Sally Wen Mao’s recently released second book of poetry, OCULUS, has garnered critical acclaim, and is of special interest to Asian American film lovers because of its focus on our first screen star, Anna May Wong, in addition to riffs on Wong Kar Wai, and the installation artist Nam June Paik. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the perspectives and lives of Asian and Asian American women, or Asian American film and culture more broadly – especially in this time when our “identities are burning,” as I’d written in a 2018 Psychology Today article. OCULUS is a bright and guiding flame in that fire.
I sat down with Sally Wen Mao on March 15, 2019 – the same day renowned poet W.S. Merwin died, and just shy of two months after Mary Oliver passed away. Mao is certainly a great example of the continuity of the ars poetica, and is part of what might someday be seen as a renaissance of young Asian American poets, including such stars as Ocean Vuong, Cathy Linh Che, Jenny Xie, Bao Phi, and others. Whether or not you’ve ever been into poetry, now is a great time to dig into works such as OCULUS. Below is a lightly edited excerpt from the interview. The full hourlong interview is accessible on YouTube, and in audio at Soundcloud, Stitcher and iTunes podcasts. Find out more about Sally Wen Mao at www.sallywenmao.com, or you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
First, please tell me about your own narrative and identity: as an immigrant, an Asian American woman, and a poet. How did you get here?
Thank you. I was born in Wuhan, China, and my parents immigrated to the States when I was five. We spent four years in Boston, and we moved to Mountain View when I was nine, so I mostly grew up in the Bay Area. I grew up loving writing and art in general., the visual arts, writing poetry and fiction. I kept pursuing that through high school and college, and then went to an MFA program at Cornell. I wrote my first book of poetry (MAD HONEY SYMPOSIUM) there. After that, I have been doing a lot of residencies and fellowships as a writer since 2015. My second book (OCULUS) just came out two months ago.
I’ve been told that “there are lit people, there are poetry people, there are visual art people, and there are film people – and they know very little about each other’s worlds.” As someone who dabbles in many of those worlds, as spectator and artist, I really appreciated your crossing worlds in OCULUS, which is chock full of cultural references! I learned and felt so much! Tell me about how all these art forms influence you as a person, from Pokémon to Wong Kar Wai. How do they relate for you, or what do they supply for you?
I’ve always consumed a lot of visual media – I’m sure we all have! What you said just now about the different hermetically sealed worlds – I think is being challenged. I just came back from a residency in Shanghai where there were (artists from many genres), that feed each other. In OCULUS, I look at not just other types of art, but also pop culture, the kinds of shows we consumed as kids growing up. I used my influences and tried to mesh them together with poetry.
How do you think media and the arts might be especially important for Asian American identity, both as a creator and consumer?
With Asian Americans in particular, the stereotype is that they are not very arts-oriented people – I don’t think that’s true at all, from my experience. From the proliferation of Asian Americans in the arts in the last 10-20 years, that stereotype has been shifted, or I hope is being shifted. In poetry in particular, I’ve seen such an emergence of younger Asian American poets in the last 10 years, and it’s been really exciting to see the diversity of voices.
What do you think it’s done for you and for the Asian American community?
I think it’s great – because growing up I barely had any exposure to Asian Americans in books, movies, etc. If I wanted to consume work by people who look like me I had to turn to Asia itself. Or Asian books in translation. But there’s a big difference between Asian and Asian American experience. So having a more expansive group of Asian American artists is going to change how young people grow up. They’ll grow up thinking, “I can also do that.” When I grew up that wasn’t so obvious.
Tell me about how you conceived of OCULUS, and about the title.
I was writing a lot of poems that had to do with performance, or technology. And technology we often use as performance…(technology becomes) a way to perform an identity, to perform a self. That tied into literal performances of actors and actresses. I had a poem sequence about Anna May Wong the actress. I (learned about her) at the Museum of Chinese in America, and (did more research). There’s literally no other figure who had her particular experience and positionality as a big Hollywood actress in the Roaring 20s and 30s into the 40s. I was inspired by reading her biography. I wanted to write persona poems. I didn’t want to just recycle the biographical details that are out there. So I decided I wanted to introduce a speculative element and have her go into the future. We all know what happened in her future and our present. And those questions of representation still pervade our lives right now….
How did you research Anna May Wong? What films did you watch?
I watched THE TOLL OF THE SEA, because that was readily available on YouTube. I’ve seen others like SHANGHAI EXPRESS. I’ve tried to watch all the ones available on YouTube, like LIMEHOUSE BLUES. There’s a film I haven’t seen that I really want to see – DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI. I don’t think she dies in that movie! I read her biography, and went into the archives (at the New York Public Library). There’s a lot of material out there. I’m still collecting.
What were some of the ethical issues involved in writing from an imagined Anna May Wong-perspective?
There’s always a consideration with that – you have to consider what is your responsibility when you’re writing a persona poem. I went ahead and did it – as I researched, I read a lot of things she wrote. I could not only empathize with (what she said) but I’ve also felt those things…just being caught, as a Chinese American, having this homesickness for a place you don’t know. Very particular things to her identity. I wasn’t born here, but growing up here in America, I can really understand some of those things that she was struggling with, almost at a visceral level. I don’t believe I’m exploiting her. When you’re writing from someone who’s more marginalized than you, it can get very tricky. But I’m writing from a more similar perspective to her. And White people have been writing from our perspective without any consideration of ethics for hundreds and hundreds of years! So I’m going to rewrite it from my perspective because my perspective is closer to her perspective. One example is her biographer. He’s this historian that I met at one of his talks. I don’t think he can necessarily understand her perspective on a visceral level.
What didn’t he get?
Even in the beginning of his book, the first sentence said something like “I first encountered the mystique of Anna May Wong at this bookshop window in London…” So if I were writing a biography of her, ‘mystique’ is not necessarily a word I would use. Again, it’s about positionality. To a white man, there’s a mystique – but for me, that’s not mystical – that is literally my identity! …And (in terms of themes of her life)… belonging, and pervasive alienation.
So important for Asian Americans.
She was not in THE GOOD EARTH, one of the first films to portray Chinese people in a positive light. There’s something about that erasure that speaks to this deeper feeling of belonging that casts that in a completely literal way.
You don’t even belong in this story that is literally about your people.
What was it like to dig down into the essence, and taking on the life force of Anna May Wong and other Asian and Asian American women?
I think she’s a very complex figure. She spoke very frankly about her frustrations, but at the same time she was this huge star. And she was very lonely – she never married, she never had children. I think that was something she struggled with as well. I think that’s something that a lot of Asian Americans, particularly women, struggle with. This pressure to conform to this picture of perfection. And belonging – not only this collective belonging – to community and family – but also personally. Anna May Wong struggled with her personal life. At one point she says she wanted to marry a Chinese man – but they didn’t like her, because of her profession, she had a very Westernized lifestyle, this kind of decadent “flapper” lifestyle. She said Chinese men just want a wife who would cook for them. She had to struggle with the loneliness of her life. That’s not just about her life, that’s a pervasive feeling.
You actually talk about two centuries of Asian and Asian American women, starting with Afong Moy (the first Chinese woman immigrant to the U.S., who was used as an exhibit to help sell Chinese goods; she also met President Andrew Jackson). I learned a lot from your writing. Also Ruan Lingyu (Chinese actress who made worldwide news when she committed suicide), Daul Kim (fashion model and blogger), and you end your book with a poem about Solange, a woman of color at the center of attention, wondering about the quality of being seen. Also the final poem, “Resurrection,” about your encounter with a poster featuring Anna May Wong.
She’s a huge celebrity (whom I was familiar with), but all the other people passing her image in the subway might not know her! (This was the Chinese Historical Society’s exhibit “Exclusion/Inclusion.”) Unless you’re a film studies major (you might not know her.) If you put a picture of Leonardo DiCaprio, everyone would know him… The unrecognition that I thought people had of her.
There’s this great line in your poem, “I am not a stranger here,” because Anna May Wong was present via her image.
Because of her, because I could recognize her, even though she couldn’t recognize me… and that is rare. With Afong Moy and all these other women I wrote about…. Afong Moy didn’t have any archives. She contrasted with Anna May Wong – with Anna May Wong, I could find…direct quotes. She was a celebrity. She had a public persona. She was a great reporter. With Afong Moy, there were only secondhand accounts from White people who were paying to see her! So I really wanted to write something from her perspective. I’m sure (the White people) looked as absurd to her as she did to them. With the other figures, I think it’s all in this atmosphere for me…the psyche of the Asian American woman is not very well-known. I feel like that word “mystique” is the default. But the fact is Asian American women have high rates of depression and suicide. This is something that is real, and I want to treat it that way.
How do you notice distortion in your own life, of being seen and being perceived by others?
What happens is that you start to internalize it. That’s what happens, and it’s awful. It’s so fucking bad! To be treated a certain way. When you are seen as a passive object, you will be treated a certain way. To be treated that way…as disposable – what does that do to your sense of self-worth, what does that do to your overall well-being? The story “Madame Butterfly” that gets recycled over and over again, into “Miss Saigon,” that hit Broadway musical that just played in 2017 – that same story gets repeated and repeated and recycled! The story is that this Asian woman gets pregnant by this White man, and then he goes back to his country and finds a White woman to marry and have children with, and she sees that he has this family so there’s no place for her – so she kills herself! What does that story being one of the most popular stories of all time, and being written by some White dude, and being enjoyed by mostly White audiences – what does that say to the subject, the Asian American woman? That basically I’m worthless without recognition from White patriarchy! Oh man. You just get tired at some point. You don’t have to take that. You don’t have to believe that. You don’t have to internalize that. But that’s such a long journey, to realize you don’t have to internalize the awful things that are projected onto you.
That’s a perfect encapsulation of some of the motives you had in writing this book – to get back to novelist Elizabeth McCracken’s discussion of writer’s motives. In terms of what you are taking aim at. I loved what poet Jennifer Cheng said at the City Lights Bookstore event, that you were creating an “imaginative matrilineage.”
Now more Asian Americans are turning to social media to curate a self. At the same time there’s a limitation to that agency. You might have an Instagram account, you might have followers. But you can never know how you are perceived by other people. And I think that anxiety is so pervasive, so pervasive, and it’s so much a part of our psyches and it drives a lot of depressive thoughts.
There is this desire to reach out to the world. But more and more, my social media has to do with my poet self. I’m not one who will talk about really personal things on Twitter. But I know those people too, and I admire them. … But I think that feeling of … inadequacy flourishes on a platform like Instagram…
But poetry comes naturally to me now…poetry is a space for a more authentic self…Just at City Lights yesterday, young women came up to me and said…they’d never been able to relate to a poetry book before. And that’s what’s most important to me, that it’s resonating, and allowing young women to feel more connected to the world, and to realize that whatever they’re feeling it’s not just them, but it’s pervasive.
And maybe they’ll feel like they’re “not strangers” because of your writing.
Yes, thank you.
I first heard of your book because of Dan Chiasson’s review in The New Yorker. It was a really great review, and I learned so much from it – and I’m not here to chasten Chiasson by any means! He wonderfully focused on some of your poems’ meanings and your artistic craft. But in some key ways, that review kind of missed the whole point, either consciously or unconsciously, or if it was an editorial decision. In particular, he never mentioned the words “Asian” or “Asian American,” or the sense of female-of-color identity caught up by violent, imperialistic and patriarchal stereotypes and assumptions. He didn’t mention that at all. That was basically true with his review of Jenny Xie’s book Eye Level last year as well (he wrote about craft, primarily). I mean on the one hand, it’s really great that The New Yorker is reviewing Asian American women’s books, and that’s a major step – but I wanted more. Even though other reviewers, like Rachel Carroll of the LA Review of Books, and Madeleine Wattenberg of The Bind, and several podcast interviews with Asian American women including Muriel Leung and Jenny Xie really got those issues front and center, what I thought was at the core. Were you at all perplexed by The New Yorker’s choice or omission? I know it’s really dangerous for me to want a specific kind of validation from the oculus of an Institution – but should we be calling this out or asking for more in any way?
I did notice…but I guess what I notice is that people got a whole host of different things. Different readers got different things. And that’s pretty much what the poet’s experience is, maybe more so than a novelist. Interpretations vary greatly. I definitely wanted this book to be more politically driven and obviously political. Most of the reviews really got it. As for the omission, I don’t fault the person for not including something. It could have been a part of it, but who knows. I did really like his review, he got a lot of it correct. And maybe even by omitting that, he got that this poetry collection would resonate with anyone who’s on social media, and that to me is also important…But I definitely wrote this book for Asian American women, but I think a lot of those feelings and experiences, most people have experienced. Like that anxiety of social media, is not just something I experience. So I do want it to be an oculus that looks up to this larger sky. There is a particular perspective…and the oculus is a frame, but there is still a sky beyond it.
I appreciate that. But I also wonder – why wouldn’t the life and aspirations of Asian American identity, Asian American female identity be interesting to a broader audience. Why not?
Absolutely – I completely agree with what you said. I guess I was thinking of that “malaise” of the literary world – relatability – a lot of readers would say “this book is so relatable.” But then you think about (what does that mean) – from whose perspective…?
Maybe the review was relatable – to people who have generally read New Yorker poetry reviews in the past. But that’s changing, too. Finally, what advice would you have for someone considering being an Asian American poet in 2019?
Sometimes I have trouble with that…I think to harness your intuitive side. Not to get too caught up in the optics and the oculus. Don’t become too obsessed with that. That is a whole other side to poetry, the business side. Stick with this path that you’ve carved for yourself. I don’t want to say “stay true,” but something along those lines. Don’t get jaded by the carnival. Poetry is supposed to come from this interior, sacred space.
Thank you. I think you really touched that sacred space for your readers. Finally, as you know, the eye or oculus is only a portal, a sense organ. We really “see” with our visual cortex and other neural structures that inform our vision. So thank you for reshaping our cultural cortex with your vision. Hopefully work like yours can help us see each other and ourselves more clearly, with all our human potential and difficulty.
Thank you. This was a great conversation.
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Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. You can find out more about his writing at www.RaviChandraMD.com, where you can read his latest outburst of poetry called 36 Views of San Francisco, including his own poem “Vision Field” about seeing and being seen, inspired by the Guggenheim – as was Sally Wen Mao’s penultimate poem in OCULUS. It might be a bit treacly, but that’s who he is. Read more MOSF blogposts here.