Interview: Jennifer S. Cheng
I know in the past many writers have been dismayed by Hong Kong’s literary scene, or lack of, as in literary journals, readings, events. Have things changed?
I can’t speak for the Chinese-language literary scene, but it’s true that the English-language literary community is very small. Aesthetically there is a lack of diversity. I don’t know if it’s the linguistic situation or the ever-looming financial/business culture, but lately I’ve been wondering if the lack in the literary arts has also to do with the city’s struggle with identity; I recently attended a lecture where the speaker pointed out that historically HK was never given the chance to shape its own sense of identity. And if you think about places where the arts flourish, or even the inception of American literature, it usually coincides with a strong sense of self-identity. Much of the literary scene also seems to be expat, which I suppose makes logical sense, but HK has such an interesting relationship with the English language, I find myself wishing for a more heterogeneous mix of writers. I do sense, though, that the literary arts is burgeoning–there’s even a new MFA program this year–which means every literary person here has the chance to be a part of the conversation in shaping Hong Kong’s literary identity. So it’s a really exciting opportunity for birthing those journals, readings, events
Your book is possibly about voice. It’s rare to see such control. I felt you were playing some unique musical instrument, only it was made of words, the very brass, the strings, or like you played this quiet, quiet but powerful tone and tune. You seem surgical with words. I think I just mixed metaphors, but will you talk about precision in word choice?
Those are very kind words, thank you. I feel warmed. Partly, I am an obsessive person, so I am constantly searching for the right meaning, the right connotations, the right number of syllables, the right sound; often I’ll have an echo of a word that I am trying to locate or a rhythm I am trying to fill. It can take me a slightly horrifyingly long time to put down a sentence. With this essay in particular, where I am writing about a precarious relationship to language, I was trying to fulfill something about the cadence, the tension, the texture and emotional evocation of the words–how some words sound or feel quieter, or heavier, or more hard-edged, and others do not, for instance. In general I am interested in the tension between precise and abstract language. Partly I also feel that with shorter fragments of text, the effect of every word is that much more noticeable, you’re almost forced to give attention to them.
I think, too, as a nonfiction writer there is generally the compulsion to articulate things as truthfully and accurately as possible, which is not necessarily about a precision of facts or literal meaning but a precision of emotion, mood, voice, essence. The writing I find most compelling is often driven by something of the latter, and in my own work I am usually writing toward that as well. Another way of saying it is that a sentence can make sense emotionally, or evocatively, rather than strictly literally, and the words I choose are usually a matter of getting as close as I can in that way.
What do you despair about?
This is a daunting question. I’m an emotional person and naturally pessimistic, so, many things. War. Political rhetoric. My own self-interest. The extinction of languages. Cultural imperialism. Subtle, gaping holes in racial and cultural understanding. Untraversable distances between individuals. My constant feelings of illegitimacy. Sometimes, leaving the apartment (sometimes, not leaving). The thought of my parents’ mortality. My fledgling plants dying.
Do you prefer to write in silence or with some type of noise?
Can a book be a prayer?
I think a lot of books are prayers. Maybe most.
What did you read as a child and as an adolescent?
I wish I could say I read literature far beyond my years or at least interesting things like architecture magazines, but the truth is I read Berenstain Bears and Nancy Drew. I was a regular patron of the local library’s standard juvenile literature shelf: Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, Lois Lowry, Madeleine L’Engle. I also grew up in a very religious household, so the Bible got read a lot. For a while my older brother, who is a software engineer, was my main literary informant outside of the library, and I was exposed to Star Trek fan fiction. I also remember going through a phase with stories about people who were stranded alone with no human contact: Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet. Some random books I still love from pre-adolescence: The Mozart Season, The Leaving and Other Stories, and these comics my father gave me about the Three Kingdoms. Then, once I got to high school, I was one of those students who read and loved everything assigned in English class. Outside of that, I was a huge fan of the Dark Tower series.
Here at HTML GIANT, we’ve often had discussions about money and writing. Hong Kong and America are both major capitalist economies. You’ve lived in both regions. What do you think about the connection between literary writing and money?
At the very least, I think money makes it difficult for a lot of worthwhile writing to exist (or to be read). I think in general as a society we tend to give money to the wrong people. And as a writer with no marketing or networking skills, the role of money is just frustrating to me. Last week a girl here in HK told me that a local publisher was willing to print her poems but only if she added a good deal of Chinese philosophy and framed it as a guide to Chinese culture, so it could find a market with English speakers. There are so many implications in there. All that said, the assumption that if a certain amount of money is involved then something has gotten tainted–or that money and literary quality are inversely related (I’m guilty of that kind of thinking)–is probably unfair. It’s difficult to live without money. And there are certainly writers who are able to negotiate the tension between writing and money (and certainly those who have a fascinating approach to it).
Living in HK, I think another issue is that when money is such an embedded part of daily life–the city itself is practically a network of interconnected malls–it’s easy for a certain way of thinking to dominate and almost push out something like literary interest. I’ve been hearing from teachers about the absence of books and reading in the university, the difficulties in promoting creative writing or even literature courses, and it seems to be a matter of what is “practical” or “impractical.” It’s hard not to think that money is influencing something there.
Will you discuss white space on the page? The spaces that contain/float/frame/lift/cradle/mouth the words?
That is a beautiful string of verbs, I could just leave it at that. The first time I became aware of white space as a productive aspect of literary writing was in Catherine Imbriglio’s Art of Literary Nonfiction undergraduate workshop. It coincided with an awareness of the visual experience of the page. As a reader I appreciate when white space is quietly evocative, when it offers breathing room between bodies of dense text, slows the words down, allows them to echo on the page. The danger is in overusing it or using it thoughtlessly, which causes it to lose its potency. In this project I wanted for silence to be a part of the rhythm, and for the words and images to have a slower, measured quality, so it felt right to surround them in some kind of silent space. The placement of text mattered to me as well, insofar as the interaction of space and text mattered: the rhythm, the “pitch” of the text, the sense of words floating or hanging or settling or being cocooned. I tried to approach it intuitively and purposefully, treating the white space similarly to the way I approached the images, as part of the “narrative.”
The New Michigan Press published your chapbook, Invocation: an Essay. This seems the perfect press for your work—they even use the word elegant in describing their chapbook philosophy. Your book is elegant. How did you decided to send it to NMP?
I’m so grateful and happy that I found them. While I was at Iowa, Ander Monson came to read one evening, and I like his work and I like technical diagrams, so through that I found my way to the online literary journal DIAGRAM and then, eventually, New Michigan Press. They make beautiful books. They use language like hybrid and between genres.
What do you think of the chapbook form?
It resonates with me. I like its efficiency, its absorbable size. I find there is a satisfying balance in a book that is long enough to allow me to soak in the words and yet short enough to finish in one sitting. There tends to be a certain level of intensity, I think. It’s the perfect form for so many things I love–prose-poetry, essays, experimental fiction. The chapbook in general feels like an underappreciated form; you can do so much with it that you cannot necessarily do in a literary journal. It has the potential to give a voice to some marginal types of writing.
What pleases you?
Lately: compassionate people; the language of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping; mythological geographical surveys; collections of pinned insects; the smell of perfectly thickened congee; my grandmother speaking Shanghainese. At this very moment: the mountains outside my window.