This interview with Ching-In Chen is the third in a series on queerness, genre, and the essay. The first interview with Douglas A. Martin can be read here, and the second with Jackie Wang can be read here.
Ching-In Chen is a community organizer, the author of The Heart’s Traffic, and co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities and Here Is a Pen: an Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets. More of their recent work can be found on their website.
T Clutch Fleischmann: As with the last two interviews in this series, I’d like to start by hearing a bit about your relationship to categorizations of genre and of gender/sexuality. So, first, do you think of yourself as a queer writer? As a trans writer? Do you think that your writing, or your writing practice, is somehow queer, trans, etc.?
Ching-In Chen: I identify as a queer writer and a genderqueer writer with an affinity to trans writing, and also as a writer connected to Asian/American communities and communities of color. For me, those communities intersect and have been important to me in forming my identity as a writer.
I frequently call myself a blurry writer because I am attracted to cross-genre or genrequeer writing—and I think there is a queer and trans quality about approaching the boundary and tinkering with it in multiple ways. One of my writing practices is writing against myself, subverting myself, trying to trick myself into an alternate conversation or another vantage point. After many repetitions of this process, I realized that I was circling around a similar set of concerns, but I was doing this because I was trying to get under the surface of my obsessions.
I like the idea of writing that attempts to subvert the writer’s self—it’s so beautifully contrary to a lot of ideas about writing, where the work supposedly encapsulates the self, the body, the lived experience, etc. Subverting also seems to still recognize the presence of a self, even if only as something that might be subverted. Do you feel like you’re often successful in the subversion? Can that goal be achieved? The zuihitsu you contributed to The Letter Q, for instance, seems to write into this tension in really interesting ways (“You can’t filter out that voice in your head,” etc.).
Success is an interesting way to think about subverting the self. I am the same self, which also means I am multiple and contradictory selves. I see myself as trying to approach these selves, especially the selves not taking up mainstage billing, with an indirect approach. The goal for me as a writer would be to reach what's underneath to bring to the surface. I don't know if it can be fully achieved. Instead, I think of it as a constant approach. It's my hope that the deeper you burrow, the more your work might reach towards a new insight.
I do also worry about going dry or reaching a dead end in my creative practice. I have been trained to show up as much possible, to be present for the page, a sort of meditative practice of waiting for what will come and rise to the surface. I'm part of a writing community called the Grind where we commit to sending/revising something every day for a month to our grind group. It's been an important community for my own creative practice, but producing/working at the level means also that there is always that tension with how stretched I can feel while pushing myself to keep going. As a writer, I need to feed and grow that energy constantly to maintain that level of production.
And then the second part, how much do you connect or not connect to traditions of essay writing? You’re probably most widely considered as a poet, although you’ve worked across a range of genres and hybrid forms, and I read a lot of your work as having essayistic qualities. Are questions of genre important to you while you write, or in how you hope your work is received?
My first reaction to the question—I wanted to say I hate essays, but I also hated poetry as a K-12 student too. I think I'll say instead that I hated what I was taught about these forms in school—that straitjacketed 5-paragraph essay—and the way that I completed those essay assignments was to trick myself into giving myself an alternate assignment, something I could get obsessed over. It wasn't until much later I discovered there was a lot more to those forms which I might be interested in exploring.
In my family, my mom doesn't gossip or share much information if she doesn't have to (she operates on a Need-To-Know kind of basis). Alternately, my dad is a fabulist—he often fills in the gaps when he's telling a story or even talking about the history of a place or an animal. It's only because we know him well that we can figure out when he's telling a tall tale. So they are ultimately my models for what I think of as trying to tell a truth—and I alternate always between these various ways of knowing and being. I think because of this, I resist easy identification in poetry and I resist this also in the essay. I didn't know then that I could do this in my writing. Back then, I thought my only recourse was fiction.
Now, I approach my writing by planting clues and seeds for readers to discover, but I am fairly open about how my writing is received. I've learned that each word has its constellation of private and public meanings, networks and intersections. I can control the reception to some extent, but there is always a level of mystery also.
In terms of genre, I often am interested in what the various elements of each genre can bring to the stage of the page I'm working on—and what kind of effect different tweaks can produce. I'm not very loyal to specific genres of writing, but I have noticed that my work raises less eyebrows amongst poets than prose writers. Even if a poet isn't aesthetically pleased with my writing, in my experience, s/he/they has been less likely to dismiss my work as not being a poem, for instance.
Related to that, could you tell me about the zuihitsu form and your attraction to it?
I'm really attracted to the zuihitsu form—and its fungus-like, mutant quality. There's an offbeat-ness to it that I love, which feels like an alternate way to approach that boundary.
I appreciate its chaotic nature, which feels so different from other forms, which are so specific in their strictures. This form seems to me to an elusive form which captures a particular kind of feeling, but which is hard to pin down, unclassifiable. Very queer, in other words!
People are, as you say, much quicker to dismiss something as “not an essay” than they would be to dismiss it as “not a poem,” a dismissal that can often foreclose whatever conversations might have come from the writing. Even more than poetry, then, it sounds like the zuihitsu might offer an openness to you in this regard—like you say, its nature is “chaotic,” unlike other “forms, which are so specific in their strictures.” It makes me think of one problem with the queer label, which is that it can shift from being a way to resist categorization to instead becoming its own form of categorization. You write against your self—do you also write against the interpretation of others? Is your writing conscious of resisting that dismissal that might occur because of genre, or gender, or other categorizations?
Yes, because I think many of us can't help but write against others' interpretations of who we are. In a fundamental way, that is one of the main reasons I began writing—to create my own interpretation of my self, in a sense. But also, No, I don't necessarily write against the interpretation of others because my creative work necessitates that the reader invest themselves into the process to read it. Here, I'm not necessarily speaking of making sense of the work, but of piecing together a kind of map/configuration/constellation which will hopefully speak to them. My intention is to place those specific seeds into the conversation and to choreograph their relationships and specific conversations onto the page, in proximity to each other. In this process, I'm just as interested in how my reader/viewer receives these conversations and what kind of insights they bring to such a process through that process of reading and interpreting.
You open your poetics statement in Troubling the Line by saying “We are switch-boarding our words into each other’s, or into the lines that have been laid.” This recalled to me a bit of what Jackie Wang talked about in the last interview in this series, about “not being much of a literary school-maker,” but also about the books she carries around with her and the kind of sociality that books provide. Do you see yourself as operating in any particular literary traditions, or do you see yourself charting into something else (“change can’t just happen along a continuum that has already been established itself, or it wouldn’t be change,” you also say in the poetics statement).
Before the MFA, I was trained as a writer through community workshops at Kearny Street Workshop, the oldest multi-disciplinary Asian American arts organization in the country. In Maiana Minahal's Waiting For Our Words writing workshop, Maiana centered the words of queer women of color in her teaching and taught us specific poetic forms by writers of color. Since then, the lineage of aesthetics and traditions of writers of color is one which I have most actively pursued by participating in communities such as the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) and Kundiman, the Asian American literary organization. That has been a starting point for the journey, but as I keep growing as a writer, I've realized how much I don't know and how wide this tradition is and I have actively attempted to read into the areas I feel I have gaps. I'm looking to slowly build that constellation of influences and to learn as much as I can.
It's been more difficult uncovering queer and trans literary traditions of color, especially by Asian/Americans so that's what I'm more focused on learning about. I'm more familiar with my peers who are producing wonderful work, but am curious about others who have come before. I think that's part of my work as a writer—to learn about that history and then to write ourselves alongside and in response and also completely apart. Sometimes, if it's not there or you can't find it, then to imagine the words backwards.
Could you name a few of those peers, as well as a few of the others who came before?
Peers doing wonderful work are many and include Margaret Rhee, Ryka Aoki, Soham Patel, Trish Salah, Tamiko Beyer, Ocean Vuong, Vanessa Huang. As I mentioned, those who have come before have been more difficult to trace—some I would consider mentors would be Kazim Ali and Madeleine Lim, who is the founder of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project. I've admired the writing of folks such as Larissa Lai, Lawrence Chua, Justin Chin and Alexander Chee.
Writing against the self and as a way to get underneath the surface of obsessions is also interesting considering repetition in your work. People maybe think of repetition as a kind of circling, a retracing of the same movements, but you’re often able to use repetition to perform new movements instead. Could you talk about how that plays out in the manuscript that you’re working on now? Is shifting or queering genre also a way you accomplish this?
In recombinant, the manuscript I'm currently working on, the repetitive process is important because it helps me understand the ghost traces history has left behind. It's part of a larger project which works with Asian diasporic labor, both historical and in the present tense.
In doing research and accessing the archive (for instance, on census documents, Sanborn maps), I create seed fragments and then re-mix or re-combine. I juxtapose them with other seeds to make a new kind of movement, to see what might surface from that process. For me, repeating this process is a way for me to accumulate the material to move the conversation forward and also deal with what is missing in the archive, what is difficult in terms of whose histories, voices, fragments survived and whose didn't. Shifting and queering genre is definitely a strategy for me to tell a non-tellable story. As M. NourbeSe Philip writes, “There is no telling this story; it must be told.”