| Interviews

Traversing Languages, Genres, Cultures: An Interview with Ye Chun

Ana Pugatch

Ye Chun is a bilingual Chinese American author and translator. Her stunning poetry and prose meditate on the power of language, the dichotomy of othering/loneliness, and navigating two cultures. At a time when discrimination against Asian Americans is at the forefront of public discourse, the upcoming release of her short story collection, Hao (Catapult, 2021), feels particularly significant.

Ana Pugatch: Since moving to the U.S. from China a little over twenty years ago, you have completed your MFA and PhD, and you have written prolifically across genres. Could you tell us a bit about your trajectory as a writer? 

Ye Chun: I didn’t start writing creatively until my mid-twenties. Getting into a writing program in this country gave me the time and solitude to write but also posed a linguistic predicament. Although I had written for an English publication for several years before coming here, writing creatively in a second language turned out to be a lot more challenging. My first couple of workshops produced such stilted stories that I switched genres to poetry, which I discovered to be a more forgiving medium for non-native speakers like myself, as it involves fewer words and has a higher tolerance for non-standard English. I was able to work out a self-translation process that benefited from my bilingualism. After two collections of poetry, I tried fiction again and wrote a novel set in China, in Chinese—living away from my home country seemed to have afforded me a more panoramic view of it—and the novel was the best medium for that kind of sustained attention. Then, when I went back to school for a PhD, I had to use English so intensively I found myself writing directly in English and have been doing so for almost a decade now. 

AP: You have translated poetry from English to Chinese (including Li-Young Lee’s Behind My Eyes and The Undressing), and also from Chinese to English (such as Ripened Wheat: Selected Poems of Hai Zi). Do you find translating from one language to the other to be more challenging? How do the languages’ respective characteristics affect your process, and how do they inform your artistic decisions as a translator? 

YC: When I translate, my two languages are on equal footing. They don’t need to fight each other for dominance. Instead, they are invited to harmonize with each other. The two languages are no doubt different: Chinese is logographic, while English is alphabetical. Grammatically, Chinese is uninflected, and many words function as multiple parts of speech. English, on the other hand, is able to sustain long sentences with the use of adjective and adverbial clauses, which is not a feature of Chinese syntax. The syntactic differences and words’ inherent indeterminacy can make it difficult to carry across a poem from one language to the other. What I hope to achieve when I translate a poem—whether from Chinese to English or English to Chinese—is to create a version of the poem that reads condensed and capacious on its own, while retaining traces of foreignness from the source language. I see translation as a vital means of stirring and energizing a language, as it brings new expressions, metaphors, and syntax to help it grow. 

AP: In your poem “Pine” you write: “My brown-haired child, I’ve seen you / walk toward me bare-footed, / dreaming to be known. I’ve seen you lie down on my golden needles / to be framed by your own stillness.” As a fellow poet, I find myself drawn to both the imagistic quality and concision that characterize your work. Which groups or movements have had a significant impact on your poetry?

YC: I wrote the poem during a time when one of my favorite books was Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, a collection of translations, imitations, and “centaurs” (half Spicer’s and half Lorca’s). To me, the beauty of the book comes precisely from its hybridity of translation and invention. Spicer calls this writing an “intimate communion with the ghost of García Lorca.” Such a communion creates poems so distilled and evocative that they seem to exist in a translingual space, where words are simultaneously imagery and music. I wanted my poetry to have a similar effect. 

I was also (and continue to be) drawn to the ink-and-brush paintings by Bada Shanren. He paints simple objects—a fish, a bird, a plant—and lets empty space and sparse, spontaneous strokes foreground each other. I tried to write poems like that: to leave out words the way he leaves out details, make syntactic units as taut and nimble as his ink strokes, and allow silence to define text the way absence defines presence. 

AP: Your prose retains a notably lyrical quality as well. In the short story “A Drawer,” for example, you write: “For a moment, her heart feels like a scroll of moon-white space that opens, and is edgeless.” Do you find it difficult to switch gears from poetry to prose, or can you work on both simultaneously?

YC: I don’t usually work on both simultaneously. For years now, fiction has been my main writing genre. The choice comes from my need to write about subject matter expansively rather than elliptically, and the subject matter I’m interested in is more effectively probed through narratives and world-building than lyricism. I find the process of building a fictional world at its most enjoyable when the personal merges with the collective. Poetry can certainly do that too, but fiction keeps me in that mental state longer. Although I’m not writing poems right now, I try to incorporate lyricism in my fiction—both on the sentence level, where I hope to put the best words in the best order, and on the global level, where I aim at a kind of rhythm and spaciousness that are poetic in nature. The quote you give from “A Drawer” is actually from an older, unfinished poem of mine. As I was working on the story, the lines came back and felt like the right ending for the piece.

AP: As a reader (and as an expectant mom!), I was moved by the stories revolving around motherhood in your upcoming book, Hao. The female characters’ circumstances make them especially vulnerable, but they share a unified inner strength, which allows them to reclaim agency in their lives. Could you tell us about your sources of inspiration for character development? 

YC: Congratulations on being an expectant mom! It means a lot to me that you found these stories resonant. With this book, I had initially thought of writing a collection of poems, to better understand and navigate my own experience as a mother. But the narratives kept expanding and the “I” wanted to be more encompassing. I started to write about my grandmother and other maternal figures. Living through the Trump era with its overt displays of racism and sexism gave the book added urgency. Several of the stories, including “Anchor Baby,” “Gold Mountain,” and “Stars,” were written during these past four years. Even though the majority of the characters in the book are not autobiographical, I wrote much of my own sense of precarity as an immigrant mother into many of the stories. Maybe I wanted to see how we (my characters and I) would be tested in those very likely situations, and if we would be strong and supple enough to come out unbroken. 

AP: Next to the title of each story, you include a character from the Oracle Bone Script (something you write about in the story, “Hao”). Could you tell us a little bit about this script, and how it thematically relates to your collection as a whole? 

YC: While the book centers on motherhood, I was also exploring how women use language to define their experience. I myself have grappled with linguistic anxieties, which included both the feeling of inadequacy about my English and the fear of losing my Chinese. The Oracle Bone Script dates back to the 12th century BCE and is the earliest known Chinese writing. To connect with this ancient writing felt like holding onto the language at its root. These signs also helped me think through questions about origin, creation, transformation, and tradition, all of which are related to motherhood as well. 

Before I looked up the Oracle Bone sign for the character 好 (hao), I’d thought it depicted a woman (女) paired up with a man (子). What I found out was that the sign had been:

up to the 9th BCE, a kneeling figure with a protruding chest, a woman, holding a child. I knew then that the sign in its original form would be the title of the book. For the co-titles of the stories, I choose signs that either signify the English titles or thematically echo them. For example, for the story “Crazy English,” I use the sign:


meaning tongue, dramatized as a snake’s split tongue poking out of a mouth, to show the character’s struggle with English acquisition and her difficulty to articulate her incoherent American experience.

AP: The short stories in Hao span different time periods in both the U.S. and China. In this sense, the scope of your work provides a window into how the cultures have shifted, and how this subsequently shapes the challenges your protagonists face—namely, misogyny and racism. While historical racism toward Asian Americans has been ongoing for centuries in this country, the recent surge in attacks is disturbing. Do you think the current media attention could help to break the cycle?

YC: The current media attention is important, but not enough. We need comprehensive measures. We need more Asian American policymakers, more efforts to include Asian American history in textbooks and curricula, more literary voices to tell our many stories, and more films to represent our experience. We also need to confront everyday racism whenever it happens. When my daughter was in elementary school, a child walked over to her, pulled down his eyelids, and said, “I’m Chinese.” I wrote a letter to the school principal to make sure the school teaches the children that such behavior is not acceptable. There are other instances that my daughter and other Asian American children frequently encounter, such as the question, “Do you eat cats and dogs?”—which is meant to alienate and insult them. Or “What are you?”—which implies that they’re not Americans. We talk about how to handle such situations and how to ask questions back. My daughter came up with a response to a question she’s asked most often, “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” And her answer: “Are you German or Irish?” 

AP: The pandemic coupled with the social/political upheaval of this past year has made it a trying time for all of us. On a personal level and as a writer, what sustains you? What imbues you with energy or hope for the future? 

YC: Being a parent doesn’t really allow me to give up on the future. I’ve been working on a novel about the 19th century Chinese immigrants in the American West for the last two years, and I see many echoes of the past in the present. Back then, the rallying call was “The Chinese must go!” Now, the racist rant is “Go back to China!” There are also parallels between the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Trump administration’s racist anti-immigrant rhetoric, between the Page Act of 1875 that banned Chinese women from immigrating to America and the Atlanta shooting that killed six Asian American women, with the immediate official response reducing the murdered women to “temptation[s]” that the perpetrator “wanted to eliminate” because he had “a really bad day.” As I’m writing this novel set over a century ago, I oftentimes feel as if I’m writing about the very present. Writing is a way for me to both retreat from the messy now and meet it with a calmer mind.

Walking also helps bring the mind to a more open place. I try to take a walk every day. The blue sky and good wind will hopefully be around for a long, long time. 

Ye Chun

is a Chinese American writer and translator who teaches at Providence College. She has published two poetry collections, Travel Over Water and Lantern Puzzle, as well as a novel in Chinese, 《海上的桃树》. Her translations include Ripened Wheat: Selected Poems of Hai Zi and Long River: Poems by Yang Jian. She holds an MFA from UVA and a PhD from the University of Missouri. She has been awarded three Pushcart Prizes, an NEA Fellowship, and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award. Her short story collection, Hao (Catapult, 2021), will be released in September and is available for preorder. 

Ana Pugatch

was the ’20-’21 Poetry Heritage Fellow at George Mason University. She is a Harvard graduate who taught English in China and Thailand for several years before returning to the states to pursue her MFA. Her poems have been published in The Write Launch, Literary Shanghai, and The Los Angeles Review, and she recently won the NC Poetry Society’s ’21 Light Verse Award. You can find her on Instagram @a.e.p.13.

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