Interview with Kristin Chang on Past Lives, Future Bodies —
December 20, 2018
Kristin Chang’s work has been published in Teen Vogue, The Rumpus, The Margins (Asian American Writers Workshop), the Shade Journal, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for Best New Poets and Best of the Net, and she has been anthologized in Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3 and Ink Knows No Borders (Seven Stories Press). She is a 2018 Gregory Djanikian Scholar (selected by The Adroit Journal), the recipient of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, and a Resist/Recycle/Regenerate fellow with the Wing On Wo Project in Manhattan Chinatown. Past Lives, Future Bodies is her first chapbook.
Christopher Nelson: I marvel at your stylistic decision to combine the fantastic and the painfully real; for example, in “My mother tells me to pray in Chinese” the “grandfather’s / a mattress stuffed with live birds and a cow // we slaughtered for the color its blood translates to.”
Kristin Chang: Thank you so much for these kind words! I love that you call it "the fantastic"—I've always thought that all poetry is speculative in some way. Imagery, for me, is always "fantastic" or fantastical, a way of reinventing the world and its structures. Language gives me the agency to fantastically re-imagine what's possible.
Nelson: What is one such re-imagining in the book that is particularly important to you?
Chang: I would say that being able to imagine healing is important to me—and being able to imagine the traumas and histories of those around me in a way that doesn't cast them in the role of passivity. Playing with language is also very imaginative.
Nelson: Not belonging to a place is a motif in these poems. There’s nostalgia—pain for/from the Chinese homeland, the past a wound—and there’s pain in the U.S. places in the book, as in “In Pine Bluff, Arkansas,” where insults and being the target of thrown eggs aren’t the worst of it.
Chang: Yes! I'm definitely concerned with the idea of belonging, and even with subverting the idea that you can "belong" to a country or a physical place, which tends to be a very static and nationalistic way of thinking. As someone who identifies with a diaspora, the idea of occupying a liminal place rather than a "stable" one is very important to me. It's interesting that you mention a "Chinese homeland," since I don't actually believe there is one. I'm not interested in "belonging" in America or "belonging" in China—to me, it's always going to be a question of how to abolish those ideas of citizenship and status. I try to embody my Taiwaneseness and Chineseness through lineage and story and language-as-memory. I really like that you bring up nostalgia as being place-like; I think that's very true, and I also try to resist and subvert the idea of a homeland. Anything that's a country or border is inherently weaponized. I wanted to probe open the nation-as-wound.
Nelson: And the title, Past Lives, Future Bodies,—how does it suggest the theme of nation-as-wound?
Chang: I think it suggests that wounds are intergenerational—trauma is passed down, and with each incarnation and generation, ghosts and histories don't just go away, especially in this country. But I also wanted the title to suggest that other futures and communities are possible, ones that we can define for ourselves.
Nelson: We learn from the etymologies of “haunt” and “home” that they grow out of the same ancient root word. The past’s traumas find homes in our bodies and we call it being haunted. Are there any “good ghosts,” so to speak, in these poems that are helping you dream these better futures?
Chang: Definitely—I carry them with me and they carry me in turn. Like the title of the book gestures at, the future can only be born from the past, so everything is regenerated, relived, and hopefully reclaimed.
Nelson: At times the book is surprisingly, thrillingly violent: the belly as a butcher block, severed breasts in bedside jars, grandfather's roasted bones, stillbirths worn "like a string wears beads." Do you see the poems' violence as a mirror of the world, or a response to it, or a condemnation of it—something else?
Chang: I'm not sure! I definitely don't want to glamorize and romanticize violence or desensitize readers to it. I don't know if it's a mirror, exactly, since the language of violence is often warped and surreal. I was interested in the huge gap between violence as it is experienced and violence as it is remembered. To me, that's where some of the most complicated tension lies. Eloisa Amezcua, who blurbed the chapbook, said that it was about "what it means to love those who have hurt you," and I think that's really true. I think the poems are struggling to understand how extreme violence and extreme love manifest in one body, one family.
Nelson: Dyeing hair recurs in these poems—maybe we could even call it a motif. How do you see it among these large themes?
Chang: Hair is often a symbol of the feminine and of mother-daughter relationships—mothers doing their daughter’s hair, for example. It also has a colonial history—I’m thinking of the ways that Chinese immigrant men had their queues cut off by immigration officers. It’s also something that regenerates and grows. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that something dead is still growing, and I think that ties in to the themes of the book.
Nelson: Tell us about the cover art Night Mare by Angie Wang. I thought of it when I read of the mother in “Historical figure” as “a girl with god // galloping her / like a horse.”
Chang: I love the cover so, so much—it's honestly my favorite part of the whole chapbook. I knew I wanted an Asian woman to illustrate the cover, and specifically a Sino woman, so when I saw this image in an online issue of a literary magazine I was ecstatic. I knew immediately when I saw it—the image is haunted by everything I'm haunted by. It's mythological and animal and the girl's face is so familiar to me. I love the way she arrives on the cover like a bringer of so much blood and color and light. It's a look of vengeance and daring. That line about a girl with a god galloping her is a reverse-image of the cover, since in the poem the girl is being ridden like a horse. I didn't even notice that, but now I really love the dialogue between that line and this image. I imagine that the girl and the horse on the cover are symbiotic, even connected or fused, rather than "riding" as a display of ownership and power. The girl can't be separated from what carries her.
Nelson: Beautifully said. I’d like to ask about some of your stylistic choices too. You have a brilliant sense of the line. Again and again your enjambments just dance—so charged with possibilities they are. Here are a few lines from “Televangelism”:
… My tongue
tides. Mother heaps a houseful
of salt on our family alter, fills
a bath & stripteases, teach me
to do the dead
man’s float. In a church
made of bone, I boil
a broth of fathers.
Tell us, in closing, a bit about your drafting process, especially your lineation.
Chang: The lineation came naturally as I was writing, and later I fine-tuned my word choice. This chapbook definitely relies heavily on the linebreak, and since I’ve started writing prose, I’ve found that more and more I’m writing in a more full-sentence mode. The drafting process varies from poem to poem and very much depends on what the piece requires—sometimes the linebreaks come to me first, sometimes the poem arrives as a paragraph.