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‘I don’t know if these ideas live in my poems, or if my poems live in these ideas. Or if my poems even live!': An Interview with Jenny Zhang

By Harriet Staff

Head on over to Coldfront for this interview with Jenny Zhang.

Here’s a snippet on identity and ethnicity:

SK: Many poetry books that attempt to deal with identity and ethnicity seem to encapsulate a particular narrative which sometimes falls prey to over-telling. Identity is at the core of this book and what makes it so interesting is that being Chinese functions as a “fixed” identity, but this gets mixed up and complicated within the identity of “female” and how one, in turn, identifies and/or rejects an identity which makes your book of poems a wondrous mess that feels so alive, unique and fresh. Can you unpack some of these narratives and ambitions of your book?

JZ: You know, this thing happened to me when I was living in Iowa City that was really upsetting. I was at a Melt Banana concert with my boyfriend and at some point when Melt Banana was setting up, these two drunk girls started talking to me and asking me if I was in the band. It probably seems like a totally innocent question, but the thing was that Melt Banana is a noise rock punk band from Japan, and my mind started immediately cataloging and whirring through all the times when someone asked me an “innocent” question like, “But where are you really from?” or like, “You’re Japanese right? No? Chinese? Korean?” And in the context of feeling like my very existence was an invitation for strangers to comment or to make assumptions about me, it was annoying to have to talk to these two drunk white girls, who were like, “Are you sure you don’t play in the band?”

I wanted to be like, “No bitch, do you think I’m in the band because I’m Asian?”

But of course, I was a coward and just said, “Nope,” and then immediately turned to my boyfriend and made some remark like, “Oh my god, this racist girl just asked me if I’m in the band because she thinks all Asians know each other,” or something like that. And from that point on, it was ON. These girls started shouting at me and saying that they weren’t racist and that I was the fucking racist and that I deserved to be punched in the face for calling them racist. It kind of went on for a long time. At some point one of the girls started drunkenly shoving me.

A few nights later, I was at a bar telling this story to these girls who were first year poets, and they were like shaking their heads and being like, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, that’s awful. That’s truly awful,” and instead of feeling better, I felt creeped out. Like I had this feeling that they were treating my little story with too much reverence. And it made me feel like when we are dealing with things like racism or identity as forged by race and ethnicity, we’re not allowed room to feel more than one emotion. We can’t feel disgust AND delight. We can’t take something seriously and joke about it without one reaction canceling out or beating the snot out of the other. And that shit is alienating.

But at the same time, I acknowledge that this stuff is hard to navigate. In that particular example I just mentioned, I didn’t want to be treated like the victim of a racist attack, but I also did want the acknowledgement that violence had been done to me. I know this anecdote doesn’t reflect very well on me because it probably makes me seem bratty and inconsistent, but I also feel like brattiness and inconsistency has to be granted to people who are also “victims,” and I use that word with some amount of disgust because I don’t want to draw a dichotomy between “victim” and “perpetrator.” “Victim” implies that someone needs to be saved, and I don’t personally need to be saved, but at the same time, I need and want everyone to save the world so that this world can stop hurting people.

I think, as a society, it makes us uncomfortable when the wretched and the dispossessed, when indigenous people and oppressed people, when people who have traditionally been understood through the lens of victim-hood act like brats. You’re not supposed to be sassy and ungrateful when you’re a victim. Victims can’t be cunts. Or if they are, then they aren’t victims anymore. And that’s really messed up. That’s a non-wondrous mess.

That’s my oblique way of getting at the “wondrous mess,” as you have so sweetly coined it. The mess of existence and identity, and how when you’ve spent a significant portion of your life trying to reject the story or stories that other people impose on you, the sad, twisted coda to all that striving and rejecting is that by spending so much time dismantling other people’s stories of you, you can end up inhabiting and becoming those very stories. The more other people make me feel “other,” the more I want to have control of my “otherness,” which is something I wasn’t born knowing, but now I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know it.

Sometimes, it feels like being a woman, and, in particular, being a woman of color means that my very existence is provocative. The body that carries me out the door, that other people get to see first before they see anything else, is, by its very existence, already antagonistic. I find myself apologizing a lot in my head. Like, “I’m sorry you like my body but I don’t like you.” Or, “I’m sorry you are interested in my ‘culture’ but I’m not interested in you.”

I don’t know if these ideas live in my poems, or if my poems live in these ideas. Or if my poems even live!

My poems are sorry and not sorry. When I imagine someone reading the poems in my book, I think, “I’m sorry I made you read about my cunt so many times. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” And then I think about all the times someone—whether it’s a total stranger or someone I know— has made me feel unsafe or powerless or disgusting or worthless or beautiful or godlike or powerful or unbelievable because of this thing that I am so ready to apologize for, that I can’t stop writing about, that I want to keep writing about, that I want to write about and then apologize for, and when I remember how infrequently anyone has apologized to me for the discomfort they’ve caused me because I have a vagina, because I have a face that looks the way it does, when I think about that, I’m not sorry. But now, having written that, I feel apologetic again. I’m sorry!

Full interview here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.