Interview with author Muriel Leung

Sundress intern Julie Leung interviewed Muriel Leung (no relation) in advance of her second book, Imagine Us, The Swarm. This award-winning collection of essays in verse explores past, present, and future with fearlessness and courage, examining immigration, racism, and xenophobia, along with trauma, loss, and grief, the current racializing of disease, and the hope of collective healing.

JL: To begin, please tell me about the inspiration that guided you to create the cover art.

ML: When I first imagined the cover for Imagine Us, The Swarm, I knew I wanted to feature the faces of the women in my family. The book very much is an exploration of my own relationship to gender, race, and resiliency, lessons which I learned from women in my family, from witnessing the strength of other Asian American women and femmes. I had envisioned silhouettes since I wanted the faces to be recognizably Asian though not my family members’ exact likeness so that another Asian person looking at the cover would see someone who might resemble them or their family. 

I remembered the photos I had seen in albums of my mother when she was younger, the rare family portraits she had of my grandmother, my great grandmother. I knew I wanted to represent them in some way, so I asked my mother to send me the digital copies of the photos, and I drew silhouettes of them based on these portraits, showing them to my mother when I was done. She said, “Yeah, I guess that looks like me,” and that was that. The final design of the cover is by Rissa Hochberger who offered me different colors for the cover. I hesitated with the yellow at first but am so glad I was persuaded to keep it. I was not immediately conscious of it at the time, but my friend and fellow poet Phuong Vuong pointed out that the cover graphic felt like a historical continuance of Yellow Pearl, an art book developed by the Basement Workshop, an Asian American political arts collective in the 1970s.

JL: Can you share the evolution between Bone Confetti and Imagine Us, The Swarm

ML: I wrote the bulk of Bone Confetti during my MFA and was very much influenced by the aesthetic of living in Louisiana during those years, a place which is overbrimming with equal parts life and haunting. The book is set in a speculative landscape filled with ghosts, parades, weddings, and funerals—a deeply macabre project that felt emblematic of where my mind was at the time, that only highly figurative language could convey. I was very much interested in casting so many veils that something truly sharp and uncomfortable about grief might emerge from the thick.

I began writing Imagine Us, The Swarm once Bone Confetti was getting ready to launch, wanting to reflect on what it means to write a book, a type of creative labor that compels us to look so closely at difficult subjects to the point of emotional exhaustion. I was reminded of the ways in which my father worked hard all his life until his passing, and that his work ethic lives through me. Labor is always racialized, particularly for the restaurant industry where my father worked. Due to racism and xenophobia, Chinese restaurants were one of the few places where Chinese immigrants in the U.S. could find employment after the construction of the transcontinental railroad. So, in a way, there’s a historical continuity there where my father found his place; it bred in him a certain devotion to the model minority myth, believing that hard work would allow him to overcome racial barriers. In his passing, I think he realized that this belief was flawed. In remembering him, I want this new book to narrate the past differently so that the future of us could be revised. This was what coursed through my mind in the writing of Imagine Us, The Swarm. There is no In Absentia-land, no lovers walking into their doom—just me, alone, talking to my past and future.

JL: How about your choices with punctuation and form?

ML: When I think about punctuation, I think about the “not silent,” that something like ellipses or brackets indicate a filling of space, so that even if sound does not reside there, there is still breath. In the essay-in-verse, “This is to live several lives,” for instance, I use the ellipses like an elongated buzz throughout the course of that piece, just as bees populate its content. I don’t see it as disruption or limitation but as a way of speaking to the supposed gaps and absences of our history, gesturing to how perhaps they were never blank spaces to begin with.

JL: What about the role of myth? The work references both the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and also the family myth of the father swimming to Hong Kong. The book ends with a focus on planets and celestial beings, more mythology. How does mythology shape who we become?

ML: The reference to Orpheus and Eurydice recalls the myth that informs Bone Confetti. In my first book, I modeled the relationship of two lovers after the Orpheus and Eurydice myth in which the former pursues the latter in the underworld only to lose her again. The first book was about perpetual loss, what it means to lose and lose again. I reference it once more in Imagine Us, The Swarm because I realized that even after the completion of one book, the subject matter was still never exhausted. The loss and grief forge ahead with new shape, new contours. 

As a writer, I do think I’m constantly participating in a new myth-making. Even as I narrate stories about my family, they still possess a certain bias and memory that are several steps removed from the absolute truth. Furthermore, in asserting an absolute truth, wouldn’t I be perpetuating the same harm of silencing through a compulsory singular narrative? Is there a way in which there can be multiple truths? I suppose in my myth-making, I am not necessarily trying to access an absolute truth, but looking at the myriad ways in which it is refracted. 

The myth of my father’s migration, of my grandfather’s before him. The myth of celestial bodies. The myth of Greek poets who search the depths of hell for their love, losing them once again. One definition of a myth can be that it is a story that is not concerned with a truth grounded in realism but that communicate an emotional lesson. What did I learn? My familial history is barbed and contains a legacy of pain. On occasion, someone has tried to reverse it. Did it work? I am asking. 

JL: “The ghost of my future visits my past and tells her You have to be brave.” Fear and courage are themes in this collection, both on a personal intimate level, as experienced by individuals in the family, and also on a collective level in groups. How do fear and courage shape this work?

ML: I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage to face your trauma. In the line you mentioned, I imagine what it would be like to visit my past self, a new survivor and constantly questioning my own experiences. What would it be like to receive this message from my future self, someone who I imagine to be more fortified than I am right now, who can tell my younger self that while I cannot change what happened, I will live through this? 

My family, in assorted faces, had to channel their courage to face the political turmoil of their home country, to build a life for themselves in the U.S., and to brave illness and the hardships along the way. I often feel like trauma leads to isolation, this feeling that we must endure what we suffered alone. I felt tremendous guilt for years that I could not live up to my family’s sacrifices, and that undermined my own pain and suffering. What would it be like if we made space for the various ways in which we endured? To offer each other compassion?

I realize in writing Imagine Us, The Swarm, that it would not do me any good to portray anyone in my family as villain or hero, but that some have inherited the trauma of previous generations more than others. No one gets to be on a pedestal; there is no redemptive narrative. I want to remember my family exactly as they are—flawed and having survived. 

JL: Let’s talk about the themes of resistance, defiance, and obstinance, in contrast to allegiance and loyalty (disloyalty). How do these tensions affect the narrator’s identity – specifically race, gender, and queerness? “But my queerest self, buckling against the frame, is something other”.

ML: If defiance means resistance to a naturalized order of things, then it feels especially necessary as a queer Asian American woman. Growing up in a homophobic, racist, and misogynist world, the rule of law typically privileges those identities with social power. If we don’t resist, then we risk perpetuating the law as simply natural or organic to the way things are, which means that we commit to the belief that we are inferior, less than, or constantly in deference to those in power. I question any rule of law that assumes allegiance by default, recognizing that opposition is a strategic move that can model another kind of life. I believe that there are those who would prefer to maintain the order of things as they are because they either benefit from it or are scared to imagine alternatives. I want my resistance to foster a greater imagination of what could be instead of what already is.

JL: The (holiday) tree with the angel propped up on chopsticks – and the noted “inheritance” – is a vivid image. Could you share more about the inheritance children receive from immigrant parents?

ML: The angel propped up on chopsticks is very much a real memory! Growing up, my parents tried to perform as many American holiday traditions as they could. One of these included getting a plastic tree, which has become bent from many years of being shoved into boxes in the corner of the basement. One year, we found a Christmas angel and could not figure out how to get it to stay up on the tree. My mother had the brilliant idea of creating a pair of stilts for the angel using a pair of chopsticks and a rubber band. We thought it looked so ridiculous, but it worked! And that pretty much sums up my relationship to a lot of American traditions, the level of artifice. I suppose you can say that this is very much an immigrant approach to American traditions, which is the constant reinterpretation of its common rituals and objects. The way, for instance, we would make wonton soup with macaroni or eat roast duck instead of turkey. 

As someone born in the U.S., I guess you can say I inherited this approach in my poetics. I do believe that the English language in particular lends itself to reinterpretation, that by constantly transforming it, we do take away some of its dominant power. 

JL: “The Plural Circuits of Tell” speaks to the current rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, using a creative form to connect cancer and racism in America. “Although the mask proliferated, becoming a matter of everyday life, the association between survival of one-self and hatred for an entire people became unnecessarily bound.” In March 2021, would you like to add further comment on Imagine Us, The Swarm and racism?

ML: “The Plural Circuits of Tell” was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, an essay-in-verse that wrestles with cancer, heredity, race, and xenophobia. Before the pandemic, there were multiple occasions in which the spread of an illness became racialized, and it always had to do with nonwhite bodies. I initially wrote about the xenophobia towards East Asians that transpired with the SARS virus, how the image of an Asian person wearing a mask became symbolic of the disease as much as survival from it. I imagine that the current resistance to wearing masks by so many American anti-maskers has to do with this sense of American exceptionalism, that these things are not supposed to happen within the U.S. Yet in so many Asian countries, wearing a mask in public even outside of a pandemic has been fairly standard, a way of protecting oneself in the crowd. That so many Americans could not even envision being inconvenienced in such a small way suggests a grave level of entitlement.

When I revised the piece in August 2020, the pandemic in the U.S. was already underway though the media coverage of violence towards Asian Americans has not had much emphasis. I debated whether the piece needed a revision with COVID-19 in mind (would it be too heavy-handed?), considering so much of the initial content was still relevant. However, with former U.S. President Trump’s refusal to back down from dubbing COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus,” there was this sense of history repeating itself. There is consequence to racializing disease in this way, and so, it is no surprise that there would be an uptick of violence towards Asian Americans, even after Trump’s presidency. Racism has been part of the fabric of the U.S. for so long, and Trump’s language only verified what had long been in existence, offering validation to the white supremacist ideology possessed by so many. 

I come back to this interview response today, having woken up to news of a white man who shot several Asian women working in massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia. Their names are Soon C. Park, Suncha Kim, Yong A. Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, and Hyun J. Grant. While news reports try to evade the relevance of race behind the killer’s motives, his reasoning that he was simply trying to rid himself of his “sex addiction” to Asian women undoubtedly links racism, xenophobia, and misogyny behind his actions. What is so infuriating is that every Asian person in the U.S. can sense that this uptick of anti-Asian violence is connected to the white supremacist ire that Trump had fanned, and now, we bear the consequences. What would justice look like here? Certainly not further investment in the police, not in more surveillance, not in refining definitions of “terrorism” or “hate crime,” which only serves to reify the power of the state. We need a deeper dismantling of white supremacy.

What I hope “The Plural Circuits of Tell” makes clear is that there is a direct correlation between race, language, and disease. Often, I hear racism being compared to a cancer, and this piece is a literalization of how it can most absolutely kill or cause great and prolonged suffering. Having witnessed both parents go through cancer, I had vowed to challenge the internal stigma of illness within myself, knowing that cancer genes live on in future generations. Is that not how the racism and xenophobia of this country lives on too? When I think about the COVID-19 pandemic, I am reminded of that fear that underlies white supremacy, which is also a fear of contagion, and which is devoted to the belief that in order to maintain its power, it must annihilate nonwhite communities, to stop the spread of nonwhite people in the U.S. It refuses to wear a mask. It refuses to believe in a collective agreement of care. It does not see that this change is inevitable, that the pandemic has already arrived, is here. Why are they refusing their vulnerability? What are they so afraid to lose when we are already risking our lives every day?

JL: “There is only our singular pulse as we fill the sky” is a last line of grace and hope. Can you discuss this tension between singularity and plurality (and identity/ownership) throughout the work, and its resolution in the final section? 

ML: In the opening essay-in-verse, “This is to live several lives,” I consider what it means “to be at once a colony and alone” after learning that there are some bees that are without colonies. I often feel adrift in this way, struggling to feel at one with various communities, not quite normative enough for my own family. The book takes the reader through a journey of discovery and recovery, of coming to political consciousness, and finding one’s values necessarily challenged. The book’s last section, which features untitled poems clustered under the heading, “When I imagine all the possibilities of the swarm,” is the culmination of this journey, realizing that the only way to create a better future is not alone, as I once thought, but to access some collective spirit. This is a challenge to myself, someone who at times dreams of a perfect community, one that never harms nor ever disappoints. I realize now that some of our most rewarding growth comes from conversations about how communities can transform and heal collective traumas together. The last line is a wish for a moment of unity in which we can agree that we have a devotion to protecting the most vulnerable members of our communities. That takes so much work and deep humbling, but it is what I want for all of us.

Pre-order your copy of Imagine Us, The Swarm today!

Muriel Leung, a queer Chinese American cis woman with long green hair and a shaved side cut, sits on a couch with one hand propping up her chin and the other holding her elbow. She wears a long black shirt with a keyhole cutout at the chest and a burnt orange leather skirt. In the background is a living room with a large painting of flowers and a dining room table

Muriel Leung is the author of Imagine Us, The Swarm, forthcoming from Nightboat Books and Bone Confetti, winner of the 2015 Noemi Press Book Award. A Pushcart Prize nominated writer, her writing can be found in The Baffler, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, and others. She is a recipient of fellowships to Kundiman, VONA/Voices Workshop and the Community of Writers. She is the Poetry Co-Editor of Apogee Journal. She also co-hosts The Blood-Jet Writing Hour podcast with Rachelle Cruz and MT Vallarta. She is a member of Miresa Collective, a feminist speakers bureau. A Dornsife fellow in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California, she is from Queens, NY. 

The photo of the author at the beach.

Julie Jeanell Leung received her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in a number of publications, including Bellingham Review, Blue Lyra Review, and Grist: The Journal for Writers. Her essays have been selected as a Finalist for Best of the Net and as a winner of the Living Earth Nonfiction Prize. Julie lives with her husband on an island near Seattle where she volunteers as a citizen scientist and counts sea stars on the rocky shores.

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