Reclaiming the Word “Alien”: A Conversation with Carlina Duan

Carlina Duan is a writer from Michigan. She is the author of the poetry collections I Wore My Blackest Hair (Little A, 2017) and Alien Miss (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2021). Her poems have appeared in POETRY, Narrative Magazine,, The Rumpus, and more, and she has received awards and residencies from Tin House, the Academy of American Poets, the U.S. Fulbright Program, Sundress Academy for the Arts, the Hopwood Program, Signal Fire Arts, and Willapa Bay AiR. Carlina received her MFA in Poetry from Vanderbilt University. She currently teaches community-engaged writing at the University of Michigan, and is a doctoral student in U-M’s Joint Program in English and Education. She believes in gardens.

Carlina Duan’s brilliant second poetry collection, Alien Miss, is a pilgrimage through personal upbringing, lived history, and historical records to retrace Chinese-American identity in her own terms. The collection overshadows the fraughtness of Asian identity in the Midwest with bountiful scenes of food, family, and lore that show tangibly the intersection of immigrant identity with American expectation. 

Through their shared Midwestern identity and attendance at the University of Michigan, Swati and Carlina have collectively cultivated creative and literary space. Swati calls Carlina a friend and mentor after taking her Home-Bodying class at Room Project in Detroit. Swati and Carlina have been in creative conversation and collaboration ever since. 


Swati Sudarsan: Carlina! Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me about Alien Miss. It is such a pleasure to make space together for this conversation. I loved every moment I spent with your collection. The book is striking for several reasons—the title has got a stronghold on my heart, and the cover is unforgettable. Before the reader even gets to the pages, the book speaks volumes. I would love to know more about the envelope the book sits in—the cover art. Is there any symbiosis between the art and your work that the reader should know?

Carlina Duan: Firstly, thank you, Swati, for holding space for me and this book. It’s an honor and a joy to be in conversation with you. And I’m so glad you asked about the cover art! The artwork was designed by my friend and collaborator, Mai Ta. Mai and I had a very collaborative process—we went back and forth with conversations, ideas, vision boards, all of which were inspired by the poems. For Alien Miss, I knew that I wanted the cover to feature a human figure with a face, since the title itself, Alien Miss, felt subject to imaginative exoticization (I’m thinking, here, about the word “Alien,” and all of the grossly inhuman and bodily misrepresentations this word usually evokes in the public imagination) in a way I wanted to avoid. So I was certain that I wanted the cover to feature a (human) woman, and I also wanted her to look powerful and capable of action, rather than passivity. I wanted the woman to unabashedly look the reader in the eye—to gaze straight-on, almost as if to say, I see you. The woman on the cover is loosely inspired by the Chang’e, the Chinese moon goddess, and also by ideas of flight, water, movement, and mythology. The poems in my book ask: Who gets to write and hold history? I wanted the cover art to demand a new way of looking into that question, a way to humanize the resident “alien” figure we often see vilified (or diminished) in media or in the popular imaginary, a way to reposition woman/immigrant and, rather than stay in the background, to be centered as a figure with clarity and power.

SS: Wow, that’s such a special collaboration, and I feel the cover accomplishes what you intended. Your titular character, Alien Miss, toes the line between familiar and anonymous. She was both a chorus of voices, and a singular whisper. Her characterization, to me, felt like an unraveling of stereotypes and reclamation of trauma. In the beginning, Alien Miss felt just out of grasp, in a way where I was drawn to her story but also felt nervous about her presence. However, as I began to understand her history and humanity when I read along, it made me wonder where you drew her from. Are there parts of yourself or your ancestors in Alien Miss, or perhaps is she an amalgamation of various people you know, or did you have someone more specific in mind when writing her? I would love to know more about the journey Alien Miss goes through.

CD: Thank you for sharing your experiences encountering Alien Miss as a character! I resonate with that sense of nervousness; the very first poem in the collection (titled “Alien Miss”) was the first poem I wrote in the sequence, and after I wrote it, I remember thinking, Huh, and being both encouraged and startled by what I had created. I wrote the first poem attempting to think about language—namely, English—as a colonial language of embedded power structures and violence—and also a language of mobility. I was interested in questions around silence and utterance: Who gets permission to speak without a second glance, and who must speak and also perform bodily allegiance to the English language? The currency of speech—how it moves us (literally) from one place to the other, how it’s used to both warp and to heal—has always been an area of study I’ve been fascinated by. I wanted to explore and reveal more around speech and silence, especially as it gets coded within legal rhetoric and in American history textbooks. I also wanted to expose the risks of mythologizing the “non-fluent” Asian American body, and to pull out some of the ways that Asian Americans, and Asian American women in particular, have been historicized and oversexualized as non-native. They are seen as forever “foreign” intruders to this land. After I wrote the first Alien Miss poem, the others followed (although they were not necessarily written in the order they appear in the book). I found myself creating an Alien Miss speaker who was intergenerational, and also historical; a voice that moves and shifts across time periods through different poems, yet maintains a core curiosity and observational eye around the writing (and making) of historical text, and the consequent failures and permissions that this selective history allows for. Alien Miss is a composite speaker—built up of me, my mothers before me, historical figures such as Clara Chan Rae Lee, personal muses like Teresa Teng. Alien Miss involves a creative and intimate “chorus,” privy to fear and to joy and to communal care.

SS: You mention histories written with political agendas that erase, condense, and abstract reality, so in some ways is Alien Miss about rewriting as much as reclaiming?

CD: Yes, I think Alien Miss certainly works within the realm of rewriting—though not in the sense of trying to erase what’s previously been written, because I think it’s important to reckon with what histories have documented (and misrepresented) in communities, in addition to what’s omitted from the record. The book is definitely trying to do a type of reconfiguring of the archive: figuring out what histories these speakers descend from, and how to make sense of these histories, question them, and carve one’s way forward through and despite.

SS: Thanks for highlighting that point, and I am so glad that Alien Miss paves a way for us to reckon with histories that hurt. Bilingualism and food were themes that came up throughout the collection, which are a part of Asian American history that I have always been proud of. In Alien Miss, the way you handle every iteration of this theme is fresh. In your poem “Alien Miss Confronts the Author,” you write, “they / planted characters / in a language / skewered by my stupid / contemporary mouth.” and I almost wept with recognition. Later on, in “Feast,” you write, “food to silence / my mother, who would withhold, for once, / her telltale I can make that —.” Something about making food, melding language, and the use of tongues in all of it is evocative. I see the themes meshing, and I can’t help but find them in conversation with each other—they are fizzling with ideas of loss, reclamation, and hyphenated-Americanization. I would love to know more about why you chose to weave this thread throughout the collection.

CD: I’ve always closely associated food and food-making (cooking!) with my own relationship to language. As a kid, I would pour Goldfish crackers over white rice and then squiggle ketchup (from those tall, Costco-sized Heinz bottles) on top of the whole mess (disgusting, I know). This was while I was a bilingual kid in elementary school, learning that to eat dumplings in Tupperware earned me looks of disdain from peers. Food was a part of my daily world that cemented my own foreignness; I wanted to erase or shapeshift the food I was eating as much as the language I spoke. For instance, I remember begging my mom for salami on white bread. As a kid, I coveted Dorito dust on my fingers because that cheesy powder had become a symbol of my “Americanness,” a way to confirm that my palette was properly assimilated to match that of my peers. I “fit in.” So when I write poems about intergenerational history, I occasionally find myself turning to the site of speech production, to the mouth, to thinking about what gets physically and figuratively ingested. I naturally turn towards language revolving around food, too, because food is another medium in which I create. I love to cook. In cooking, I find hands-on creativity that offers me verbs, verbs that return to my poems: skewer, braise, tend. 

SS: In section “Lineage Of,” we meet many women who are important to Alien Miss’s identity, but we also meet Baba, who is one of the only male figures in the collection who is thoroughly explored. This collection feels very matriarchal, though Baba’s vulnerabilities and teachings also shape Alien Miss. How did you decide to include Baba in this very feminist collection, and what is his role in this story?

CD:  In this book, it felt important to me to be able to counter the culturally stereotyped image of the stoic, stern Chinese father with poems that disrupted that image, poems that explored the tenderness, fortune, out-loud laughter, and deep love that I have personally experienced as a daughter. The Baba poems were attempts I made to render portraits of Chinese fathers—specifically the speaker’s father—with humanity, dignity, and deep love. Baba is a central figure who receives and gives intergenerational wisdom; he helps shape the book’s ethic of care. He sits in lineage with the women who have raised him, with the women who have raised me. 

SS: I love that homage. As tender as it is, you manage to weave in academic text, historical documentation, and legislation throughout the collection, while maintaining the intimacy. What kind of research did you have to do to find the right “found text” to include, and what was the process like of taking painful, violent history and adding it into your art?

CD: Throughout the entire writing process, I reckoned with what belonged (and what was missing from) a Chinese American historical archive. I read books by scholars, books by historians, dialogue from community members, “official” museum placards, and text messages from close family and friends. I was building my own personal “archive” of historical and living text around my own bodily experience, not exclusively as a Chinese American, but as a Chinese American and a poet, a sister, a daughter, a reader, a Michigander, a friend. I was fascinated by what kinds of languages around Chinese American history already exist, and what gets left out of public records; specifically, I was thinking about what historical narratives I was taught were the “official” history in classrooms, and the ways that learning about, for example, Vincent Chin, or Chinese Exclusion, or the Page Acts, were never parts of my own formal education. A part of my wish for Alien Miss is that it expands the work of the traditional history “textbook,” and that it does more to activate a questioning and unraveling of historical method. I remember very distinctly being a student in college and learning about Chinese Exclusion for the first time. Learning about Vincent Chin near the end of my undergraduate career. Learning about Grace Lee Boggs. These are all histories and people that I, as a Chinese American in the Midwest, descend from, yet had never encountered before in any curriculum. Why was that? I’m thinking about poets and historians who have wrestled with the archive as a space of “authority,” and who have challenged an archive’s omissions and revisionist leaps. I looked to documentary poets and archival projects like Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments; Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead; Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam; Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special to Our Species; Philip Metres’s Sand Opera as pillar texts. These are writers who have helped me understand my own role as a poet in portraying historical image and event with nuance and with huge accountability to my communities; this requires not only uncovering the historical trauma and violence inflicted by historical gaps, but also to sit alongside the deep love and joy I find rooted within my personal, familial, and communal history.

SS: That answer has piqued my curiosity about the daunting challenge to identify what is missing from historical archives—perhaps you viewed a sanitized or distilled version of history. How did you know what we don’t know, and then what was your process to capture that in Alien Miss?

CD: I was primarily working from a personal standpoint, both trusting and pushing my personal curiosities as a student, writer, and teacher of historical texts. I was curious about the legal records, and what the language of, for example, the Chinese Exclusion Act failed to reckon with (living bodies, living records, living narratives). I wanted to recenter the humanity and power of real lives lived back into the record; the language of a legal “act” felt sterile and immobile in terms of its inability to contend with the human lives that were bound into its syntax and structure. I had to do a ton of research and reading, and grant myself a bit of lyric permission, to understand what it looks like to reroute a life—my life, as a living descendent of these lives—back into the language. 

SS: I love that this reclamation process created the mosaic of Alien Miss, which is both personal history and social history. You mention the documentary poets and archival projects you looked to when creating Alien Miss, as well as educators and activists like Grace Lee Boggs, who in part was focused on transforming education systems. In fact, the last section of your collection explores Asian American presence in classical American education systems, such as public schools, American universities, writing programs—and it is aptly named “Inherit What You Can.” In some ways, this section felt the loneliest to me. The story most unfinished. Can you tell me a little more about what this section means to you? What kind of path is it paving?

CD: I’m so glad to hear of your response to this last section; it was certainly one that I wrestled with in revising and organizing the book. In “Inherit What You Can,” I was thinking primarily about my own Asian American futurities and possibilities. The last section in the book contains a few poems that were the most joyous for me to write (“Possible,” for example, is one of them). Despite the book’s continual reckonings with historically global and local violences and pain, this section harbors a constant return to selfhood, to speech, and the little growing pains that accompany one’s movement through the years, through a world. There are many poems in this last section, in particular, that end on the speaker choosing and re-centering herself. And so the last section reflects my contemporary journey, as I was writing this book, to find a way to write about myself, my body, and my world through a lens of (to borrow from the great Ross Gay) unabashed pleasure, gratitude, and joy, textured by and with its sister-feelings: sorrow, pain, or even rage.

SS: It seems you came to this work aware of where it stands in the lineage of Asian American historical documentation, and I wonder if you have already considered what type of legacy you hope your work will pave the path for?

CD: I’m so grateful to have Alien Miss out in the world, though I think often about the ways that the book—and all books—only captures the writer’s interiority during the limited years of its making. I have grown beyond this book, and will continue to evolve my own ideas and thinking around its subjects, and so, I am hopeful that the book’s legacy will provide a portal for me to return to earlier iterations of questions and thoughtwork. I’m also hopeful that historical education continues to expand, and that students continue to write in the margins of all of their books, that they continue to lift up and question the limitations of an archive. There was so much integral history, not only about Asian Americans, but also about other BIPOC communities in this country, that slipped through the cracks of my own education. I am hopeful that history classes will begin to incorporate writers and makers and activists I have loved and learned from in my adult years, and those who I have yet to love. I’m humbled to have gotten to initially begin to learn a bit about historical record-making—and challenging that making—through writing this book.


Swati Sudarsan

Swati Sudarsan is a writer based in Oakland, CA (Ohlone Land). She works in global health research during the day, and writes in the margins of her life. Swati received a Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Fellowship in poetry and is an attendee of the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Fiction. Her work has been featured in the So to Speak Journal, Drizzle Review, Gertrude Press, Dead Skunk Magazine, Let's Stab Caesar, and The Adroit Journal. She can be found on IG and Twitter as @booksnailmail.

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