Muriel Leung, in Conversation
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
First of all, congrats on Imagine Us, the Swarm. It’s a stunning collection. The first piece of yours that I read was “This Is To Live Several Lives” in Nat. Brut, and it absolutely enthralled me, so I was delighted that you opened your book with it. The form perfectly complements the poem and taught me that language can appear however you want it to. How did you decide and develop the form for “This Is To Live Several Lives”? And when and how did you learn that language can exist out of established, and often Western, structures?
I wrote "This Is To Live Several Lives" shortly after the publication of Bone Confetti (Noemi Press), an attempt to write an essay about writing the book. I remember showing it to my friend, the poet Vanessa Angelica Villarreal, who told me that while the essay was well-written, it felt compressed, as if there was no space between the paragraphs when the words were dying to make room. I took her critique to heart, and in revising the essay, saw that it needed to be populated with the silences that comprised so much of the life (my life, my father's, my mother's) that I was writing about. These were not chosen silences but ones we were forced to endure at the hands of U.S. racial assimilation politics. What kind of grammar or form could draw our attention to this? I wondered. The ellipses, brackets, and white spaces that populated the pages were the beginning of a response, indicating a silence that was not self-selected, but which permeated through our lives with such distinct violence. I don't think any of this is easily learned, certainly not as a young child growing up and not speaking English at first. In a sense, not speaking the dominant language means that the acquisition of it requires close attention to its order and structure, such that I'm aware of English grammar and its prescribed social norms to such a high degree. It also means I'm aware of its limitations too, and in recognizing these constraints, I saw something else that could be possible.
That’s wonderful how Vanessa Angelica Villarreal played a part in that poem. I also love her work so much. You offer great empathy to your parents in Imagine Us, The Swarm. So many children of immigrants feel withdrawn from their parents because of the silence, the vacuum of open discussion. How did you find compassion within the silence? And how do you translate that compassion into writing?
As I get older, I'm also coming to terms too with the difficult decisions my parents have had to make in order to survive. There's a way to honor the complexity of these choices without condoning the harm that sometimes results from some of the more ill-informed actions. Which is to say that none of it is ever easy. And which is to say that silence is not always a willful negligence to provide history and context for one's children, but that sometimes it's become such an internalized way of surviving that you may not know anything but. As I get older, I realize this more and more, that I too have found myself making choices under certain social and economic constraints though with privileges not afforded to my parents. True compassion, I think, is about locating the parts of yourself in what you're critiquing. When we can see things for what they are, we begin to see more clearly the wound within us that cries out to be heard through this silence. As for locating compassion in my writing, that comes with age—as I matured and began to see the world more expansively, so it came to be reflected in my writing.
Thank you for sharing that, Muriel. When I was going through Imagine Us, the Swarm, I kept underlining because there were so many good lines. I remember stopping at: “The white woman who said, ‘I am jealous of your culture; you will never run out of things to write about’” because such similar lines have been rehearsed to me. Is there a correct response to such a saying? How do we counteract or educate against this ignorance?
Some offenses are too bold in their assertions to try to mask with any other phrasing. In this passage, I recount a time in my MFA when a white woman, after hearing me talk about my struggles with my family, suggested that I was very fortunate for the content I could mine for my writing. Can you imagine? A lifetime of racial and gender suffering, reduced to literary fodder? I don't know if such assertions require any response. Why explain yourself further to someone whose limited imagination forbids them from seeing the richness of their own experiences? White writers oftentimes find themselves stuck in their whiteness, it seems, especially against the friction of writers of color increasingly pronouncing themselves in the literary world. These days, I want to say in response, "I can't hold that for you," and "that" being whatever anxieties they may be experiencing about the changing terms of racial and social awareness in the world, and which I too am grappling with my own hard stuff. We, writers of color, do this hard labor of asking ourselves where we belong all the time, and so it's due time that white writers do the same.
Right, I think that’s the only appropriate response. Imagine Us, the Swarm isn’t the traditional collection–it’s seven hybrid essays that all play with space and form. It's also physically more horizontal than the standard book size. Why did you lean towards hybridity? Can you talk more about your visual processes in creating this book?
Truthfully, I wanted a book that takes up space. Imagine Us, The Swarm is a collection that mostly utilizes white space, so it feels fitting that the dimensions of the book would allow it that experience in reading. I want someone to hold the book in their hands and feel like they can spread their fingers across the page. I want a reader to feel as if the text and space on the page have texture. My guiding value when it comes to experimenting with the visual aspects of the book: Make sure it's purposeful. Whatever moves you from within to inhabit this space. Hybridity, for me, represents a crossing of social and aesthetic boundaries, the designated constraints by which we are told to live our lives and the rules of art. I think there's all types of crossings that marginalized writers and artists perform daily, and so blending multiple forms and genres make sense for the questions about identity, (un)belonging, racial and gender strife, pain, and more that traverse through the book.
I’m fascinated by your multimedia work. In “Obsessed Unbound,” you say, “I was full of desire but convinced no one desired me. We often joke that being queer is like living a second adolescence, which means that we endure these aches and pains two-fold and always, there are the letters.” Can you expand on your relationship with desire?
I believe that desire is the driving force for so much of my writing and life—the desire to live immensely, the desire to run so far away from pain that you would be willing to do anything to quell the noise within you. I'd like to think that even as cerebral as I know my writing can be, it's this texture of deep desire that runs through my work that truly showcases what is at the heart of what I'm trying to express. I want to de-stigmatize sentimentality, extreme emotionality, and anything that feels like the body's undulating roar. That it should be okay to heave your body to the ground, weeping, out of desperation or joy. To feel so deeply that all social mores of what's appropriate to express in the moment get thrown out the window. I believe that under all this intensity is something so pure, light, and worthy of protecting.
I love that, thank you. In “Dear Suzie,” you wrote over the footage from The World of Suzie Wong. I found that so clever and necessary, as Asian representation today remains so heavily flawed. Where did the idea for this project come from?
Wow, you're going deep into the archives now! "Dear Suzie" was a video project for a class I took with the poet and scholar Lan Duong, actually. I wanted to create a visual and voice narrative where the character of Suzie Wong got to speak in such a way that the collapsing of her story into an exoticized sex worker-with-a-heart-of-gold narrative denied her life of any nuance. Suzie Wong is an Orientalist creation, sure, but brought to life by Nancy Kwan and set in Hong Kong, which served as a British port for their militaristic and economic uses, the subject of her life is an extension of white imperialist negotiation with coming into contact with difference. Imperial and colonial violence doesn't have to be just about brute force, but a recalibrating of intimacies, especially through close relationships with Asian women. Suzie's plight is that she does not know where she belongs but has a hell of a lot more know-how than her white suitor, who despite his own lack of resources still gets to play hero in the end. It's the ultimate white fantasy, a projection that plays out in so many mainstream flattening of Asian women's lives. "Dear Suzie" isn't a project about resuscitating this notion that we can ever replace good representation with the bad, but rather that this older media can show us how the world has seen us and continues to see us, and how we can still emerge intact despite these limited ideas about who we are.