Poet Marilyn Chin was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Oregon, in the U.S. Northwest. She earned a BA from the University of Massachusetts and MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A noted anthologist, translator and educator as well as a poet and novelist, Chin’s work distills her experiences as an Asian American and feminist. Her poetry is noted for its direct and often confrontational attitude. “The pains of cultural assimilation infuse her… poems,” wrote Contemporary Women Poets essayist Anne-Elizabeth Green, noting that in the collections Dwarf Bamboo (1987) and The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty (1994) “Chin struggles passionately and eloquently in the pull between the country left behind and America—the troubled landscape that is now home.” Chin is also the author of the poetry collections Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2002), Hard Love Province (2014), winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems (2018).
Chin’s exploration of cultural assimilation often carries political overtones. In her poem “How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation,” from The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, she writes of her father’s seduction by Western culture and values: a “petty thug,” he “obsessed with a bombshell blonde/transliterated ‘Mei Ling’ to ‘Marilyn,’“ thus dooming his dark-haired daughter to bear for life the name of “some tragic white woman/swollen with gin and Nembutal.” Other poems reflect upon the scars borne by diverse Asian Americans, including women whose value as human beings has been reduced to their novelty as sex objects. She also deals with the fate of second-generation Asian Americans in poems like “I’m Ten, Have Lots of Friends, and Don’t Care,” included in her first collection of poems, Dwarf Bamboo.
Reviewing The Phoenix Gone in The Progressive, Matthew Rothschild commented that Chin “has a voice all her own—witty, epigraphic, idiomatic, elegiac, earthy…She covers the canvas of cultural assimilation with an intensely personal brush.” The poet’s intensity was also noted by a Publishers Weekly critic, who said of the same volume that Chin’s “stalwart declaration” provides her poetry with a “grounded force, line to line; and her imagery, simple and spare, lifts up those same lines.”
In Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, Chin continues to address her Asian-American identity, acknowledging that “there’s no life on earth without pain.” Booklist contributor Donna Seaman described the tone of the collection: “Chin paces the line demarcated by the words Chinese American like a caged tiger, fury just barely held in check.” Rhapsody in Plain Yellow meditates on the struggle between the world of her parents and grandparents and Chin’s reality as a female poet in the United States; formally, the book draws inspiration from traditional Chinese music and the American blues. Carol Muske-Dukes, writing in the Los Angeles Times, characterized Rhapsody in Plain Yellow as a collection “ambitious in style and syncopation.”
Chin has also translated important Chinese poets like Ai Qing and edited ground-breaking anthologies of Asian-American writing like Dissident Song (1991) and Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation (2004). Of her own poetry, Chin explained in Contemporary Women Poets: “I believe that my work is daring, both technically and thematically… My work is steeped with the themes and travails of exile, loss and assimilation. What is the loss of country if it were not the loss of self?” Similar themes inform Chin’s 2009 novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, a satirical take on both the coming-of-age and immigrant assimilation novels. Billed as both a “novel” and “manifesto in 41 tales,” Marilyn Chin described her book in an interview with the Boston Globe as “an immigrant tale with surreal things zigzagging through it. Immigrant novels are traditionally straightforward, linear; there’s not much play with realism and naturalism. I’m trying to contest that.” The novel was critically praised for its exuberance and tart playfulness. A reviewer for Time Out Hong Kong noted thematic similarities between Chin and other novelists of the Asian American experience like Amy Tan, adding “but Chin’s refreshing irreverence makes her book happily hard to categorize. Ultimately, the ‘manifesto’ promised by its subtitle is found not in its narrative, but in its inventiveness and pluck.”
Marilyn Chin has won numerous awards and fellowships, including the PEN/Josephine Miles Award, multiple Pushcart Prizes, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Stegner Fellowship, the Paterson Prize and further fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Widely anthologized, her work was featured on Bill Moyers’s PBS series The Language of Life. Chin co-directed the MFA program at San Diego State University, where she professor emerita in the departments of English and Comparative Literature. In 2018 Chin was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.