Creating a World in Which Everything That Dies Is Mourned
Victoria Chang on finding her own way to grieve in her book of poetry "Obit"
Victoria Chang’s Obit grapples with grief while recognizing how grief grapples us, how grief exceeds our grasp. It is a state that won’t stay still. As the end of one poem puts it, “memory gets up after someone has died and starts walking.” Or the end of another: “I always knew that grief was something I could smell. But I didn’t know that it’s not actually a noun but a verb. That it moves.”
Indeed, in grieving, the endings are endless. Yet, the book is not despairing. There’s play here and not exactly happiness but an openness to living’s ongoing mess—the ways in which life happens, alongside all the unhappening.
When I talked with Victoria Chang over Zoom, her background was outer space—or more precisely, a view of the Earth from space. The planet looked shiny and beautiful from that distance. Our conversation, meanwhile, refused a beautifying distance in favor of a sometimes disorienting up-closeness. We talked about loss, family, the American ideals of self-improvement and moving on quickly, and the need for deeper engagement with the work of writers of color.
Chen Chen: There’s such a range of people and things and concepts that die in this book, that receive obits. It starts with the core, the family—father’s frontal lobe, mother, and daughter/speaker who is a mother herself—and then moves to voicemail, language, the future, logic, memory, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, as well as other body parts or bodily functions of the parents and the speaker. The book feels expansive when building a world of grief, or transforming the world into one where everything must be grieved. How did you come to this series of transformations?
Victoria Chang: It’s always hard to talk about how one’s brain works. But I think the book is a lot like my brain—fragmented, disorganized, sloppy. In the depths of grief, I noticed how little things were dying every single day. Once I started writing about that, I couldn’t stop (at least for a few weeks). In terms of the order, I like to print things out and lay them on the ground like a lot of writers. I then read the first and last lines to see how a book might be made with some kind of arc, even if that arc is almost a flat line.
How I picked up these subjects was very much based on daily living. Sometimes they were objects, like the blue dress which is actually the dress I selected for my mother’s funeral. Other times, my mind went to more existential things and even I die because in some ways when someone dies, your whole relationship with them is gone, even the language you shared with them, the looks. There’s actually another poem, on Brigit Pegeen Kelly who died during this time but that never made it in the book.
CC: That makes me think about something Céline Sciamma, the director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, says about relationships:
“A relationship is about inventing your own language… You’ve got the jokes, you’ve got the songs… It’s this language that you build. That’s what you mourn for when you’re losing someone you love. This language you’re not going to speak with anybody else.”
What did that Brigit Pegeen Kelly poem involve and why didn’t it make it into the book?
VC: That poem was about meeting her at Bread Loaf [Writers’ Conference] and for five minutes getting to talk to her all by myself when no one else was around. It was a dream to just spend that time with someone like that. As an Asian American writer, to this day, I don’t know a lot of older white poets I admire. I just don’t have that kind of relationship with people like that. I always envy one of my friends who gets emails from older white famous poets all the time. I treasure those few minutes I had with her. She was so humble.
CC: What would you like to see happen when it comes to engagement with the work of marginalized writers, maybe in particular Asian American writers?
VC: What I see currently sometimes is a kind of false engagement or engagement “lite” in the work of Asian American writers or marginalized writers. Tokenization has always been a problem. One Asian for this or that. But now, things have improved, but I still don’t see that kind of deep engagement that I often see with critics, for example, of white writers. It’s as if people are still checking off a box and then patting themselves on the back, versus really embodying the work of the Other. That also means getting to know the Other as real people, really engaging with us, befriending us, talking to us, socializing with us.
CC: Yes. Friendship. Conversation over transaction. I think of white writers and white editors who’re basically extracting resources from us—like, “send us work, teach this workshop” and then I never hear from them again. I’m rarely asked about my actual life.
Back to the book—were there aspects of grief that you felt needed to be investigated that weren’t, that were missing in poetry, in art? On the back cover, it says you didn’t want to write elegies at first, because you wanted to avoid cliché. I’m struck by how the voice in these poems refuses a nostalgic view when it comes to grieving the parents. The poems treat them not as figures redeemed by deaths of various kinds, but further revealed—and compassionately—in all their complexities. Their aliveness as messy people has not died.
VC: I’ve read a lot of poems and other works that were elegies and elegiac. I think that in American culture, there can be an idea of entrepreneurialism and self-help that permeates everything, even poetry. In some ways, I couldn’t relate to the elegy and found many of them to be unrelatable to my experience. So looking back, I think I just went my own way and did my own thing. If that meant being honest about how difficult my mother was after my father had a stroke and how much they argued, then so be it. There was/is nothing redeeming about death in my work. A lot of what I experienced and still do are negative and uglier emotions. Because dying, at least in my mother’s case, wasn’t pretty.
CC: I really appreciate how you allow for the uglier emotions in this work. When I was growing up, my parents often talked about things that couldn’t be fixed—which seems antithetical to an American mindset that demands everything have a solution and not only that, but everything be bettered, optimized. My parents insisted on what couldn’t be solved, which saddened me and I saw them as passive, but now that I’m older, I see their perspective as a sort of antidote to the hyper-optimism in the U.S. that can actually be crushing.
Could you talk about how you experience/define agency or freedom and how your thinking on the extent to which control is possible—as a person and as a writer—informed the shaping of this book?
VC: My mother was always talking about “fate.” She used to tell me that my sister’s nose is big, therefore, she would be rich. I think about writing as freedom, the only thing I can have any say in. Which is interesting, because this whole book seems to be about the loss of control, of what’s familiar. The process of writing it was very freeing though. And once I started working on these poems, I felt the freedom of saying whatever I wanted however I wanted. When I finally sat down, I was ready to be honest, to be real.
CC: I’m noticing some thematic and formal commonalities with your previous book, Barbie Chang. The parents also appear there, though the grief seems more an anticipatory grief; there’s more dying than death, maybe. There’s a similar questioning of what it means to be losing one’s parents while parenting one’s own children. Could you talk about how you see Obit developing post-Barbie Chang? Or how the two books might be in dialogue, both thematically and formally?
VC: I think that books are artificial objects, meaning we as writers just write. And when they are supposed to be turned in, we turn them in, and then they go out into the world (if we’re lucky). But feelings, emotions, concerns, themes, our daily lives, don’t start and stop like that. My mother is still dead. I still grieve her every single day. My father still has dementia. I still have children and worry about them and the world. So I think I’m okay with the bleeding over that happens naturally.
But I do think that transitioning from one work to the next, say from book to book is also a conscious part of being an artist. What is going to be different because you, the artist, has changed or grown? That change has to occur (for me) to maintain interest as an artist, to really engage in what I’m making. So for me, I have to let enough time pass so that I can grow as a person and as a writer.
CC: What are you interested in, in terms of growth as a writer?
VC: For me, I’m always attracted to inventive writers, artists, sculptors. I’m very enamored with the next new shiny thing and have a very slim attention span. This is how I imagine my work develops too. But once I am attracted to something, I’m all in, meaning my mind can work both expansively/horizontally, and also very vertically, which is the obsessive part of my personality that can be very annoying to be around personally, but actually allows me to focus very intensely on something.
CC: It was a fantastic surprise, to see the tankas between the obits. They look and sound very different from the obits, while sharing many themes and concerns. What made you decide to write, then include both of these kinds of poems?
VC: I’m glad you used the word “surprise” because I think every single OBIT had been published in a literary journal by the time the book came out (to my surprise—people would ask for poems, I would send them, and they would take the whole batch a lot) or I would send five out, and they would take all of them. That cycle kept going and I was horrified that they were all out in the world. I was writing formal poems for fun, sonnets, sestinas, ghazals, and started writing tankas.
I started adding some of these into the manuscript as a way for the reader to take a breath because all that grieving in the OBITs seemed a lot to take, almost suffocating. My friend told me to intersperse them throughout so I did. I also didn’t tell anyone that they were in the book for that reason, maybe to leave something new for the reader of the book to experience. Same for the middle sonnet sequence which was from an older manuscript that I pulled into this one.
The Tankas were written for all children and my children too. They seemed more hopeful, about the future, rather than about the past, which the OBITs are. They are shorter in line, they are more breathy to read, less like a coffin which the OBITs can seem like. They have a lot of air in them on the page physically too. The book seemed like it needed that; otherwise, it would be too heavy.
It’s so weird to feed children to help them grow, and also help someone die.
CC: How does “hope,” as a feeling and a concept, change for you, with being a poet with children?
VC: I think I’ve become more hopeful but also less hopeful. Being someone who likes to make things (which takes a lot of space and time), it’s been challenging. I think of a block of 10 years as all black. I don’t recall anything when my children were young. I’ve also become more of a depressive since having children, punctuated with moments of unbelievable joy and laughter. It’s a hard thing being a poet and a mother simultaneously.
CC: One of my favorite poems in this collection is “The Blue Dress,” which ends with these stunning lines: “Imagination is having to live in a dead person’s future. Grief is wearing a dead person’s dress forever.” How did this poem start, then develop? And how does grief transform one’s definitions, understandings of everything else?
VC: My mother was a hoarder so I had a lot of cleaning to do when she died. She had lost a lot of weight before she died (which ironically she had always been trying to do her whole life). I had gone deep into the depths of her closet to find an old dress that seemed smaller, that might fit her. That dress had little blue flowers. I wanted that dress back and it only occurred to me after that I had to ask for it back. That they might have thrown it out or burned it. That was where the poem started, with that dress. And it just went from there.
Something that happens a lot with me when writing (particularly with these poems) was that I had a nagging question in my mind, “who cares?” Why would anyone care an iota about me and my experiences? I imagined this while writing too at certain points and when that thought popped into my head, I tended to go larger, more philosophical, more existential, which is where the ending of this poem went.
In many ways, grief just happens to us. We can’t change it or fix it. There’s also a very American idea of “getting over it” and I just couldn’t and can’t.
CC: Language’s relationship to grief is central to this book’s movement, which tends to be cyclical, restlessly circling back to the parents, to the speaker’s own mortality. In some poems, language becomes physical and has an agency of its own—for example, “I got on all fours, tried to pick up the letters like a child at an egg hunt with a basket.” I’m also thinking of what John Yau wondered aloud in a review of Muriel Leung’s Bone Confetti, “Does grief exceed words, or is it the other way around?” In this book, is language found to be inadequate or too adequate for grief? Or how would you describe the relationship between language and grief here?
VC: Interesting question and quote from Yau. The easy and more common response is that language is inadequate to describe anything, including grief. But thinking more about Yau’s quote, I wonder if language and grief are incompatible? The idea that language could even be too adequate for grief is really fascinating too. Maybe language and grief are like night and day, they pass each other mostly and if you can just get close so that the tips of morning and night touch even for a second, that would be incredible.