INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Jireh (they/them) is a queer Taiwanese/Hong Konger American poet and multimedia journalist born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley. Their poetry and prose appear in The Rumpus, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and more. As an artist, they’ve collaborated with filmmakers at Level Ground and the Human Rights Campaign to bring their poetry to screens. They are a screenwriter in training with Get Lit, Words Ignite and a current documentary fellow with the Asian American Journalist Association Voices program. As an intern, they worked at The Los Angeles Times and NPR. Most recently they were an associate producer with CapRadio on a new podcast “Mid Pacific” on Asian American identity. They volunteer as the student representative for the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalist Association. You can follow their work on Instagram and Twitter at @bokchoy_baobei or at jirehdeng.com.
One of my favorite poems of yours is “Where I prove by induction, humanity,” where you so brilliantly incorporate math. I loved how you mapped out a math problem and presented scratchwork at the bottom. How did you navigate the collaboration between poetry and mathematics?
I was inspired by taking a proof-based math class. I was a math major for two years and actually only needed to take one more class to be a math minor, but I’m done with school and don’t want to think about it anymore. Although I am no longer taking math classes, math still affects how I think. I was thinking, what if I wrote a poem as a math proof?
I was also taking a class with this professor who was insightful about not only math, but also the humanities. She explained many concepts in an interesting way and encouraged us to include our scratch work on the side.
What was uncomfortable about the proof-based math class was the ambiguity because I was always wondering if I was answering the problems correctly. I was struggling a lot because I’m better at plugging in numbers and working with very concrete rules. There’s a certain math logic, which is why math majors actually score very high on the LSAT. This class opened up space for me to think about how poetry is structured and how the world works at a macro and micro level.
I’m also really fascinated by your poem “Thanks, but the role of white girl is already taken,” where it’s first a contrapuntal and then you employ erasure on the initial poem to create a new understanding. Can you walk me through the development of this poem?
For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in the San Gabriel Valley, which is mostly Asian American and Latinx. Going to college was a culture shock because I went from being one of many Asian Americans in a room to suddenly being the only Asian American.
During the pandemic, many white women were making my life very difficult in a myriad of ways because they were racist. I was shocked by the audacity because growing up, I didn’t experience white people acting like they owned things, owned time, or owned a space they walked into. The Asian American culture I grew up in, especially my church community, had an emphasis on being deferential, polite, and going out of your way to be considerate towards other people.
When I moved out during the pandemic, I had a racist roommate and I was shocked by her audacity to say such racist things. It was compounded by the fact that I was working at my student newspaper at the time, which was really problematic. I was constantly being gaslit by the white women that were in that journalism program. I remember countless frankly ridiculous things people told me that almost made me quit journalism. Someone, who I considered to be a mentor at that time, said I was too focused on racism and that I was distracted from getting the right work done.
That’s true in some regards. There’s a quote from Toni Morrison where she says “racism is a distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
As a person of color, you have to constantly prove that you’re human before people read or consider your work seriously. I think this not only applies to journalism, but also to poetry and any type of literature. You’re a hyphenated American. The white woman who was ignoring what I was saying about racism was essentially saying I was the distraction.
When my poem, “Thanks, but the role of white girl is already taken,” was first published, I was worried that someone might find it and nail me on the cross for my journalism because in journalism, you’re required to remain unbiased.
I don’t think I ever have had the choice to be unbiased. Especially as a queer Asian American, my identity is always up for debate. My humanity is up for debate.
This poem really came from a place of frustration. I realized that whiteness isn’t about the color of your skin, it’s also about the way you behave in the world. That’s why people of color also act like white people and in structures of whiteness. What shocks me about American culture is how individualistic and how selfish many people are because everyone is trying to make it for themselves and as a result don’t show up for one another.
A piece of unsolicited advice is to please never take a workshop if it’s not led by an anti-racist. During workshops, I’ve felt that my work was put into a category of “other'' and I’ve been told my work is too specific and not relevant to the white gaze.
In the second part of the poem, which is erasure, I thought of it not as a blacking out, but as a disappearance. I grew up in a bilingual household but then lost the ability to speak Chinese. I felt the loss of language. Instead of a word being covered up, words simply did not exist for me.
Erasure through the blank page, rather than erasure through blackening out lines, feels more appropriate to how I've been experiencing language throughout my entire life. I almost think that words are almost like dust particles, floating around in the second half of the poem.
Thank you for sharing that and thank you for your advice. You venture into many different art and writing mediums—poetry, prose, journalism, photography, mixed media—that it’s impossible to define you into a singular craft. What does being an artist mean to you? How does each artistic field you pursue interact with one another?
Poetry was the way I entered the art and writing world and I’ve always been interested in the intersection of poetry and journalism. I’m deeply afraid that I won't get to tell the stories that I want to tell. Life is short and I want to make things that outlast me. As an artist, my mission is to always humanize.
I’m very disinterested in representation politics, which is thinking appointing a queer person or person of color as the head of an organization will magically cure 200 years of racism and homophobia. If racism and homophobia existed for 200 years, it’s going to take another 200, if not more, years to truly fix it.
My work is an extension of my identity. The main thing I want to move into is directing and producing films now. I always loved visual stories and I want to take an active part in storytelling.
Film and journalism are very much about the act of witnessing. Right now, I want to move away from realism and more into fictional work. But it’s very difficult to be a filmmaker without having gone to film school. I’ve never taken a single class in film or documentary. I’ve had to learn things along the way and teach myself how to use different software.
How do you balance creating multiple types of art and writing, especially while also attending school?
Honestly, it was very hard. I spent a whole year working full time while also being in school full time. This summer, I was supposed to go to Kansas to work full time, but I didn’t because I was burnt out. I’m also broke because I decided I needed to be financially independent from my parents for mental health reasons.
I don’t hold anything against my parents, but sometimes it takes them five years to figure out things it takes the rest of us five seconds to because they’re from a different generation. I’m not excusing how they’ve behaved, but for my personal safety, I had to move out. But I’ve never taken a job that doesn’t move me emotionally or doesn’t align with my beliefs. I wake up every morning excited to be doing what I’m doing.
I was depressed and suicidal as a kid. The loneliness of queer youth was very difficult and compounded by the fact that I’m Asian. When your family doesn’t talk about where they came from, your history is obliterated. At the same time, your future is obliterated because your parents are unsupportive. My parents are deeply religious and were concerned that I was going to hell.
Now, being grounded in a community where I am able to produce beautiful art and storytelling feels so revolutionary. The world feels more infinite and boundless. I feel so lucky now that I’m doing what I dreamed about two, three years ago.
I have this sense of urgency to be working out of financial need but also out of the desire to be closer to people because the nature of being a journalist and storyteller is to be close to people.
You wrote in The Washington Post “learning to protect myself is also a political act of defiance: I refuse to play the role of a victim, or to rely on the police for my personal safety.” Does pursuing art and writing create the same defiance for you?
Yes. I've never felt like there was a moment where I had to look to an institution to give me validation for my artwork. Art to me is a living, breaking thing that interacts with people in open and mysterious ways. I have such fondness for the local art galleries and museums that are embedded in neighborhoods.
I’m also proud to have a nexus of connections in the art world. I can point people who have connected me to others to other folks. There's something very serendipitous about that. Connections are made because genuinely, we want to see each other all succeed. Of course there are barriers in the art world, but I’ve never felt that people haven’t been rooting me on.
As a journalist, my job is to always be like a cultural frontline worker who is always recording history. I want to recognize spaces that have historically been lost. If you don’t write about a topic or event, it’s almost like it never existed. So much of my family history has been obliterated because we don’t know or talk about it. My obsession as a journalist is to record history so that it doesn’t get lost.
As a queer person, the future feels ambiguous, which is why I’m very rooted in the documentation aspect of my work. Sometimes I wish that I could write about anything and not care about reality at all. I was reading K-Ming Chang’s Gods of Want and I thought it was so badass how she can just write about the fantastical and the craziest inventive things. I struggle to make up lies, so maybe that’s why my work is so grounded in reality. I want to tell real stories and capture people’s experiences so that I can incorporate them into my work.
K-Ming Chang is a visionary. Another poet and journalist I really love is Noor Hindi, who wrote in “Breaking [News]” that “Reporting is an act of violence–poetry one of
warmth.” Do you feel similarly about the difference between creative writing and journalism?
Yes, I know Noor! Noor’s a beast when it comes to the page. She’s such a powerful poet. I'm always grappling with power dynamics as a journalist. There’s an inherent extractive nature of journalism, in which you’re entering a community, taking a story, and leaving them behind. That really bothers me about the profession and why I don’t conduct myself in a typical journalist way that is distant and separate. Journalists can’t be robots and always objective. We’re real, living humans and we interact and shape the world. The way that we see the world informs how others see the world. It is inherently violent because journalism historically hasn’t been inclusive. Look at who’s owned large newspapers, whose perspective is being told, who has power over how the media is told.
There are a lot of journalists with that urgency to be fair and accurate, but there are a lot of us that don’t have the understanding of what it’s like to live in precarity, in the margins.
I grew up in a middle-class community and had privileges like food security, but my family did not have an excess of money and were very frugal. My parents did not think I could make a career as a writer. The fact of the matter is that in journalism, it’s very difficult for low-income people to break in because it’s so hard to get an internship and most are unpaid.
Being a journalist can also be violent towards yourself. I purposely try to stay away from trauma-porn-type stories. Instead, I’m invested in stories of queer joy. The representation we need is not of queer people dying and suffering–I know that exists–but I don’t want to be defined by constant suffering. I’m not a victim, I’m powerful. As an artist, I believe the future is now. We have the choice today to decide how we want to be liberated in the future. Joy is resistance.
Noor and I have talked about how it’s difficult to balance poetry and journalism. But I constantly turn to both. When journalism is breaking my heart, I turn to poetry. And when poetry can’t reveal what I want it to, I turn to journalism. Although they’re different fields, both of them do the same work of recording history and telling stories, which I want to do.
As a young writer, have you felt overwhelmed or pressured to write a certain way by the professional literary scene?
No, but I do feel a lot of pressure to be financially stable while doing something I'm passionate about.
Certain jobs would really crush my soul, such as reporting on breaking news. Breaking news is another way journalism is inherently violent—you’re not sitting with the stories, you're turning them out. Breaking news is often reported in a way that dehumanizes its subjects without context and without care for the person(s) harmed and their community.
Asian American Pacific Islander hate crimes have been reported very problematically because they tend to pit Black perpetrators against the Asian American community without contextualizing and people assume an easy narrative. These narratives are not neutral but shape our realities and how we treat people.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Being an artist is hard and exhausting, but I believe I have the endurance to keep doing projects to completion. And I will bring other people along with me because it's never a solo race. The beautiful part of growing as an artist is realizing that so many of us are on similar journeys and so many of us want to support one another. It’s my goal to amplify my peers and make the most noise possible.