The PEN Ten with Carlina Duan
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, Hafizah Geter, editor at Little A and Day One from Amazon Publishing, speaks to Carlina Duan, whose debut poetry collection, I Wore My Blackest Hair, was released this month from Little A.
1. When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
As a kid, I wrote and wrote. Nonstop. But it probably wasn’t until high school when I got serious about my poetry. I had this creative writing teacher, Jeff Kass. His classes introduced me to the usefulness of poetry as a tool for navigating the world. Kass drove this tiny red car with a million bumper stickers plastered all over the trunk; you could barely see the red car skin peeking out from beneath. And I remember one very specific instance; I must’ve been around 14, when I was walking to the bus after school. I heard this little car beeping at me, and from across the parking lot, Kass stuck his head out the window and shouted, “What’s up, Poet!”
I think a lot about the privilege and the supreme gorgeousness of my own writing community, and how lucky it was that I fell into that community at such a young age. It was so powerful to be seen by teachers and by peers as a Poet—not a young Poet, not an emerging Poet, but always, Poet. I used to go to these poetry workshops in high school at The Neutral Zone, a local teen center, where we would sit on beanbags and read Martín Espada and francine j. harris poems and pledge ourselves to that space, to good poems, to each other. I found myself to be a writer at a relatively early age, because so many people who I loved—my teachers, my mentors, my friends, my librarians—were writers, and not only that, they were readers. They were my readers. And so the world of writers felt like this very accessible and natural thing for me to love and become. I didn’t realize it enough at the time, but what a true life blessing.
2. Where is your favorite place to write?
Generally speaking, I’m a late-night writer. I need the day to slip into me first before I can sit down, sans commotion, and produce work. There’s something about the hours past midnight—when the fridge is shut, when the rest of the world is humbled by sleep—that feels very ripe to my production process. I think the actual act of writing, for me, thrives in this quiet zone, when my brain is told it should be bleary, yet remains woefully (magnificently) awake. Typically, my poems must be written on a laptop, hunched in bed at some wild hour of the night. That said, there are plenty of times when I’ve broken my own rules. I currently live in Nashville, and there’s a favorite bakery of mine with a gravel lot and plenty of windows, that is consistently flooded with babies and buttery pie crust scent. In the past month, I’ve done a lot of my revisions here. There’s something soothing and communal about re-examining poems amongst so many other bodies—in a very different space I was in when I created the poem; it provides me a new window with which to interrogate my work; it feels fertile and festive.
3. Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
I’ve always been fascinated by the limits of language; the fringe-work; the spaces where language fails to encapsulate or communicate a lived state or being. I think it would be a dangerous assumption that language is precise; that it always holds the answer. Words fail. Frequently. And I think that’s, in part, what can make poetry such a lush (and terrifying!) project to me—the act of honoring, the act of celebrating, challenging something in the world, especially when that thing is unable to be pinned down by words. Yet still trying to get close. The heart and the determination that comes along with that. The pain, the loss, the humor. I also think it would be dangerous to ignore the power implications that come with any language, but particularly with English; the long-webbed and violent histories that it’s contained. So perhaps this is the expected answer, but a truthful one: I’m obsessed with learning how to be responsible and mighty with my language; with naming; with etymology; with language as work and as movement in the world.
On a different note: I’m also very into fruit. The general existence of fruit in the world makes me giddy. Jackfruit, blood orange, dragonfruit, durian, watermelon, cherry. There’s something endlessly lush and exciting to me about sweet things you can pluck from the dirt.
4. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
It took me a long time to be able to articulate the ways that language itself has sliced and inflicted violence onto my relationships, and consequently, onto my world. I think it can be very fraught to write about family, especially when you’re the child of immigrants who you love beyond measure. But I kept finding myself haunted by my family’s stories, our particular way of shifting between registers of Mandarin Chinese and English when we spoke, and how it was rare for me to see this kind of linguistic shuffle represented in literature. I wanted to write about the ways that my family talks to each other, and, rather than simplify Chinese-American families into the poetic stuff of stripes and stars, I wanted to honor our conversations as complex spaces of joy, kindness, and also rage, heartbreak, fear.
The poem “I Wore My Blackest Hair,” which is the first poem in my new collection, is about the rage, the miscommunication, the unspoken, and, ultimately, the fierce love between father and daughter. I struggled with giving myself permission to write about linguistic violence in this way, particularly with portraying the Father character of this poem as one who was so vested in rage and stoic coldness. I was worried about adding to the depiction of Chinese fathers as unfeeling caricatures of anger. And I was especially worried that I was misrepresenting the love between father and daughter in the poem; that the love would get snuffed out by the rage. I had spent a lot of my energy in the book trying to celebrate the boundlessness and beauty of familial sacrifice. Yet this poem, the first in the book, bared its teeth and called attention to the complicated, sometimes ugly stuff involved with dual languages and cultures in a family. I had to reckon with that sort of nuanced honesty in the poem, and in the collection at large. Anger will always deserve its rightful place at the table, and you have to dare to be angry, which is also daring to respect, daring to love.
5. What is the responsibility of the writer?
To be accountable to and honest about the work of living. To be alert, to pay attention. To break, or sustain. To not be complicit. There is so much terror and overwhelming amounts of information being pushed at us at all hours of the day. I think it can be very easy to get sucked into a wormhole of helplessness. There’s also a lot of pressure and anxiety right now on artists and writers to restrict what they’re putting out into the world. The challenge has always been to resist the voice that tells us to stop writing, to stop making noise. Another challenge comes from the voice that tells us to hole ourselves up at home and exclusively write, write, write. Neither choice is particularly compelling for me. It’s important for writers to be readers, for writers to be sisters and fruit-eaters and voters and citizens and do the work of living first and foremost, so that they can responsibly and rightfully document that life, that work. I think a lot about how my favorite writers provide a level of reflection, hope, resistance, disruption. They remind us all to pay better attention.
6. While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
Yes. Writers will always have a purpose in the world. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t write. But I also think the notion of purpose is more nuanced than the framework of this question; I’m not sure if all writers serve a “collective” purpose. We’re all writing for different reasons and from very different places; a poet is going to have a different vantage point than a journalist or a screenwriter. Broadly, though, we may all write to see.
I do think that the idea of the “public intellectual” can be reductive if writers are expected to hold all of the answers or carry all of the grace. I think we should always be reading, and I think we should be taking agency of our books. Most writing is meant for a reader, and that reader, in turn, re-examines the words, turns them over in her head, and seeks out answers for herself that may or may not be shaped by what she reads.
7. Recognizing years of cultural theft and appropriation, to whom would you like to give back the crown?
Let the crown evaporate! In my mind, the notion of the “crown” is already problematic, because it sets up one form of artistry up to be dominated by another. You can’t talk about crowns without acknowledging there’s inherently some twisted forms of power involved in wearing them that feel very antithetical to the spread of literature or art. I say resist the crown and instead, strategize ways to amplify artists and writers whose works have been unjustly and historically stolen from and/or capitalized upon, so that everybody gets lifted up to the light.
That said, there are too many contemporary artists in the world right now whose work I fiercely respect and adore. I really, really love the visual and poetic work of Jess X Chen, particularly the murals she plants all across the country. There’s Min Xiao-Fen, whose sound is just straight up delicious and spooky. tarah douglas, Jasmine An, Wang Zhao are all creators whose works bejewel me with new learning, all the time.
8. How has the very public mainstreaming of bigotry and more visible and documented police violence resonated in your personal life and writing?
I can’t answer this question without thinking about communities and the people around me whom I love. There is a responsibility that I owe to myself, and to a lineage of my loved ones and those who came before us to actively resist, to protest, to speak up. The acceptance of police violence and bigotry in the American mainstream is not new. But it has pushed me to look for more active ways of resistance that both feed and extend beyond my writing—through attending public protests, through understanding my voting rights, through interacting with and challenging oppressive policies, questioning historical accounts of what’s traditionally deemed “acceptable.” That said, this kind of work can be exhausting and I frequently feel drained and highly anxious from all of it. I think it’s just as crucial to think about including sustainable healing spaces in the process of resistance. For me, that means taking conscious breaks from social media, holding close conversations (sometimes potlucks!) with friends, and allowing myself to also write the poem about peanut butter, or the poem about the magnolia tree. I think it’s important to be just as conscientious and expansive with your pain as you are with your joy.
Also, the framing power of language is crucial. I have been paying attention to the way that language can work in the world as erasure—especially in the current political climate. As a consumer of literary tradition and as a current student in an academic institution, I’ve had to look very carefully at the ways marginalized bodies versus bodies in power are being portrayed in legal, literary, and social rhetoric. And think about what’s left unsaid, or what’s skimmed over. In my creative work, I find myself questioning some of the existing language that is used to talk about Chinese Americans, and imagining new modes of portrayal. I’ve had to think hard about who I’m writing for and what I’m writing against. My unconscious impulse may be to write for an audience that wants to see a history of Chinese or Chinese American stereotypes reinforce itself. But I have had to challenge myself and my own role in my community by thinking about where that impulse comes from, and to interrogate it very loudly within and beyond my written work.
9. What book would you send to a government leader, domestic or foreign, who censors (or inhibits) marginalized and/or dissenting voices?
Rather than send books to a government leader, I’d like to gift them to the young folks—the kids in or out of school, the kids in libraries, kids in cafeterias, the unsure kids, or the kids out in backyards and gardens. I’d like to give many libraries of books. There’s no way I could just pick one. But for starters, Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria. Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. Anything by poets of the Dark Noise Collective. Jasmine An’s Naming the No-Name Woman. Safia Elhillo’s The January Children. Angel Nafis’s BlackGirl Mansion. Lu Xun’s short fiction. The children’s illustrated book, The Arrival, by Shaun Tan (which everybody should read forever). And Nate Marshall’s Wild Hundreds, in addition to his poem “the valley of its making,” which ends with the line: “we happen to love. this is our greatest / action.”
10. Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Observing means bearing witness to a space or a phenomena—tiny, small, gentle, expansive. Writers observe, as do children, as do deer. To observe something implies a level of trust in your sight, in the world; you have given yourself the time and the patience and the openness to observe. Surveillance, on the other hand, tracks, rather than witnesses. Surveillance may be used in order to frighten or trace, and, to me, violates the nature of witnessing, that sense of trust and permission.
Carlina Duan hails from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she earned her BA from the University of Michigan. As a 2016 Fulbright grant recipient, she lived and taught in Malaysia before returning to the States to pursue work as a literary arts educator and freelancer. Her poems have been anthologized and published in Uncommon Core, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Margins, and Berkeley Poetry Review, among others. I Wore My Blackest Hair is her first full-length poetry collection. She is currently an MFA Candidate at Vanderbilt University.
Born in Zaria, Nigeria, Hafizah Geter serves on the board of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts and co-curates the reading series EMPIRE with Ricardo Maldonado. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Tin House, Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and West Branch, among others. She is on the Poetry Committee and Bookends Committee for the Brooklyn Book Festival and is currently an editor for Little A and Day One from Amazon Publishing.