April 1–7, 2013
Debora Kuan‘s debut collection of poetry, XING, was published in October 2011 by Saturnalia Books. She is the recipient of a Fulbright creative writing fellowship (Taiwan), University of Iowa Graduate Merit Fellowship, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship and Santa Fe Art Institute writer’s residency, among other awards. Her poems have appeared in American Letters and Commentary, Boston Review, Fence, Iowa Review and other journals. Her fiction has appeared in Brooklyn Rail, Opium and L Magazine, which awarded her its Literary Upstart Short Fiction award in 2010. She has also written about contemporary art, books and film for Artforum, Art in America, Modern Painters and other publications. She was both a nonfiction and fiction fellow at the CUNY Writers’ Institute in 2010-2012, and has taught at the University of Iowa, the College of New Jersey and New York Institute of Technology. She works at an educational nonprofit and lives in Boerum Hill.
Minority Assignment #2
We sultry the lampshade & suture the lambchop.
We but widows wasp & swap.
We hookline&sinker gin our drink.
We water our bent-up Bible with ink.
We con & thereof canvass.
We nuclearize and notice.
We scrub our oily skins, confess our cardboard sins.
We blunder the pure blood & blame the breast milk.
We but cowl necks, we but fur.
We noose-slip beneath the radar.
We anaesthecize our tribal bones.
We but nuns undo the union.
We capture the culpable bells.
We but soldiers wet ourselves.
We peep & spy & sleeper.
We exoticize our features.
We pry apart our private parts.
We don the nods & pocket the wads.
We hook our masks around our ears.
We prepare our rightful heirs.
–From XING, Saturnalia Books, 2011.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem was the third I wrote in a series of three “minority assignments.” I don’t remember the original inspiration—it’s been a while—but I wanted to write a poem in rhyming couplets that built in momentum and pitch, using the collective first person. I was subconsciously thinking about Plath’s “Mushrooms,” where a stealthy, almost silent takeover is taking place throughout the course of the poem, and I think that’s how I ended with the tongue-in-cheek line about “rightful heirs”—“Mushrooms” ends with inheriting the earth. There’s something very ominous about that, and it’s meant to speak to that notion that model minorities like Asian Americans are taking too many coveted positions—in prestigious schools or universities or wherever other Americans want to gain access. But it speaks more universally to how immigrant communities are vilified out of fear when they get “too big.”
I began with a line in my notebook that read “wasp & swap.” I liked the shadow of WASP in “wasp,” and I also liked that in order to make “swap” you have to swap the letters in “wasp.” Also embedded in that swapping trope is that casually racist perception that all Asian people look alike, and therefore, could easily be swapped for another. And I did specifically want the sexual imagery to point to Asian American women and the way they can be fetishized.
What are you working on right now?
A novel told from three points of view. Other enticing elements? A dank basement; emo; stray cats; pygmy fountains; sexual harassment in the workplace; and a disappointing father-son relationship. Also, dancing. There should always be dancing.
What’s a good day for you?
One in which I have written.
Or one in which I have laughed hard and been with people I love.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?
Five years total. I live in Boerum Hill right now. It is probably my most favorite apartment I’ve ever lived in—it has south-facing windows and high ceilings and French doors and light. When my sister and brother-in-law first found it, though, it looked like a crackhouse. The former tenant fled it like the scene of a crime. It was packed to the gills with clothes, shoes, food, trash, one of those really terrible computer desks with a million tiers, years of encrusted dirt and dust, you name it. There was no stove. The double sink was rusted out. There was a large, ominous dark stain in the middle of the hall suggesting either murder, black magic, or a chemical spill. Not only did my landlord get the stain out, but he also completely transformed the place. I still can’t believe it.
I’ve lived in Brooklyn Heights before, and Sunset Park for a brief stint the summer after college, in a tiny railroad apartment with three other people and a cat. I just remember being really hot and eating a lot of ice cream sandwiches and a futon breaking. And my roommates walking around in their underwear.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or somewhere in between.
Once I was coming home late at night, and I saw this hipster girl crying into her boyfriend’s arms in the subway. She was really fake-wailing—it was extremely histrionic and hard to witness, much like watching Allison Williams on “Girls” try to cry. When the train came, they got on and everyone gave them a wide berth. It was hard to tell whether the boyfriend was actually at fault or if the girl was just trying to make it appear that way. But, from what I could glean between her sobs, I think he had talked to or looked at another girl at a party, and then he had denied doing it.
Anyway, what I am trying to say is, she was dressed head-to-toe in American Apparel.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Marianne Moore, because of all those animals in her poems.
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore?
Freebird. It’s a little difficult to get to, but it’s worth it: the owner always finds the most brilliant, obscure, and unexpected used books to put on display.
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Theoretically I like to write at Building on Bond, although I don’t think I’ve actually ever produced anything halfway decent there, because it’s so crowded and loud. I have also written a few times at Baked in Red Hook. But usually I write at home. I go from the iMac on my desk, to the couch with my laptop, to my notebook on the bed. When I get blocked, I clean. It is so eerily efficient cleaning-wise (not so sure about writing-wise).
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
Fairway in Red Hook, which I’m so glad is back up and running after Sandy. We eat brunch on that pier on Sundays.
Last awesome book(s) you read?
Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz.
Rewrite these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate these bells,
And what I ring on you should ring on,
For every atom in me as good as a molecule in you.
(By the way, in high school, we sang a very odd, un-melodic song with these Whitman lyrics, and now whenever I see these lines, I can’t help but hear that awful song.)
Write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
With this sword, I divide this Brooklyn,
another irreverent no-good jack,
rubbed from astronomy and robbed
of attitude, watered in sin,
a half-eaten ham sandwich stabbed with a pen.
You should know: I am born of this river, Dodger.
The bridge is my father.
Because it goes hard.