Jennifer S. Cheng in Conversation with Vi Khi Nao

By Vi Khi Nao

VI KHI NAO: When was the last time someone gave you an A-frame hug? What was it like? Was it like hugging a house?

JENNIFER S. CHENG: This morning I hugged my partner goodbye, and every day it’s like hugging a new-but-same house, even as we form a roof with our leaning bodies.

Between your mind or your heart, which is more fluid? And, which resembles the ocean more?

I think my mind is more fluid but my heart is more like the ocean; that is, my mind feels always awash, circulating and spiraling and never quite feeling tethered, while my heart inclines toward a vague immensity.

If Mao were to reply back to your missives, what would you want him to say and would you want his voice to be childlike like yours? Or would you like it to embody a particular kind of revolution born from the death of a thought or sentence?

This is an eerie question because I have been privately writing about Mao’s letters to me, and in it I am constantly observing how his letters are full of holes and ink stains, his handwriting wobbly like he is on a train or bus, his lines full of odd shadows. Maybe at some point I will spill coffee on his missives on purpose. In any case he is never forthright and is always self-absorbed. I am always deciphering him.

If you were to construct a house for Mao’s relatives in words, would it look like the artistic manuscript of House A? Do you ever think of Mao’s relatives and what they would say to you on Mao’s behalf perhaps if they came upon your epistolary letters?

What a terrifying thought! The truth is I hardly ever think of Mao as an actual person, he is so ingrained in me as a looming and ephemeral presence, it’s like asking what the relatives of a boogeyman would say. But to answer your initial question, I suspect it would be a hundred pages of a single persistent block of text.

What part of your body (your toes, your lungs, etc.) resembles an emotional house, a house born from intuition, the most?

My lungs for sure — not the one I use to speak aloud, but the one that is silent (with its own volume) and internal and in that way most like the ocean. You could maybe hear it, like a shell, with your ear against my ribcage.

If you could spread apart and fold your lungs so that it’s a sheet of paper, where would you write its first line? And, where on that sheet of lung-made paper would you place your first image of a small drawing of your heart?

Together in the corner, ever so small, just as the boundary begins to curve.

Have you come near to drowning? Your House A is full of water. Have you drowned in your own house? I get the sense from your manuscript that sleep gets along with your water the most. In context to your writing, what wouldn’t get along with water, do you think?

Sometimes I am drowning in my house, but sometimes I am swimming. Most of the time, I am floundering. I once swam out into the ocean and suddenly realized I was in the middle of something vast and seemingly infinite; I started to panic and stutter wildly toward shore, and two sea turtles showed up, slow and ancient creatures, distracting and calming me. I am trying to think of what wouldn’t get along with water, what its opposite is, but of course even things like corners and angles would feel at home immersed and submerged. Maybe I just think that water and sleep are the most truthful conditions of being alive, permeating and unparseable.

When do you feel least alive? What aspect of modern life stops you from breathing?

When I am in too close proximity to the capitalist/hierarchical/hegemonic machine I feel suffocated (as many do). When I have to socially perform inside this machine, my body breaks down (in the form of panic attacks).

Are you a strong swimmer? Like Michael Phelps. If you were to teach Michael Phelps to emotionally compete in poetic swimming competition so he could win the Olympics of Poetry, what poetic rhetorical device would you inculcate in him? What do you think Phelps need to learn in order to perform well in your sea or swimming pool?

Although I feel at home underwater, in reality I am a weak swimmer (or are the two related?). I don’t know much about Michael Phelps except that he might be a jerk? Is this true or am I confusing him with another Olympic swimmer? In any case I cannot even begin to imagine such a body so unlike my own in my seascape or personal swimming pool. He might need to learn how to half-drown and flail silently to swim here.

I don’t know Michael Phelps personally so I can’t confirm his jerkiness, but he is a strong swimmer I believe. Some say the way he swims is almost poetry or poetry itself. I have seen him swim and he is not poetry, but I love the way he manipulates water, makes it behave almost like air. How deep is your relationship to air, Jenny? I know your relationship with water is very deep. You spoke of the moon quite frequently too in your writing and I think it’s vastly because of your artistic-based nautical relationship with the sea.  

I think I am confusing him with someone else, how awful of me. But I like what you say about how a body can manipulate water as if it were air. I do think of water and air similarly: things that surround us all the time, that we are always displacing with our movements and navigations, that are always enveloping and spilling at the same time. Air is more invisible to us, but really they are both weather stitching in our bodies. I have been finishing up a new manuscript, and it is all moon, and in it I am thinking about how the moon pulls on our bodies the way it pulls on the earth’s water.

What is your favorite fish to eat? And if you were to read a poem from your House A to it before eating, which poem would you pick and why?  

In Hong Kong my favorite fish to eat with my grandmother is lao hu yu, steamed with scallions and ginger. I would not read a poem to it, but maybe I would sing it: the shortest page, the one about my small mouth haunting the air.

What did it taste like, Jenny? And, why was it your favorite?

It tastes like clouds in seawater! My favorite tastes and textures: mild, flaky. It carries a light but luxuriant broth. It is my grandmother’s favorite fish, too, so it is forever attached to those memories.

Are you close with your grandmother? What was her house like? And, your memory of it? Is there one particular memory you have of her you wish to share?

I am close with my grandmother in that we rarely talk but she cooks all my favorite foods whenever I am there. Growing up, she and my grandfather lived in an apartment complex called Mei Foo, and mostly I remember the smell of mothballs and some other aroma I can never place — a kind of Chinese medicine? I will never know. Later when I was older, she and my grandfather would insist on giving me cups of warm, sugared milk, even though I am lactose intolerant, and I would take the cup into my bedroom and pour it slowly out the window. These are the things that make me feel most tender.

How often do you visit them? Would you translate your Hose A into Chinese characters so that they would have access to them? Giving your grandparents the key to your own house.

I try to visit every year; it feels more and more urgent as they age. My grandfather actually has very elegant English, and he read the book and said he did not understand it; he is always trying to convince me to write fiction like his favorite detective stories. (The more I think about the idea of House A in Chinese, the more I feel a warmth instead of fear. Now I am wondering if I might translate one of the pieces and email it to my grandparents. I love that — a key to my house — I think you just helped me through a door I did not consider permissible.)

Why don’t you think he understand it? What about it that makes it inaccessible to him? Do you want him to understand it?

I feel like there is something deeply complex about this question that keeps me from puncturing it; I am also thinking about it in relation to my mother. Language is such a complicated and fraught thing for immigrants and children of immigrants — a thing of multiple layers and immensities, both linguistic and emotional — perhaps it makes me sensitive to the ways in which we each have our own private language in addition to our other shared languages. Maybe I have lived my life with so many languages and silences, gaps in language that are their own hefty intimacies, that I do not feel the need for even those most intimate to me to share in this other interior language of mine. They have their own impenetrable language, so maybe the inaccessibility is not surprising or wounding to me.

In one of your interviews, Litseen asked “What would you like to see happen in your lifetime,” and you replied, “Another discovery I’ve made in the past couple years as I’ve immersed myself more fully in a culture somewhat different than my own.” Will writing in a private language that your grandfather could understand a kind of immersion fully in a culture somewhat different than your own? Like writing the kind of detective novels he desired?

YES. You are drawing so many doors for me, Vi, where I thought only of walls. I want to write a detective novel (a short one) about marooned seashells and send that to my grandfather.

I am so glad! In your future collection, you are writing all sorts of letters to all sorts of words, objects, and subjects, did Mao’s ghost(s) or your missives to him inspire that impulse of continuation? To continue the lineage of historical or linguistic or anthropological impersonal? Do you ever fear your relationship to the unknown in that particular mode would die if you cease to pursue that kind of epistolary dialogue?

There is a shared haunting, the sense of being haunted by a presence that is absence and vice versa. In the same way that I think every utterance is a kind of prayer, everything we do also feels like a kind of epistolary address, as if these were the most primal forms of articulation and gesture. And both only exist because you are never sure if you will be heard, whom you are speaking to, what you are circling.

I do feel that your epistolary letters to Mao in the traditional epistolary form are very tender and forgiving and childlike in their emotional arcs – which isn’t to say that other non-traditional epistolary impulses aren’t — but there is something about Dear Mao, space, and a large container of emotions, memories, and shared intimacies that make your letters to Mao stand out artistically that other indirect missive-like containers won’t possess the same emotional cadence and warmth and depth. Do you feel this way too?

I wonder if it is the particular combination of intimacy and urgency, the specific need to be heard/seen by someone, a motion toward some shape rather than, say, a smaller circling inside oneself. I’m not sure if that makes sense. When I was writing the letters, it was the epistolary address that allowed the words to formulate; without this heavy ghost to explain to/confront/complicate, I would have no way to say what I needed to say. The address also creates a built-in tension between intimacy and elusiveness that feels very necessary to the project and the truths it is trying to convey.

Almost like having a muse.

Yes. A muse, a container, a constraint. Otherwise there is just undefined vastness.

If an editor in Artforum were to ask you to collaborate on an artistic project with a whale on a topic about painting an abstract portrait of the moon, what would your conversation with that whale look like?

It would begin with me asking the whale what lullaby it would like to hear. I am not sure why I am feeling a need to sing to animals and carcasses right now.

Has your father read your letters to Mao? If so, what did he think of them? If your father were to write a letter to Mao, what would he include in that letter (or letters)? Would you collaborate with your parents or even grandparents in writing letters to Mao?

The idea of writing from another’s perspective (unless fictional/mythical) is terrifying to me for its impossibility; it is a fear of inhabiting someone else’s vantage point and getting it wrong (which is inevitable). Sometimes I think this is where my lack of imagination stems from: fear. But strangely when writing these letters to Mao, I did feel a kind of collaborative motioning with my parents and grandparents. I felt like I was in conversation in this very loose and murmuring way with ancestral voices, especially because the book is attempting to describe how history is something that is absorbed and passed down in ineffable, bodily ways. Writing toward the literal/metaphorical house my parents constructed — the structures and objects and pathways that shape my body’s navigations — this feels a very real collaboration.

To gain some access to your consciousness, one of my favorite questions to ask in an interview is: will you break down a poem from House A for the readers. Tell us what went through your mind when you wrote it.

Writing can feel like a trance, something my brain is not fully in control of at first, as if I were dancing or sculpting. But in thinking about the first prose poem, the first of my letters to Mao, I know that it was a summer afternoon and I was at home in my fourth-floor apartment, which has a tiny marginal view of the Pacific. Perhaps I had just finished reading an anthropology paper on the phenomenology of sleep. I had been thinking for a while about the liminality of history and narrative, especially for immigrant homes, and I had been thinking, too, about my compulsion toward iterative rhythms. In writing to Mao in this prose poem form, I was following an instinct I did not yet fully comprehend — I didn’t know where it was going — but I felt how such an address opened up a field that could contain all the overlapping emotions, atmospheres, and histories I had been wanting to hold in one hand: the shadow of Mao simply and ever present, the feeling of safety yet aloneness in our Texas house, how we felt apart from others which only reinforced our collective interiority, how migration and home were always interwoven inside me… I didn’t want to parse the entanglements because that would be impossible and untruthful; but instead I wanted the tension in the leaps between sentences to carry all the absences and ambiguities in the most embedded and invisible ways. You could say I had been waiting my whole life to articulate my sense of identity/home to History, and this gave me the language and form to do it in a way that felt most whole.

What poem from your House A makes you feel most vulnerable or make you feel most intimate with the ocean?

This is like asking which of my (hypothetical) children feel most like family!

What was your mother’s favorite passage from your House A? Have you read it out loud to her? Would you want to?

My mother flew to San Francisco for my book launch, and during the reading she may have fallen asleep. English is a difficult language for her, full of large cavities and rocky places, so I do not blame her. The language we share is somewhere else; I do not share my writing with her; I am okay with that. I almost feel it would be an act of stranger, of violence, to read my work aloud to her.

How wonderful that she fell asleep at your reading. You wrote on page 12 of House A, “We all long for narrative. Mine begins with water or sleep, or the feeling of my parents moving about the house on summer afternoons.” Your mother helped you begin the narrative of your book launch by sleeping, one side of your beginning. On the maiden voyage of your book, who was its twins, Jenny?

My father reminds me to drink a full of glass of water every morning as my first act of waking.

When Asians squat, their squatting resembles an A-frame house, almost like the one figuratively limned in your manuscript. Have you squatted while writing poetry or performing a reading? When you are squatting, do you feel that you are opening a door or closing it? I have squatted while writing and my legs fell asleep! Writing poetry can be dangerous to a person’s sense of balance.

I have squatted in many places and circumstances (to pee, to eat, to rest, to pause), and mostly I just feel closer to the ground. I cannot recall ever squatting to write, but I do love the image of you writing and losing your balance. What you say is so true that I have no response and can only nod, yes.

As daughter of immigrants, if you were to build a boat for your poems, would you choose a canoe, sailboat, kayak, gondola, raft, catamaran, or trimaran or a cruise ship?

A raft or canoe, something that carries the shape of my body or its maneuverings in some way. Surely not a cruise ship.

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