We went to the West, away
from communist coxswains, but were whittled
to sculptures called ‘second-tier citizens’,
second to terriers
– Nicholas YB Wong, ‘Postcolonial Zoology’ (2012)
In my second episode of ‘Litera-chats with Jen’, I talk to home-grown poet and scholar Nicholas Wong Yu Bon about the beginnings of his interest in poetry, his creative writing process and the state of reading and literature in Hong Kong today.
Considered a “radically inventive” writer and “the future of poetry” by Ravi Shankar, Pushcart Prize winning poet and Founding Editor of Drunken Boat, Nicholas has published his works in a number of literary journals, in addition to two collections – Cities of Sameness (2012) and Crevasse (2015). He is currently on the 2016 Writers list of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.
Aside from being a poet, Nic is also a Fellow at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, where he teaches contemporary poetry, creative writing, film and gender studies.
Oh, and if T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg had a baby, I feel like it’d be him.
A) The personal stuff: from past to present
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that avid writers are often passionate readers.’ Do you agree? Did your interest in poetry and writing start from an early age?
No, I didn’t start reading poetry seriously until I started my MFA. It’s because English poetry wasn’t (and isn’t) in our primary and secondary English curricula, and if poetry is to be taught, it’s dead white male classics we’re talking about. They made me feel very distant and alienated. This said, I read fiction and watched films.
Back at university (both as an undergraduate and a postgraduate), did the academic curriculum and campus environment help cultivate your writerly passion?
I took my first creative writing course with Shirley Lim at HKU, then I worked with a good number of amazing faculty at CityU, where I did my MFA. Did the environment nurture creativity? I think it has more to do with the kind of person you are. If you are creative, you will find rooms not to follow orders and do your own stuff.
I personally think it’s a real shame that the CityU MFA program got axed last Summer, and having read your published views on this decision, I believe you feel the same as well. Why do you think this happened, and what do you think it says about the future of creative writing in Hong Kong?
Main reason was simple: money. And now that the program no longer exists, I feel liberated to say whatever I want.
Besides money, it was simply a case of mismanagement. The university was too rigid in refusing to come up with an alternative financial model to fund the course. Worse still, the new department head back then did not have a background in either English language or English literature. How, then, could anyone trust him with running the department? All the department had, therefore, was his (lack of) managerial skills, but never his vision. It’s not surprising that he failed to see the value of English creative writing in Hong Kong.
How do you juggle your day job as a lecturer with your alter-ego as ‘Nicholas Wong the poet’?
Hell, it’s hard. Most of the time, I am competing for time and headspace with myself. I don’t know if I should regard my poet role as my alter-ego. I do think it’s me, but a kind of me less discussed with friends and family. My recent creative writing/ revising process tells me I don’t juggle well.
B) The literary & cultural stuff: your poetry & the future of Hong Kong’s Anglo-literary writing
The poem below, ‘For Bei Dao’, is one of my favourites from Nicholas’ oeuvre. In the context of Chinese literary history, Bei Dao was one of the key figures in the Scar Literature movement, which was largely an intellectual reaction to the Cultural Revolution circa late 1970s.
I’ve noticed that the final word in ‘For Bei-dao’ is “play”: In a poem that alludes to one of the key figures in Scar Literature and hints at the nature of Chinese political rule (“screened”, “behead”, “truncation”, implications of censorship and indoctrination), is this reference to ‘play’ intended to be bathetic, ironic, flippant, or playfully subversive?
I’ve long forgotten what the poem is originally about, because I only saved a few lines and put them into a poem called “Orientalism” in Crevasse. Yes, you’re reading is right. When I wrote those lines, I was thinking about censorship, and how language could be ‘truncated.’ I love playing with homophones. Guess I should allow the slipperiness of language to play more in my work. I may land on somewhere surprising after flipping myself.
It seems to me that ‘For Bei-dao’ is concerned, to a certain extent, with the shaping of the ‘Hong Kong/Chinese’ identity. Do you think that in order for Hong Kong literature (as diaspora literature written for foreign audiences) to gain international acclaim, it must be more political than formalist/aestheticist in nature?
Funny that you only mention themes and structures, but not language, in your question. Maybe fiction writers and scholars on the novel can tell you how the fragmented shape of a long piece of prose work may resemble the numerous socio-historical cracks of Hong Kong.
But I’m a poet; I can tell you all literary works should receive merits because of the treatment of language. There’re other genres that can allow readers allow the political themes, such as films and photojournalism. If Hong Kong literature has to gain international acclaim, it has to be well-written, to begin with.
By ‘international,’ do you mean white supremacy in the publishing world?
In your 2012 interview with Time Out magazine, you mentioned that “Hong Kong people don’t actually read”. Do you think this has more to do with English being most Hongkongers’ second language, or is this more symptomatic of a general public apathy towards literary appreciation?
I shouldn’t have said that. Let me rephrase here: People read in Hong Kong, but just less so in English. If they do, the qualities of the books they read are in question.
During admission interviews, I always want to know what books students today are reading. 70% usually say they’re not reading anything; 20% say textbooks or ‘tool books;’ 10% say they’ve just finished reading Tuesdays with Morrie, or The 5 People You Meet in Heaven. The kind of book stores we have here lead to the kind of readers we have. In addition to this, English being the second language is another reason. I am shocked and dismayed by how little English a normal secondary school student can speak these days.
“The kind of book stores we have here lead to the kind of readers we have.”
C) Would you rather…
Teach poetry or write in prose?
Teach poetry – I feel that my reading is more organic. Another reason is that I can’t remember names and plots.
Read a 2000-page “loose baggy monster” English novel (Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa) or compose a 50-page Chinese poem in classical Chinese (文言文)?
Read a 2000-page novel. I will be tricky. Skim-read!
Publish your most embarrassing diary entry to great acclaim, or write the greatest poem in the world that no one will hear of until after your death?
Publish an embarrassing diary entry – I will make sure it’s still poetic at some point.
As you can tell, Nic Wong isn’t one to hold back from saying what he thinks. I admire his courage and creativity, and as long as there are writers like him in Hong Kong, I believe that there is still hope for our city’s literary future. At present, ‘Asia’s World City’ probably isn’t known for being the cultural cradle of the East, but who’s to say there aren’t more locally born-and-bred poets, essayists and writers hidden in the fold, ready to turn the tide in the decades to come?
[Photo credits: Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Kaya Press, The Conversant, Guardian UK, HKFP]