Apogee Benefit Preview #2
This week we’re posting interviews and previews for our annual benefit on Friday September 25th. Today’s interview features queer Fujianese poet and drag performer Wo Chan, one of our four benefit readers.
The Fujianese are badasses: an interview with Wo Chan
by Melody Nixon
Melody Nixon (MN): Your poetry investigates and challenges prescribed notions of identity through the personal and intimate. In the 2010s, decades after the slogan was first used by feminists, is the personal still political? What power lies in the intimate?
Wo Chan (WC): Absolutely. Confession: I’ve never voted in my life. This is mostly due to timing—I was too young to vote when I was a U.S. citizen, and by the time I was old enough, I had lost my citizenship. Does this mean my life is not political? I think being a Chinese immigrant is inherently political if you look at the foundational role that Chinese Americans had in catalyzing U.S. immigration policy—namely, exclusion. To be a queer person of color fighting deportation is a burden of multiple politics that I was never ready to navigate. It’s also deeply personal, because at the core of it, the country means to remove me from the life I have lived since I was 5. When I write about being an immigrant, when I write about being queer—I understand the personal to be communal. It is under the truthmaking lens of poetry, however, where my community’s lack of power is exposed, and that is historical. That is political.
MN: I’m interested in your choice to describe yourself as Fujianese rather than the broader term Chinese. Can you talk about this division and what the regional specification means to you?
WC: Because the Fujianese are badasses. New York is filled with Fujianese people so I am surrounded by the baddass aunties and uncles of my community everyday, which is invigorating, no doubt. I put Fujianese in my bio on a whim, and I was immediately rewarded the next day when after a reading I gave, a Chinese audience member came up to me and said “Hey! I’m Fujianese too! Never thought I’d see a queer Fujianese poet!” And then it sort of stuck. I have a curious theory that maybe [it stuck] because I never stayed long enough in China to develop any sense of national reverence, but I grew up watching my parents be very Fujianese. Eating fishballs, making puns in Fuzhou dialect, and even returning to Changle for my grandmother’s funeral were huge in my childhood and teenage years.
MN: In your poem “Glasses,” published on your Poet’s House page, you write, in response to an optometrist:
“say I need
the large frames to counterweigh
my brazen, Asian
Can you talk about the presence and role of race in your work?
WC: It’s so funny you found this passage from the “Glasses” poem. I wrote that poem in undergrad from a prompt on self-portraiture through objects. The detail of the Asianess and the way glasses fit East Asian faces didn’t bloom until after the poem finished, and I could see the necessity of detail that orchestrated the gap between the speaker and optometrist. I mean to say that the tension that pushed me in this poem was the micro and simultaneous feelings of discontent and care that the optometrist inhabited, and how that enacted a process of seeing within the speaker. The gap between old & young, white & Chinese, queer & non-queer, woman & non-woman, alien & citizen, felt like a crucible in that dimlit room where she touched my face while berating my life choice. Poetry emerged only when I embraced the borders of my identity. And, if poetry is a place of exploration, then placing my race, my gender, my citizenry directly into poems seems only vital in understanding myself as a contextualized being and how murkily I am mirrored within my audiences.
WO CHAN is a queer Fujianese poet and drag performer. A recipient of fellowships from Poets House, Kundiman, and Lambda Literary, Wo’s work has been published in cream city review, BARZAHK, and VYM Magazine. As a member of Brooklyn-based drag alliance, Switch n’ Play, Wo has performed at venues including Brooklyn Pride, The Trevor Project, and the Architectural Digest Expo. Wo is a 2015 AAWW Margins Fellow.
MELODY NIXON’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, Public Books, Electric Literature, Cura Magazine, VIDA, Midnight Breakfast, No Dear Magazine, and Hoax Publication. She co-founded Apogee, edits interviews for The Common, co-curates the First Person Plural Reading Series—Harlem, and holds an MFA from Columbia University.