Sometimes I want to shake the paper and scream at it because whatever I’m working on is giving me the silent treatment. What I’ve learned is to lean into that silence.
Photo credit: Margaret Molloy
Victoria Chang, author of the “Marfa, Texas” (NER 41.4) and “Obit” series (NER 38.3) talks to NER reader Sabrina Islam about meditations on loss and grief, and on finally writing her truth: “I can never be white or American. I’m actually writing about these things now.”
Sabrina Islam: Your meditation on loss and grief in Obit is incredible. In “Grief” you write, “A picture of / oblivion is not the same as oblivion. / My grief is not the same as my pain. My / mother was a mathematician so I tried / to calculate my grief. My father was an / engineer so I tried to build a box around / my grief, along with a small wooden / bed that grief could lie down on. The / texts kept interrupting my grief, forcing / me to speak about nothing.” How has grief become an obsession for you and what particular value is present in thinking and writing about the subject of grief?
Victoria Chang: I think why write about anything really? Why write at all? I don’t think we can choose to be writers. I also don’t think we can choose what we write about, at least for some things. Obviously, you can be given assignments or prompts, but even then, our own obsessions seem to creep out. Grief just is. We can’t choose when someone dies (or when we die ourselves), but those left behind grieve. As a writer, I write from deep wells of thinking and feeling, like most writers probably.
SI: Grief continues. In the newer series, “Marfa, Texas,” you write, “Is it // possible to stop loving / everything? The owl. The / hawk. Every person I meet. To / see everyone as my mother. To / have a heart // like this is to be made of / midnight.” You’ve poured your grief into Obit, then into “Marfa, Texas.” Do the poems ever speak back to you? How is your grief evolving and changing you?
VC: Poems always speak to us! Most of the time, we don’t listen very well. Writing, but mostly revising feels a lot like listening to the poems. Sometimes I want to shake the paper and scream at it because sometimes whatever I’m working on is giving me the silent treatment. What I’ve learned is to lean into that silence. It’s ignoring me for a reason. Usually that means to let it sit or go read something else in a different genre or something entirely different. But given my stubborn personality, I usually just keep reading a manuscript again and again and even if I change one word, I think of it as a miracle and thank my manuscript. Right now, I’m reading academic articles. Sometimes I read philosophy. I actually enjoy reading literary criticism textbooks. I don’t watch movies but I love reading movie criticism.
SI: Your words become increasingly charged and powerful in the sequence “Marfa, Texas.” The last poem in the series ends, “To love so much is to live / within birds. // I have been waiting for / this heart to fade or at / least to kneel. Maybe the / heart is not inside me but I / am inside it.” You frequently write sequences: why are you drawn to this form?
VC: I think the obsessive person can be drawn into sequences. It’s the form of relentless pursuit. The trouble is that there’s always a gap so the obsessive person is running on a treadmill within that gap. I like to call that gap the gap of estrangement. That’s where I reside. That’s my address. I used to make apologies for being so obsessive, but now I just embrace that disposition and personality. My father was/is a lot like this. It feels chemical in the brain actually. I also think obsessiveness has something to do with immigration, estrangement from a country and white supremacist institutions. The chasing is a part of obsession because the gap of estrangement can never be filled. I can never be white or American. I’m actually writing about these things now.
SI: Circles often appear in your poetry collections. In his essay “Circles” Emerson writes, “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.” How does the form of a circle stimulate your thinking process?
VC: As sloppy a person as I am, I am always surprised at how I can make patterns, see patterns, or think in patterns. My brain often feels like a pinball machine. But then I can be exceptionally organized and linear when necessary. I love how malleable and unfixed the brain is/can be. It’s important (to me at least) not to stereotype myself, if that makes sense. We’re all multitudinous. We are exceptionally flexible. My attitude has always been “why not?” and this has gotten me into all sorts of trouble in the past, but in art-making at least, I would say it is my governing principle (if I even have one consciously). Experimentation is very important to me as a person, trying new things, the new, the fresh.
SI: Your new book Love, Love is a semi-autobiographical novel-in-verse about a girl who slowly solves the mystery of her sister’s strange illness, which we learn is trichotillomania. The protagonist, Frances, is also dealing with bullying and grappling with her developing identity. Growing up in an immigrant Chinese American family, why was it important for you to write this story?
VC: I’ve tried to write that story so many times (and just wrote another essay on this material). Sometimes we are at the center of our own narratives. Other times, we are not main characters. In my sister’s struggles, I was not the protagonist but a side character. I have begun to recognize that this doesn’t mean I wasn’t impacted (or implicated) by our family’s trauma surrounding this mysterious illness. There are a lot of unspoken traumas in our family, mostly centered around my mother, that only now, after she has passed, can I even properly or adequately reflect on. I have a whole book exploring these things that I am working hard on at this very moment. As an immigrant’s child, there’s also a reckoning with my parents’ trauma and my mother’s trauma and I am writing about all of this now.
SI: Realist painter Edward Hopper’s work prominently features in your earlier collection The Boss, which explores, among other things, American corporate life and power structures. How does visual art inspire poetry for you?
VC: I am very interested in visual art, the visual, aesthetics. How things look matters to me a lot. I am very interested in design, architecture, sculpture. I think this is pretty common amongst poets who spend a lot of time “seeing” things in their minds and in real life. I am working on some visual elements for a new book right now as well. If I could be any other kind of artist, I would be a visual artist. I took a lot of art classes growing up, but then somewhere along the way, switched over more to writing.
SI: Which poets and writers have shaped your understanding of language and poetry?
VC: So many! Too many to name here. Virginia Woolf. Elizabeth Bishop. Tranströmer, Glück, Graham, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Larry Levis, Plath of course, Eliot, Stevens, Lee. So many contemporary poets and writers I admire too. I could list them here, but I fear I would leave too many people out. We are in a rich time of poetry.
SI: In your poem “Instinct” you ask, “What if the ducks are right in fearing everything, / even their own?” Writing about war and genocide, your work often wrestles with the truly vile parts of human history. In “Ode to Iris Chang” you consider, “How // to trust humans. // How to trust the earth / when all that is there is a // derivative of mud.” What motivates you as a writer to continually return to the page and still explore humanity?
VC: As a writer, I’ve always tried to honor my own truth, whether that truth went against the grain or with the grain. I can’t and won’t be anyone else. I used to feel a lot of shame for not being like other people, but now I try harder to write what feels true to me. I used to think I was supposed to sound like other writers, but I think perhaps starting with my third book, I gave up on that. I just began to write what rang true to me instead of trying to be like everyone else. This wasn’t a conscious decision, it just happened. I think I grew up a little bit (finally). This doesn’t mean I don’t listen to feedback, though. I listen really closely to feedback from close friends who are kind enough to read my work. Sometimes, depending on what I’m working on, I need more feedback than other times. I think a writer needs many things, but persistence and a doggedness are two qualities that can be important. If I didn’t have these qualities, I don’t think I would have been able to survive the brutal literary world. I also think a writer needs to simply love writing. I do and always have. If I have nothing else, I know that I really like writing. As I get older and older, I am less afraid of writing about those harder things. The fear, though, is usually how others will perceive the writing or me. At some point, I have just accepted that poets in particular can be very harsh and judgmental. They won’t like hardly anything anyone writes anyway, so why bother trying to please them? I am more interested in pleasing myself.
SI: Thank you so much for your time, Victoria.
Victoria Chang’s poetry books include OBIT (Copper Canyon, 2020), Barbie Chang (Copper Canyon, 2017), The Boss (McSweeney’s, 2013), Salvinia Molesta (University of Georgia Press, 2008), and Circle (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005). Her children’s books include Is Mommy? (Simon & Schuster, 2015), illustrated by Marla Frazee, and Love, Love (Sterling, 2020), a middle grade novel. She lives in Los Angeles.
Sabrina Islam, who reads fiction manuscripts for NER, is from Dhaka, Bangladesh. She spent her early childhood in New York, Connecticut, and Florida. She holds an MFA in creative writing from University of Maryland, where she teaches college writing and creative writing. Her stories can be found in Flock, Acta Victoriana, Prairie Schooner, and the Minnesota Review.