A Conversation with Eileen Chong
Interview by Robert Wood.
Eileen Chong is an acclaimed Sydney poet who was born in Singapore. Her books are Burning Rice, Peony, Painting Red Orchids, Another Language and Rainforest (coming soon). Her latest release is The Uncommon Feast, which focuses on food in poems, recipes and essays. She has been shortlisted for the Anne Elder Award, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, and twice for the Prime Minister's Literary Awards.
Eileen will be launching The Uncommon Feast at Ashfield Town Hall on 7th February, alongside Asian-Australian writers Lachlan Brown, Wai Chim, Isabelle Li, and Sheila Ngoc Pham, as they read from and discuss their work including themes of culture, identity and food. Event here.
Robert Wood talks to her about reading, identity and inspiration.
What did you read growing up?
I didn’t grow up in a literary household, and the first books I read were my mother’s cookbooks. They were the only reading matter in our home. But, I spent most afternoons in the library close to my school, reading my way through the stacks: first in the children’s section, then the young adult section. I didn’t have a plan. I simply read what pleased me, which was a lot of mythology, and oddly enough, science and fact books.
Are there any authors that stand out in particular?
Most schoolchildren who grew up in Singapore in the 1980s went through a steady diet of Enid Blyton, and I was no exception. I think I’ve read nearly all her books. I also read a lot of Roald Dahl, then Judy Blume. I went to religious schools, which meant I spent a lot of time reading the Bible during long sermons, because it was the only book you were allowed to have in your lap. I read the Psalms, Proverbs, and the Song of Songs over and over, and only realised much later on that I preferred them to the other chapters because they were written in verse. I was reading poetry, plays, and serious literary fiction by the time I was thirteen, thanks to my teachers at high school.
How did you come to write poetry?
I was always interested in poetry after my initial encounters with it in school. I studied poetry as an undergraduate and taught it in high school as a literature teacher. I never thought I would write poetry seriously. I discovered that poetry was my form when I undertook a Master of Letters at the University of Sydney. I was working on a collection of short stories, and took a poetry class with Judith Beveridge. Judy was the best teacher I could have met at the time, and I started writing poetry in earnest in 2009 because of her. She was very encouraging while being very exacting with my work.
And from there, you had some success, right?
I won the Poets Union Youth Fellowship in 2010 and was an Australian Poetry Fellow in 2011 and 2012, which saw the publication of my first book, Burning Rice. Burning Rice became the first single-author poetry collection by an Asian-Australian poet to be on the New South Wales’s HSC English (Advanced) syllabus. I’m proud to be the first, but also appalled at how late it came, given the need for and relevance of Asian-Australian culture here.
I can see the appeal of Burning Rice for educators and it makes sense given your teaching background. After all, your books offer a complex idea of the world with themes of identity, belonging, family, tradition and history, which would be wonderful for classroom discussions. Where do these interests come from and how do you bring them together?
I do not have very strong boundaries between my private and creative self: so many of my own interests and passions bleed right into my work. Not all of my work is necessarily autobiographical, of course, but the work is undeniably personal to me. I grew up in a large extended family; my first home, a shophouse in Singapore, was a multi-generational dwelling with my great-grandmother as the matriarch. I was a child who was born during Singapore’s relentless march into modernity, but who lived in a home that, architecturally and socially, was part of the fading past. My nuclear family unit moved into our own apartment when I was four, and I was subsequently a very lonely child. I was a witness to the push-pull factors of family/fragmentation, modernity/history, and belonging/abandonment throughout my childhood, and I spent most of my young adult life struggling to make sense of these issues. I suppose it’s only natural that my work reflects this quest.
Your new release is a book of poetry, essays and recipes called The Uncommon Feast, which can be purchased here. I am very keen to try out the chicken rice recipe, which looks delicious. Can you explain the importance of food for your self and your artistic practice?
I lived in Singapore until I was twenty-six. Food there is a national pastime and obsession. Closer to my heart, though, is the fact that my maternal grandmother worked as a hawker in Albert Complex. She rented a small hawker stall and cooked fried Hokkien Prawn noodles, supporting six children through this work, although she had to supplement her income by taking on all sorts of other jobs (bus driving, sewing, laundry, babysitting). Both my mother and my father grew up in relative poverty, and all through my childhood there was a great emphasis on food. I saw how proud my parents were that their children never had to go hungry the way they did. Like many cultures, mine has been one that conflated love with the act of provision. I still love food; I love cooking, eating, and sharing food with the people I care for. I think food can be a wonderful medium of cultural memories and instincts in life.
Your poetry is often sparkling in its clarity – why have you chosen this mode of expression? What is the importance of accessibility and how do you balance it with newness and innovation?
I don’t know if I have chosen this mode of expression as much as it has chosen me. I am a very visual person, with interests in art, architecture and beauty. One of the things I love most about poetry is how great poems walk the fine line between what is said and unsaid. Poetry demands that the reader participates in, engages with, and creates meaning alongside the poem. For me, the great flowering of a poem only takes place when it connects with the reader’s mind, psyche, and physical being.
What makes a good poem for you then?
Good poems, for me, must work on multiple levels: the visual and the sonic, achieve success in both form and content, and engage the reader in the cerebral and emotional spheres. When my poems contain intertextual references, for example, as in ‘Magnolia’, or the Lu Xun poems, it is important to me that the poems continue to speak to the reader even if he or she is bereft of any prior knowledge. That being said, if you do your homework, you are rewarded with a deeper understanding of the meanings of the poem in their rightful contexts.
Speaking now of the Australian poetry landscape, I know you have commented on the power structures of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards after being nominated for Painting Red Orchids last year. How do you balance expressing your identity with the pressures, structures and privilege in our field as a whole?
As an adult migrant to Australia from a multicultural country like Singapore, where my cultural identity was the normative standard, I have complex feelings about this. I know what it feels like to possess privilege, not just through my ethnicity, but also because I am middle-class, educated, and heterosexual. I also know what it feels like to be marginalised, because of my gender, my age, and my chosen profession. I think whiteness in Australian culture, and not just in the literary sphere, is something that needs to be consistently questioned by the dominant groups as well as by other less privileged groups. As an Asian-Australian poet, I find myself having to resist performing my identity in my work, while allowing myself to explore what my culture means to me. Ultimately, it is not an easy tightrope to tread. I support Asian-Australian publications like Liminal, Peril and Pencilled In, which are wonderful initiatives to showcase fellow creators.
Building on from that, how can we build better relationships in poetry and with the reading public?
We must have the space to simply be ourselves, in our multitudinous complexity. I know this is easier said than done, but Asian-Australians shouldn’t have to give in to the pressure of others wanting them to represent their race and culture if they don’t want to. The emotional labour of having to speak for a group bigger than yourself should not be anyone’s by default. We should also have the space and choice to be individuals, while considering our role in greater contexts. The creative work is central to this: in today’s world, where everyone jostles for their fifteen minutes of fame, I challenge all writers to return to the work. Make your work the truest version of itself for you. Don’t worry about the audience. Worry about the work.
What are you working on now and how does it fit in with the project of building representation?
2018 is looking to be a big year for me. As you mentioned, The Uncommon Feast: Essays, Poems, and Recipes has just come out from Recent Work Press. My fourth collection of poetry in Australia, Rainforest, will be released in April. Map-Making, a collaborative, limited edition run of an artists’ book of poems and photographs about Singapore—the culmination of a 20-year dream with the photographer Charlene Winfred—is due out in August. I am also working on the third instalment of a limited edition letterpressed poetry broadside through a micropress that I run (Potts Point Press) in collaboration with my husband, the artist and designer Colin Cassidy. The very fact that I continue to make art, write poetry, and put my work out there is a representation of diversity. There is value in survival, and there is value in quiet, consistent work.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Don’t trust anyone, including yourself, who says they like to write more than they like to read. Read, read, and read. Find what works for you by making mistakes, a lot of them. Grow a thick skin. Learn to accept rejection and to build upon it. Listen to your gut—if it feels wrong, it probably is, even if it looks good on paper. Find your own space and balance: if you want to participate and publish, do so. If you don’t want to, don’t. Find the right mentors for you: in books, in poems, in real life. Listen to them. Don’t be precious. There is no room for ego in creativity. It’s about the work. When a trusted mentor gives you feedback, try it out before you accept or reject it. Acknowledge that the act of writing is an act of participation in a long conversation with multiple voices. What have you got to say? How will you say it? Who will you say it to? How will you keep learning, and making your work the best version of itself? Don’t view people as means to an end. People are not there for you to use. People are ends in themselves. Treat others with respect, generosity, and kindness. Also, learn to protect yourself from those who would use you ruthlessly to further their own goals.
Who are you inspired by?
On a personal level, I am inspired by my grandmothers and my mother, for their grit, tenacity, and fierce love. Judith Beveridge, my poetry teacher, who has become my dear, trusted friend, inspires me every day with her work ethic, her moral compass, her poetry, and her approach to life. Joanne Burns, a wonderful poet and a close friend, for her inquisitive, incisive mind and her deep loyalty to those she loves.
My literary inspirations include Sharon Olds, Philip Levine, Elizabeth Bishop, Eavan Boland, Li-Young Lee, Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Li Qingzhao, Boey Kim Cheng, Derek Walcott, Robert Hass, Christina Rosetti, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Edwidge Danticat, Toni Morrison, Jane Hirshfield, Maxine Kumin, Linda Gregg… the list goes on and on.
What are you currently listening to?
I love to listen to Billie Holiday, and I love to listen to her on vinyl. Her music can make me sad at times, though, so I like to mix it up. On my current playlist is the Japanese-American electronic musician Shigeto, who incorporates a lot of jazz into his very energetic and surprising work. I am a huge fan of classical music, because I love its complexity of form and how it transports me to a place beyond language as I know it. My favourite classical instrument is the cello, and my preferred cellists are Wang Jian and Yo-Yo Ma. I’ve recently been listening again to Ma’s Appalachian Journey, which is so delightful and uplifting.
What are you currently reading?
I have had a lot of professional reading to do over the past year, having judged two major poetry competitions—I think I’ve read nearly 5000 poems this year! You’d think I’d be poetried out, but I am currently reading a wonderful anthology, Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan. Japanese poetry, outside of the haiku and tanka forms, is very new to me, and I am really relishing learning more about it. Jen Crawford and Rina Kikuchi have done a great job in selecting the poems and their translations. I am also dipping in and out of Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates and Ten Windows, as well as The Art of Syntax by Ellen Byrant Voight. When I particularly miss Philip Levine, I like to read Don’t Ask and So Ask, which makes me feel like he is in the room with me, having a chat, drinking coffee, a cat in each of our laps.
How do you practice self-care?
I find it difficult to switch off from life. I love to read, but when reading is also part of your job, it can be a bit exhausting. I find going to the symphony very relaxing, because it’s the one situation where I feel like words don’t matter at all, that communication is taking place in a way where I don’t have anything to contribute. It is important to refill the creative well, and I do that by going to art galleries, and getting away from the city to nature. My husband and I go bushwalking in the national parks and we like to swim in the sea. Closer to home, I like to lie down on a mat in my local park and watch the sky. I walk nearly every day by the bay, and cook nearly every day, too. I get great pleasure from planning and preparing a fresh meal with care and affection for myself and my family. I try to stay connected to the people I care about, and not just online. It is important to give time to those you love, and to be present for them in small, everyday ways. I have two cats, and they are great companions to me, because I mainly work from home. I try to realign my perspective every so often, remembering that while literary life is important to me, my personal and home life are what matter more. Everything else is just dressing.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means being connected to a culture that has a relatively young history in Australia, but is an important, diverse culture that deserves its integrated space in society. I’m all about inclusiveness. White people are not the enemy. Structural racism is the enemy. I like to think of culture as a smorgasbord: the more people you bring to the table, the more kinds of food you will have access to. There can be room for everyone. We must make room.
The table can grow as the number of mouths increases, and to adapt a cliché, many hands can make more food. There is a role for us all: some people will want to be chefs, some will cut the vegetables, and others will wash up. We should all do a little of each, or do what we can.
What’s important to me is that no one gets left out of the meal, and of the community, whichever community you choose to be part of.
Liminal is a proud recipient of the Victorian Government’s 2017 VicArts grants program.
This interview was supported by Creative Victoria.