Questions by Meg Narramore.
- Firstly, huge congratulations on receiving the Dylan Thomas prize! Can you tell us a bit about what being shortlisted for this prize means to you?
It means a lot to be shortlisted for this prize, particularly since I grew up reading and enjoying poems by Dylan Thomas, including ‘Fern Hill’, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Goodnight’ and ‘The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower’. It is also a real honour to be shortlisted alongside poets and writers whom I deeply admire, including Ocean Vuong, Jay Bernard and Téa Obreht.
- How did you find the experience of writing your shortlisted work? Was it a difficult process and what inspired the story?
Flèche is the culmination of five years of work. In many ways, it was a book I needed to write, so the process of writing it has felt both easy and difficult, sometimes all at once. It was difficult emotionally to allow myself to write about queer shame and intergenerational trauma. Grief was surprisingly easy to tap into; what I found more difficult was attempting to capture moments of joy. I kept returning to Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Don’t Hesitate’, in which she writes: ‘Joy is not meant to be a crumb.’
- The prize celebrates young authors, is this something that you think is important? Do you find being a younger author poses challenges?
I think that there should be more prizes that are open to authors of all ages. That being said, I think that it is apt in this case to celebrate Dylan Thomas’s legacy by capping the age of submitted authors at 39, since that is the age at which Dylan Thomas passed away.
Being a younger author does sometimes pose challenges. Personally, I am often impatient with the time it takes to adapt and shift one’s writing style or voice in relation to new ways of thinking or seeing the world, but the wise and wonderful Jo Shapcott reminds me that the best poets are the ones whose work evolves over the span of their career, and that one needs to be patient during this life-long process of evolving as a writer.
- When did you start writing and can you share a bit about what inspired your current path?
During my time at college in the US, I was inspired by the American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, whose powerful and political work always felt suffused with urgency, but without relinquishing a keen awareness of the need for music and aesthetic beauty. I eventually took a poetry workshop with the poet and librettist Nathalie Anderson, which helped me take my budding voice as a poet more seriously. I also studied the Victorian poets and Shakespeare, all of whom were important to my growth as a poet.
- Does your writing have any central focuses or themes and what encourages you to explore these?
My collection interweaves complex themes of multilingualism, queerness, psychoanalysis and cultural history. This is also a book full of women’s voices: the voice of the poet herself, the poet’s partner, the poet’s mother and the mother’s wet nurse. These themes naturally arise from my preoccupations as a queer, Hong Kong-born, British-Chinese poet who has lived and worked in the UK since 2014, and who considers both Hong Kong and London home.
- This prize has had some amazing winners in the past, have you had any particular influences in your writing until this point?
My influences are varied, but some writers I’ve found particularly helpful in writing my debut collection include Adrienne Rich, Kei Miller, Marie Howe, Ocean Vuong, Emily Berry, Claudia Rankine, Chen Chen, Vahni Capildeo and Sarah Howe, to name but a few.
- Dylan Thomas is widely considered one of the most important Welsh poets of his time. His heritage was a pervasive theme in his work, do you think that where you are from echoes in your writing?
Certainly. Hong Kong will always be home for me, since I was born and raised there until the age of nineteen. Many of my poems draw from the well of my childhood and teenage years, so my cultural heritage is certainly an important part of my writing. In addition, as a queer poet, I have found freedom and acceptance through Anglophone poetry in more ways than one, so in a sense, language has been my home/homeland for the past decade. I love these lines by the poet Vahni Capildeo, who writes in their collection Measures of Expatriation: ‘Language is my home, I say; not one particular language.’ I explore my relationship to both the English and Chinese language in my work, while also grappling with the hierarchical nature of language that permeates postcolonial countries (and cities) such as my own.
- Can you give us any updates on anything new that you are working on, is there anything in the making?
I am currently trying to write an extended essay which might turn into a book-length project, but it is still very much in the early stages of gestation.
- We are currently living in a strange time, are there any books that you would recommend to inspire hope in this period?
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin (Fitzcarraldo Editions), Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau), Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Faber) and RENDANG by Will Harris (Granta).