WHAT IS THE NATURE of a desire? How do we each come to terms with the racism, desire, and alienation that underscore our lives? What are the generational lineages behind our daily existences? How do we fall in love against the landscape of white America?
These are some of the questions Grace Shuyi Liew poses in her debut collection of poetry, Careen, published this year by Noemi Press.
Grace has published two other chapbooks, Prop (winner of Ahsahta Press’s 2016 chapbook award) and Book of Interludes (Anomalous Press), and her work has appeared in West Branch, Black Warrior Review, Kenyon Review, cream city review, PANK, The Wanderer, and elsewhere.
She is a contributing editor for Waxwing and a Watering Hole fellow, and her other honors include the Lucille Clifton Poetry Fellowship from Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Aspen Summer Words scholarship, resident writer at Can Serrat in Barcelona, resident at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, resident at Agora Affect, Vancouver Poetry House’s “10 Best Poems of 2016,” and others.
Born and raised in Malaysia, a former colony of the British Empire, Grace thinks closely of migration, loss, sexuality, violence, and nation-states. Prior to moving to the United States on a college scholarship, Grace worked as a simultaneous interpreter and broadcast journalist. Her family remains in Malaysia. She is working on her second poetry manuscript, a book-length transnational epic love poem, and a novel.
I asked Grace some questions via email about her work and life.
VI KHI NAO: How do you describe your work, Grace? You shift in and out of different intellectual registers as easily as you slip in and out of emotional and sexual syntaxes. Are you primarily influenced by philosophy? Or something else?
GRACE SHUYI LIEW: Maybe like you said, my work “slips.” My book title, Careen, also nods toward slippage. Losing control. Then trying to wrench it back. Like in car racing video games. You get exhilarated when you are right on course, but the fear of veering off road is always present, depending on how close the next sharp curve is.
Philosophy is the foundation of my higher education in the United States. I have spent many years since my bachelor’s trying to undo some of the very analytic, western-centric modes of inquiry — hence, slippage. It is still part of my intellectual and poetic lineage. It grapples with other parts of me who speak other languages, who never had much of a formal literary education, who still fear unintelligibility among Americans.
For example, reading philosophy translated from the German was an act of wrestling long sentences down to their granular ideas. Multiple compounded sentences, unclear subject-predicate, elevated syntax — all acted as a protective barrier between my personhood and my ideas. A disidentification. Some space to breathe. Tell it slant. It allowed me to write what I previously felt unwritable. It allowed me to garble up the English language itself, make it nonsensical, and rearrange it into a truth. I am not advocating for it, but in hindsight, verbosity was my entry point into difficult subject matter.
Much of Careen’s editing process was then an act of reunification — to bring myself, and my work, back down from this vantage point of safety. (On this note: I am forever grateful for and sorry to my editors.)
The end result is very much a convergence of my multiple selves. Formally, Careen is a book of sequences, marked by chapters. The poems are not titled. The pages spill from one to another without a clear contiguous border. It wants to be translated, but also resists so.
If a reader were to ride the digital motorcycle of one of your poems, should they feel nauseated or exhilarated? Or neither? How in control do you want your reader to be when Careen invites the opposite?
Readers choose. They can shut themselves into the book and ride it from the start to the end, or pick and choose sections, like a playlist on shuffle. The former would be, in a sense, surrendering control to me. It’s okay if they are not in a headspace to do so. Some people never want to ride motorcycles. But don’t walk away. Flip through. On a larger scale, I want readers to feel just on the brink of something unbearable.
Why do you want your readers to be on the brink of something unbearable? What do you hope to achieve with that?
If we’re talking about edging, well, that to me is a fertile and critical space. It’s where important decisions get made, crucial feelings are revealed, possibilities seem infinite, and release is imminent on the horizon. And then, pleasure begins.
In the first poem of your breathtaking collection, marching straight into your Careen, your speaker utters, “I can’t be loud / when Asian porn is still a consumer category.” When do you think one can be loud?
I used to think resistance has to be loud, has to be direct intervention. I worried people might mistake my quietude as compliance unless I was shouting back all the time. Eventually I realized we are always fighting for and against something, even when quiet, or sad, or accepting, or sitting under a heavy desk. On that note, Careen primarily airs out my anger — but it doesn’t read as “angry” most of the time.
And now? What can be loud? I want pleasure to be the loudest. And joy. That line, “I can’t be loud / when Asian porn is still a consumer category,” speaks to a time when I didn’t allow myself that. For fear of being subsumed into the fetishized gaze. It obsessed and upset me that people might see me as a projection of sexual fantasies. I was well aware of intellectual critiques of racism and fetishization, and armed myself with psychological therapeutic discussions of sexual trauma, but those were still just two divergent sites of critique.
At the end of the day, beneath the armor and the gaze, what was I to do with my physical body? Who could tell me? I wanted to be attractive, but deeply distrusted anyone who was attracted to me. I wanted to please and be pleased, but was horrified about being a site of pleasure. I could not disentangle where my private desires ended and where a public projection began. Or even if such a distinction had value. I wounded myself before I could be wounded. That was a quiet terror. I hated having a body I never felt belonged to me. I am slowly returning to my body, like a mother who wanted but rejected her child. Careen charts this journey.
Your speaker says, “There’s an old desk in my bedroom I like to hide under / when I drift too far from my familiar horrors.” Could you depict that old desk? What did that desk look like? If you can’t depict it physically, how would you describe it psychologically or even philosophically?
It is a large and very, very heavy desk. A deep mahogany brown it is almost black. It is so heavy it can only be carried by two adults, and a child definitely cannot move it. Maybe shame is like that. We think it changes over time, or our memories change over time, but really it is us, the bearers, that change.
Most poets want to offer an appetizer before dishing out the main course. You make a bold choice in opening the collection with an elongated, strong, compelling poem whose intensity and fury can ambush the reader a little. Was this intentional? What theme or emotional arc did you apply to arrange the collection?
Ah, yes. It was definitely my way of putting all my cards on the table. The opening poem calls directly to intergenerational terror, gender trauma, fetishization of Asian women, childhood abuse, stereotypes, desiring power, and it closes with a feeling of inescapability. I perform it a lot at readings; I can’t read it without wanting to cry.
As I was arranging the book, I worried tremendously that my work would get read out of my personal sites of resistance. Depoliticized. Especially since many of my poems draw on myths, phenomenology, abstractions, imagery, and rhetoric, all of which become their own contexts. I know part of being a writer is to let your work out into the world and take on a life of its own. But my work would not exist without my personal histories, and the ambush you speak of is probably me waving this flag, to signal: hello, the author is not yet dead. The author has, in fact, fought to live, fought to be allowed beauty and pleasure, to be femme, to be first generation, to be the bearer of trauma, to question a lineage of pain and suffering, to live.
Do you think when a poet brings a collection of poems into the world, in the form of a book for instance, they are (in a few words) lifting their “shirt to reveal / their private galaxy of bruises”? Or is it closer to a poet napping in “the pillow of one’s sister’s flesh”? Between galaxy or flesh, which would you choose? Even “if the wind lifts your skirt, your conscience is strewn.”
I choose all three. Is that greedy? My poet friends tend to grasp intuitively how difficult writing from personal histories can be. My non-poet friends might empathize, then inevitably they ask, “Well then why do you do it?”
Why lift this shirt to reveal a bruise? Why nap in the presence of strangers? Why walk out into the wind with that little flimsy skirt? I don’t have a TED Talk answer. Often I say I don’t know. I am not even defensive — okay, sometimes I am — or clingy about this desire to write. It happens, and I do it. It fights for my attention if I fail to do it. The harder thing to contend with is the aftermath. One minute, I feel I have told an important truth, the next I am feeling overly exposed or wounded. I become an open invitation for response. I am amplifying this “condition of being addressable,” making myself hypervisible. I cleave to feelings of safety. I desire mutual recognition. I lash back. I feel I have betrayed myself, or someone, somehow. The ground shifts. The search continues. And so on.
One of my favorite lines from your work is in your poem “Untitled”: “As for me, I am watercolor.” And the poem bookends itself with, “& soft hearts of human / society, then I am water / color lifting, into ether. I am hard / to stain. / I wash off.” How did this beautiful image arrive to you? Where were you when you wrote it?
Oh, this poem. The line, “As for me, I am a watercolor. / I wash off.” is from Anne Sexton’s poem “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife.”
Ah, you did say that in your notes. I remember now. By asking the obvious, I was hoping that those two lines did not belong to Anne Sexton but to you instead. They seem to belong to you more.
At a recent reading with the poet Sally Wen Mao, we both talked about how Asian women in popular media turn their pain inward. These cultural images of beautiful suicides, languid wasting away, sacrificial devotions, or straight-up android reenactment of sexual slaves. “I am a watercolor. / I wash off” nods to that allure of being ephemeral. The speaker in the poem realizes that this draw is as dangerous as it is alluring. I have gravitated to those impulses myself. Then I think, we have to find new ways for melancholy. I want to write my way out of these damning cul-de-sacs, and live. Especially for Asian women. I want our literary and cultural lineages to be filled with heartbreaks that do not either kill us off or make us holier; I want to see us flawed and susceptible to every vice and desirous of every perfection. I want coming-of-age narratives in which pain and melancholy are not the sole vehicles for our character development. I want our desires to undo us only if we let it, and not as de facto punishment for greed.
Did you take a nap before entering this interview? If not, did you eat something?
I drank a lot of carbonated water, because I am quitting alcohol and have mad cravings. I also was practicing some stretches (I dance), but it was very painful because I may have a compressed spine injury.
There is abstraction in your work, but it also feels grounded in an emotional and political place. Do you think the intellect should be married to beauty or beauty should find nuptial companionship with itself? Some of your lines are absolutely gorgeous and seem to arrive from a cloud of post-tropical cyclone or silent wind such as, “You expect consensual captivity of your body to bring you refuge” or, “The body’s melancholia falls in love by flaunting its talent for mimicking grace.” Your name also appears in this line.
Thank you for your generous reading. I think beauty infuses all things. Even the invisible, the marred, the quiet.
Can you talk a little about your literary production? Do you write ritualistically? Daily? Or when the muse strikes you? How do you bring your content from your being into form?
I haven’t been writing lately. I am terrible at pacing myself. I beat myself up for not being methodical enough. This year has been a lot of flux, sleeplessness, wild dreams, and restlessness in my personal life. I am in psychoanalysis for the first time ever. My mind has been racing since the end of 2018, it seems. And I am slowly gathering myself toward a period of incubation. I keep thinking, if only I had four weeks, or even two weeks, of mental reprieve, everything would come out of me onto the page.
Pragmatically, I write in projects. I see each book as bookending a period of time, or chasing an idea, or, to borrow your metaphor, tracking a cyclone. My second book, in its editing phase, is a book-length epic poem. I am not done with lengthiness, it seems.
I have met you a few times and each time we speak, I think, Grace is quite carefree. And, then I read one of your lines, “Carefree is one form of amnesia,” and, “Anywhere I go my face, / becomes a gathering space for other’s people / regressed ideas of carefree.” Why do you feel that way? Is the speaker you? Or someone else?
In this specific poem? The speaker is me. It is a privilege to be carefree, right? It is a state with no beginning or end. Timeless. Unencumbered. To remain constant, even if the sky falls or the ground shifts. It has become an ideal of modern society. It is its own mechanism of power. Wind in the hair, sweeping vistas of revelatory joy, a spring in your step. Frozen out of time. In opposition is someone who cares too much, who can’t let go, who is too wound up, too bitter, angry, uptight, intense. Someone who remembers time.
For me, it is a performance. A volatile and painful childhood was the perfect training ground for the performance of carefreeness. The carefree poker face is safety. If I held what I cared about close to my chest, it could not be taken away. This is faulty thinking, of course. It is merely a simulation of power. I was a child who escaped to my daydreams a lot. What’s left behind, the body, on view by others, is carefree, is amnesia. As an adult, I get read that way. I smile and laugh. But beneath it, I am a storm. Or in pain. I have spent a life hiding away my intensity, fearing retaliation from the hand of god. Maybe it is okay no one sees it. Maybe I am still slowly coming out.
Later, in the momentum poems of your travels, you wrote, “At the corner shop you ask do you sell condoms and the French shop girl brings a soup ladle. You try to say ha-ha that will work too, but no one understands your joke.” I really love this anecdote. It makes me think that there are times when misunderstanding is welcomed. Do you like ladles? I love them, especially when serving phở to my friends. They haven’t helped with preventing pregnancy or STDs, though.
No, they don’t! And I want to eat this phở you speak of. Misunderstanding can be very good as a salve. In that poem, the joke is an intermission from melancholy, from feeling out of place. But in the poem, only the speaker got the joke. :(((((
I know. I understand the misunderstanding. Even if it’s not designed to be understood literally. Isolation and dissociation often accompany one during travel. Not just linguistic travels. Speaking of non-traveling/traveling, you are living in Brooklyn, now, yes? How is that coming? Can you talk about Malaysia? What was it like growing up there? If you were to take me there for a few days, where would you take me? Would you take naps with me under the banana leaves or do you think ants crawling all over us would make it not so fun? What is the best way to be poetic in Malaysia? Has your relationship to nostalgia changed?
If you came to Malaysia, we would eat our faces off. The Malaysia I return to is utterly city-hellscape now. My family lives in the capital. I’d probably take you to bars and parties, and we’ll complain about traffic and then eat and stay out racing the highways and watching the skyscrapers. It’s fine. The Malaysia I grew up in was rural. Little villages. My childhood was outside. My elementary school had dirt floors, that sort of thing. I don’t want to romanticize backwardness (and when I was a kid, none of this ever felt backward), but where I come from hits me sometimes.
Talking about home splits me up. My mother cooked outside in the back; the house had no proper kitchen. Now I live in New York and have a dishwasher. I am the only one here. My grandmother never finished elementary school. My mother never went to college. I have degrees, I pass through educated circles. It is a privilege. But the disconnect never stops being hard. Generational cognitive dissonance can make you wild with euphoria, or deep in the pits of loneliness. It’s pretty extreme. It was also trauma that made me leave home as soon as I could — and education was my way out. Moving to the States was the hardest thing I ever did, personally, emotionally, and also contending with how this abusive racist nation-state gave me refuge from what I ran away from. I feel a phantom nostalgia that never lifts. I miss things. I look everywhere for lineage. I miss my sister.
One of the most compelling poems is titled “The Use of Lyricism.” Can you talk about this poem? Can you break it down? Where were you when you wrote it or how did you write it? Did it take you long? Besides the last two lines, I also love the middle section of this poem. “Even the most compelling means of escape winds up/being just a metaphor — after the house is dismantled and / the invasive weeds rooted out, were you supposed to / transcend language and never worry about falling in love / with your aggressor?” And this line, “I am in two places, torn between the clouds.” I feel an unbearable sadness for it. A methodical sadness which I often correlate to your words.
That poem began when I read about James Baldwin’s former house in the south of France. He envisioned it as a utopian meeting space for artists in exile. He thought he had a lot more time to live. He was renting to own his house, slowly. After he died, the place was torn down to be developed into a luxury residence while his estate and supporters fought to keep it intact as a memorial site.
The sadness you speak of is entwined with money, power, desire, and art. I developed a critical race consciousness as a first-generation Asian-American immigrant in the United States by reading works by Black writers and artists, so this poem nods to that as well. I feel late. I went to public school in Malaysia, where I never studied literature formally. At 14 or 15, all students have to choose one of two curriculums, and you stick to that until you graduate. “The arts” in our public school system was very disparaged, and “the sciences” was where you had a chance of getting out, of winning a scholarship to go to college. No literature, no arts; only physics, chemistry, math, biology, and so on.
Reading and writing was never valued by anyone I knew. The comfort I got from it was always a private reverie. I knew I was supposed to feel ashamed of it as an indulgence, or a childish pleasure I must eventually grow out of. It had to lead to other, better things, like becoming a lawyer, to lift the family up. Certainly not pursued or cherished as an end in itself.
The poem asks, why make art? What began as a very private question for me I now believe is also a public and social one. One answer is art creates representations of reality, from real ones that we live in, to imagined ones that we desire. Art embodies this tension between honoring where we are in the present and pushing toward where we want to be. We must hold the two in close concert. A society’s archives lie in their arts.
It took me a long time to learn to become protective of my desire to create art. And even so, shame sometimes still creeps in. This excerpt you mention calls out this tension between the ideals of freedom and the present realities of being stuck.
Do you like papayas, Grace?
I have a complicated relationship with papayas. I didn’t like them as a child, but my dad forced them on us because they help you poop, and my mom forced them on me in the form of papaya soup (she boiled it with some herbs) because they help you grow boobs. Papaya seems very functional now that I think of it. It is considered “exotic” here, no? As an adult, I sometimes buy them out of nostalgia, then feel foolish for paying too much for something I can’t decide even if I like, and end up abetting an industry for carefree hipsters trying to be adventurous. All that said, a good papaya is all about perfect firmness.