A Writer’s Insight: Yuxi Lin

Yuxi Lin’s poem “Leftover” appears in the autumn 2018 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses straddling identities as a Chinese emigrant, language as a collective game of meaning making, and writing to reclaim her body.

Rhiannon Thorne: Craft seems central to “Leftover.” Where did you begin this poem? How did you go about writing a poem in English while centering a “leftover” language as its subject?

Yuxi Lin: I wrote this poem at the Community of Writers Conference at Squaw Valley in 2017. The form was inspired by A. Van Jordan’s poem called “From,” which I’d read in Terrance Hayes’s class two years ago. It uses the various definitions of the word “from” as the structure of the poem. I loved the idea of investigating the complexity of a single word, and for a long time I had been thinking about a Chinese word, sheng nu, or leftovers, used to describe women who are not married by their late twenties. I despised that word. It represented the type of societal misogyny I tried to leave behind, but it also made me realize my alienation from my family. Interrogating the dictionary as a form is also important is also important because it is the main tool for immigrants learning English. When I moved to the States, I didn’t speak any English, so I looked up and memorized about fifty words a day.

RT: We get a lot of images of things which have not survived the transatlantic and transcultural move from China to America: the subject’s childhood body, children buried in shame, and home. How did your third definition, “surviving from an earlier time,” help shape this poem?

YL: Going back to China after eight years was like picking up a novel after having skipped over eight chapters. In front of my family, I assumed an identity that I had abandoned, which no longer fit. I no longer held the same traditional values and ideals, but my relatives only knew the old me. Having to confront outdated ideas of propriety and femininity was also a struggle—to me, they are leftovers from centuries of oppression and sexism, but for my family and many Chinese people, these ideas survived because they are “right.”

RT: The “you” in this piece is defined by relationships others have with their body. Nameless husbands and mothers inject themselves, “insist[ing] on being helpful” and giving the “you” a name. It is unclear if this is a proper name or a reference back to the opening line when she is called “xiao mei” (“little sister”). This murkiness adds to the occluding act naming seems to perform in this poem. Can you speak to the connection you foster between naming, family, and leftovers?

YL: The act of naming is central to my poems. The confusion of names and languages reflects the speaker’s confusion about her identity. When I immigrated to the U.S., I had to craft a new identity. My own name, as was pronounced by my American teachers and classmates, was foreign to me. Meanwhile, when I visited China, my relatives called me xiao mei, as in “little America,” which made me realize that I’ve become foreign in their eyes. Ironically, the same words can be pronounced with different tones in Chinese to mean “little sister,” which is also what you might call a young woman if you don’t know her name.

RT: This poem speaks to an individual’s experience of diaspora and struggle to parse homophones, but you also refer to the poem as a “game of words.” How do these operate for you simultaneously?

YL: I think of language as a collective game of meaning making. It is, of course, difficult but very rewarding. Learning to speak English was hard, but I loved using my mouth, tongue, and teeth to make sounds. I also enjoyed the versatility of words that had multiple meanings, and I had to figure out when it would be appropriate to apply them. When I spoke correctly, I was rewarded with a response and understanding. Poetry, then, is the tricky game of making language work for you. Sometimes I approach writing with a playful spirit and ask a word, What can you do today? It opens up possibilities and leaps in thoughts that otherwise wouldn’t occur to me.

RT: Is this poem part of a larger project? How does it slide against or partner with your other work?

YL: This poem is part of a larger collection that will one day be my debut manuscript. I am obsessed with the body and its relationship to language. In particular, I am fascinated by the body as a vehicle for desire and longing. A lot of my writing is inspired by research, from mythology, art, biology, to physics, because these various disciplines approach the subject of the body through very different perspectives. At the same time, writing has been my way of reclaiming my body. I think of it as home building and creating a space for myself with words.

RT: You had a great 2018. You were a winner of Epiphany Zine’s Breakout 8 Writers Prize, and had work out in Electric Literature and Tinderbox Poetry. What are you currently working on and what might be on the horizon for 2019?

YL: Through the Global Research Initiative at New York University, I am in Shanghai this fall researching the etymology of Chinese characters. In particular, I am trying to understand how the female body has shaped the written language and the ways in which it gets obscured and erased based on historical and political context. In December, I will return to New York and graduate with my MFA in Creative Writing. In 2019, I plan to keep working on my poetry manuscript and return to teaching.

Yuxi Lin is a Chinese American poet. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington PostSpilled Milk Magazine, and Cosmonauts Avenue. She is an MFA candidate at New York University, where she received the Lillian Vernon Fellowship.

Rhiannon Thorne is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review. Additionally, she is the managing editor of cahoodaloodaling, an associate editor for Up the Staircase Quarterly, and President of Tandem Reader Awards. Her poetry has appeared in Black Warrior ReviewManchester Review, and Midwest Quarterly, among others. She is an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University.

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