“It’s a very American story.”
CATHY LINH CHE
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
At the beginning of Split, you nod to Cave Canem and the NYU workshop and to Kundiman. Can you talk about those experiences?
This is going to be a roundabout answer, but here it goes—I was a high school teacher for three years. That was my first career…
Me too! Teaching secondary English.
Oh, really? Wow. You know, when I taught high school, I didn't write at all. Full time high school teaching was the hardest job I've ever had.
Oh, for sure, mine as well.
I had a strange schedule. I woke at three AM, did my grading and lesson-planning, left for school around six AM, came home, slept from four to seven PM, ate something, then passed out and did it all over again.
So, attending NYU for MFA was my escape from work life. I did it in order to reconnect with a part of myself I felt like I’d neglected in trying to be an adult. I'm still very close to the poets from my first NYU workshop with Sharon Olds: Solmaz Sharif, Bianca Stone, Laren McClung, Levi Rubeck, Paul Hlava, among others. They are some of my best friends, and I believe they will be writing alongside me for the rest of my life.
Beyond that, at NYU, for the first time, I identified as a writer, instead of someone who wrote in secret. It was also significant that Solmaz Sharif, for instance, was in the workshop. As first generation immigrants, descendants from exiles and refugees (and in some ways, refugees ourselves), we shared concerns in common. She's Iranian American, and I'm Vietnamese American, but our families both lived through violent, political upheaval, and the poems that we brought to class had resonance.
Kundiman provided me with my first Asian American poetry community. I actually had no idea that I wanted or needed one! I grew up with a lot of APIA folks in Southern California and also had a Vietnamese American community there. I didn't feel singled out, and I didn't feel like I needed to find racial belonging, and I already had a great poetry community at NYU.
However! The thing about the Kundiman Asian American Writing Retreat is that it’s not exactly about falling in line with some notion of what it means to be an Asian American writer. It’s about being a diverse collection of individuals creating together what it means to be an Asian American writer. At Kundiman, I found my first Vietnamese American poetry community. There was something extraordinarily primal about meeting these people, together, in the summer of 2013: Duy Doan, Ocean Vuong, Paul Tran, Tiffanie Hoang.
I speak Vietnamese with my parents, but I don’t really speak it, ever, with anybody else. At the Kundiman retreat, we spoke Vietnamese all the time to each other. We sang. We told funny stories about our moms and watching “Paris By Night” as kids. There was some strange sense of familial bonding.
The Cave Canem workshop was my first ever cross-cultural person-of-color workshop. It exposed me to other communities of color that, in the past, I had some access to, but this was very special, and very different. Natalie Diaz taught that workshop, and as a class, we bonded together and have also since formed a tight-knit community of writers.
To me, all three organizations offered me community. I’ve been on couches of people all across America whom I've met for five days at one of these retreats (laughing), you know?
Yeah! That Kundiman tour seems very indebted to the DIY aesthetic of punk, traveling around and staying on a stranger’s couch, all parties operating under the assumption of everyone else’s goodwill. Can you talk about that tour in general?
Yeah, the Honey Badgers Don’t Give a B**k Tour!
Right. So the four of us… actually, originally we were also supposed to have Tarfia Faizullah, who published Seam last year.
Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that. She’s wonderful too.
Yeah, we were all Kundiman fellows. We were all at a retreat in the summer of 2013, and we all knew that our books were coming out. Michelle’s book was published in 2012, but she hadn’t really had an opportunity to go out and publicize the book. We felt that this was the opportunity to go and do a book tour!
I was working an office job for two years, and they gave me, comparably, generous time off—three weeks—but I have family in California and I was working in New York, so I couldn’t travel anywhere, basically, except to my brother’s wedding and home for the holidays to see my family. I felt a need to be free when my book came out (laughing). I contacted Sally, Eugenia, and Michelle, and they all seemed so enthusiastic about the idea of getting in my 2004 Toyota Corolla and driving all over.
We initially wanted to drive from New York to California, but we ended up driving through the Northeast and to select cities in the South. I think, in poetry, you’re not going to have a publisher book you a tour, so you have to do it yourself.
The tour mostly happened because I needed a sense of adventure. I wanted to see more of America. I’d never done a cross-country road trip and that was very exciting to me. I wanted freedom and relief, and also, since we had this amazing set of people around me with first books, I felt like I could fuse those needs together into a book tour. The majority of our readings were set up by contacting our friends. They always offered us couches, places to sleep, event spaces, and promotion. People were so generous. I'll never forget that.
It sounds like all of the best things about the poetry community coming together.
Yes. Absolutely. I mean, I’m sure some poets make some money off their poetry, but, in general, poetry is not lucrative. I think when you take money out of the equation, things become less complicated.
It certainly helps if all parties acknowledge that the financial stakes are almost non-existent.
I want to talk about the book specifically. It was one of my favorite first-collections last year, one of my favorite collections period, really. I remember just clicking around online one day and seeing the cover. I didn’t know anything about the book, but I saw Sydney S. Kim’s “Girlfriend Tape” cover art and thought it was incredible. So, I ordered the book and then, obviously, fell in love with the poems. I want to start with your relationship to that cover art.
I saw Sydney’s work, and I thought for the title Split, her work would be perfect. “Girlfriend Tape” is actually a series of twenty-three photographed or photocopies pairs of masking tape manipulated differently. My cover is just one of those pairs of tape. One way of looking at it is as twenty-three pairs of chromosomes.
The images felt very suggestive to me, both representational and abstract. I was very drawn in. They seemed to me like Rorschach image blots, which thematically tied into my interest in psychology and the psychoanalytic. They also felt very sexual and intimate, but with a sense of grit and damage, suggesting violence. The images emitted a feeling that corresponded well with some of the themes of the book.
Yeah, everything you just said sort of speaks to what I got out of the cover and its relationship to the poems. It seems intimate and sensual, even sexual but in that gritty, deep unconscious way. I thought it was phenomenal. Maybe my choice for book cover of the year.
That’s exciting! Thank you! I should tell Sydney that.
I didn’t know Sydney before, but after securing the cover art, I discovered that she was in Brooklyn, so I’ve been over to her house, and we’ve become friends.
Oh, really? That’s great. Is she younger?
Yeah, she’s about my age, maybe a couple years younger.
So, picking up on some of those themes, you write very candidly in the book about being a survivor of sexual assault. When I was thinking about having this conversation, I was thinking about Kwame Dawes’ “Memos to Poets” where he says, “You can write about anything you want but some subjects come with greater responsibility than you may want to take on.” Dealing with sexual assault is certainly a subject that carries a great deal of responsibility to yourself, to the trauma, to the recovery, and then to anyone who might encounter the work who may have gone through something similar. Can you talk about the necessity, if you think there is one, of taking on that sort of subject matter?
Yeah, I think the necessity was very personal for me. It’s hard to pinpoint. I started writing poems when I was a teenager. I had a poem published in the high school literary arts journal about this topic. In college, I don’t think I wrote about it at all. And then, in Sharon Olds’ workshop in my first semester at NYU, with the experience of being in a new city and not having any family around, that vulnerability drew out my need suddenly to write about being sexually abused as a child. Also, my relationships around that time, which felt a little unsafe to me, struck me emotionally as iterations of earlier traumas. That also created within me the need to tussle with these experiences.
The entire first section is about my experiences of sexual violation. I actually wrote the majority of that section when I was in L.A. on a fellowship. I was staying in my childhood home, sleeping in the same bed where most of these incidents happened.
Well, at least from the age of ten to eleven, I guess. And so I think the experience of being placed back where these incidents occurred prompted rather feverish writing on the topic for a while. But, in addition, the last poem in that section…
Yes, “Story.” I remember telling my friend Solmaz about responsibility, and telling her that the last thing I ever wanted to do was to do the experience an injustice by dramatizing it or by making it sentimental or by making more of it than it really was. She told me that I should give myself permission to be melodramatic. She told me, “just write on the top of your sheet of paper, BE MELODRAMATIC.” Being given permission to go past a wall of my own reserve, or my own sense of responsibility, allowed me to go somewhere I hadn’t before.
I do feel like I have a responsibility to be as truthful as I can be. I’ve never assumed that I was representing anybody else’s experience, but I did feel like what was common was this breaking of a silence around the topic. I also thought a lot about definition, about the ways that sexual assault or rape or molestation are defined in our culture. They’re defined by media images and newspaper articles and political speeches, but you don’t often have the voices of people who have been victimized by these acts presenting their story. For me, what I saw in Charles Bronson movies didn’t look like my experience. So, I felt the need to have my poetry be an act of self-definition, to excavate this silent voice for myself. If other people connect with it, then that’s gratifying, but I have a hard time thinking about my audience. After I wrote the book, I remember thinking, “Who’s going to want to read this?” And then, “I wonder if this is only a book for women?” (Laughing) But it hasn’t turned out that way at all.
No, not at all. I think maybe if this had been written as fiction, or written as a memoir, it might have been marketed differently, with flowers on the cover or a setting sun or something.
(Laughing) Yeah, to a very specific market.
You sort of touched on this, but I want to go into it more deeply: One of the really remarkable things the book does is take these assaults from the first section and bring them into the third section where you’re talking about adult romantic relationships with a man or with men, relationships that are very much colored by those early traumas. I think that’s one of the profoundly true things to the experience of trauma, that it stays with you for a lifetime and manifests itself in every relationship differently.
Was that an effect you were consciously trying to create in the work?
I’d say it was some combination of conscious and unconscious effort. When I first started writing poems, I was always dissatisfied with poems and endings. I always felt the need to say everything in a single poem. “Here is my poem about my mother,” “Here is my poem about my father’s experience in the Vietnam war.” Somewhere along the way, I lost that compulsion. I think part of it was reading Jack Spicer, who does a lot of serial poems, and part of it was that I picked up this idea that poems are in conversation with one another and they can be fragmentary in nature. The cumulative effect of having them come together can create a larger narrative that is fuller, that echoes off itself. Split, altogether, is the sort of “big poem” I wanted to create.
For example, I really do think the first poem of the book is instructive, in how it cycles. I think of first poems generally as teaching the reader how to read the book. And so, the cycling of images. Jack Spicer does this a lot—you have a phrase that repeats itself throughout, in different contexts. It retains the previous iterations and associations, and builds new ones. It contains every meaning that has preceded it. I thought of my book as doing the same thing, echoing forward.
I love that phrase, “echoing forward.”
Thank you! Well, I have these images that repeat throughout, but each one in a different context, each one absorbing what came before it, in addition to the cultural mythology that would inform such an image. For example, I have images of arrows and hearts and sacred hearts. I don’t see them as contradicting each other. I see them as layered. I grew up as a Catholic, so this image of the heart with the crown of thorns…
You signed my book with a picture of a heart with a crown of thorns around it! (EDITOR'S NOTE: August 6th, 2014, Poet’s House, NYC)
(Laughing) Did I? I’m glad.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.
Ha, no, that’s great! So these hearts, arrows through the hearts—to me they contain all these possibilities. Cupid, The Sacred Heart as divine, exalted suffering, Eros. I wanted to use the recurring images as a way of showing triggered memory and of echoing. It was intentional, but I’m not sitting and writing the poem thinking, “I need to put a sacred heart at the ending to echo off this other poem.”
That makes total sense, and that’s a great way to say it, “echoing forward.” You mention Spicer, who is an obsession of mine too, and one of my favorite things he says is, “A poet is a time mechanic, not an embalmer.” It seems particularly relevant in this place, as you’re hopping around and manipulating these recurring elements throughout the book.
Mmhmm, mmhmm. I love Spicer. I could talk about him all day.
There’s that collected volume of his that Wesleyan put out and they did such a great job with it. I have this revolving wall of poetic deities hanging above my bed and his picture has been up there for at least a year now. Some people get dethroned but he’s just been hanging out.
Nice! I love how you have a wall of deities. I have a mental pantheon.
Anne Carson, Jack Spicer. Sylvia Plath, Srikanth Reddy…
Who was the last one?
Srikanth Reddy, he wrote Voyager and Facts for Visitors.
I’m not familiar.
Oh, man, okay, you need to read Facts for Visitors. You have to be in the right mindset to read it. And Voyager is very interesting—it’s very spare. I would read Facts for Visitors first. Voyager is an erasure three-times over of an account by somebody who was a former Nazi officer.
Interesting! I’ll check it out.
Do it. You really should.
Okay, so, getting back to Split, we talked about how the book deals with sexual violence, deals with identity, and then it also deals with cultural conflicts, with your parents’ experiences immigrating and your experience retelling the stories they’re unable to tell, at least not to English-speaking audiences. Entire collections and even careers have been built around examining any one of those themes individually, but one of the real triumphs of this book is its ability to engage all of those themes without wanting for depth. I never felt like you were skidding on the surface. As you think about assembling another manuscript, do you start to zoom in? Or do you zoom even further out?
So, I started writing the first poems in Split when I was twenty. The newest poem was written when I was thirty-three, I think, so there’s a thirteen-year span in there. It also was two manuscripts that I mashed together. The middle section was this manuscript of family poems about the Vietnam war and its aftermath. It was more narrative, it was more my translation of my parents’ stories and my interaction with them as family. That was something I’d always been interested in. The second manuscript was really me digging in about definitions and ideas about sexual violence, looking at those narratives. Somewhere in between I was writing these Spicer imitations that were written during a time of great longing, you know? (Laughing) So, I didn’t know how to put it together. I thought they were incongruent. I see now that they’re recognizably the same voice, but at the time I just thought, “this Spicer imitation doesn’t look like this narrative poem about my family. It just doesn’t feel the same. These more fragmentary poems at the beginning don’t look like the poems in the middle—can they exist in the same manuscript?” I don’t think I was consciously trying to diversify in theme.
Theme has everything to do with obsession, with the ideas I’m working out at the time. When I was writing my family narratives, I was very interested in the idea of what a family was. What does it mean to record? What’s memory? Excavating was a metaphor I was working with quite often, and that was my conception of what I was doing. Writing those family narratives resulted in having a lot of overlap with writing about my childhood sexual abuse, which overlapped with my experiences with romantic love. It all speaks to itself. It was less of an effort to diversify than an effort to put together what I’d been working with and aesthetically allowing the conversation I’d been having with myself over the years exist within the same space. I didn’t know it could all cohere until it did it.
Now that this book is done, I am still writing poems, and some of them deal with some of the same topics. But, I’m also at home with my parents, trying to interview them. My parents were extras in "Apocalypse Now" while they were refugees in the Philippines. The fall of Saigon was April 30th, 1975. Around July, it was my parents’ second attempt to leave the country that they no longer felt safe in, you know? So they got in a little boat, eight people or so, and crossed the ocean for eight days and landed in the Philippines. A lot of these stories, I had just a very loose framework of what happened, but when I ask for it, the details are so incredible. They stayed in the refugee camp in the Philippines for eleven months, and somehow all the refugees were approached by the people making Apocalypse Now, which was being filmed not too far away, and they were hired as extras to play Vietnamese people.
Yeah! (Laughing) And so my parents played extras, they were paid to do so, and people were thrilled to do it because they were so bored in the refugee camp. When I’d tell people the story and when I’d think about it, I always felt like my parents had been taken advantage of, you know? Like, how messed up is it to take people who have just escaped the war and cast them as versions of themselves, versions of the “enemy,” playing Viet Cong, playing spies. There’s a lot of layers to it. My reaction is, “How incredibly fucked up is that?” But I talk to my brother about it, and his reaction is, “What do you mean? They’re part of cinematic history! How cool is that?”
I think you’re both right.
(Laughing) I don’t know what the project I’m working on now will look like. I’ve talked with a lot of people and gotten a lot of suggestions. I’m trying to think about what it would look like to do a multi-genre book about this stuff. I look at Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and I start to think about having sections—poem sections and interview sections and film stills and that sort of thing—combining crossing genres. Formally, I have this idea that it’s wide open. Thematically, I’ll let it take shape on its own. I want to allow it to incorporate the everyday too, stories of them just hanging out around the house. My brother loaned me a fancy camera so I can take my parents out and just tape them doing what they do. Fundamentally, my interest right now is to capture and document at least something, so I’ll have it. My father, at this point, is seventy-five, super robust and healthy, but I have to understand that these stories are precious, and that nobody can tell these particular stories but them. The very interesting thing is that they lived all of this together, so there’s a kind of collective memory. He tells his version, and she tells her version, but they’re remembering and constructing a story together.
Thematically I’m still untangling all of this, taking apart all of the layers. What does it mean when you talk about representation? Who is censored in the narrative and who gets marginalized? Who gets to speak and who is silenced?
We’re talking about your family, and obviously the book deals with some pretty unpleasant realities of your early family life that happened around your brothers and your mother and father. You also dedicate the book to your grandmother and your older sister. What can you say about your family’s response to the book?
Well, I’ll say this: I don’t know my parents’ reaction to it because, I mean, my parents do read a little English and they do speak a little English, but I don’t think they’ve read my book. But, I read in L.A. on Mother’s Day weekend, and my family attended my reading. That was the first time they’d seen me read, and that was a very interesting experience in some ways. I’ve always been close with my family but I’ve not shared with them my work as a writer.
My brothers, I knew, would read the book, and they also have a community around them who would read and talk about the content of my writing, so I sent my brothers the manuscript ahead of time. I was very afraid that they’d be upset with me that I’d never shared this information with them. I thought they’d feel betrayed, but they were incredibly supportive. They said they were very proud of me. It was hard, too, because they also felt it was reflecting on themselves as characters in my life who didn’t do all they could have done. So, their reaction has been one of overwhelming support, but also, on a personal level, we as a family were beginning to breach silences that have always existed.
What I was doing on the page, I was also doing in my personal life. It changed me hugely. Before the book, I’d had these compartments.
I have a reading coming up in Southern California. It’s only my second reading here, and my older brother’s coming. My younger brother might come, but that’s still a strange experience, you know? They’ve read my work, but now, they’ll hear it read aloud to a public, to an audience. It’s still something I’m working out.
I’ve always felt that this was my story. I’ve always felt I had permission to write it and that it didn’t necessarily matter how my family reacted to it. I feel like I have the right to do it.
Absolutely. Some of my favorite moments in the book come from your engaging these very culturally specific rituals, things that may not seem odd to someone who has grown up within Vietnamese culture, but things that certainly seem unusual to a layperson like me who doesn’t really know a whole lot about those practices and traditions. I’m thinking specifically of the image of your father sandpapering away the facial scar, which you elevate with the language of the lines: “I watched him take sandpaper to his face / strip a dark scar from the ridge just below his eye blood dotted the steel faucet his skin was slick and pink underneath.” It’s tender! The brutality of the act is undercut by the intimacy of the speaker watching it happen. And then the — I’m not going to be able to pronounce it—
Right. When your mom is performing cao gió in “Bloodlines,” she’s literally scraping bruises into the speaker’s skin with a coin, which could certainly seem violent, but within the tradition of the culture, I understand, this is a sort of homeopathic medicinal act. Can you talk about the act of translating these sorts of deeply cultural behaviors?
I’m somebody whose home life was not always understood by outsiders, people who don't share the same customs and traditions. When I was young, my mom would tell me that that tradition, cao gió, was something we had to be careful of. Even though it was something that the majority of Vietnamese people practiced, we still had to make sure our marks didn’t show when we went to school because our teachers would think our parents were abusing us. There are these bright red strips on your back, and they look like bruising. So I was very aware of wanting to describe things so clearly that someone who wasn’t familiar with this ritual could still see it happening, and could still visualize it. So, I’m translating, but I’m also simultaneously contextualizing and making meaning. What does it mean to heal someone basically by hurting them?
Sure. It seems a little like bloodletting.
Yeah, it’s just like bloodletting. People can say “bloodletting” or putting leeches on or any of that. In “Bloodlines,” there’s this idea of helping someone by hurting them, of release, of excavating. And, you know, what I’m excavating really is my bloodline. There’s something deeply intimate about it. There’s the intimate familial relationship, there’s the relationship with our bodies that are simultaneously tender and giving and brutal. And then on top of all that, there’s this layer of historical trauma, and the storytelling that accompanies it. And then formally, craftwise, it’s in these couplets which to me seem like a pairing, like a mother and daughter, you know?
Oh, that’s cool. I hadn’t thought of that.
Yeah, there’s all these layers that you hope as a young poet to get in there (laughing).
Is there anything in Split that was important to you that people haven’t really talked about much?
I’ve always been interested in how people receive confession. I have my own ideas, but they’re not fully formed. I think about confession as being important in the book, and I also think about this idea of talk-therapy as healing. So much of the American understanding of how to heal trauma is based upon these European ideals, you know, talking about the female bodies and the traumas they endure and how to understand them. The doctor figure in the book is not necessarily male, but I think culturally we have that default assumption. I don’t want to say anything specifically about that, but I do think it’s interesting.
You’re dealing with difficult, true events from your life. I think a lot of poets are uncomfortable with that. I think a lot of readers can be uncomfortable with that too.
Yeah, I agree. I was thinking about that. I was thinking about the level of revelation of detail, how it can also be seen as a kind of assault to an audience member, how it can be damaging or triggering to another person out there. I haven’t really talked about that, but I think about it often. I remember the experience, in my early readings, of people just staring at me, not really knowing what to do with themselves. That’s why I preface it in a way, to sort of allow people to enter, to understand. I’m not somebody who likes to make people uncomfortable. The other thing I think about is, you know, how is reading a book of poetry a version of psychoanalysis. You read a poem and you hear it is autobiographical, how do you receive the information and analyze it? How does that make you read the author?
How do you brace audiences? When you know you’re going to be reading a series of poems about sexual trauma, how do you preface them?
I tell them that, for me, poetry is a place of deep intimacy and within my book, I have this figure, a doctor figure. I imagine this figure to be the audience that listens, and therefore the audience acts as a kind of healer in many ways. They listen to my confession. I tell them the poems are going to be about trauma and sexual violence, and that I conceive this space to be a place of deep intimacy where I’m asking them to be like that doctor figure, listening in. I think it helps people if they understand their role, and understand why they’re there, and why I’m telling them these things. It provides a sense of emotional preparation.
And then, you know, this is a deeply personal story, but it’s also a shared story. One in four women and one in six men have experienced some kind of sexual violence in their lives. These are people we live with and love and commune with and sit in poetry meetings with. It’s every day. It might not be a story that’s talked about but it’s definitely not so unique as to not be a major part of our human experience. I think that helps.
It’s the same with talking about war—we’re a country at war, currently, but we don’t see it. The historical span of time when we’ve been at war that I write about is not so different than what we’re currently engaged in right now. It’s a very American story.
Interview Posted: February 16, 2015
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