Hijacking the narrative: A Conversation with Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019) and Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books). Her work has won a 2017 Pushcart Prize. The recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Kundiman, the George Washington University, the New York Public Library Cullman Center, and Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Mao holds an M.F.A. from Cornell University.


Aline Dolinh: You’ve published one poetry collection and works of short fiction before, and this second book of poems seems to defy rigid generic expectations—it imbues poetry with alternate history and sci-fi narrative and cultural criticism, to name just a few other categories. I’m curious about how you decided that OCULUS needed to take this particular form. Can you describe how it first started coming together?

Sally Wen Mao: I think the first time I considered a book-length project for OCULUS was when I began writing the Anna May Wong poems—they started with “Anna May Wong Fans her Time Machine,” which I knew had to be a series, because that poem marked the beginning of her journey through time. I was excited because I knew I wanted to touch upon so many of the films that have profited from perpetuating lazy stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans through the years and how Orientalism has changed and persisted through the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. At the same time, I was also writing poems about technology and how young people react to technology and social media and their own image, and I felt these two threads linked together because of this common concern with the “gaze.”

AD: So much of this book is about interrogating the power dynamics between who gets to look and who gets to be looked at, or who acts and who appears (to clumsily paraphrase John Berger). In the process of writing poems that often “gaze back” at a long history of injustice and erasure, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Hollywood whitewashing, did you feel like you gained any new sense of catharsis or discovery from approaching these events as an author?

SWM: For me, it’s really a painful history that I absolutely wanted to take on in this book. History books are necessary in order for us to know and perceive the truth, and there’s always a question of perspective and who gets to tell the story—there are many historical accounts of the Chinese Exclusion Acts and Hollywood whitewashing, but many of them weren’t written by Asian Americans until much later. Asian American Studies didn’t emerge as a field of scholarship until the late 1960s.

One thing I think a poetry book can offer, to use your language of “gazing back at a long history of injustice and erasure,” is to imagine as well as record. That could mean imagining an alternate reality or history, or manipulating time, or using language to question the ethics of something that exists both in the past and the present. The catharsis I would get from writing this book is perhaps in that act of questioning through language, connecting the past to the present, debunking this myth that we exist in some kind of progressive aftermath. The fact that this book is coming out during this present moment of history heightens the concerns it raises about American history.

AD: I’ve seen OCULUS described as a collection about “the violence of the spectacle.” A lot of contemporary Asian-American advocacy seems to focus on the issue of media representation and how to gain more of it, how to become more undeniably visible to American audiences—but your poems that adopt the perspective of Afong Moy and Anna May Wong also made me think about how visibility can confer its own kind of violence (granted, we’re also coming off a year in which Crazy Rich Asians, a film that’s undeniably spectacular in its pleasures, has been hailed as a game-changer for Asian-American media). When you were writing these poems, were you more interested in reclaiming the spectacle as a potential source of power or dismantling it altogether?

SWM: Absolutely, I agree that visibility can confer its own kind of violence. I think an example of this is Miss Saigon, which did employ (some) Asian American actors, but perhaps does more harm to the community overall because of the way the musical sentimentalizes imperialism, erases history, and uses violence against Vietnamese people as a backdrop to a romantic story where the Vietnamese woman gets pregnant and commits suicide. Anna May Wong definitely played a lot of roles in films similar to Miss Saigon, like The Toll of the Sea, which literally uses the same storyline. How do you think this impacts young Asian American girls—what does that teach them about their worth? As I wrote the book, I wondered: why do white people keep recycling these terrible stories and gross lotus girl/Dragon Lady fantasies? Visibility is not enough—we need actual complexity. Visibility can quickly turn into invisibility when the stories that make us visible actually reduce our humanity and complexity. This is especially true if we prop up token stories—tokenism is a big problem when it comes to the film industry—or any industry.

The word “spectacle” is interesting because it’s loaded: it carries a connotation and a history of exploitation. The connotations of the word “spectacle” seem to point toward the emptiness behind the bravado—whereas the adjective “spectacular” has a more positive connotation. Before Crazy Rich Asians, there was Flower Drum Song, a huge musical in 1961 with a majority-Asian cast—that film was full of spectacle, and it was very successful, but it would be the last Hollywood film with a mostly Asian cast until 1993 (The Joy Luck Club). Crazy Rich Asians might mark a turning point for visibility, but it is important to acknowledge that it is not enough to say this one movie is changing the whole complicated power system, and spectacle does not necessarily do enough work to dismantle harmful stereotypes. One thing I was wary about with that was this model minority narrative and the uncritical glorification of capital. Anna May Wong also acknowledged that it was not enough for her to be a star, since she was essentially a token. I guess I’m saying that a spectacle is not enough—we need complex stories, and in order to do that, some dismantling needs to occur.

AD: This book is so smartly conversant with pop culture, from Pokémon to Perfect Blue to Wong Kar-wai movies and Janelle Monae songs (which are, incidentally, all things I love too). Besides those explicitly alluded to in OCULUS, what works—in any medium—have been a source of inspiration and/or solace to you lately?

SWM: Thank you—some recent films I like are A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Handmaiden. These films, along with prestige TV shows like Killing Eve, Big Little Lies, and Alias Grace, all seem to feature some kind of female revenge.

For books, I read Angela Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber. I read Ocean Vuong’s forthcoming On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and it is simply breathtaking.

AD: There was a moment that really struck me in the conclusion to “The Toll of the Sea,” in which you’re describing this scene that feels so cinematic and surprisingly hopeful: “BLUE the shore where the girl keeps living / There she rises, on the opposite shore / There she awakens—prismatic, childless, free— / Shorn of the story that keeps her kneeling.” Do you see these poems as an effort to keep resisting and rewriting that story? What spurs your own writing forward?

SWM: Absolutely. I was so tired of the Miss Saigon/Madame Butterfly/Toll of the Sea narrative that I had to hijack it and change the ending for myself. If I were Lotus Blossom, I’d be like, HELL NO, no way would I sacrifice my actual life for a mediocre white man! It is now 2019 and such a narrative would be both hysterical and laughable, and yet these narratives still get recycled, again and again. I think what spurs my writing forward is the recognition that I have a voice as an Asian American woman, and I no longer have to tolerate someone else’s thoughtless narrative of me. Never!


Aline Dolinh

Aline Dolinh is a current student at the University of Virginia. In the past, she has served as a poetry reader for The Adroit Journal, and her pop culture writing can be found at Film School Rejects and Vinyl Me, Please, among others. She tweets @alinedolinh.

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