I had the opportunity to sit down with Henry, over the course of two lunches, to talk about his recent book, as well as his thoughts on writing. Below are excerpts of the conversation, just a peek into this insightful author’s mind.
Henry W. Leung was born in a village in Guangdong, China. He spent his childhood in Honolulu before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. He is currently completing his MFA in Fiction at the University of Michigan. Paradise Hunger – the winner of the 2012 Swan Scythe Press Poetry Chapbook Contest – is his first chapbook. He writes a bimonthly column on Asian American poetry for the Lantern Review.
Tell me a little about yourself.
I had two childhoods, one in Honolulu – with perfect weather (of course, I didn’t appreciate it back then, I wanted to live in the cold so I could wear a leather jacket) – and the other in Alameda. A lot of our home village ended up in Honolulu, but my mother moved us to California to be near her sisters and for better opportunities in education. It worked out in the end, but I always thought of the first childhood as a happy but not very productive one – a “normal” childhood, playing video games and farming neighbors’ backyards. But in California, I noticed race for the first time. I was alone more, I didn’t have close friends for a while. And I was the token Asian kid. Ironically, it wasn’t until I joined a martial arts school when I was eleven that I started to feel at home. You know that saying, It takes a village to raise a child? The martial arts was the other village that raised me.
How did you get started as a writer?
When I was sixteen – fifteen and a half [laughs] – I attended a workshop Meg Kearney directed through the National Book Foundation. It was nine days in Bennington, all paid for, with an age range from me to sixty-year-olds, some of them teachers, some of them writers who already had books out. I was lucky I could attend before they ran out of funding. At the time, I was writing fiction – the sci-fi you’d expect from a kid looking to escape – but we were required to take a workshop in the other genre too. I hated that. My poetry teacher was Kimiko Hahn (I had no idea how lucky I was), and I submitted this awful poem with roosters and a moon and bad rhymes. Later, when I did become a poet, I met her again and she said something really generous: “Those weren’t bad poems,” she said. “They were just what you thought poetry was at the time.”
That workshop was where I had my first glimpse of the MFA, the idea of it, not the institution or the program, but the community – people who come together to support each other, who all care about the same thing. I’d never seen anything like it before. My own family wasn’t especially literate, and I didn’t have exceptional schooling, so I was never really exposed to good, contemporary writing. All the workshop instructors’ books were mailed to us, but I didn’t bother with the poetry. I didn’t get it. So I just shoved them all into a box in the corner of my room. It wasn’t until later that year when some of the participants I kept in touch with started writing response poems to Meg Kearney’s “Creed.” It was in her first book, which dealt a lot with adoption, the longing for identity, the terror of it. The last poem in the book was “Creed,” [here Henry started reciting the poem from memory]. I hadn’t read it, but the versions my friends were writing were so incredible. I remember rushing over to that box in the corner, getting on my knees to pull out Meg’s book, and flipping to the last page. By the end, I was stunned. I’d never been so moved by words before.
So do you consider yourself more of a poet or a fiction writer?
I was around so much violence in California, especially the part of my family living in Oakland. My father passed away when I was a year old, my mother raised me alone. I was doing martial arts, I started boxing. A lot of that had to do with being masculine, being hard, putting up a front. It wasn’t cool for me to be a teenager, a guy, and in love with poetry. But there’s a genuineness there that makes it different. You’re not writing poetry if you’re not being honest (which isn’t the same as being confessional). A lot of poetry today gets by with flairs of language, or superficial risks. But it’s about sincerity – it’s the same for fiction. I always hope that writing better means living better. I think the genre distinctions between poetry and fiction have more to do with marketing than anything else.
Can you expound on that?
The mistake is thinking “fiction” is a synonym for “narrative.” Narrative came out of poetic traditions – look at the Bible, look at the Odyssey. When we talk about fiction today, we’re usually talking about the shape of the book, like a hardcover novel. But narrative is inherent in language, it’s part of syntax. We can’t help thinking about the world and our lives in a narrative way. Time is narrative. I wonder if it wasn’t film that really drew a line between the genres. Jane Smiley makes this great argument about the novel being the middle space between the stillness of poetry and the constant action of film. But the best fiction I’ve read has the experience of poetry to it. It feels spherical, three-dimensional, instead of just a plot line to follow to see what happens next.
And I think it’s easy to forget that storytelling is always grounded in voice. With Flaubert and Henry James we started boxing our idea of realism into the close third-person, but before them novels always had these chatty “authors” who would say, “I’m going to tell you a true story about Mr. B—, who lived in —shire.” Every story has a narrator, just like every poem has a speaker. Even an invisible narrator has to sing the story for it to be good. There’s a lot that poetry is “allowed” to do that fiction can’t, like work with white space and fragments and the sound or shape of words instead of their sense. But again that permission just comes from marketing, it’s what you expect on one shelf instead of another. Distinctions of high and low art are also about the market, but in the form of exclusion and elitism. In the end it’s all in the realm of language. Like I keep saying, it’s about sincerity. As your reader, why should I care unless I feel like you’re living inside this language you’ve created?
Let’s talk about the book. What was the process involved in completing it? How long did it take you?
It depends on what you mean by process. The seed that started the book was at the funeral of my second uncle in 2010. Two of my uncles, who were father figures to me, one in Honolulu and one in California, died very suddenly just a couple months apart. It was the summer right after I graduated from college, so it was like my entry into the so-called real world.
But the earliest poem in that book I started when I was sixteen. So if you start from there, the book took eight years. If you start from my uncles’ funerals, it took four years. On more practical terms, once I knew that this could be a book, it took about two years to revise and finish new poems to make them cohere, and to send out the manuscript where it went through the usual rejections and more revisions.
Has any of your family read the book? And how did they react?
Yeah, and usually they say, “I don’t get it.” It’s dedicated to my mother and sister, but I wasn’t writing for my family or trying to speak for them. This wasn’t autobiography. To me, it was about poetry. Even though the figures (or characters, to use a fictional term) may be based in reality, the purpose wasn’t for the audience to learn about me or my life. I was embodying the artifice of a voice in order to reach something larger. In other words, I was writing poetry (lower case) to access Poetry (upper case).
You used allusions derived from several different cultures in the book – (such as Greek, Latin, Cantonese, Mandarin, Hawaiian). What were you trying to achieve?
It was a deliberate move to stretch the Western canon. There’s an anxiety that comes with writing “another immigrant story” in English. I had to prove ownership of more than one literary tradition. Allusions are a kind of vocabulary, a lexicon. If you think about it that way, it’s like an immigrant learning a new language but trying to preserve the home language at the same time. But every culture has a language for death. Every culture makes its own myths, and pretty soon the myths start looking pretty similar… universal.
How did you come up with the title?
The original title was “Peaches for Prosperity,” from the narrative poem in the middle that the project grew out of. For a while after that it was “Mythic Foreigner,” but ultimately I settled on Paradise Hunger. The “Hungry Ghost” poems come from the Buddhist notion of spirits trapped in a kind of limbo for unfinished business. Those poems are each in the voice of the dead in my book, to give voice to their stories. Food is another language, and there are a lot of different types of hunger in these poems. And paradise, of course, is problematic. It’s a place of rest but it’s also a place of death. People think of Hawaii as paradise, but it’s more complicated than that.
How did you decide to structure the book into five different sections, and how did you choose the poems that go into each? It didn’t seem chronological, for example.
No, and again you’re thinking like a fiction writer [laughs]. One of the things poetry can handle really well is synchronicity. The sections are more of a cycle and expansion, rather than things coming to pass and passing away. The five sections come from the five phases or processes, which is what the martial art Xing Yi works with. They’re also used in geomancy, and as a mnemonic for the elements, the seasons, the order of the universe. The poems are placed in each section for theme, the feeling of places. The book deals a lot with death, but death is a form of migration. No one just dies – it’s a process to something else. Our identities are always changing, we’re always migrating from one place to another.
I see the book as a long poem. But the arrangement comes out of pattern-making, almost a Feng Shui of furniture, or a casting of bones to see where things fall. Some people think this book is a memoir, but that wasn’t my intention. I didn’t set out to write the whole story, I didn’t intend for readers to learn exactly what happened in my life. In writing, I’m most interested in capturing the intensity of a moment’s emotion. The truth is in the reading experience.
Paradise Hunger is available from Swan Scythe Press.