An Interview with Sally Wen Mao
By Becky Zhang, Pomona '22
Sally Wen Mao is a Chinese-American poet, writer, and educator. She immigrated to the United States at a young age and has published two poetry collections, Mad Honey Symposium and Oculus. Released this year, Oculus has been critically acclaimed for its exploration of technology and the Asian-American experience in the United States. She won a 2017 Pushcart Prize for her poetry, and her writing has been published or reviewed by NPR, Vulture, The New Yorker, Nylon, and The Washington Post.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In “Antipode Essay,” you write that “America cannot orient itself / without an opposite.” What led you to that thought?
The U.S. operates on an assertive kind of logic. I’ve always found the popular saying “I’m going to dig a hole and emerge on the other side of the earth in China” to be problematic. That kind of geographical explanation of what is the opposite of the U.S. is kind of a lie. The actual antipode of the U.S., the exact geographical opposite of the U.S., is not China but this desolate island in the sea, and its name literally translates to desolation island. That is the real antipode of the U.S., even though the popular imaginarium likes to think of the antipode or opposite of the U.S. as China. I guess that “Antipode Essay” is about thinking about language, and how those idioms and sayings get recycled over and over again despite that they may be factually lies.
Your poems in Oculus highlight the ways Hollywood fails to respectfully and honestly represent Chinese-Americans on-screen. Can you share what drew you to the topic of representation and, in particular, to the particular people whose lives you chose to focus on, from the 20th-century Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong to the first Chinese woman to visit the U.S., Afong Moy?
I think that we’ve all been affected by representation in varying degrees. It’s a general conversation that’s happening a lot in the larger cultural imaginarium, and Hollywood white-washing is a discussion that’s in the ether. I wanted to write about that, but not in essay form.
I chose the women in particular who were in the spotlight in various degrees, like Afong Moy and Anna May Wong, who were historical figures and gave a more direct context for the conversation that people are having now about race and representation in media.
I knew about Anna May Wong pretty early on. I think I first found her in a museum of Chinese Americans in New York. The exhibition, a thematic monologue describing Anna May Wong, really drew me in, and so I went back and ended up doing some research on her and her life.
The Chinese in America by Iris Chang mentioned Afong Moy in only a few sentences, but I was immediately drawn to her story. It should be a more well-known story and yet it’s not, and so I conducted more research on her by looking for archives at the New York Public Library.
These two women had a lot in common, separated by around one century, and I was really fascinated by that. Going back to the 1800s and then through the 20th and 21st centuries, I realized it was truly an intergenerational phenomenon. There’s this pattern that emerges, and these two women in particular really struck me.
In a recent article for Nylon, “Two Worlds, One Dress: On the Chinese-American Qipao,” you mentioned your stay in Shanghai as a transformative one. Can you tell me more about your trip there and what you were doing? And can you expand on how it tied you to Anna May Wong’s first trip to China herself and the idea of returning home to a place you don’t fully know?
I was a resident in an artist’s residency in Shanghai, set in this beautiful hotel, a historic building right on the Bund in Shanghai. I was there to write and do research on whatever my next project might be. Once I got there, I kind of tried to think about history and Shanghainese history in particular, and I did see a lot of relations to Anna May Wong because she visited the city too when she was pretty much the same age as me. With that essay, I wanted to focus on the trip made by her. Most people know her as the Chinese, the Oriental actress, but they don’t know how quintessentially Chinese-American she was; Wong didn’t really know China at all until she was well into her adulthood.
I traced a bit of her journey and visited the Park Hotel where she stayed. The Peace Hotel, which was right next to me, actually had a museum with Anna May Wong’s portrait. I think she had done some kind of reception there during her stay. I was really drawn to learning more about the history of Shanghai, especially at the time of her visit; it was the 1930s, the height of Shanghai’s glamorous era, and kind of the apex of both the Chinese Civil War and the Japanese invasion.
Many of the poems in Oculus are “persona poems,” in which you write from the perspectives and voices of people whom you’ve learned about. How do you reconcile the distance, whether generational, national, or personal, between you and the chosen narrator when trying to yield an authentic voice?
Fiction writers have been doing it for god knows how long. It involves really harnessing the elements of story making, character building, and simply thinking about the specific experience of having an Asian-American, feminine body. The feeling attached to that is something that can transcend time and history. Of course, I read a lot of Anna May Wong’s accounts. She actually wrote a lot of her own articles, and her voice wasn’t that much of a departure from what I had imagined it to be. She’s very well-spoken, and she was a great writer.
With that, you have to recognize that you’re dealing with a history that might be silenced or erased. Your voice may not give complete truth to that story or that object, but that’s where the imagination comes in. As Asian-American women, we have been the victims of white feminization for so long. Throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, white people have had no problems with taking on a voice or being the authority on the experiences of Asians and Asian Americans. So, you really just have to give yourself permission when you have that experience. That experience of being in an Asian-American, feminine body can never be explained by a white perspective and yet it has been, again and again. Those stories never really reflect how it feels. So, of course I’m going to write persona poems. Why can’t I, when other people are doing the same, and instead in an inauthentic way?
Tying to the topic of representation in cinema and other popular media, what are your thoughts on the handling of representation in the movie Crazy Rich Asians?
Crazy Rich Asians is marketed as this fun, rom-com, feel-good movie, and I think it delivered on that promise. We haven’t seen that many Asians or Asian Americans in these kinds of movies, and so a lot of people were very excited about that. I certainly shared some of that excitement, but I really don’t think of the film as a triumph for representation, just to have that one movie. It’s this event that happens every 30 or so years. Crazy Rich Asians, before that The Joy Luck Club, and then before that Flower Drum Song from 1961. How do we change the Asian-American film so it becomes an actual pattern instead of this anomaly that appears every few decades? I don’t want just feel-good rom-com films; I want films whose plots tackle the deeper complexities of being Asian American, films that tackle the real and nitty-gritty problems. Those are still rare.
Your poem “Occidentalism” reflects on history as conveyed through writing and books. How do you define the term “history,” and how do you think creative writing can serve to fill in the gaps of or rewrite the more commonplace and traditional histories that are in place?
In conversations about history, the questions are always “who is telling the history?” and “who is recording the history?” Who is telling the story, and from what perspective? Often the answer to that is the people in power. The people in power are usually writing that history. Not until this century have we learned to reckon with that; our critical thinking has not really been the norm. When I was growing up, we were taught about Columbus and how he was an explorer who discovered the New World. On a factual level, this is biased and from the perspective of white leaders.
“Occidentalism” begs the question: how can we, the people who might not be in power, record history and reckon with the history that is already in the books? How can we reckon with a book that glorifies settler colonialism? With that poem, I was thinking about how we can break that on a daily basis. I think that that’s what’s great about creative writing. In a way you’re recreating a history. You’re tackling history through another lens: one of imagination. Not only can you remap history, but you can also reimagine it. It’s very important to be reading works of fiction and poetry that look at history from a different perspective.
You write in “Occidentalism:” “In this life I have worshipped so many lies. / Then I workshop them, make them better.” Can you share more of your thoughts on this idea of lies and reshaping them?
Lies do come from that idea of history; the fact that these kinds of narratives were told again and again throughout my youth (that Columbus discovered America when in fact it already existed and had been settled on by Native Americans), one comes to take them for granted and no longer questions them. I guess the process of “workshopping” a piece of work, even a work that you might have spent your whole life working on, means that you can still take the time to revise that—to revise a perception you may have had, one you may have once been set on.
Do you have any comment on Sino-U.S. relations as they are portrayed in US media and how they might impact the ways in which Chinese and Chinese Americans are viewed in the U.S.?
Today there’s this kind of orientalism—I won’t call it that, because orientalism tends to pertain to overt Yellow Peril. But it harkens to these kinds of tropes that the Chinese are out to get us. There’s this narrative recycled: China is written about as this kind of crazy, uncontrollable behemoth that is hard to understand, hard to control, and inscrutable. I think those words still pertain to how the media treats Sino-US relations. The language is interesting in that it takes away human interaction and lends itself to this behemoth kind of influence, never mind the fact that it’s discussing a country made up of real people. I find it odd, the language that comes with that topic in the media.
You’ve written that you “don't believe the false binary between retaining an ethnic culture and ‘assimilation.”’ Could you speak on this more, specifically on the methods you find most effective in combating this binary and embracing both the conjunction and conflict of assimilation and claiming one’s ethnic heritage?
There definitely is this narrative: the immigrant comes to America, and let’s help them assimilate. I just don’t think that it’s a one-way journey. What happens, then, when the immigrant does assimilate? What then? Are they going to enjoy the privileges of supremacy? Never. I think it’s a false binary, and people being immigrants are always going to have struggles, no matter how Americanized they get. We should expect that people can exist in more than one world, with more than one identity and more than one way of seeing themselves.
How do you think that teaching and writing are complementary and how are they different? How did the courses you taught at Cornell and other academic institutions influence your own work?
Teaching is also a learning process; when you’re teaching, you’re also teaching yourself and your students are teaching you. Even though I barely got any writing done at my residency in Shanghai, I still consider all of that part of the writing process—that is, tracing Anna May Wong’s steps and visiting the museums. I view teaching the same way.
I taught an Asian-American literature course at Cornell, and because I hadn’t learned about that before I had to teach myself some of the history and activism surrounding it. It was kind of a crash course before teaching the course. Of course, my students were very brilliant and would bring in their own kind of experiences, knowledge, and expertise into the classroom.
When in your life did you begin to acknowledge race as a factor that affected how you and others were perceived?
I think I’ve always felt it, but in terms of noting a critical mindset around race, I feel like that took a longer time to find. You feel things before you are able to understand them and pick them apart. In college I didn’t take that many classes in Asian-American studies or race studies in general—I was more versed in feminist and gender studies, but those kinds of classes usually failed to address race in any kind of meaningful way, and I feel like I recognized that really sharply in college. It wasn’t until graduate school that I really started taking more classes on it and building a critical language and standpoint on race. It’s an ongoing process.
Why do you write?
I was probably in middle school when I developed this habit of writing poems. I think I’ve always been a writer, though—I can date it back to second grade. The writing workshops were always my favorite part of class; there was a fragment of time devoted to writing stuff, and I remember that being my favorite time of all. I recently found this old notebook from second grade, when I was eight years old, in my dad’s garage, and it’s full of all these book titles for this series I was going to write, as well as maybe 70 pages written of this Goosebumps knockoff. (laughs.) Maybe I wanted to be a horror story writer back then.
Who are your artistic influences?
Whoever I happen to be reading at the time. When I was writing Oculus, I was reading a lot of poets, Cathy Park Hong and Adrian Matejka in particular, and seeing how other poets approached their writing. The Big Smoke by Matejka is a book with a long running persona throughout, and I wanted to see what that could bring. Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire had a lot of poems about this future boomtown addressing the proliferation of technology. She made up a fictional city, and I just thought that was so brilliant. Reading different writers who were pushing boundaries between genres or introducing the speculative into poetry, for example, was something that I was interested in and really experimented with.
Thanks so much for speaking with me today. It was such a pleasure talking to you, and I wish you the best in all your creative endeavors. Do you have any closing thoughts?
More to my sentiment on Crazy Rich Asians, progress is not just about rising to the top. It’s about diversity within your community. The Asian American experience can never be represented by just one person or one movie, so the absurdity of that is what I want to emphasize. How many movies do we have about a white family?
I think that literature right now is really interesting; there have been a lot more Asian-American talent and books coming out in the recent years showcasing the experiences of all kinds of marginalized identities.