The Story of Our Lives Do Not Have Faces: Sally Wen Mao Interviewed by Anne Anlin Cheng

The poet on her new collection and how a person lost to history can survive in the imaginary possibilities of art.

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I was first introduced to Sally Wen Mao at the Cullman Center in the New York Public Library a couple of years ago by a friend who knew that Mao and I were both writing about the iconic Anna May Wong. It was not until I read Oculus (Graywolf Press), Sally’s luminous second book of poems, that I realized how much our interests intersect. Indeed, both of our new books (mine a scholarly monograph that attempts to theorize the synthetic personhood of “yellow female ornamentality”) are haunted by several of the same ghosts: Anna May Wong, Afong Moy, Major Kusanagi, Wong Kar-wai, among others. But more than these figures, we share an interest in those complex moments, alternately annihilating and potentially exhilarating, when personhood and objecthood merge. Mao’s poems weave deeply between the quotidian and the global, limning the afterlives of those absent from history but over-used as representation. They remind me of the connections between aesthetics and politics: how we must imagine otherwise in order to affect political change. 

—Anne A. Cheng


Anne A. ChengAs many reviewers have noted, Oculus resurrects several historic figures whose highly spectacularized visibility was matched only by their extraordinary muteness as subjects. Some examples include Afong Moy, the so-called “Chinese Lady” who was placed on exhibition as a living tableau in the 19th century, and Anna May Wong, a film star who at the turn of the 20th century won international fame but was frequently flattened into stereotypical roles. Yet what I find most moving about your work is precisely the way your poems document this acute awareness of the need to “give voice” while still acknowledging and respecting the ongoing silences of the incomplete archive.

In the poem “No Resolution,” about the death of a father, you have this beautifully lucid line: “The story of our lives do not have faces.” Can you tell me more about how you conceive of this project of “resurrection”?

Sally Wen Mao I love how you put it—“the silence of the incomplete archive.” It definitely propels my vision, and as you write about Moy in Ornamentalism: “Little is known of her; even the accuracy of her Chinese name is dubious. At the level of fact, there is no rescuing her; she is lost to history. At the level of theory, she remains reified.” I would also say at the level of poetry and art, I believe that Moy has a chance of revivification. There are limits to this reanimation, obviously, because we do not know truly what her life was like, what happened save the white American interpretations of her behavior, and this lack of critical documentation propels us to reckon with the mystery. That’s why I sometimes suspect this idea of “giving voice” to a silent or marginalized figure is too reductive. There is no giving an actual voice to Moy when her voice was cut away in real life—plundered, exploited, and abandoned. Instead, we are left with imagining, in addition to theorizing, how a person lost to history may survive apart from how she is recorded in history.

Audre Lorde once said that “Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human … There are only new ways of making them felt.” This helped me understand what it means to recreate history: when we do not have facts, when we are sickened by the facts, we can rely on feeling. As humans, we have to learn to value these feelings, and my goal ultimately is to attempt to recreate a history more felt, not for the exploiters, but for the exploited. Art has a role not to redeem history, but to reanimate and reimagine the lost moments, the feelings never expressed, the secrets never surfaced. I think that it’s possible for art to reckon with and mourn this loss even as it imagines or recovers what has been lost. I think it’s possible to simultaneously arrive at both.

AACThis makes me think about the issue of “autobiography” or self-voice. The poems in Oculus are “confessional poems” of a different order. You speak to us through many voices. Even your book cover shows a paradoxical image of concealed self-revelation. Why do you often choose not to offer us the first-person pronoun as yourself?

SWMIt’s interesting how persona poems can just as easily become interchangeable with confessional poems, mainly because of how much the poet has to project or funnel some feeling or emotion through the conduit of another speaker. The persona poem, on the surface, is a study in writing from another perspective, but the poet’s voice, perspective, and imagination live in its kernel. The poet Ai was a master of the persona, this poetic shape-shifting. I felt that Wong was the perfect star in a persona poem series—part of it is her natural role as a celebrity, or as both of us have described her, an icon.

Beyond her individuality, Wong is also a representation, a symbol. With persona poems, I acknowledge both her personhood (her private feelings and moments, some of which are imagined, some of which are reflected in her writings) and objecthood (her celebrity). In your brilliant analysis of Wong’s role as Shosho in Picadilly, you argue that “Wong and Josephine Baker built their iconographic images on a visual idiom that is as exuberantly synthetic as it is organic, crafting the self as art and as product. Their success as agents and commodities presses us to think in more nuanced terms about what celebrity and glamour mean for the woman of color.” I would definitely say that Oculus also attempts to explore this question and contradiction.

When I read about Wong, and her first-person accounts of her struggles, what I felt was more than empathy—it was identification. The feelings she wrote about did not require me to imagine, because I’ve felt them too. I read something she herself wrote—that “Chinese in the United States suffer from a lifelong homesickness,” and not only do I understand that feeling, I’ve also felt it. I took it upon myself to reckon with my identification through the persona poems in Oculus—I recognized that what I felt was more than me—it transcended me. It was about me and it wasn’t about me—both of those statements can be true at the same time. Some of the poems in the book do have a first-person pronoun that can be read as myself, the author, but I placed those in a section apart from the persona poems—I resist writing autobiographical poems, or don’t intend to most of the time, even though I’d like to.


Photo by Luo Yang.

AACOculus is dedicated to “all my sisters,” and you mention in your acknowledgments that you “wrote this book for women of color.” You have also once said that rage drives you. In what ways has feminist theory at large been helpful or not helpful to the ways that you have had to navigate this world as a woman of color and perhaps specifically as an Asian American woman?

SWMRage has always been interesting to me. In the introduction to Ornamentalism, you posit that “What makes the yellow woman the exception in the larger category of WOC is precisely the precariousness of her injury … At most, Asian female anger exists on the American public stage in a peripheral, miniaturized, and cutified cartoon version.” This struck me hard in its truth. It is unquestionable that the struggles of Asian American and Asian women are very specific and differ from the struggles of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color.

Part of this struggle of the “yellow woman” is her infantilization, the muffling of her rage, the normalization and utter mundanity of her silence, her ability to take whatever is handed to her. In Oculus, I refer a lot to these specific experiences. I wrote this book specifically for Asian American women, but expanding that conversation, I do think that women of color in general have had to contend with silencing and erasure in very different and denigrating ways, as you have so thoroughly analyzed throughout your scholarship. 

The #MeToo movement today obviously needs to work on intersectionality, anti-blackness, and its gaps and absences. The women who came out against Harvey Weinstein are rich and famous, with vast amounts of resources and platforms. This is not to minimize their experience—but I think we have the responsibility to think critically about what experiences are validated and what experiences are cast aside or ignored within the feminist movement. There are vulnerable women who do not have any resources or platforms at their disposal, and they need to be centered if we desire progress. While women of color have and will always participate, organize, and lead feminist movements, they are less likely to benefit directly from these movements, as they suffer from other forms of oppression. This is also true of queer and trans women. 

AAC“The utter mundanity of her silence.” What a chilling phrase! This compels me to ask about a different form of muffled rage. It always pains me when writers of Asian descent say that they are not Asian American writers, that they are “simply” American writers. I understand deeply their desires not to be limited by the expectations implied by such a label, but at the same time I cannot help but wonder whether it is possible to erase a place from which one writes, thinks, imagines, and at least partially is? With Oculus, there was truly an exquisite joy in me to see a book of poems that claims Asian American womanhood with such verve, audacity, melancholy, wit, beauty, and rawness. Did you hesitate about writing poetry focused on race and racialized gender?

SWMI, too, understand the anxiety behind owning “Asian American woman” in poetry and also the impossibility of erasing my Asian identity. Binary ways of thinking have always pervaded these debates—especially the assimilation versus foreignness fallacy, Asian versus white. It’s tired because these tragic binaries depend on the tenets of white supremacy and centralized perceptions of what is a natural body. I also write about this knee-jerk reaction I have to questions like “Where are you from?” because by asserting I’m from California and denying my birthplace of Wuhan, China—which I am constantly wont to do—what does that say about self-classification and, as you mention, labels? Also, what does it mean to be “simply” an American writer? I do not think that it is possible to erase this place from which one writes, thinks, imagines, is. I think the answers “I’m from California” or “I’m simply an American writer” are temporary band-aids to this larger question about double-consciousness and the desire to not be seen as “the Other,” the desire to align the self with the most recognizable, simplified, accepted identity. It’s the desire to simplify one’s own more complex identity. It doesn’t heal this wound; it merely covers it, and ineffectively.

With Oculus, I did set out intentionally to write an Asian American book, because there should be no shame around this. Perhaps I went down this route because my first book of poems, Mad Honey Symposium, was not read this way. While I, the author, was always categorized as Asian American, my topics were not necessarily read as explicitly Asian American. I believe that contrary to what some people might think, it is not limiting to write about identity, nor should identity be the only domain or subject matter of writers of color. Poems about identity also do not need to serve or fulfill the expectations of white people or some kind of status quo profitable idea of otherness. There are entire universes within the topic of the Asiatic feminine body, and I saw further evidence of this reading your book. Even though it is clear that there is an abundance of material that, as Song mentioned, is “generative,” the lived experience of Asian American women has just not been documented or written about enough. I think it’s actually an urgent matter that we demand and write more of these stories. Otherwise, some other person, God forbid a white man, will write about us, as they’ve been doing for thousands of years, so we have to give ourselves the permission, the pen, and the mic. It’s about time. 

AACI love the title Oculus because it references architecture and the spatialization of point of view, the eye (both biological and cinematic), and the notion of vision and visibility—all of which are themes and meditations throughout the book. Can you tell me more about your relationship to visual culture and media, especially how they enter or shape your writing?

SWMYou mention the references to architecture and spatialization; in the coda of Ornamentalism, you quoted Lacan: “Isn’t there in architecture itself a kind of actualization of pain?” This struck me because it brings to light the relationship between living and nonliving, how “the eye” of oculus—both human and digital—can be one with the “window” oculus, and somehow this made my own collection of poems make more sense to me.

I was a visual artist from a young age—I have always been sensitive to visual culture and media, and I was always drawing and illustrating. I was even accepted to art school, with an art portfolio. In many ways, I grew up thinking, creating, and perceiving in very visual ways, and this has translated into my writing, as much of the last section of Oculus is related to art, pop culture, and films, especially animated shows. Not only did I create and participate in visual culture; I also consumed a lot of visual media—television, movies, the Internet, and visual art. 

I watched anime in particular because it offered this fantasy, this alternate reality that transcended the limitations of this world in terms of race, gender, and femininity. That is something that wasn’t offered even in regular American fantasy films, where there were still static representations of gender roles and race. In anime, there was just this fluidity that was very interesting, even radical, that didn’t exist in this world that I knew, and I was unconsciously drawn to it. The last section of Oculus attempts to explore a lot of these scrims—it’s a love letter, rather than a protest. I wanted something else; I wanted a relief from the tyranny of Hollywood that persisted not only in real life but in the earlier sections of the book. That relief lies in the creations of Asian and Asian American visionaries, who have remarkable abilities to imagine other worlds. In that sense, poetry and visual media can do similar work—poetry can also eliminate the boundaries between reality and fantasy, through language.

AACI am really interested in what you said about anime, because one of the themes I see in Oculus is precisely the idea of animation: the labor of animating the inanimate. “Occidentalism,” for example, gives us this lovely and haunting moment when the Asian American female body and Asiatic things/commodities interchange, almost exchange skins. Things and thingness occupy a big part of your poems. Can you say more about how your work is helping us to think differently about the logic of racial embodiment, which, at least traditionally, has been tied to the biological body and flesh?

SWMIn that poem there is a moment when I mention “These objects cross borders … the way our bodies never could.” This is to say, the Western (male) perception of the Asiatic feminine body is that it is an expendable object to be used and defiled. After all, Moy was brought over by white men who saw her as essentially an object, a marketing gimmick. Yet it was also white men who wrote the laws that subjected Asian bodies to Chinese exclusion laws—and objects like porcelain bowls were not privy to those laws. In a way, the objects had more power than the bodies they adorned. I am interested in this specter of the “yellow woman” and how she pervades and haunts objects, cultures, memories—even when disembodied. This does give her a certain amount of power, and I’m interested in harnessing that. 

Anne Anlin Cheng is Professor of English and Director of American Studies at Princeton University. She is author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief; Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface; and, most recently, Ornamentalism.

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