A Conversation with Victoria Chang
BY DANIYA BAIGUZHAYEVA
Victoria Chang’s most recent poetry books are OBIT (Copper Canyon Press) and Dear Memory (Milkweed Editions). She lives in Los Angeles and serves as the program chair of Antioch’s low-residency MFA program.
Daniya Baiguzhayeva: Hi Victoria! In terms of chronology, Dear Memory follows your poetry collection OBIT, and in many ways feels like a natural progression from the preoccupations of that book. Do you remember how Dear Memory began— what was happening at that time in your creative life, the internal and external pressures that shaped the book?
Victoria Chang: My friend, the poet Dana Levin, once told me that she felt like Dear Memory was a branch of the tree of OBIT that then became its own tree. I think that’s a pretty nice description of how the books relate to each other. I had to clean out a storage facility and found a lot of my mother’s boxes and I exited that facility with so many questions but no one to ask them to. I also found various photos, documents, ephemera, etc. I decided one day to write my mother a letter and that’s how the book started. Of course, I didn’t know it was going to be a book at that time, or that it was going to be so difficult of a process!
I started with the first letter in the book to my mother, and then I wrote another and another. Eventually I started writing letters to all sorts of people, both dead and alive, old teachers, childhood bullies, and the book started taking on all sorts of topics that I either had tried to write about before or had never tried to write before.
DB: I’m interested in the multimedia nature of this book. It has an archival quality to it that makes me think about the (politically fraught) significance of documentation for the preservation of history. Could you tell me about the visual and documentational material in Dear Memory, and about the more artistic interventions in it (faces being cut out, text overlaying image)?
VC: I didn’t originally plan on doing anything visual because while I took many art classes when I was younger, I am definitely not a visual artist. But as I was writing more and more letters, I felt the manuscript might be asking me to put some visual elements into it. The process was very organic and I tried a lot of things, tossed them all out, restarted, etc. I was really embarrassed about my efforts all throughout the process, but eventually, I just decided that I was going to allow myself to fail and that would be fine.
DB: I love the title of this book—the “dear” formulation obviously connects with the general epistolary form, but it also seems to pun on the sense of memory itself being “dear”—that is, precious, expensive, hard to come by. Reading the letters, I was struck by the anaphoric repetitions of “I would like to know” and “I wonder.” The absence of and desire for knowledge seems to scaffold this text, creating a kind of space for imagination or hypothesis to take the place of fact. I was wondering if you could talk about the generative effect of silence and the paucity of memory / “fact” in this book? How does Marianne Hirsch’s concept of “postmemory” play into this?
VC: The title went through many iterations. Originally, it was titled Terrible Crystals, based on something Lucie Brock-Broido (a teacher of mine when I was younger) had written to me on some of my poems. She had borrowed that phrase from R.W. Dixon who had written a letter to Gerard Manley Hopkins. Mary Jo Bang writes about this for the Boston Review. But that switched at some point to Dear Imagination and then at the suggestion of a friend (I think Dana Levin again), I changed the title to Dear Memory. This book definitely had a lot of switching around along the way.
On Marianne Hirsch, I talk about this in the last letter to the reader, and I’m thinking that maybe I shouldn’t spend a lot of time talking about it here since I think of the book as a journey and this might be like talking about the ending of a book before anyone’s read it yet!
DB: I’m struck by the intertextuality of the book, how it branches out and makes reference to other writers and thinkers on grief and memory. What kind of media (books, films, music, visual art) were you consuming while working on this project?
VC: I’m always reading and reading widely across many genres and/or fields. I also like to do research while I’m writing if something piques my interest. I did some research on memory studies and also mental health issues related to Asian Americans. I also did some research and reading on Asian American studies and really tried to see what kind of interesting work had/has been done before me. I’m always interested in the multidisciplinary nature of Asian American studies and there are some really incredible Asian American scholars in psychology, history, politics, sociology, etc. that I’m always learning from. Because at the end of the day, I’m just a writer. These folks are studying things deeply, conducting research, etc. Writers don’t operate in a vacuum obviously. I hope this book can be a conversation with the academic work and research others are doing.
DB: I’m interested in the relationship between temporality, writing, and displacement in Dear Memory. You write about writing as a practice which often feels ‘outside of time’ and about migration as a kind of partitioning of time: “Time stops and a new time begins. The two never cross.” I’m wondering whether there’s a way in which the atemporal quality you attribute to writing can function as a means of reconciling this ‘rupturing’ of time—being stuck in the past or banished to the future—that can sometimes be occasioned by migration?
VC: I think writing can change one’s relationship to memory and to time and probably to everything else. I don’t think that we necessarily know this while we’re writing, though, because I think of writing as a kind of exploration. I don’t know if anything is ever reconciled while writing, though. I think of writing as more of a process. I think writing is essential for me, though. It helps me to think, feel, and work through some difficult material or emotions. I don’t always end up with any resolutions but I know that the process is enjoyable. I think the effect of one’s writing, though, that’s a different thing.
DB: Writing about your father’s perfect attendance at his job, you argue that “we strive to fill or complete things as a form of assimilation,” but assimilation is really an “endless pursuit” because “there is always a gap, a space of estrangement.” Instead, you’ve come to think that “maybe emptying out is the beautiful thing.” Could you talk a little more about this idea of preserving the gap, or even “emptying out,” as a response to the pressure to assimilate? How, if at all, can it apply to writing?
VC: Before, it was assimilate or die. Now it’s assimilation is death. I was never embarrassed to be who I was/am. Looking back at my childhood and young adulthood, I don’t think I ever felt shame from within or the desire to assimilate from within. Those feelings were completely thrust upon me. But there are setbacks in this culture that never really allow people like me to ever feel a sense of pride for too long.
I don’t feel any desire to assimilate at all internally, but I also recognize this as a privilege that my parents laid out for me. Sometimes I have had to assimilate to help my own kids (be nice to people that aren’t very nice, basically). But I’ve even stopped doing that. Again, not to have to assimilate is a privilege gained through generations. I recognize that every single day.
I’m not sure how this applies to writing? I think that’s for other people to think about. I don’t really apply my own life events to writing consciously. I just do what I like to do, how I like to do it, and refuse to compromise artistically. I think the way I approach or think about writing is very much an anti-assimilation mindset. And the older I get, the more I refuse to compromise my artistic values whatever they might be at the moment, whether those are expectations of capitalism, or expectations of what someone like me should be writing about or how I should be writing about what I’m expected to write about.
DB: You grapple with lots of different kinds of silence in Dear Memory. In the third letter in the book, you question why you are “skirting around” silence, “afraid to go into the center.” In the final one, you suggest that maybe silence is something “to let wash over you, to exist within,” “its own form of language.” How did your thinking about silence develop throughout this project?
VC: My friend called the book a kind of journey of silence, meaning at the beginning of the book, I didn’t really want to write or think about these things, but by the end of the journey, I changed my thinking. Truthfully, this letter was a letter that I had written to a student and I just modified it for myself. I think readers tend to assume everything happened exactly how I wrote it, but I don’t think that’s always true in any of my writing.
DB: In Dear Memory, you write to past teachers about how they’ve impacted your life and writing. You now teach in Antioch University’s MFA program. Was there any writing advice you were given when you were younger, or, conversely, any advice you have for your students now, that you’ve found most impactful on your craft?
VC: I received a lot of useful advice from teachers! Everyone offered great advice in different ways. I had wonderful teachers along the way such as several high school teachers, college teachers, community teachers, MFA teachers, and beyond. The list really goes on. I also think of my close friends as being teachers of sorts too. On a daily basis, I learn so much from my peers whom I am close with. They are all so talented, bright, and they carry me through some difficult times. I tailor my advice to individual students, based on their work, so that advice is always different. But if I had one thing that I think I try to get students to do more is to simply have fun, play more, experiment more. Writing and writing poems can be so fraught and angsty. But it doesn’t have to be!
DB: Near the end of the book, you write about the importance of the “making of a present” for the identity formation of the immigrant (whether first or second generation) who lacks a sense of personal belonging, heritage, or history. For you, this manifests in the form of writing. Could you speak a little on this idea of ‘making a present’ here?
VC: I think I explain it in the book better than I could explain it here, probably, if I remember correctly. I think writing for me isn’t just for fun, even though I have a tremendous amount of fun doing it, as I’ve just said. I’ve made myself through words. Language is the building block of my body and mind. It’s been a lifelong companion. A lack of history led me to look elsewhere and I found language or language found me.
DB: Are you currently working on anything?
VC: I am, and I am having a tremendous struggle and joy while working on it. I’m excited about it, though. But then again, I’m usually excited about my poems, not so much about the prose. Dear Memory was truly a challenging book for me to write. I’m just glad that’s over!