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On "How I Got That Name"


Marilyn Chin
(from an interview with Bill Moyers)

MOYERS: You were born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon. You claimed San Francisco as your home and consider yourself once exiled to San Diego. Where do you most belong?

CHIN: I believe I belong with my passport. I see myself and my identity as nonstatic. I see myself as a frontier, and I see my limits as limitless. Somebody once accused me of being a leftist radical feminist, West Coast, Pacific Rim, socialist, neo-Classical Chinese American poet. And I say, "Oh yes, I am all of those things." Why not? I don't believe in static identities. I believe that identities are forever changing . . .

. . . My identity as a Chinese American poet is not monolithic. I don't think in monolithic terms. Many of my Chinese American friends don't write about assimilation, but I’m thoroughly bi-cultural and bi-lingual, and I see myself as a Pacific Rim person. I have family in China, in Hong Kong, in Hawaii, and all over the West Coast. So assimilation is a particularly important issue for me.

I am afraid of losing my Chinese, losing my language, which would be like losing a part of myself, losing part of my soul. Poetry seems a way to recapture that, but of course the truth is we can't recapture the past. The vector only goes one direction and that is toward the future. So the grandeur of China—the grandeur of that past of my grandfather's, of my grandmother's, of my mother's and so forth—that will be all lost to me. I lose inches of it every day. Sometimes I think I lose a character a day.

MOYERS: A character from your life story?

CHIN: Perhaps a character in life, too, but I was thinking about the written word. I lose the language every day.

MOYERS: There's almost an elegiac quality to the last lines of "How I Got That Name."

. . . Solid as wood, happily
a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized
by all that was lavished upon her
and all that was taken away!

Now what does that say about assimilation?

CHIN: There's a doubleness to nearly all my work, to how 1 feel about things, and perhaps especially about assimilation. As I've said, my family's past is irretrievable, but assimilation must happen. There's no way I can force my children to speak Chinese. There's no way that the pure yellow seed, as my grandmother called it, will continue.

MOYERS: That's what your grandmother called the Chinese?

CHIN: Yes. The Chinese want to keep the blood pure—my grandmother used to sit on the porch with a broom and try to sweep away the white boys from dating us—but assimilation is inescapable. I live in California, which is a very multicultural world. We are beyond being yellow, white, black. We're a wonderful swirl of shades of a brown. just as I think it's impossible to keep Chineseness pure, I think it's also impossible to keep whiteness pure. I think everything must merge, and I'm willing to have it merge within me, in my poetry.

MOYERS: Is that what you're getting at in these lines: "She was neither black nor white, / neither cherished nor vanquished, / just another squatter in her own bamboo grove / minding her poetry—"?

CHIN: Yes, that's self referential, and of course the self has many levels, so when I talk about myself the "I" is always personal and also always representative of other Chinese Americans like myself.

MOYERS: What do you mean "neither cherished nor vanquished"?

CHIN: I feel rather invisible at times—neither cherished nor vanquished. If I were black I would be vanquished; if I were white I would be cherished. So, I believe that much of my life has been lived in a kind of mysterious opaqueness—neither cherished nor vanquished, neither loved nor hated. When Americans talk about racial politics they talk about the poles of black and white, where one group may be demonized and one group may be sanctified. 1 think that we must meet in the gray space in between to find harmony.

from The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets by Bill Moyers. Ed. James Haba. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Copyright 1995 by Public Affairs Television, Inc. and David Grubin Productions, Inc.


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