Born and raised: Connecticut, U.S.A.
Currently living in: Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A. (but moving to Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. in the fall!)
Find them: Website | Instagram | Read: Gilded & Majestic: New Writing from Three Nepantla Poets
(Photo courtesy of Ally Ang)
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell me about coming into your creative practice. How did you get into poetry?
I’ve always been a sensitive, introverted person, and I was an only child. I spent a lot of time by myself, and I read books so voraciously from a very young age. I think that kind of made me very creative. And since I didn’t have siblings to play with when I was young, my imagination helped me. As I got older, in middle school, I started writing poetry a bit. Definitely more in high school. At the time, I was really into a lot of well-known poets that you read in school like T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath, who I really liked. I still really like their works, but I didn’t really see myself in their works. So I would write poems about…I don’t know, it felt like my life wasn’t worth writing about, so I would make things up. It was a good exercise in imagination, but I think it wasn’t until I got older, in high school, where I started watching slam and spoken word videos on YouTube and started discovering the work of contemporary poets.
I remember Franny Choi’s — she’s a Korean-American poet — work, it was some of the first work by a contemporary Asian-American poet that I read, and I was like whoa, I didn’t know I could write about my identity and have that be a legitimate topic worth writing about. That was a game-changer for me, so I started writing more about my coming to my identity, and became more aware of history of race and racism in the country, where Asian-Americans fit into that, and feeling disconnected from Asian-American identity because I was mixed race, and because a lot of Asian-American spaces are primarily East Asian and there isn’t a lot of Southeast Asian presence that I’d seen in Asian-American spaces I was a part of. Usually, I was one of two Southeast Asian people.
I used poetry as a space to explore that, and also, as I figured out my queerness, I was also using poetry to work through that. It was very freeing for me, especially because I’m not the type of person to talk about my feelings, so poetry was the only means of expression that I had, especially when I was younger. I had a lot of angst-y, figuring-out-my-identity poetry when I was in high school, and as I got into college, I started taking poetry more seriously and reading more poets and trying to learn more. I started submitting poems and getting them published and reading poems at events.
Q: What has the process been like for you finding the community you wanted to be in within poetry?
I know a lot of amazing poets and writers, and I have a lot of friends who write, and that’s really wonderful, but I feel like a lot of them are (a) internet friends, which is wonderful, but it’s not the same as having a physical unit around me and (b) in Boston, in particular, it’s very slam and spoken-word base, which I definitely appreciate, but it’s not something I do. I write for the page, so I find the poetry here is very wonderful, but it’s not what I do creatively. I feel like I’m still searching for my poetry community, and I’m hoping that I’ll find that at my MFA program (in Seattle) when I start there in the fall. I feel like I’m in the periphery of a writing community but not quite in there.
Q: Did you identify yourself as Asian-American early on in your life, or was that something you learned more about later on?
I think I did think of myself as Asian-American pretty early on, partially because that’s mostly how I was seen, like oh, that’s an Asian person, not like oh, that’s a Chinese-Indonesian-Polish person. I feel like that’s how I was identified by other people, so that’s how I came to initially identify myself. But, as I got older, I learned more about the origins of the term and what it has meant to people politically. But, at the same time, I recognize that it has a lot of limitations.
Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as someone with Indonesian heritage?
My father is from Indonesia. He lived there until he was around 30 years old, and then he moved to the United States and married my mom. My mom is a white lady from Connecticut. I grew up in a very white town where my dad and I were among the few people of color. Later, more East Asian people moved into my town, but for a lot of my childhood, I was one of the only people of color that I knew, and my dad. It was very alienating, but I also very much took pride in my identity as something that made me different and unique. I always felt some degree of connection to my Indonesian identity because the first time I visited Indonesia and met my dad’s family, I was 5, and then I went every couple of years, so that part of my identity was always very present in my life.
However, my dad, when he moved to the United States, he didn’t have any family here or anything. It was very rough, so I think he kind of tried to assimilate a bit. And when he had me, and when I was growing up…I think he wanted to give me the easiest life as possible, so he didn’t teach me the Indonesian language. My dad’s actually Chinese-Indonesian, and my mom wanted me to go to Chinese school, but my dad didn’t want me to, and he prides himself in being very American now that he’s lived here for almost 30 years, so he kind of raised me to be that way as well. So, while I was always, to a certain extent, connected to my Indonesian identity, there were a lot of big pieces missing for me, in terms of language, being able to communicate with my family, that kind of thing.
That was a very roundabout way of saying I’ve always thought of myself as being an Indonesian-American person, because it was always very obvious I was different from a lot of the people I grew up around, and I embraced it, but at the same time, there were a lot of aspects of Indonesian culture that I didn’t have access to, and I didn’t have an Indonesian community by any means.
Q: Tell me more about coming into your politics and your views. What was that process like?
My parents are really wonderful people, and they’ve learned so much in the past few years. But at the time, when they had me, they didn’t really think about — especially my mom, as a white person — the complexities of raising a person of color as a child, especially in the context in the town that I grew up in, which is very white and kinda racist. But my mom and my dad were a little naive and idealistic, I think, and didn’t consider those challenges. I had to learn a lot on my own.
I remember in eighth grade seeing a book called “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” (by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, first published in 1997) and I thought the title was very interesting. The book went way over my head at the time, because I was way too young to be reading a sociological text, but I did learn a lot about race and racism in the U.S., and how people of color cope. And then, as I got older, I learned a lot via the internet, such as being on Tumblr. Learning a lot about queerness and gender identity there really helped with myself. But, I think the urgency really came when Trayvon Martin was killed. Up until that point, I knew that racism was more or less in the U.S., but it made realize that it was something that was prevalent and dangerous, and that it wasn’t just history — it was something that was present, right now. At that point, I tried to learn about anti-blackness, specifically, which is a big issue in cultures like my own. So that’s how I became politicized — first noticing my own experiences, and then paying more attention to what was going on in the world.
It was definitely a source of tension between me and my parents as I was coming into that political consciousness, because I would talk about white privilege and microaggressions, but they weren’t really — my mom kind of took it as personal and my dad told me I shouldn’t talk about this stuff. They were initially really resistant, but then took it upon themselves to learn a lot more from me and on their own. Things are very different now, but it was a source of tension growing up, for sure.
Q: Any future projects or events?
I have poems coming out, in The Margins (see above!!!), and others that will be published on a date, TBD.
I’ll be performing in the Boston area this summer, before I move. The next one coming up is Queer Qarnival on June 29. I’ll be reading some poems there.
Other than that, I’ll be going to get my MFA, so I’ll take these two years to really challenge myself creatively and refine my craft, as they say, and hopefully, a book will come out of that, but who knows?
Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?
I think with the knowledge of what my family has gone through, it’s definitely meant resilience to me, because my family has been through so much hardship and oppression. My dad came to America all on his own and made a life here. I’m from a line of very resilient people, and that makes me feel stronger and be able to recognize the strength in myself.
For a long time, it didn’t mean this, but recently, I’m starting to feel like my Indonesian heritage is a source of community also. I’ve gotten a bit involved with the Indonesian community in Boston, in New England, which has been lovely. I’ve gotten to know more Indonesian people. So, I think connecting with other Indonesian people for kind of the first time in my life has been a great happiness for me. It’s beginning to mean community as well, which is really lovely.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
Since I’m moving to Seattle in the fall, if you or anybody you know is in Seattle, hit me up! Because I will need friends!