INTERVIEW WITH JENNIFER WONG BY HIDEKO SUEOKA
Jennifer Wong: JW
Hideko Sueoka: HS
Jennifer Wong’s third poetry collection 回家 Letters Home was published in 2020 by Nine Arches Press. In light of the recent turmoil in Hong Kong and the worldwide pandemic, I wanted to ask her some questions about the collection and her thoughts on writing in English.
(HS) First of all, I would like you to tell me about what living in the ex-colony Hong Kong means for you and your encounter with poetry.
(JW) I first fell in love with English poetry when I was in high school (Diocesan Girls’ School), which was an Anglican school with colonial architecture, and where English was used as a medium for teaching. I studied there before the handover of Hong Kong. I remember reading poems by Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Carol Ann Duffy, Mimi Khalvati and Jo Shapcott, and so on. At school, we studied Bloodaxe Contemporary Women Poets edited by Deryn Rees-Jones. Those early literary influences made me think that I, too, can express myself through poetry.
For me, English is a space where I can write freely, as I am less inhibited, knowing that my family and peers are less likely to read my work. As with most people in Hong Kong, I grew up with mixed feelings about expressing myself in English. I know very well that it isn’t my language, but I am also curious about the language, and I wished I could master it or conquer it.
Other than the issue of language(s), living in the ex-colony meant a sense of ambivalence about my identity. It sometimes feels as if part of me and my memories belongs to one era—that ‘once upon a time’ when the postboxes were red instead of green—and the rest of myself belongs to another. To a certain extent, I am also fascinated with the idea that we don’t just inhabit a local world or culture but have the ability to translate what we have or what we experience into something that can resonate with English-speaking readers who have a very different cultural background.
(HS) So English readers can read your writing including your background, i.e., coming from Hong Kong with the charm of your own voice. What does writing in English/Chinese mean as a writer? And how does writing in a second language affect a writer?
(JW) Two decades ago, when I arrived in England to study literature, I felt isolated being a Chinese/Asian person living in the UK. On the one hand, I’d like to feel belonged and rooted in the UK, to share affinity with those around me, to be able to understand the nuances when British people talked to me. On the other hand, I can never leave my own culture and memories behind. I can’t forget my language and my family values. No matter how much I embrace my new life, part of me still dwells in Asia. I wouldn’t dream of not having some Chinese food from time to time. Nor would I give up my habit of catching up with the news in my home country.
In recent years, there has been a much more diverse circle of Asian writers—especially poets—in the UK (such as Sarah Howe, Mary Jean Chan, Natalie Bolderston, Hannah Lowe, Jennifer Lee-Tsai, Nina Mingya Powles, Sean Wai Keung, Rachel Leung, etc.). There is a growing interest in this community of Asian writers, their publications and their personal narratives. Not only have I learnt much more about the different possibilities or voices of Asian writers, I also derive much comfort and inspiration from the way they live and navigate between cultures, between their identities as writers and immigrants. Their poetry collections and pamphlets are in conversation with each other. I have come to realise that there are gains and losses in living outside one’s own hometown or home culture, that in a way one will never feel totally belonged, and that becomes the core emotion that anchors our writing.
(HS) How is your third collection Letters Home different from your past ones?
(JW) I think in writing Letters Home, I have tried to confront the complexities about my identity and my thoughts about my own culture or upbringing in a more honest way, and to assimilate these reflections about different generations and historical events into poetry. Letters Home grows from my PhD creative writing portfolio, and in many ways I think they are poems informed by a wide range of poetry and criticisms I was reading at that time: from Stuart Hall to Sarah Howe. I was just so struck by the possibility to articulate what one feels as an immigrant, to be an insider and the outsider of multiple worlds. I was touched by what they managed to write about and what they had left out. I translated my feelings and my world-view as a Chinese immigrant or a diasporic individual, to bring out the many contradictory feelings I have about my own sense of belonging, how I understand my own racial identity and gender roles. In writing this book, I reflected on how my bilingual understanding of the world comes together, I also discovered how even when I am writing the personal, even when I claim that it is just personal, I can never write without thinking about history and society, and the universality of the migration experience.
(HS) Did you study and become inspired by other Chinese diaspora poets during your PhD thesis when you made poems for this collection? For example, you might compare yourself with some of them. Could you tell me about examples of such comparisons?
(JW) Yes, in my PhD, I studied some major Asian-American poets such as Li-Young Lee and Marilyn Chin, because back then their works deeply inspired me and encouraged me to think of the way home can be written or reimagined. I also identify with the ways they struggled with racial prejudices and stereotypes. I was excited to see how different these writers were: Li-Young Lee’s work is marked by a more spiritual sense of nostalgia, while Marilyn Chin’s poetry is fuelled with passion and activism. I am curious about this much stronger sense of self-awareness and affinity among Asian-American writers, that in a way they accept their cultural difference.
(HS) I think that the poem ‘Confessions of a Minority Student’ is very experimental. Which experimental poets have had a strong impact on you?
(JW) In a way, the commissioned poem for Black History Month at Oxford Brookes University, ‘Confessions’, is a response to Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. To a large extent, Rankine’s use of lyric has prompted me to consider interior monologues or a more confessional voice. In writing about persona, I am drawn to poets such as Jorie Graham and Karen Solie for their use of subjectivity. I am interested in how they navigate between poetic text and space, the use of lineation, etc. I wrote that poem after listening to several recorded interviews with university students of ethnic minorities. What stands out for me is their desire to prove themselves and the feelings of inadequacy. They long to find a way out by being successful or being seen as successful, and the emotional scars of feeling left out or feeling unaccepted by others. The right column of ‘success’ in the poem is a way to reveal that emotional scar or obsession.
(HS) What is most difficult for you when you write poems?
(JW) I suppose the nature of difficulties or challenges changes from time to time. In the earlier phase of my writing career, I found it most difficult to achieve precision of meaning, since I am writing in my second or third language. In the more recent period, my challenge is to find the right voice and form to articulate or unearth what's inside me, to be bold in language and expression but at the same time nuanced and subtle in its lyricism. In particular, since I often write poems that draw on research, history, culture, the challenge is to assimilate these to make it accessible, to create layers of meanings.
The difficult part in composing these poems is the need to confront the ‘reality’ and metamorphosis of Hong Kong, particularly in the later stage of the editing process when so many things were happening to the city—the sudden realisation that Hong Kong was no longer just a dot on the map. It is a unique city, with its unique and strange history. It became obvious what they were dreaming for, and that was a complex and painful realisation that fuelled the later poems such as ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘Truths 2.0’.
For example, my letter poem ‘Letter to AS(T)7’ is a very time-specific poem alluding to the certain period in my life when I worked in the Hong Kong civil service. Despite its specificity, I am keen for the reader who does not know about the challenges of a local government officer, to engage with the poem. Another example is ‘To the little girl in a village hut I never met’, which explores my mother’s childhood and contrasts her world with mine, and it took me a long time to discover the voice, setting and form.
In this collection, these experimentations with different voices and forms are in fact ways for me to come to terms with my longings and vulnerabilities.
(HS) Do you want to translate not only poetry but also novels or another field in Chinese? And do you want to write an English essay or novel as well as poetry?
(JW) I mainly translated Chinese poems into English, not the other way round. I would love to translate more books in Chinese, including both poetry and fiction. After all, it’s very much part of my own literary influences, and I think that although there are some more Chinese literature in translation, they are still very under-represented. My hope is to widen the range of voices or translated works from Chinese literature available to English speakers and readers.
I’d love to pick up other genres, especially fiction. I am still quite new to the genre but am very excited to challenge myself in that, and I think that fiction offers a very interesting space for one to make something original. I admire fellow poets who also write fiction and non-fiction. Having said that, I think it takes a lot of time and energy to get very good in even one genre, whereas poetry seems to come most naturally to me. I enjoy the sense of economy that poetry affords.
(HS) You have already written many book reviews of poets all over the world. What have you acquired through this experience?
(JW) I started reviewing books a few years ago mainly because I felt that there are some books —especially collections and pamphlets by poets from non-white or international backgrounds—that deserve to be named. In particular, I feel that it is important to share more quality work by Asian authors, and to prove that one doesn’t have to be white in order to be a critic. Later, I began to see book reviews as a way to share my thoughts on the diverse range of poetics today.
In writing these reviews, I find myself arriving at a better understanding about what poetry means to me, and how or where I’d like my own poems to be.
(HS) Does the serious situation of COVID-19 affect your current writing?
(JW) It affects us all in different ways. I have certainly written a few poems about the different shades of isolation, the proximity of death, difficult emotions arising from the pandemic. It is also a very strange feeling to have many poetry launches and readings cancelled as soon as I launched Letters Home in March 2020—the very onset of the lockdown in the UK. I suppose the experience made me think about home more than ever, and with the help of technology, I am thankful that I can maintain connections with my family and friends via online space and dialogues.
On a different level, Covid-19 also made me realise how different a parent’s life is versus one without childcare responsibilities. For many parents with small children, it can at times be very pressuring during lockdown periods to handle both work from home and to take care of children. The domestic space becomes everything at once. I used to write in the hubbub of coffee shops, but I could no longer do that in the lockdown. I yearn for a time when we will all enjoy more of each other’s company.
(HS) Thank you so much for your in-depth answers regarding your writing. I am Japanese, but your answers are really useful for me as a poet writing in English as a second language. Looking forward to your next collection, too.
Jennifer Wong (jenniferwong.co.uk)
Born and grew up in Hong Kong, Jennifer is the author of three collections, including 回家 Letters Home (Nine Arches Press 2020), which has been named the Wild Card Choice by PBS. She studied English at Oxford and received an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She has a Creative Writing PhD from Oxford Brookes where she teaches part-time. She is also a translator, a reviewer and runs the What We Read Now online monthly poetry series. She is currently a writer-in-residence at Wasafiri. ninearchespress.com
Hideko Sueoka is a poet and translator living in Tokyo. Her translation on photography Shigeichi Nagano-Magazine Work 60s was published in 2009. She was the winner of the 2013 Troubadour International Poetry Competition and her winning poem was highly commended in the Forward Prize 2014. Her debut poetry chapbook was published from Clare Songbirds Publishing House (New York State, US) in 2018. Her recent poems were included in online magazines Harana Poetry, amberflora, Porridge Magazine and anthologies such as Arrival at Elsewhere curated by Carl Griffin (Against the Grain Press), and Stay Home Diary Zine (Bitter Melon Press). CHEERFUL NOISE as in a poem: joyousnoise0509.blogspot.com
© 2019–21 The Lincoln Review