An Interview with Cathy Linh Che

W. Todd Kaneko

Cathy Linh Che’s first book Split won the Kundiman Prize in 2012, and has received critical acclaim since its release in 2014 by Alice James Books. Recently having been named a standout book of the year by the Academy of American Poets, Split brings together the traumas of her parents’ harrowing experiences in war-torn Vietnam with her own sexual abuse, navigating both territories by “[unwinding] the cataclysm of personal wounding by making itself irresistibly beautiful,” as the LA Review describes it. At poetry readings, she reads with her whole self — it’s as if she is reliving the traumas in her poems before the audience, and in doing so, she recreates the gorgeous dichotomy of the book: the gory exquisiteness, the intimate terror, all of it. Recently, Cathy Linh Che was generous enough to answer a few questions about her poetry for Waxwing.

Todd Kaneko: Split is a book that is very much about trauma, borne by the speaker and by her family through sexual abuse and war. All of this is stitched together through the different sections of the book. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between trauma and poetry for you? Do you think it’s the place of poetry to help us better understand our relationships to trauma through its workings?

Cathy Linh Che: Poetry has been a place for me to document, wrestle with, and speak about many kinds of trauma. Early in my writing life, I felt an urgent need to record my parents’ stories of their lives in Vietnam during the war –– because these stories informed so much about my identity. After all, without the war, my parents would not have met. My father would not have been a soldier for twelve years. My mother would not have been separated from her mother at thirteen. It was a way of understanding the silences in my household, my father’s explosive anger, my mother’s extreme protectiveness over me (I was never allowed out of the house after dark) and her need to keep me close to home, at all times.

In the same way, during a particularly vulnerable period of my life, I was compelled to write about my experiences as someone who was sexually abused. For years, I didn't tell anyone, and poetry, for me, was that sacred space where I could go and name that experience and make meaning of it for myself.

For me, poetry as a form is stunningly varied. It can be narrative and fragmentary, clear and mysterious, and the storytelling can echo forward and backward, like memory, to create a cumulative effect that is larger than the sum of its parts. That to me looks most like my broad-ranging, intergenerational experiences of trauma.

WTK: Split seems to play with that cumulative effect as your poems explore the experiences of three people. The speaker talks about her sexual abuse, and then the lives of the speaker’s mother and father are explored as she tries to enter the stories of her parents. How does poetry help you access those lives and experiences that are not your own?

CLC: It’s hard to say. My parents’ experiences simultaneously are and are not my own. It’s interesting because I’ve always been careful to not be overly dramatic when writing about my parents’ lives. Most of what I write is my translation of stories they’ve told me, and as much as possible, I’ve tried to stay out of the way of that story. Other people are brilliant writers of persona: Ai, Patricia Smith, etc., but I’m pretty autobiographical. For me, the work of presenting these lives is through deep, careful, and repeated listening. And as a recorder of their stories, I try to listen to how they affect me and put that quietly on the page as well.

WTK: In your Gapers Block interview, you talk a bit about how you want to “write the mythology of those who have been left out,” that you “want to be a voice that tells it.” How do you see the poet’s role as a voice that tells the stories of those who are marginalized? Do you see this as a poet’s duty? Or is it a personal responsibility that you feel? Or perhaps a bit of both?

CLC: In writing my parents’ stories, I am writing an underrepresented and underheard story that my parents cannot themselves tell in English. This is very important to me; after all, if I don’t write it, who will? But ultimately, I think that a poet’s only duty is to write what he/she/they feel most compelled to write. If a poet wants to write about language, or humor, or something wholly imagined, that’s great. Humans are so varied and multiple, and I believe that poetry should reflect that we all contain multitudes. To expect a poet to do anything just one way is to narrow the art form, and I don’t think that it serves the poet, or the reader at all.

WTK: The trajectory of Split takes us from sexual abuse in the first section to more of a focus to the speaker’s mother and father in the second section. In the third, however, the book moves to a more immediate present, placing the speaker in Brooklyn and putting distance between the speaker and her past but definitely not her pain. Throughout, we see a number of transformations — for example, the speaker becomes the father in “Dress up,” she becomes both Persephone and a whipping boy in “Pomegranate,” and then there are all those quietly violent transformations in “Transmutation.” In the final poem, “Gardenia,” Daphne is transformed into the laurel and saved from rape, but it seems that the crown the speaker saves herself with is made up of not just the speaker’s life, but a much larger history of violence and trauma. Can you talk a bit about the role of transformation in the book? Do we transform in response to trauma, or is it not that simple?

CLC: Transformation interests me very much. When I was young, I would listen to Loveline, and the message seemed to be that because I was sexually abused, I was doomed to a behave in ways that were self-destructive. I was afraid of that narrative: that we become our damage and there’s nothing that any of us can do about it. To me, that gives all the power to government officials, to the military, to soldiers, to those who violate and damage others. So in thinking about transformations, I like to think about: What happens to you when you are raped? Who do you become? I visited a classroom, and the students were looking at rape, and a common idea that the students held was this: When you are raped, your life is over. But I was very insistent: Am I not standing here? I think I went through much of my life mourning the seeming permanence of trauma: how you are changed into something else entirely and you cannot go back and undo it. But I think that writing is a process of transformation. Rather than thinking about changing oneself back and returning to an innocent state, I have come to embrace this new thing that I’ve become: text, art, communication. Rather than being the object of someone else’s agency, I am the subject of my own story. I write it to say, Look, this has happened, but also, Look, I am here and I endure –– and to me, that is power.

WTK: Transforming and discovering power through writing poems is a common thread running through the writing lives of poets who have become part of Kundiman, the Asian American literary organization. You are strongly connected to Kundiman, both as a Fellow and as the organization’s managing director. How has Kundiman been important to you as a poet and artist?

CLC: I had no idea that becoming a Fellow would mean so much to me. Before my first retreat, I felt that I’d already had a close-knit creative writing community (from my MFA Program at NYU), and I didn’t see the need for a specifically Asian American community. After all, I have one at home in Long Beach.

I just felt that it would be good for me to “show up” and see what would happen.

Now, four and a half years after attending my first retreat, it has become my most important poetry community. I’ve been to the retreat three times as a Fellow and once as staff, and I have come to understand that it is life-changing to be in a room where you are accepted for who you are. Your aesthetics, what you write about, whatever –– none of these things matter –– just your presence matters. Beyond that, Kundiman is a lifelong poetry community that demonstrates, time and time again, incredible generosity.

After my book was published, I organized a cross-country road trip and book tour. Kundiman fellows across America took me in, housed and fed me, cheered me on, organized readings, and sat writing with me in their living rooms as we talked art and ideas. Some of these people, I’ve only known for five days. But perhaps those five days were of a deeper kind of knowing. And that’s why I work for Kundiman now. Because I want Kundiman to be around forever, so that the next generation can know what magic feels like. I want to help create a home for other writers wrestling with complicated notions of identity. I want this space to be there for them.

WTK: That road trip brought you together with Sally Wen Mao, Michelle Chan Brown, and Eugenia Leigh on the Honey Badger Don’t Give a B**k reading tour. How did you all set that up and how did that tour go? How important was it for you to read alongside these other poets?

CLC: That tour brought about all kinds of unexpected adventure. We ate BBQ in Terrance Hayes’s kitchen. We swung from rings that were hanging in Patrick Rosal’s living room. We read in Bryant Park to hundreds of people (their largest audience of the summer). We saw our faces in a giant poster in Baltimore, MD. We read in DC to each other, plus a woman who arrived because she saw our reading advertised on a listserv. We slept on beds and couches. We ate so much Southern food, we had to waddle home. We read at a record store with a petting zoo out back in Nashville, TN. We read to cheering high school students in Sweet Briar, VA. We timidly swam in a lake. We were embraced whole-heartedly by a beautiful local bookstore in Lexington, KY.

I deeply admire the other three poets writing in the world and was glad to see them share work, to watch them perform, and to come to grips with this huge moment in time: when four Asian American women poets said, This is my poetry, and here I am.

WTK: Yes — here you are. Your first book is out in the world, and it’s a work that is as beautiful as it is terrifying. What’s next for you? Can you talk a bit about current projects or what you are working on now?

CLC: Last summer, I wrote a bunch of road-trip poems and began exploring, for the first time, writing about sex and desire in a way that celebrates it, rather than recording trauma. Again, it’s a place for me that feels silent and risky, and it’s a big thing! I’m currently working on a project documenting my parents’ time working as extras in Apocalypse Now. They were hired in 1976, about a year after the Vietnam War had ended, about ten months after they’d escaped Vietnam on a little boat and ended up living in a refugee camp in the Philippines. The film is such an important part of the American iconography of the VN War. It won the Oscar for Best Picture, and many see it as one of the best movies ever made.

Yet, that film does not tell my parents’ stories, and I’d love to write them at the center of that narrative.

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