Frances Kai-Hwa Wang reaches for poetry “when argument fails, when there can be no objectivity, when things have become personal”
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang’s new book, You Cannot Resist Me When My Hair Is in Braids, begins with desire and dreams and concludes with anger, love, and home. In the pages in between, the expansive lyric essays travel broadly from Kathmandu, which is “the ancient city of my youth while I am disappearing into summer, fire, and sea,” to the basement of the Detroit Institute of Arts where “we discover the museum’s stash of old film reels.” The essays consider how to have one’s own dreams, embrace identity, experience violence against identity, and engage with family (not to mention ex-family members).
Leaving a place and leaving a marriage become both a backdrop and an integral part of the essays. In “Texting Nostalgic for Kathmandu,” Wang writes:
I couldn’t write for years after I left. I thought that there was something wrong with all the other cities in which I lived. I forgot that I had come into myself. I let another convince me that I had misremembered and misinterpreted all that had happened to me.
The way that changes and other people’s opinions can paralyze and alter a person’s trajectory are made plain. Then, marriage did not provide support with the challenges, or even companionship, as “I remember how I never felt so alone as when I was married, with four little children and a dog, three jobs, on every committee and task force, always busy, always driving, always surrounded by friends.”
Feeling alone when with other people can be the loneliest. The result of those experiences is, “Philosophically, I don’t believe in marriage and promises of forever. Philosophically, I believe in the moment.”
Wang shows us how life has a way of paring things down to the simple truth of the present.
The author writes candidly not only about her own life but also about identity and the related issues in our society. One example is how the seemingly collective experience of the COVID-19 pandemic is not so collective in the poem “Breath Rises":
Earlier in the spring, while everyone was #quarentinebaking, I was sprouting bean sprouts, grinding soymilk from scratch, coagulating my own tofu—just like the aunties taught me—and thinking of all the ways our elders adapted and saved and reused and survived when they first came to this country. Sometimes we gently tease our immigrant and refugee elders, “Do you really need these three thousand plastic take-out containers and green onion rubber bands?” But with national shortages of toilet paper, flour, masks, gloves, elastic, canning lids, and even coins, who is laughing now?
And I am happy.
The anti-Asian American violence and hate crimes that were inspired by COVID—along with more issues like children separated from parents at the border, climate change, child support, divorce costs, and college tuition—well up into anger later in this poem. Yet, breathing continues, and “I write myself into existence every day.”
Wang is a lecturer at the University of Michigan and teaches creative writing at the University of Hawaii Hilo and Washtenaw Community College. She is a journalist and was a 2019 Knight Arts Challenge Detroit artist. Wang read at the Ann Arbor District Library in April. I interviewed her about her new book.
Q: Tell us about yourself and work as a writer. Why did you decide to pursue writing and teaching?
A: I have been writing all my life.
My first publication was a book review for Highlights Magazine when I was in fourth grade for which I was paid $5. I wrote for the local newspaper in high school and a satirical humor magazine in college. When I was in graduate school in philosophy at University of Michigan, Professor Frithjof Bergmann asked me once while we were walking down State Street, “Why are you in academia? Most people are in academia because they can’t write. But you can write!” It was a long journey after that to find myself as a writer and to work up the nerve to call myself a “writer.”
As for teaching, my single best skill in all the world is public speaking. I competed in high school speech and debate, I debated in college, and I taught high school speech and debate, too. And I found that teaching and lecturing is a good way to use my writing and speaking skills to develop my ideas in real time and to help others develop their ideas, too. So, today I teach at University of Michigan, Washtenaw Community College, and University of Hawaii Hilo, and I lecture nationally about Asian and Asian American issues.
Q: You are a journalist, essayist, and poet. How do you move between the types of writing?
A: Certainly there is back and forth between these forms, and I love being able to pull what I am not able to write about in one form into what I write in another, like the reference to a campus lockdown and the shooting of Renisha McBride in my poem “Suggestion of Salt.” Because even though the stories we publish as journalists are supposed to be objective, that does not mean that we as human beings are not still crying over our computers at home or using those stories to inform how we raise our children.
Also, I love essays and I love journalism, but they are both constrained by form. Essays are constrained by the argument. Journalism is constrained by the appearance of objectivity. Both are time-sensitive. So I reach for poetry when argument fails, when there can be no objectivity, when things have become personal. For example, I had been trying to write about the families separated at the border as an essay for over a year, but it was too much, too horrible, too personal. However, I finally forced myself to listen to those audio recordings published by ProPublica of the children crying after being taken from their parents at the border, and my poem “Crying on Airplanes” just tumbled out quickly—as a poem, and on an airplane, actually—while I was on my way to a poetry reading because I realized that somebody had to say something, publicly, in that moment.
Q: Your new book, You Cannot Resist Me When My Hair Is in Braids, is a collection of lyric essays, also referred to as prose poems or creative nonfiction. Are you the “I” in these pieces in the way of nonfiction, or do you think of the essays as having a speaker? Why?
A: Lyric essays and prose poetry stand right at the intersection between prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction—so there is a lot of freedom and room for creativity in these forms. What do you think?
Q: You write in your book, “I write myself into existence every day.” Does this describe your approach to writing? What do you learn about your life through writing?
A: I am one of those people who does not know what she thinks until she writes it. I go to poetry when other forms do not work. I reach for poetry as a way to slice one moment open to better understand how I feel about it and to move others to see it, too. I also use poetry to declare who I want to be when I grow up. And the writing is what makes things happen.
Q: Racism and anti-Asian American violence—and their devastating effects—emerge in these lyric essays. Do you want readers to learn from these passages, or relate to them, or something else?
A: I have been writing and speaking about Asian and Asian American history, identity, justice, and arts my entire career. Racism and hate violence are not new issues, and they do not only affect the Asian American community. I hope that people of all backgrounds will find truths and commonalities in these stories, the same way that I find truths and commonalities in other communities’ stories, and I encourage everyone to bravely stand up together and tell their stories as well. Shine a light on it, encourage compassion, and create change so that our children don’t have to keep going through this over and over again, but can actually live in and inherit a world that is better than what we found.
Q: Love, romance, marriage, and family expectations also thread throughout the book. “Secret Crush” includes this line: “The perfect man exists, and knowing that is enough.” How does the perspective on love, and the people to love, change as the book progresses?
A: My parents thought I was an old maid and gave up on me ever getting married off when I was 21 years old. Because I was too tall, too outspoken, too well educated, too old. I knew they were wrong, but it still gets into your head when you hear it often enough. So one day, at the very old age of 22, I decided that it would be OK if I never married, that I could imagine another path with children and family. All I needed was that space of possibility, to let go of how things had to be, for things to start happening. And that evening I met the handsome man I was to marry.
I learned a lot about identity and culture while raising my children, and I learned a lot from them, too. There are a lot of books and films about identity that have one big “Ah-ha” moment where the person suddenly finds herself, defeats the dragon, saves the princess, and then lives happily ever after. But identity and love are not really like that. (Never mind that in Chinese mythology, dragons are good.) A lot of us are socialized to want a particular kind of handsome prince or princess that does not really look like us or meet our needs. So even when you figure out who you are, the world keeps changing around you and time keeps moving forward, so you need to continue discovering yourself over and over again. So who you are and what you are looking for are questions that keep circling back your whole life.
Q: One essay reads, “I write about everyone that I meet.” Tell us about this.
A: I am a storyteller. I love telling stories. I tell everybody everything.
And I am really bad at keeping secrets.
So please don’t tell me any secrets.
Because sooner or later I will forget that it was a secret, and I will accidentally blurt it out or I will write about it in a poem.
So I try to live my life honestly and openly, without a need for secrets. And that really is the best kind of writing, anyway. But I embarrass my kids all the time. “I can’t believe you just said that to that person!” “Oh, did I say that out loud?” No filter, as they say.
Q: What is another insight about writing that you teach students in your classes?
A: Put it on your breath. Read what you write out loud. This will make it really exist in the world. There are a lot of philosophic and religious traditions that say that there is power in uttering the words out loud. Think, why else do we say “I do” when we get married or “I will” when we take an oath of office? Reading what you write out loud also has the side benefit of being a great editing tool – our ear more easily catches mistakes of grammar, wording, and flow. But when you say things out loud and utter these thoughts and ideas into existence, you are changing the world.
Q: What is on your nightstand to read?
A: Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I have been working on an anthology of essays from activists and artists about how the 1982 hate crime killing of Vincent Chin has inspired them to do what they do, Beyond Vincent Chin: Legacies in Action and Art, to be published by Wayne State University Press in 2024, with support from Knight Arts Challenge Detroit, CultureSource, Ann Arbor Area Foundation, Michigan Humanities, and more.
After that, I want to write a creative nonfiction book about writing and creativity, with artwork and really really short chapters—each chapter only 200 words—based on what I teach and what I have learned from my students in my creative writing classes at Washtenaw Community College. It will be a really fun book!
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.