An Interview with Henry Wei Leung, Asian-American poet & scholar

I teach my students in Hong Kong to write wish poems using the subjunctive the conditional the retrospective but this is wrong, this is corrected English and is wrong for them. They write their wishes into the same present tense as the wishing itself. (I wish my mom is a magician.) (I wish I have a silly sister.) (I wish people don’t think I’m weird.) The wish is desired and is.

– Henry Wei Leung, ‘Getting there‘ (2015)

chinatown honolulu

‘Macys Bag in Chinatown Honolulu’ (2012), by Therese Fowler-Bailey

A while ago, I came across an essay titled ‘City without Solitude’ by way of a friend’s recommendation (Brian from my first litera-chat), which – among many things – talks about Hong Kong’s social, political and cultural future as being intricately tied to Hong Kongers’ deeper awareness of the self, and of how solitary reflection may be the panacea to our city’s “mechanized” consciousness.

The author of this essay is Henry Wei Leung, a poet and PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he teaches courses on poetry and activism. A Kundiman Fellow and Fulbright Scholar, he has a BA in English from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of Michigan. In 2015, he was a visiting fellow at the City University of Hong Kong. He is the author of a chapbook titled Paradise Hunger (2012), as well as a contributor to the Asian literary journal ChaCrab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, The Offing, and ZYZZYVA.

In other words – a super cool dude. This is why I recently reached out to him with an interview request, to which he happily agreed. The result, then, is the 4th Litera-chat with Jen, faithfully rendered below.

Henry’s insight into Hong Kong’s literary future is astute, illuminating and honest – something that anyone who cares about the shaping of our city’s post-colonial cultural identity would definitely benefit from reading.

This is his ‘selfie’:

henry_leung_selfie

A) The personal stuff: from past to present

It seems that your childhood and identity are formed by four places – Zhongshan, Hawaii, California and Hong Kong. Did your multicultural upbringing foster in you a love for reading and writing from a young age?

That transnational list is a little misleading. I wasn’t a third-culture kid raised with a cosmopolitan sensitivity to the world. My family was working class with no access to literature. My mom, who taught at a primary school after the Cultural Revolution, was the most ‘cultured’ of her siblings, but once we got to the States she was raising my sister and me alone, and working two jobs while struggling to learn English during night classes.

“Multicultural” in this case might imply that I had access to a multitude of visions, languages, traditions… Rather, what fostered my love of literature was loneliness. Because I had less access to the world around me.

Also, I would be careful about the word “identity,” and the static equal-sign it suggests. Instead, I would say that my sense of belonging—of longing—has been shaped by my contact with two empires and some of the islands they keep trying to colonize.

 

Why did you decide to do an MFA at the University of Michigan after your BA English at Stanford?

peter ho davies

Peter Ho Davies, previous Director of the MFA program at Ann Arbor, Michigan

Michigan was one of the only programs to accept me for the MFA (for fiction), and the money was good. I’m not ashamed to say I came in off the waitlist. I have a complicated relationship to that program. But I still fondly remember my first meeting with Peter Ho Davies, who told me that he didn’t see us as students, but as future colleagues. That was a moment of grace.

 

[In our email exchanges], you mention having done a brief study abroad stint at Oxford and “disliking it terribly” – why? How does the academic environment in Oxford compare to the ones at Stanford, Michigan and Manoa?

Privilege bores me. Chauvinism bores me. Posh eighteen-year-old freshers flexing in front of the Asian-American exchange student bore me. That should explain most of it.

UH Mānoa is the most politically conscious university I’ve spent time in (although universities in Hong Kong in the fall of 2014…), and it’s enlivening to see the master’s tools here, well, not exactly dismantling the master’s house, but helping to rebuild indigenous structures of sustenance. Academic inquiry takes on a different urgency here.

henry_unis

(Clock-wise from top left) University of Hawaii at Manoa, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Stanford University, Oxford University

How do you juggle both teaching as an academic at the University of Hawaii and writing as a poet/essayist in your spare time? Do the ‘academic’ and ‘creative’ aspects of your life overlap at all?

dipiero

W.S. DiPiero, poet, essayist, art critic, scholar

Academic rigor is important to me but I don’t care for “the academic.” W.S. Di Piero once told me in a seminar: “Don’t give me any scholastic bullshit. You’re a poet. Take your words seriously.” Scholarship, i.e. self-education in a nurturing environment with access to a deep library, is essential to my work and my well-being. But the scholastic form—packaging information in a way that’s supposed to impress or prove something to the academy—bores me.

Scholarship and creativity are part of one process of being and becoming. Learning to read the text of the world is consummated by learning to write it (learning to right it).

B) The literary & cultural stuff: your poetry, prose & views on the future of Hong Kong’s literary scene

 

Do you have a favourite poet and/or novelist?

audre lorde

An artwork in celebration of Audre Lorde, by Soraya McElroy and Fabiola Jean-Louis

 

I tell my students not to think in terms of favorites, or “good poems” or “bad poems,” much less poems they “like” or “dislike.” Instead, I ask: Will this poem save my life? Meg Kearney has saved my life, and Kimiko Hahn, and Li-Young Lee, and Rilke, and Rumi, and Louise Gluck, and Audre Lorde, and Dostoevsky, and David Foster Wallace, and Flannery O’Connor, and…

 

 

In your essay ‘City Without Solitude’, the lines – “Hong Kong may be a city without solitude. It doesn’t take long, living here, to feel that people in the crowd are not people at all.” – remind me of the first stanza in Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘To Marguerite: Continued’:

Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.

Could you explain what you mean by “people in the crowd [in Hong Kong] are not people at all”?

Arnold’s poem is nostalgic for something like the pre-lapsarian; I don’t think he could have imagined the kind of alienation I’m describing. From his era, you’d have to quote someone more like Baudelaire.

In that essay I’m not talking about being separated and thus made alone; it is the recognition of our aloneness that makes us human and individual, after all. I’m talking about how the absence of even the barest envelope of solitude around people makes them—not the opposite of alone, which might be unity or community, but rather—something worse than alone, something like machinery.

 

I agree with your point about “social transformation [being] borne out of private transformation.” What form/activity do you think this ‘private transformation’ should take place for Hong Kongers?

I don’t think it’s for me to say, precisely because you can’t institute private transformation.

A half-answer I’ll give is to say that when I was there, I had a hard time doing research because I was basically limited to the public library. All the university libraries were closed to me, and even with special status for my Fulbright, I got temporary access in some cases but not borrowing privileges.

Of course there’s no profit in keeping your gates open, but I’ve been in enough university towns to see that it’s not necessary to keep knowledge vaulted.

 

Let’s now turn to your poem ‘Disobedience’: click here to read the whole poem 

Is the ‘I’ in it autobiographical? If so, how are readers to understand the simile in –

                     a body
dismantled of time,
waking in words and shaken
like a paper lung
. 

I’m a bit wary of this kind of question. Metaphors don’t have answer keys. And why does it matter whether the “I” is autobiographical or not? In all poetry, it is and it isn’t, always, all at once.

I will say, though, that I wrote the draft of this poem the same night after coming home from the Occupy Central with Love and Peace rally on Aug 31. It features as an important pivot poem in a manuscript I’m putting together now, called Goddess of Democracy.

goddess of democracy

The general impression I get from reading this poem is one of despair and nostalgia. Is this intended? 

Let’s call it a feverish helplessness.

 

What do you foresee for Hong Kong’s literary future, in terms of talents, resources and the cultural environment?

I’ll tell you what I see now:

[HK’s literary scene] is not international (as some claim) but diasporic. Writers get published abroad—Taiwan, England, America—before “making it” locally.

In English, locally published anthologies are often comprised of writers who’ve left already, or writers who’ve only passed through HK, and the readings where these writers circulate are dominated by expats, who have yet to produce any insightful writing about Hong Kong that locals could not do better—given the opportunity. (There’s no such thing as expat literature; the time of Stein and Hemingway et al was something else; today, this just means neoliberal writing set in third-world countries overlaid with privilege.)

Cha does pretty well to mobilize local writers and students sometimes, but it’s not a Hong Kong journal, it’s “An Asian Literary Journal” and I suspect its virtual platform diffuses it somewhat, for better and for worse.

In Chinese, the Fleurs des lettres circle dominates, and of course they have their prejudices and interests to protect. The CityU MFA, which mostly served international students, is gone now [Nicholas Wong, my previous interviewee, also talks about this]. The HKU MFA seemed oddly closed-door. I’ve heard of the beginnings of a bilingual creative writing degree at HKBU though, and that could be very exciting.

fleur collage

Covers of Fleurs des lettres, the most prominent Chinese literary magazine in Hong Kong

Kubrick Poetry (different from the Kubrick Bookstore) has done some interesting things—with open doors—both in Chinese and English, but they’re still figuring it out, and space and money are problems. The implementation of creative writing into primary and secondary schooling is a joke; the judging system of the Hong Kong Budding Poets Award is based on a disastrously numerical rubric.

It’s hard to come across genuine promotions of local literature that are not self-aggrandizing or self-promoting in the same breath. I saw so much potential and so much talent, but so little articulation or encouragement of that talent.

Post-Umbrella, I heard claims that politics are responsible for the encouragement of doggerel and the discouragement of more subversive arts (the government pours a great deal of money into the ‘safe’ arts, like ballet or classical music). But I think it’s much simpler than that. It’s dangerous to encourage future bankers, service workers, and cogs in the machine to think for themselves, to externalize their emotions, and to be in control of their own narratives.

I think of how Spoken Word was a revolution in rehabilitating American poetry, coming largely out of hip hop culture. It doesn’t work in Hong Kong, of course; what Hong Kong needs will come out of Hong Kong.

safe v subversive

‘Safe’ vs. ‘Subversive’

 

C) Would you rather…

Write poetry or essays (or academic papers, even)?

Same thing, minus line breaks.

 

Live in Hawaii, California, Hong Kong or elsewhere?

Anywhere sacred.

 

Teach a 1000-page postcolonial novel that you despise or write a 1000-word postcolonial sonnet?

Neither. Decolonize the body first. Perhaps then we won’t need words.

 

[Photo credits: Henry Wei Leung, blueflowerarts, Granta Books, CNN, Tulane, weheartit]
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8 thoughts on “An Interview with Henry Wei Leung, Asian-American poet & scholar

  1. I’ve read about your blog post, inspired by the interview with Henry Wei Leung. I am impressed by Henry’s passion for writing poetry, prose, and essays. I’ll squeeze time to read his write-ups. Have a great day !

    Hermenegildo Pampilo

    Like

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