. (In Chinese,/ typhoon is tai feng, sharing a word/ with tai wan. A nation named/ after its greatest disaster. My body/ named for what it bears, what/ it bares: this nation, / where nothing is still/ waiting to be saved / & the dead are still/ dying.)
This is the book we and our mothers have been waiting for.
With that, it is my complete honor to present this interview with Kristin Chang.
Shawna Yang Ryan asked this of me, so I’m repurposing the question to you: for you, what is the meaning of a diasporic Taiwanese identity in America?
I used to think that Taiwanese diasporic identity translated into invisibility. I thought I was an impostor because I’d always been told that Taiwaneseness was anchored to specific expectations of language, history, etc., and I wasn’t sure how to validate my own Taiwaneseness in a way that wasn’t tied to ideas of nation or citizenship in the strict sense. For me, Taiwaneseness is rooted in histories of storytelling and song and mythology within my family, and to histories of resilience and survival and migration. My Taiwaneseness is very matrilineal and matriarchal, since I’m Taiwanese on my mother’s side, and to me it feels like a continuum or lineage. I feel very much carried by that identity, even if it’s not something that’s static or stable – it’s more of a boat than an anchor.
How did you arrive at the title Past Lives, Future Bodies?
I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of regeneration – my family is very much invested in reincarnation as a spiritual and physical reality, and I didn’t want the chapbook to just feel like a re-enacted wound. It’s important to write about trauma, but also to write what Ada Limon calls a “ladder of light” within the work. I consciously wanted to open the chapbook with a poem about queer safety and intimacy and belonging within your own body. I wanted to pair this idea of “future bodies” – a speculative vision of a future reimagined and redefined on our own terms – with the idea of “past lives,” of embodying history and lineage and past traumas while also regenerating toward something else. Rather than enforcing a binary of past/history and future/healing, I wanted it to feel the past and the future are embodied at once.
Wow, that’s beautiful. And can you tell us about the cover art?
I’m so excited that you’re asking about the cover art! I’ve been waiting to talk about it. I really wanted cover art from an Asian woman, and the moment I saw Angie Wang’s art in an online lit mag, I knew immediately that this was the image I wanted to write toward. I love the way the girl and the horse are symbiotic – she can’t be separated from what carries her. There’s so much vengeance in the way they arrive together, like they’re the harbinger of something we don’t have the name for yet. For me, there’s an entire mythology in that image.
You write often of family – the uncle who wears a flag-patterned tie at his deportation hearing (Dress Code for an Immigration Interview), the father who spends 20 years in Texas (The Movers), the bloodless mother (I take my mother to the hospital). Ocean Vuong describes the relationship between his work and his family as a “phantom readership.” Has your family read your work? How do they feel about it?
Wow, that’s beautiful! It’s a revelation to encounter this phrase – I definitely relate to it. I always feel like I’m writing between the desire to honor my family and my lineage and my desire to defy or subvert. I think my family interacts with my work in a different way than reading it or understanding it in a literal way – their voices haunt me as I write, and it’s a welcome haunting.
Within this new wave of conversations centering Asian Americans in the media and in literature, what are you most excited about? What are your concerns?
I’m always skeptical of the idea of waves, because I think that Asian American work is constantly being produced, but that certain books or shows or movies are more “visible” because their audience is more economically or socially “visible” (ie. for East Asians, middle-class Asians, English speakers, etc.) Gatekeepers and money and visibility often determine what we talk about, which is always something I try to keep in mind. When we talk about visibility or conversations that are getting attention, I always think, visible to who? Who is actually speaking in these conversations, and who isn’t? That being said, there’s also always so much to be excited about – for me, the incredible sense of community and support and lineage among Asian American poets is something that buoys me and motivates me in everything that I do.
Can you tell us more about this nonfiction piece, Borrowed Country? How does it speak to your relationship with Taiwan?
Yes! This is such an old piece, but when I re-read it, I immediately return to all the conversations I was having with myself at the time about indigeneity and mythology and privilege. It’s categorized as nonfiction, but in hindsight I’d say it’s more fictional in the way it’s cobbled together from anecdotes and imagined encounters and anecdotes. At the time, I was thinking a lot about fragmentation and the precariousness of memory – both personal and national – and how trauma becomes diffused and spans many, many bodies. I wanted to write about Taiwan’s colonial histories from the perspective of extreme distance (literally, physically) and extreme closeness (embodiment, infection, inside the blood, inside the mind as it fragments). I think that there’s a tendency to romanticize Taiwan as this liberal multicultural paradise, but there’s so much violence that lives within people’s bodies and memories.
Do you have any other projects in the works? How do know when something is worth writing about — more specifically, how do you know when you are the one who ought to write about it?
Yes, I have a prose project currently in the works! I’m afraid of talking about it because it is very, very close to me (it’s probably horribly historically inaccurate, which I’m trying to do research for.) I’ve temporarily taken a break from writing poems, but I definitely want to return to it very soon. I always think I’m the wrong person to write anything, mainly because I have major impostor syndrome. For me, I always think about writing the things that should exist but don’t yet – things that would save my life, things that would have transformed me if I’d read them growing up – that’s when I kinda know I should go for it. Like, if I’ve always wanted to read a sci-fi novel set in a futuristic Yilan, maybe I should try!
Yes, you should! I’ve been craving a book like that my entire life. I can’t wait to read it. What existing books and creative works have changed your life? What, in literature, catches your attention?
I love that you mentioned Ocean Vuong, because he’s definitely one of the reasons why I write. And continue to exist. I also love Marilyn Chin’s novel Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, Edinburgh by Alexander Chee (queer mythology always, Saltfish Girl by Larissa Lai, The Border of Paradise by Esme Weijun Wang, Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn, What is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi (by really everything by her), Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar, Franny Choi’s everything, and recently, a collection of short stories by Angie Chau called Quiet As They Come. My list of favorite things that make me sing: speculative elements, queer kinship, playful or lyrical or surprising language, family mythologies, non-linear stories, hybrid forms, sibling relationships, mother-daughter relationships, immigrant/migration stories of every kind, and anything that feels relentless.
I love asking Asian American writers that question, because what inevitably follows is a roll call of such esteemed writers of color. Our lists overlap almost exactly. Finally, can you tell us about the most surreal moment you’ve had with someone’s engagement of your work? Do people react the way you expect? The way you hope?
Yes! It’s usually not with my work directly, it’s always just people that I meet at school who tell me that they’ve seen my work reblogged on Tumblr or that they’ve been on my Twitter, which feels surreal every time. I’m always so shocked and simultaneously a little embarrassed. So far, people have been incredibly kind – more than I deserve – about the chapbook. The only encounters that have made me feel a little weird are when people assign identities to me without really knowing or asking, or people who have misread the poems as being about wanting to belong or be American or whatever narrative is projected onto Asian American woman writers. I don’t care about being included – I want an island to our own.
I also always feel the need to qualify the work by saying that the poems in the chapbook are really old and all written while I was a teenager, but my friends have been telling me to stop – they say that the work’s been born and now deserves to have a life of its own.
Past Lives, Future Bodies is available for purchase at:
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Kristin Chang’s work has been published in Teen Vogue, The Rumpus, The Margins(Asian American Writers Workshop), the Shade Journal, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for Best New Poetsand Best of the Net, and she has been anthologized in Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3 and Ink Knows No Borders (Seven Stories Press). She is a 2018 Gregory Djanikian Scholar (selected by The Adroit Journal), the recipient of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, and a Resist/Recycle/Regenerate fellow with the Wing On Wo Project in Manhattan Chinatown. Past Lives, Future Bodies is her first chapbook.