Tim, a wonderful poet whom I met at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 1991, and Pui shared their joy with friends and relatives at a luncheon at Pete’s in downtown Brooklyn. Poetry, laughter and fellowship flowed easily. Later, my wife Anne-Marie and I enjoyed a dinner at Tim and Pui’s home in Park Slope, along with Pui’s enchanting sisters Susanna and Tammy. All three of the Wong sisters grew up in Hong Kong. Susanna now lives in Melbourne, and was full of interesting tales about a business venture in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and Tammy gave us news from Hong Kong. Sharing Pui and Tim’s hospitality and hearing everyone's voices and stories, I felt as if I were in the middle of one of those legendary gatherings recounted in histories of literary eras or writers' biographies.
I was also glad to discover Pui’s poetry, in two chapbooks, “Sonnet for a New Country” (Pudding House Publications, 2008) and “Mementos” (Finishing Line Press, New Women’s Voices Series, 2007). She also has a book collection forthcoming. Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, she has published poems in the Asian Pacific American Journal, Blue Fifth Review, China Press, DMQ Review, New World Poetry, New York Quarterly and Poetz.
In her work, she displays descriptive delicacy, power and precision, whether using forms like the sonnet or free verse. She recounts small yet surprisingly complex narratives that cover an enormous range of emotional territory. From the first poem of hers I read, I instantly recognized her as a poet of strong vision and individuality.
Tim was my first interview subject for “Southern Bookman,” so this conversation with Pui has special resonance. Before beginning the interview with Pui, enjoy her fine poem, “Visiting My Sister in Australia,” collected in “Sonnet for a New Country” and first published in Blue Fifth Review.
Visiting My Sister in Australia
Smog in the sky, bushfire burning outside
the city. The constellation has changed.
I’m under. The years peel off like old skin.
My sister sipping coffee, her eyes wide;
between us, a blooming walnut tree. Strange
all these fruits, maybe spring won’t go to ruin
after all. December, this side of world,
sprigs of green fruits round into each other.
It took us forever to count, moments
long enough to freeze a heartache— unfurl
and release. If memories can sever
from their roots, will they become sacrament
too like harvest fruits we put in a dish?
Cut one open, the meat is babyish.
1. You are part of America’s incredibly rich émigré literary culture. African, East European, Asian, Caribbean, Latin American, Indian and Middle Eastern writers are capturing their encounters with American society. What do you feel you have in common with writers from other cultures?
This is a difficult question to answer. Writers seem to move around more now than they have in the past, and this fluidity is expanding our understanding of each other. More than ever, we have access to many writers through the Internet and translation. For example, the Chinese writer Guo Xingjian (2000 Nobel Laureate) went to live in France in the 1980s and though his stories are often set in Communist China, his theme, an individual’s struggle against oppression, has relevancy everywhere. Good writing transcends ethnic and national boundaries. The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski lives in both America and France, whether he writes about riding the bus in Paris or the train along the Hudson, his concern is particular but not local. To me, these are cosmopolitan writers who move with ease from one culture to the next. The world they open up is a universal human world.
2. Your work adds to the oeuvre of Chinese writers like Ha Jin and Amy Tan. What special values do you and other Chinese writers bring to the literary landscape?
Ha Jin and Amy Tan’s backgrounds are as different as their concerns. Ha Jin lived in Communist-ruled China before coming to the U.S. His stories are powerful and personal in telling how his characters who are ordinary Chinese live under this kind of government oppression. Amy Tan writes about the lives of Chinese immigrants in America, their conflicts within the family and with the larger society. Her characters’ reaching back to learn their family history and its migration is a way to understand and reconcile these conflicts. I think the Chinese writers, like every writer, bring to the picture their own obsession which inevitably expands the literary landscape. Whether this obsession is personal and family, political and historical, together it shows how individual and varied we are.
3. Unlike Jin, whose work reflects the experience of the Communist Chinese mainland, you grew up in hyper-capitalistic Hong Kong, now returned to the control of the Chinese government, and went to school in Japan. How has your Hong Kong and Japanese experiences influenced your work?
I think lots of experiences influenced my writing, being raised in Hong Kong and going to school in Japan are certainly among them. For a century, Hong Kong was a British Colony with mostly Chinese residents. Yearning for cultural and political belonging has been a prevalent theme among the Hong Kong Chinese, especially before the turnover. Today, Hong Kong is a hybrid city with both Chinese and Western influences, and sadly, dominated by strong business interests. In the early 1970s I went to an international school in Tokyo where the students were from all over the world. I was always curious about their backgrounds and the lives they led. But having lived in various places, including my years in the U.S., made me open to other people no matter where they may live. I can read writers from another country and feel no barriers because the feelings are universal. Being a more open reader makes me a more open writer.
4. Mainly through poems of Ezra Pound and James Wright, I’m aware of the ancient tradition of classic Chinese poetry, which combined sensory power with the discipline of strict forms. I see the same in your sonnets, in “Sonnet for a New Country” and other poems. Do you see yourself as part of that long tradition?
Other poets have spoken about freedom when writing in forms, when adherence to forms pushes you beyond what is available. I tend to agree. Writing in forms is one way for me to explore the many possibilities of language, but the same is true when I write in free verse which has its own inherent form as well. I think the sensory power in classic Chinese poetry comes from the density in language, which has to abide to forms. To me, the pleasure of classic Chinese poetry is in the visual lushness, and this has probably influenced me in my writing. But I also find contemporary Chinese poetry, like those by Hong Kong poets Ping Kwan Leung and Chan Lan Huang, written in everyday language and on everyday subjects, intimate and affecting.
5. Your poems often have the narrative symmetry of short stories, and “Blue Hedges” is a prose poem with a central character. Do you wish to write fiction?
The character in “Blue Hedges” was inspired by someone I met briefly while doing freelance work for a Florida grower. It is a mystery how I came to write this piece based on someone I barely knew. But I had this impulse to imagine this character and his concerns, how he may think or feel in that particular moment in time. I meant for it to be a prose poem, though someone told me it read like a short story. I think the appeal of writing other characters is that it relieves me from thinking too much about myself; the paradox is that the process also re-energizes me.
6. You write in Chinese as well as English. In which Chinese dialect do you write, and do you see yourself as having a different consciousness in Chinese and English?
My native tongue is Cantonese and it is the dialect I am most fluent in. In written language Chinese understand each other regardless of the dialect since the characters are the same. Chinese characters are pictorial; often a character has an origin in a visual image. Therefore the word “house” also evokes an image reminiscent of the house. And this is one thing I love about the Chinese language. I remember when I was little I practiced writing the character “fly” which has the feathery strokes resembling birds in flight, or the character “rain” with dots like raindrops. This gives a sensory component to the language which is quite different than English.