Favorite Daughter is easily in my top three favorite books of poetry, thanks to its honest, relatable poems, sharp cultural and racial critiques, and achingly haunting language. Lines like “i wish for the moon to swallow me” and “19 and I know what love is: a house on fire…” contain movement, both in emotion and meaning. Nancy’s references place this collection in conversation with history, psychology, linguistics and sociology, and media, creating a personal bridge to aspects of society that are often (and detrimentally so) only discussed as curiosities. These poems remind us that it is people who should be considered and prioritized, that when colonialism and Western ideologies are dismantled, it is for the benefit of all of us.
One poem I want to mention is “Old White Guy”, a rewriting of a problematic (as is so much of his work) poem by Marc Kelly Smith. By stripping the poem down to a handful of words, Nancy starkly unveils just how ugly Marc’s work is.
Another poem, “Aperture”, compares the effects of washing out an image in photography to the erasure of Asian people from history textbooks and media. “Chinese New Year, 2017” is a collection of images from everyday life: the speaker’s mother braiding her hair; writing poems “until dawn edges around the sky”; bingeing on TV shows while eating popcorn. This poem ends with the beautiful revelation: “Maybe love / is just becoming more of someone.”
I interviewed Nancy [in 2017!!!] about this collection and her life, curious to find out more about the author behind the marvel that is Favorite Daughter.
How have you forged your identity? What are obstacles you’ve overcome and – in hindsight – were they worth it?
I used to think about identity as something that other people call you. It took me a long time to reframe this, and of course it was worth it, but I still slip back into that mindset of “you are what they say you are,” which is always so diminishing.
I remember I was talking to the unconquerable poet Ariana Brown, and she told me that she made a conscious decision to stop explaining things to white people in her poems. It was taking up too much space. I credit her for my own reworking; I started saying to myself, you don’t have time to explain this to them. They’ve got to figure this out on their own. And, this is only partially about the way language is used in poetry, or the way I use language in poetry. This is more about what I think of myself, navigating through a reality that more often than not doesn’t center me. I shouldn’t have to translate my existence to people.
“Tipping Scale” was a really important poem for me personally; as of last November, I learned that I have generalized anxiety, and I’ve been working to improve my mental health using traditional and non-traditional methods. It can be really difficult at times, but it pays off.
How does mental healthy play a role in your day-to-day life, and why should people talk about it (publicly and privately) more?
Thank you for this question. I wish you luck with your own mental health journey, and I hope that you have community around you to help you.
“Tipping Scale” was a poem I wrote because I was trying to balance (forgive the pun) the fact that certain ways of healing work for me, but also have a terrible history of working against people like me. Western medicine has a horrible history, yet my entire life, people have disparaged traditional Chinese medicine in favor of it.
It’s made its impact; I see therapists, I use birth control. But it’s so much more complicated than that. There’s a line in the poem that refers to that complication, the one about how my therapist at the time, as a white woman, was also my oppressor. I can’t separate those things.
As for mental health, my depression and anxiety are low-grade and I’m high-functioning, which initially prevented me from reaching out. But talking about it openly counteracts the stigma. That’s the other weight on the scale, in the poem, how even though Western medicine is a corrupt industry and historically terrible, there is less mental health stigma in it than there is in Chinese American communities. And stigma grows from silence.
Do you want to share advice for other queer women or take us through your coming-out story or just talk a little about your journey?
I don’t know about advice, haha; there are so many incredible queer women and femmes out there and I don’t think they need advice from me. But even though there are plenty of bi/pan women/nonbinary poets to read (June Jordan comes to mind), you’re right that either word really isn’t getting around, or (more likely) we’re unintentionally overlooking people. As an example, the Lambda Literary Awards don’t have a Bisexual Poetry Award category. I know that there have been steps made this year to change that (by amazing people), so it’s getting better. But if someone were to nominate my book for a Lammy right now, I’ve been informed that they wouldn’t be able to. There isn’t a category for it. And it’s not like Favorite Daughter defies categorization, or that its author does. There’s just this overlook of certain people. And judges/reviewers that give literature awards especially need to pay attention to that.
As for my journey, I started writing all these stories about being bi/pan when I was in high school, and it got to the point where reality was hindering that expression. I spent a lot of time confused—as a lot of queer kids do—and it was worse because I was keeping it a secret. I kept putting off thinking about it because I would look at a (cis) guy and feel the way everybody was telling me was “normal,” so like a lot of people who are attracted to multiple genders, I initially thought I was straight. Every time I was attracted to or emotionally connected to a woman I would blame it on fluky hormones. But I wised up eventually. And when I started to come out to people, they took it well. I’ve been lucky with that.
What is your family’s relationship to China while living in the U.S.? What aspects of culture do you / your family still retain?
My parents are both very connected to their families in China; my mom visits her family periodically and my dad’s family is split between here in America and in Beijing. When we lived in China they were totally comfortable. I’m very jealous of that easy familiarity with both countries. And as far as assimilation goes—there’s only so much you can “adjust” when you immigrate. You can learn English, and be afforded privileges in that way. You can choose not to do that, and people have. Specifically, because I have a closer proximity to whiteness than other POC, that gives me a different level of privilege.
How has assimilation affected you and your family?
Whatever the opposite of assimilation is (exclusion? mistranslation?), that’s the aspect of existence I think a lot of AAPI poets talk about more. Of course, that doesn’t mean that assimilation isn’t happening, and that it doesn’t have consequences; my forgotten language (Mandarin), my forgotten histories, the fact that I don’t know any of my ancestors’ names. These are all real. But who wouldn’t have an easier time writing about the things they know are happening versus the things they’ve forgotten have happened? That’s why, for me, assimilation represents privilege, and in a certain sense, amnesia. There are poems in my collection (like “Aperture”) that are about both.
On “Colonial Conquest” in particular, how has your appearance affected your dating life?
Oh, “Colonial Conquest”. Oh, Tinder. Navigating the dating realm in an Asian body has been an experience in perspective. When I date/talk with men of color on Tinder, they obviously understand racial navigation more than white men. Messaging white men who don’t have the same awareness can lead to awkward times. Colonial Conquest was just a compilation of times when that awkwardness turned hostile.
Could you talk about the process of publishing and putting together Favorite Daughter? Are you touring to promote the book? What’s it like being in the Write Bloody family?
I am touring! Soon! It’s a lot of work and I had so many nerves initially that were soothed by a variety of different amazing people. But anyway. Being a part of Write Bloody is surreal. The other day I was looking at Clint Smith’s Twitter and I just thought, we have the same publisher. Cue my hyperventilation. It’s incredible. I keep thinking I’m just living in my own fantasy and I’m about to wake up any second.
When I’m promoting the book, it’s easy to forget that behind me there’s been a team of people helping me bring it to life. My experience working with all of them has been really eye-opening; all the editors and the commissioned graphic designers and sales representatives and social media contacts. There are layers and layers when it comes to this kind of work that I previously had not been aware of. What a privileged education.
Interview edited for clarity and grammar. Special thanks to Nancy for infinite patience while I sat on this interview for far too long! I’m so excited to finally publish this article and loan out my copy.