By Paul Adams, Contributing Editor
Awst is glad to feature author Lillian Kwok, and we'd like our readers to know a little more about her. We sat down with Lillian to get her thoughts on writing, reading, and the intersection of experience, identity, and inspiration.
Hi, Lillian. We usually start with an easy question; what are you reading right now?
Mo Yan´s Life and Death are Wearing me Out and Nadine Gordimer´s collection Jump.
So as a poet you enjoy reading outside your genre?
Yes! The novel was my first and still greatest love.
So you’ve considered writing fiction as well?
I would love to write fiction since I enjoy reading it so much, but my mind has trouble working that way. It´s hard for me to think in terms of plot. Getting from point A to point B seems to be impossible.
It does seem like some of your work blurs the line between prose poetry and flash fiction. How would you describe your work in those terms?
I think that line, a lot of times, is just in the mind. I published one of my "prose poetry" pieces as flash fiction a few months ago. I guess I generally define my work as prose poetry because I am a poet.
If the two genres overlap, is it useful to maintain a clear boundary between them? If so, how?
No, I don´t think it´s necessary to maintain the distinction. I think there´s a very fluid line between the two. Most of the time those words are just labels. But I suppose flash fiction has the possibility of being longer than prose poetry, and containing more dialogue.
Have you considered working on anything like that? You mentioned that your first love was the novel; did you experiment with longer forms in the past?
A little bit. But it never came naturally. Then in college I wanted to take a fiction writing course, but that semester there was only a poetry writing course available – so I took that instead. I felt like I found my feet there. Not that writing poetry is effortless, it´s definitely not, but it was something that moved in the same direction as my thoughts and instincts. With prose it was always swimming upstream. And I've been busy working on poetry since then, so I haven´t had the time to experiment much with long prose. But someday.
Is there some theme that unites all your work, or a topic you find yourself revisiting?
The collection I worked on during my MFA was extremely focused on family, heritage, and place. This new collection of prose poems I´m working on is a lot broader.
Yes, I feel like there´s one single driving force running through that first collection. A need to get down the family stories I heard growing up so they wouldn't just fade away. This second one doesn't have just one force, it´s got a lot of inspirations coming from every direction. There are persona pieces, a whole section inspired by classical music, poems from the perspective of an animal, medical pieces, etc.
Do you find anything in your finished work that you didn’t set out to write?
There´s quite a few poems about childhood, the problems that children have, and the cruelty they are capable of. That´s kind of come up unconsciously.
Family has been a muse for you, but do your family members appear in your poetry? Is it autobiographical?
Yes, very autobiographical. And yes, family members and other people in my life appear all the time. But never autobiographical in the strict sense. I never write it exactly as it was. So, the "mother" in my poetry is like someone that I met in a dream rather than my real mother. Anything is possible in a dream, just like writing - I´m not limited by reality.
Do your relatives read a lot of your poetry?
No, but then my grandmothers don´t read English and my parents aren’t much for literature. They support it as a great and necessary art form. But they´re scientists. They like discoveries and documentaries.
So none of your family members have ever recognized themselves in your work?
I think my dad recognized himself in the poem "Hunger" that Awst is publishing. He liked it. He gave me suggestions of other childhood happenings I could write about.
In addition to family, you mentioned that one of the concerns of your first book was place. How have place and region entered your work?
Place has always been a huge influence. Writer´s in general are very sensory people, and it´s natural that we absorb so much of where we are. I've been very influenced by places I've been, places my parents have been - but strangely not so much places I've lived long term.
Why do you think that is?
I guess it becomes so everyday that you hardly notice it, which is sad. There´s undoubtedly a lot of beauty there too.
Right now, you’re living in Sweden; what brought you there?
My partner is Swedish. We met while traveling in Thailand back in 2010, and a few months later I moved here. It´s weird – growing up I always wanted to end up in a huge city somewhere tropical and warm. I was on my way there when I moved to Asia in 2009. But now here I am in Sweden. And it´s gotten so I have a hard time imagining living anywhere else.
That’s interesting! Is it a departure from the literary world, or do you think you’re learning skills and encountering things that will improve your writing?
I go back and forth about that. The whole process of being an immigrant is undoubtedly a workout for the brain and a rich store of experience. At the same time, spending so much time in another language can make it difficult to switch back to English. But, I've joined a wonderful group of expat writers in Stockholm. Plus the long, dark winters are perfect for serious writing and the gorgeous summers just refuel you.
Has living in Sweden helped you see America differently?
YES; absolutely! Living abroad in Taiwan and now Sweden has certainly made me see America differently. Seeing the way people live in these places and I wonder, why wouldn't this work in the States? The topics on which America seems to still be stuck in the middle ages, how difficult life can be there, the competition, the attitude. But I also see a lot of the magic of America more clearly than when I was there.
There´s this sense of possibility that America still has, that´s so easy to forget about when you live there.
You also lived in Taiwan; were you a teacher there? How did that experience compare with Sweden?
Yes, for a year. I taught in an elementary school in rural Taiwan. They call it rural, but actually it was a small city. Still, there was a rice paddy under my balcony and aboriginal villages close by. My mom is from Taiwan, which is why I wanted to go there. I had never been to Asia as a child – my parents hadn´t gone back to visit after leaving. I just wanted to learn everything, see everything. I wanted to understand where they came from, I guess so I could understand myself better.
So you felt more of a cultural connection to Taiwan?
Absolutely. The language and the food were a part of my upbringing. But then my parents didn´t hold a lot of the Chinese traditions, so it wasn't until I got there that I did things like incense offerings, fold and burn paper money, celebrate Mid-Autumn festival with a barbecue, etc. It felt somehow right doing those things. You know the inherited memory—or do they call it the collective memory? Anyway, Taiwan is in there, in mine.
You mentioned that family and heritage influence your writing. How important has Chinese culture been in developing your sense of self and your literary voice?
It´s essential to my identity. I mean, I've been brought up in a non-typically American way because of it. There were always tiny bones and internal organs in our chicken soup. And we write about what we know. That´s what I know. Some of it is in everything I write.
You said earlier that you haven't been able to write about the places you've lived the longest. Is there somewhere specific you've wanted to write about?
Not yet! Sadly... Like for example I grew up outside of Philly and that´s a place I´ve never yet written about. More time maybe? More distance? Then maybe it´ll happen. Some writers do it really well though. I mean, writing about ordinary places.
I think of Michael McGriff and Amy Fleury. Michael writes about this logging town in Oregon, a working class place. Sort of grim. He makes that grimness come alive. And Amy Fleury writes about Kansas—her poems make me see the monotony and the beauty. They both use the language of their places. They amaze me. It´s not easy to stare the ordinary in the face and do something incredible with it.
Speaking of writers you admire, is there anyone who just hasn’t received enough attention?
Foreign writers. Especially foreign poets. Of course it´s very hard when there aren´t enough translations. I think about contemporary Chinese poets, because I´m Chinese, but pretty much all writers not writing in English.
Why do you think those voices are so important?
They have such a fascinating different view of the world, and it comes out in their writing. I think it can be so useful to get these new, fresh and crazy viewpoints from all the corners of the world.
But is it even possible to translate poetry?
It absolutely can be translated, but then it becomes, of course, a new poem.
What does it take to be a translator? What goes into a good translation?
Besides language ability, I think it really takes sharp and deep perception to be a good translator. To be able to see the heart of what the writer really wanted to say - then you might be able to go and change verb tenses, from third person to first person, change things like crazy but still be able to keep the heart of what the author was saying. The true poem.
How do we recognize the true poem?
I think there is never a definitive translation. It´s necessary to have translations by men, by women, by people from all different backgrounds. And new translations every few decades. You want it to make sense to the current audience, and that is always changing.
How can we help to promote those diverse voices? Is there some way for them to reach a larger audience?
I really don´t have a good answer to that. All I can say is that a lot of journals are open to translations now, which helps. Also people are traveling more and more, and thereby discovering foreign writers themselves as well as being more interested in reading work by foreign writers. It usually just takes one writer to get someone hooked. Like someone reads a famous author such as Ahkmatova and then go on and read all the other Russian poets they can get their hands on.
Has the internet helped with this? Has it been a force for good in the lives of readers and writers?
I´m totally for the internet. It opens up the literary community beyond just America to the whole world.
What are the relative advantages of print and online journals?
Being published in print is still what´s most prestigious, but I think online literary journals are such a fantastic way to reach a lot of people. And it stays up on the internet, people can always find it later, years later. With print journals, things sort of disappear.
Featuring an author’s larger body of work is an important focus of Awst Press. What else attracted you to the model?
Tatiana [Ryckman] vouched for the project and we are connected through the VCFA community, so I trusted her instincts. Then, the fact that they were going to feature authors over a couple weeks. That was something new. Not just publish a chapbook, but let the public get to know past work, get to know the author as a person. It felt very good, interesting. It feels like a nice community. A comfortable place to be.
What are some of the other journals you find interesting?
We´re lucky to live in a time of abundant and wonderful journals. Some of the ones that I´ve enjoyed recently are Muzzle, POOL, B O D Y, Paper Darts, Contrary, and Word Riot. But there are literally thousands to love out there.
Thanks so much for your thoughts! Before we go, do you have any shout-outs, thank-yous, or parting words of wisdom?
Endless gratitude to my partner, my family, my writing professors at Pepperdine, the VCFA community, the Stockholm Writer´s Group, and the editors who´ve taken a chance on me for everything they do that´s kept me going all the times I wanted to give up. Writing is an extremely rocky road.