Muriel Leung is an Asian American poet who defies convention and form, who adds whimsy to everyday objects and exposes the darkness behind them, and who pushes the boundaries between the real and the normal and the hyperbolic and absurd in her work. Her first collection, Bone Confetti (Noemi Press), toys with the magical yet apocalyptic and the romantic yet grotesque; it is both a strut through a flowery meadow and a devastating walk through the ruins of a ravaged city. I joined Leung in her adorable Echo Park, Los Angeles apartment for this conversation in racial politics, Asian American poetics, labor, and grief.
MV: What was the process behind writing Bone Confetti? As a fairly young poet, how did you balance writing and coming-of-age in your 20s?
ML: I wrote the bulk of Bone Confetti during my MFA, which I started in 2013. I moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana from Queens, New York, which is where I grew up. I had the great fortune of having a wealth of different experiences, to work with different people and communities beforeLouisiana. It was such a big move and shift—from going to a chaotic city that constantly displaces people and is very difficult to live in—to then move to Louisiana where the pace of life is different. Baton Rouge has a different set of racial politics, where being an Asian woman there meant something entirely different than in NY.
I also began to understand the history of resilience in Louisiana, which has seen so much social, political, and environmental turmoil. I saw how much this was embedded in the fabric of its history that if there is a storm coming, people know they have to cook all the meat in their freezer because the power might go out, so they just throw a big barbecue. The attitude of survival in Baton Rouge is very different from NYC, which sometimes doesn’t know what to do with itself other than facilitate high productivity. I think both city’s spirits contributed to Bone Confetti, which was a very important transitional point in my life—a whole wealth of experience and language.
MV: How exactly was it different being an Asian American woman in Baton Rouge?
I have a Chinese American family, and we have several generations of history in NYC. On my mother’s side, many of my family members were involved in garment work in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I was very much connected to NY’s Chinese American history—I had a strong sense of who I was. English wasn’t my first language, and figuring out my relationship to language was fostered in NYC. The environment I grew up in was very multiracial and multiethnic—I grew up in Richmond Hills, Queens, which was predominately South Asian and Caribbean. I was familiar with which neighborhoods were predominately Filipino and predominately Korean, so that’s how I understood racial and ethnic difference.
Moving to Louisiana, I learned it was mostly black and white, but there is a history of Filipino workers in New Orleans, a widespread Vietnamese community throughout, and at Louisiana State University, there are a lot of international graduate students. In Baton Rouge, many weren’t familiar with Asianness as much as I was, and it was a big reminder of how racial politics tend to be situated on a black/white dichotomy, where blackness is acknowledged but very much erased by a whiteness that goes unchecked in a lot of ways. I don’t think it’s productive to discuss which state (NY or LA) is friendlier to racial politics, because it works differently depending on who you are and what body you occupy as you move through these spaces.
MV: The fairy tale seems to greatly inform your work. What place do you think the fairy tale has in our current moment other than its original purpose to promote morals and caution? How can we politicize the fairy tale to suit our needs today?
ML: The pieces of the fairy tale that do appeal to me are the ones that toy between playfulness and whimsy—something very strange or odd is happening but is accepted as familiar—like encountering talking animals or supernatural beings as an everyday occurrence, as well as the element of violence that is always present in the tale. I am interested in the relationship between these two things and how they can be framed into something else. For me, it’s all in the tone of the portrayal, so if you’re going to portray something that’s playful and whimsical and couple it with something violent and grotesque, there has to be a certain consciousness in your approach so you don’t replicate the violence, but gesture toward the violence’s strangeness. Bone Confetti has elements of that because there are ghosts and lovers who defy traditional rules of love and death along with post-apocalyptic happenings. A lot of it is playing with ideas that may seem hyperbolic and absurd to this extreme where you have to recognize the seriousness of what the poem is asking you.
MV: One of the lines that stood out to me in Bone Confetti was in the “The Lost Years:” “No ones talks about what they have lost.” I interpreted this as a critique of silence. Could you speak more about silence and what you think its place is in our families, communities, and your work? Is there anything we can gain from silence, other than the sense of something lost?
ML: In terms of the line, it comes after a series of statements that are unsuspecting and benign, but have something tilted about them. There’s a dandelion path and a horse, but the dandelion path encounters a noose, and the horse encounters a broken buck. There are mason jars, but there’s body pulp in it. These everyday objects become thwarted by violence and grief, which is something that happens to Asian American and queer and trans communities, where the violence these communities encounter become so familiar that they are a fabric of the everyday. However, there’s a lot of camp humor that comes from queer communities that mitigates this everyday violence and the silence behind it.
In terms of Asian American communities, silence has been an ongoing theme, but it looks really different now. I think Asian Americans are examining their identity categories and talking about Asian Americanness without a predominately East Asian narrative that is centered around Chinese American history. I think a lot of it has to do with the framing of U.S. racial politics, which is unsure of what to do with identities that fall between the spectrum of blackness and whiteness. I think Asian Americans fall in-between and because of the prominence of state violence against black communities, the conversation has shifted to emphasize non-black communities of color to confront their complicity to whiteness. Non-black communities are currently negotiating this so in terms of silence, a lot of it is in there. Silence also comes from not fully grappling what is lost in the Asian American community, especially when this marker of identity is already so tenuous.
MV: In a previous interview with PBS, you discussed how grief is political and how it informs your work. What do you think the relationship is between grief and an Asian American poetics? How does poetics give us the vehicle and the strength to express grief, especially a grief that comes from the convergence of the personal and political?
ML: I shared how I became politicized as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence, which coincided with my father’s passing. There was a convergence with my first class in Asian American History and Literature, Ethnic Studies, and racial politics, which came to define how grief is political for me. It wasn’t just the lack of racial diversity on campus, but it was also seeing my father—who came to the U.S. under refugee status from Hong Kong—compensate for what he lacked in terms of higher education and social access by working really hard at his job. He succeeded in conventional terms—he owned a restaurant business toward the end of his life and worked in a restaurant that was highly regarded in NY, but it came at the cost to his health. He was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and by the time the diagnosis came around, he only had a short while to live. I think about how much this has to do with racism in the U.S., in this way that is not so defined. To me, it has to be racism that tells a Chinese immigrant that your worth is solely productive among limited industries and if you do it well, there’s this promise that you can ascend to whiteness, which ensures financial stability, long life, and prosperity for your children in these ways a lot of white people have privilege to experience. I also think it’s a false dream, because my father’s body confronting him in this way speaks to the environmental and social factors that led to the decline in his health, and his ideals and aspirations for a better life are tethered to a long, violent history of exploitation of Asian American labor. It’s made me think a lot about labor, what it means for me to labor now as an Asian American woman, and how to reverse what happened to him from my generation moving forward.
MV: Right now, you are currently a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California (USC). How do you balance the creative and academic worlds? How does poetics inform your scholarly inquiries and vice versa?
ML: Currently, I am in my second year at USC. My program prioritizes the production of writing and art, so for me, it’s important production comes from a place that’s interdisciplinary, so being in coursework has helped at the moment. Doing creative writing and research simultaneously is still something I haven’t figured out. So not writing the poetry book or short story collection, but perhaps working toward another form like a scholarly article or delivering a paper suited for a conference presentation—these are new forms to me and as a creative writer, I am always thinking of how to push against them. However, scholarly convention dictates I need to adhere to them first before earning the right to challenge these conventions, so this is something that I’ve been coming up against. In creative writing, I’ve always researched forms and theory in forms but with scholarly labor, this works in reverse.
The best advice I’ve gotten from academics I admire is that a lot of it is being present in the moment of coursework and keeping in mind what’s important about what you’re studying, as well as setting deadlines for yourself and understanding that things will cohere. There also can’t be a fixed idea of what you want at the start of graduate school because that is something that needs endurance—it needs to be something specific enough that it is important to you, but it has to also open itself up to questions along the way so it stays interesting and evolving.
MV: I remember feeling extremely moved and compelled by your poetic essay, “This is to Live Several Lives,” and I feel like the form of the poetic essay itself emulates the act of living multiple lives—as a scholar, poet, and as someone who is queer, femme, raised in America, and is the child of immigrants. How do you see the poetic essay expanding in the near future, particularly in relation to your work? What is wondrous about writing in this form?
ML: I think both the poem and the essay require a lot of working-through that’s different from a lot of prose forms. A poem has always been the sprint, while the essay is the marathon, and I think there are benefits to both. Poetry captures the instantaneous, the abstract, something discombobulating, and forces people to accept it because of the fragmentation of the form. The essay is an attempt to answer a question or several questions, a compulsion to explain, explain, and explain to the point of hyperclarity. For me, the poetic essay is wanting to obtain this abstraction with a demand for explication so the reader doesn’t conflate your meaning into something else, so it’s also an issue of control. So bridging these two forms together—the marathon and the sprint—is kind of like flexing your athletic body in a way that feels different, so what you get is a transformation of the body, but also a transformation in the way you see the sights and environment around you, where the heart rate changes through each iteration.
MV: What projects are you currently working on at the moment?
ML: I’m working on several things. I’m working on a poetic essay collection about Asian American labor, which is moving in a lot of different directions. There are some memoiristic elements in it that I’m still figuring out. I’m also working on a short story collection that takes place in a post-apocalyptic NYC, which is inspired by my grandmother’s apartment where I grew up in the Lower East Side, where different generations of my family lived together in one space. I wanted to talk about how that space looked a certain way to me and then when Hurricane Sandy happened, it exposed a lot of inequalities among the space. It also brought to light a lot of the racial and ethnic diversity of the space. It is a short story collection that follows different characters’ perspectives. Mira, the protagonist, has lost her former partner, and the longer plot line is her trying to get in contact with them, but the world is also occupied with ghosts, people mourning, people the mourners have lost through these post-apocalyptic circumstances, and it’s told from the different perspectives of people who live in that building and whose lives intersect with Mira’s.
MV: Finally, what are your three favorite things about Los Angeles so far?
ML: 1) The writer of color literary community, 2) tacos, and 3) being able to look out across the cityscape and see mountains.
For more of Muriel Leung’s work, visit her website.