Cathy Linh Che is the author of the poetry collection, Split (Alice James Books), winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize, the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the Best Poetry Book Award from the Association of Asian American Studies. A Vietnamese American poet from Los Angeles and Long Beach, CA, she received her BA from Reed College and her MFA from New York University. A founding editor of the online journal Paperbag, she is Sierra Nevada College’s 2016–2017 Distinguished Visiting Professor and Writer in Residence.
I conducted this interview for my thesis, which explores the role of art in contemporary Asian American activism, but what Cathy said was so important and insightful that I wanted to share it with a larger audience and Cathy was gracious enough to allow me to do so.
[Content warning: sexual violence]
Ally: To start, can you talk about the common influences or themes in your writing?
Cathy: When I started writing, my main interest was to record my parents’ stories of the Vietnam War because I didn’t see their stories adequately represented in American poetry. I think that was something I wanted to capture for a long time. I thought poetry was the medium because I could present different snapshots of their lives, not only now, but while immigrating to the U.S. and the aftermath of that. Much of my interest in that was to define my past, my history, my identity, my connection to this place that had taken on some mythological significance but was also my history. It felt necessary for me to understand my past in order to understand my present. There was a strong sense of witnessing my parents’ trauma. My parents are storytellers, and I wanted to record their stories somewhere because I knew that there was a silence, a void that needed to be filled.
For a while I felt trapped in writing about my family, like I couldn’t write anything outside of that. When I moved to New York for my MFA, I discovered that I needed to write about my experiences of being sexually violated as a young person. I was in a new city for the first time, I was away from my family, I didn’t have a support system, and it felt very vulnerable. These stories and experiences were things I’d lived with for a long time and they occupied a strong part of my memory. They would come and cycle in my dreams, they influenced my relationships, they influenced my views of my own body and my views of men. I started writing about that alongside my parents’ stories, and back and forth there seemed to be some kind of conversation about the idea of trauma and the way that it is carried over time. Along the way, living in New York and trying to live this new life and dating, I also wrote a lot about heartbreak. Especially from this vantage point, there seemed to be conversation between all three of these things. Those were my only concerns for a while.
It’s taken me a long time after publishing my book to figure out what it is that I’m trying to write about. I’ve continued to write about heartbreak and there was a way that I felt trapped in that as well. I felt that I was writing the same poems, and I give myself permission to do that, but it wasn’t providing me with a certain degree of freshness.
There was a time when I was writing about erotic joy, the joys of sex, because I realized that writing only woundedness left unexplored territory and I needed to stretch myself. I think I’m in a phase where I’m stretching myself. For the first time in a long time, I’m writing more persona pieces. My project that I’ve been avoiding is writing about my parents’ stories of being extras in “Apocalypse Now” while they were in a refugee camp in the Philippines. For years I couldn’t figure out the form of it; I avoided it, I tried to force myself to interview my parents and record the interviews, I checked out books on film theory and avoided those.
I turned a corner this week. In my teaching, surprises can happen. In terms of influences, I love Lucille Clifton, Anne Carson, Jack Spicer, Sharon Olds…these are people I discovered in undergrad and again in my MFA program. In my poetry workshop, I ask students to present on these poets, and one of the students asked if she could present on Ai instead. Ai is not a poet I’ve read a lot about, so I said, “Of course,” and before the presentation I read a lot of her work. It’s frightening, it’s violent. It’s these dramatic monologues written from the perspective of murderers and rapists, primarily. I was trying to look online for other poems, but it was very dominant that these dramatic monologues were from those voices. As a result of this student choosing Ai, I asked her to write a persona poem. That was not something I felt I’ve ever done successfully, but when students do writing exercises, I write with them. So I wrote a persona poem from my mother’s perspective, and again, I wasn’t satisfied with it, but there was some kind of stretch that felt very useful. It was what I was craving. Even though writing persona is not new for most people, it was new for me. I was so emphatically interested in writing autobiographically and taking that up as something I could claim without being apologetic about it. There’s a stigma connected to writing confessional poetry, but I didn’t feel like I was giving over to that criticism by forcing myself to write outside of what I was truly interested in.
After I wrote my persona poem from the perspective of my mother, it felt like an interesting turn. I actually wrote a persona poem from the voice of Steven Yeun, who plays Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead, one of the only Asian characters on TV who is really round. It was unexpectedly a way for me to write about Asian American representation and media violence. It also felt like a good stretch because I write from my own voice in such a way that I felt embodied in this identity. I wasn’t shy about saying I am woman, I am Vietnamese American, my parents immigrated here, I come from war. But to write outside of that perspective broke something open that I felt needed to be broken open. It seems kind of basic, but sometimes you don’t need to do a big revolutionary thing to have change happen.
A: What has been the reception of your work? In particular, I’m interested in hearing what your parents think about your work since you write so much about their stories.
C: I was anticipating more pushback on my work, but I was also not anticipating anything. I didn’t know what to expect. Because I write so much for myself, I don’t think about exposing my work to other people until it’s out in the world or gets published. During the process of generating work I don’t typically concern myself with other people’s needs or opinions. I thought I was writing about my parents, but not writing to share with them. I grew up thinking that so much of my academic life was separate from my home life, and my creative pursuits also seemed separate, even as I was drawing from my home life. I didn’t see my parents as people who would be reading my work. On some level, it was because my parents are people who primarily speak and read in Vietnamese. It’s not like they can’t read and write and speak in English, it’s just that I wouldn’t say my mom is super proficient in English, and even though my dad is moderately proficient, 95% of his life is in Vietnamese, and for my mom it’s 98%. Because I write in English, I didn’t think it was something they would read or be interested in.
The first time I read in front of them was after the book came out. I don’t know how my dad received it, but my mom was very moved. She was moved that I was writing about her life and my grandmother’s life and the sense of loss in that. I noticed that she had my book propped against her bed as reading material at night.
My family understands that I am a poet, but it’s not something we talk about too much. There were only three comments that my dad made about poetry: he does brag to his friends that I have a book, and he also said, “You know, in Vietnam, the poems rhyme.”
The third thing he mentioned was while we were in an argument. He said he read one of my poems–I don’t know if he read it in English or Vietnamese, because one of my poems got translated into Vietnamese and was published in a pretty big newspaper in Vietnam, kind of like The New York Times. My friend told me it was a pretty big newspaper, but I didn’t think much about it until one day my cousin in Vietnam found it while just reading through the newspaper and sent it to my dad. My dad had a conversation with me about how my poetic imagination made more of something than it really was, which I was totally insulted by.
I think they see poetry as part of my identity now. They’re happy that I care about their lives, but so much of my book is about being sexually violated as a young person, and that’s a topic that has never come to the surface with them. With my brothers, I sent them the manuscript…they didn’t know any of this information either, and I didn’t even know if my brothers had been affected too. So when they read it, they were really supportive but they also felt guilty. They felt like they failed me by not protecting me. I can understand that feeling, but they were children at the time, so I never held it against my brothers, or even my parents. I feel like it’s very complicated. But they were ultimately very supportive and very angry and wanted to do things to my cousin.
By making these secrets come to life, it’s been a very integrating experience. What I mean is that the home life and the poetry life haven’t felt as separated anymore. My family is able to see me as a full and whole person. I remember my brother was like, “But you’re so normal.” He had this image of someone who was sexually abused as being completely fucked up, and the abuse being visible. It was stunning to him that it wasn’t visible to him.
Out in the world, I would say that the reception has also been very positive. People have come up to me to tell me that they have been moved in some way. At AWP, the literary conference, someone came up to me and said, “This poem is exactly my story.” She was very moved by that. I told the audience that a poem isn’t really finished until someone reads it or hears it, when there’s some kind of communication back and forth, so that was very meaningful to me.
A: What do you think is the role of art or writing in activism, Asian American activism in particular? Do you think that poetry can be activism?
C: I’ve never personally felt that art had to be geared towards activism. I feel like the artist can write whatever they choose to write. I think sometimes people are like, “Why are you writing about flowers when people are dying in the streets?” To me, writing about flowers isn’t necessarily erasure of the concerns of people dying in the streets. In our lives, we have to make room for beauty and contemplation; we have to make room for humor and complexity as much as we can. In difficult political moments, I leave a lot of space for those who don’t write about what is current. As intricate and complex as human beings are, we should have as many emotions and concerns in poetry as well.
That also doesn’t mean that poetry isn’t inherently political. Whatever position that you occupy in our socioeconomic structures still exists in poetry. Even the fact that I am writing in English is political, born of a history of U.S. empire and conquest. Beyond that, if I were to write in Vietnamese, the language as it’s written now was translated into a Romanized alphabet by missionaries. Missionary work is also a form of empire-building. Nobody writes outside of their context or time. The language that we have is a product of that.
There are many ways in which poetry is activist. Especially now, I believe in the power of narrative and storytelling, and that these shape thoughts. For example–I’m going to veer away from poetry for a second–having images in the media of Arab Americans in stereotypical roles shapes how people perceive them. Because the U.S. has such a dominant pulse and is such a dominant creator of worldwide media, it has a ripple effect. I was in Vietnam watching TV in my cousin’s home, and I remember there was some show with a queer character on television. I was thinking that my ten-year-old cousin in Vietnam, because somebody wrote a script in Los Angeles, was being exposed to people who are different from herself. Or not necessarily different, who knows? But there wasn’t that representation of queer folk sixty years ago. A person who is marginalized who speaks their truth or writes out their story with complexity…that to me is inherently an activist act, especially in this day, because of the way that the government seeks to flatten and erase the complexities of marginalized people.
Beyond that, I think that poems are able to provide mourning and philosophical understanding of the world. I think about Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen, and how it came out in a moment when the country on some level was just being made aware of police killings of Black and Brown bodies across the U.S. Over and over again, people will post one of her quotes that’s like, “Because White men cannot police their imaginations, Black men are dying.”
My friend recently said, “Maybe this can be an age when one can reclaim the role of poet as activist, as truth-speaker.” I think about Audre Lorde as a poet or James Baldwin as a writer, these figures who touched upon deep truths about people. They are guiding lights generations later as well. These are acts that create change, not just now, but in the future when change also needs to happen.
A: What would you say to people of color and writers of color who are feeling powerless and discouraged in this political moment? Do you have words of wisdom?
C: I don’t know that I have any wisdom. I’m a person going through it myself and struggling to figure out what it means to be engaged and what it means to take care of myself. I’ve been asking other people, so I’ll leave other people’s advice. At AWP I went to a reading in which Lisa Lucas was the moderator, and she asked Valeria Luiselli, who is a Mexican fiction writer, “What is the response of art and art creation in this political moment?” And Valeria said, “I’ve heard that people are ingesting news and media in such a way that they don’t have the mental space to sit down and read a novel because they are so disturbed.” She said that we must find spaces within ourselves for quietude, away from all that noise, to be able to immerse yourself in the world of literature.
Literature provides alternatives and a way to imagine a more just and beautiful world. I think these spaces must necessarily be inside of us. The things we ingest have to be nourishing. We can’t just ingest all this poison. You have to ingest that which provides a restoration of complexity rather than an erasure of humanity. I don’t think that alone is enough, but I think it’s a lot.
I have a friend who has shut down most social media, and instead of keeping up with the daily onslaught of news, he just participates in actions like he calling his congresspeople. That’s one form of engagement that doesn’t feel only poisonous, it feels active.
Another thing that is really important is to create spaces of community care. For people who are marginalized, it is important to find a way to meet up with other people and eat together and be able to talk with one another. That also feels restorative. For instance, there’s a food club in L.A. that is majority people of color writers and artists who eat together on Wednesdays at a different mom-and-pop restaurant each week. The goal isn’t anything other than to eat together, but that feels like family and that creates units of support. That feels like nourishment. Part of that nourishment is also to be able to imagine change, to imagine a different world other than the one that is being shaped by the powers that be. Especially in these times, it is so easy to feel powerless, but eating together is powerful. And there isn’t a mandate to create art, but it is essential to recognize how important creating art can be.
Part of the goals I’ve had in writing is to look at places that are silent or missing and to go towards them. Fatimah Asghar did this by creating the “Brown Girls” web series. We need to ask, what are the lives around us that haven’t been represented, and how do we do it in a way that honors all the complexities of that life? We have so little representation in the media of Asian Americans, or just people of color having complex relationships, so that feels like an activist act. Creating something is active. Everything we do doesn’t only have to be reactive. It can be the creation of a community, the creation of a piece of art, the creation of your deep inner world that is filled with imagination of a more just world. All of these things might be useful ways for thinking about what to do in these times.
Read more about Cathy and her work at http://cathylinhche.com/