Brooklyn’s Poet Laureate, Tina Chang, on Expectations, America, and her new book, "Hybrida"

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Tina Chang’s name first came into my consciousness when my dad excitedly emailed me: Brooklyn’s Poet Laureate has a name that’s almost the same as yours! 

This was unprecedented, not only because my name is unusual, but more notably because all who held the position before Chang were white and male. The title came as a surprise to her—she had just given birth to her son, Roman, and wasn’t expecting any other gifts to come her way. Her name hadn’t appeared on a published list of rumored candidates, and she initially forgot to apply. But her work in the community led the selection committee to reach out to her and, once she submitted her application, it all moved quickly. 

Chang’s appointment to Poet Laureate in 2010 was a mark of changing times, both in her life and in the country. “[My son] grew up with so many different ideas that I thought were really positive. At the time he was born, I had just become Brooklyn's Poet Laureate, so he's only known me in this role. When I was pregnant with him, Obama was also elected into the presidency. Throughout the majority of his life, eight years of his life, he had Obama as his president. Being a boy of color, a child of mixed race, having a president also of mixed race was such a positive role model for him.”

Chang has two children of Haitian and Chinese descent. Her latest poetry collection, “Hybrida,” delves deeply into hybrid identities, specifically into the intricacies of raising and protecting her son in today’s social climate. In the book’s title poem, she writes:

By raising a boy, do I understand what it means to live as a black boy?
How do I speak of his existence without appropriating his existence?
I return to the language of mothers. 

Though Roman was born into Obama’s America, now a very different administration is in power—one that highlights racial divides and seems to tweet something newly offensive every week. Of her son navigating this change, Chang says, “He asks a lot of questions and definitely has, at times, felt unsure and unsafe. I wouldn't say that it's good—that would be a stretch of the imagination to say that it's good—but I think that it benefits some part of his imagination to question what's happening in his environment. When his environment isn't upholding the same kind of values that he has, he’s learning to question the role he would like to take.”  

Chang’s exploration of societal injustice and poetic forms in “Hybrida” teaches all of us to question our role in our country and community. It’s easy to see why NPR calls it “one of the most important books of poetry to come along in years.” 

For just a peek of the issues this book may have you pondering and the boundless mind that birthed it, read our interview with Chang below. She spoke with Mochi about her upbringing; raising her children; and the complexity of race, diversity and integration in America.

On family expectations:
Growing up, there were definitely practical concerns. As a girl, my mother really wanted me to follow in her footsteps. She was a nurse, my father was a physicist; I think they both had expectations that I was going to be in the medical field, though it was clear from a young age that I was very interested in the arts. My mother thought dabbling in the arts was probably a pastime, and it would pass, but it didn’t. My love for it was ongoing and I became more passionate about it over time. 

My teachers would often draw my mother's attention to the fact that I had something—perhaps a gift in writing. I think that she didn't want to believe it. She was glad I was a good writer in a language she was still trying to master, but she thought it would simply contribute to completing a successful college application or an essay. It was something to aid in other pursuits. “Beautiful, you know how to write! It’ll help you in everything else you’d like to do in your life!” 

I believed that voice for a long time, because I admired my mom. I thought she was a very practical person, a very successful person, and I wanted to live up to her expectations. She wasn't very pushy about most matters. She just hoped I would have a career that would offer me stability. That's really all she cared about. 

It’s been a journey for us to see that someone can create a stable lifestyle, a growing career out of something that they really, really love to do. In that way, it's been an incremental process for the both of us. 

How did you shed those expectations and give yourself instead to poetry?  
I didn’t learn to fully read until I was 8 years old. My report card at the time stated that I needed help and my teacher was concerned. My mom struggled with the English language to make sure that I could read to grade level. In many ways we were learning side by side. When I started to understand the power of stories and when I started to write stories myself, there was something about this process that felt like magic. I loved writing more than I loved anything else, but it wasn’t until many failed attempts at editorial jobs post-college that I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a creative writer.

I recall sitting at my editorial desk at a well-known women’s magazine in my twenties feeling lost and helpless, quite certain the magazine industry wasn’t for me. I closed my eyes to envision my happiest moments, and the vision of a round table in a classroom came fully into view. The last time I was happy, I was sitting in a writing workshop with my professor, talking about poems. I was afraid of what this vision meant for me, but I also felt emboldened. In that moment, I began searching for MFA programs in creative writing. The next year, I was enrolled as a student at Columbia University’s Writing Program, and that’s how my writing life started.

On race, diversity and integration:
I grew up in Elmhurst, Queens, where many different racial, cultural communities coexisted very peacefully. But diversity and integration are two different things. From my perception of my neighborhood, I felt the communities seldom intermingled. We stayed within our fairly safe spaces, in our own groups that were usually separated by cultural nuance. 

It wasn't until high school that I started to pave my own way, yearning to exist outside of my Chinese American community, creating friendships and forging new relationships where traditions, food, perspectives differed from my own. That's when I started rebelling and exercising a lot of my freedom, to the disappointment of my mother at times. I was the A student, I'd never done anything that she would question, but as I grew up, I wanted my own say in who I befriended, who I chose as my community.

It probably wasn’t the easiest time for my mother, but it started her own journey to realize that I was very different from her, which I think is very beneficial for a mother and daughter's relationship: to realize that we are not the same. I think it's great when a family’s views can be shared, but even more beautiful when families push and pull against each other and, as a result, grow. 

My family has grown tremendously—my mom has changed so much. To see her move from some of the more set ideas she used to have to being more open, and widely, vastly accepting of my family—to show them love, to show them kindness, and also, in her own way, push back against a lot of the views that she perceives as racist—this is life-changing. I see my very traditional Chinese mom growing and that makes me very proud of her.

What additional responsibility might parents of mixed children shoulder?
I can only say that I feel my own sense of responsibility. I live in New York City, known as the melting pot of the world. Diversity is probably the first word that comes to mind when New York City is mentioned, but underneath the surface, there are racial tensions just like anywhere else. Most people I know consider themselves progressive and open and yet I still view deep segregation in our schools. In private and public sectors, there is racial division across many lines, and though great efforts have been made to offer fairer and more equal opportunities to all, many children (who grow up to be adults) still self-segregate by race. 

As a mother of mixed-race children, I do feel I have a sense of responsibility. At my children’s school, we have had deep, vital, painful public discussions about race. To be in those particular situations, and to stand up to illustrate a picture of what life might look like and feel like for a child of color, that is a stand. To write this book and to voice the inner workings of a mother who worries about these dynamics, that is also a stance. To present these ideas to the public and—come what may, come whatever ideas I receive back—that is also taking a chance. 

On having hard conversations with strangers and family alike:
Now mid-life, I’ve gathered the courage to tell strangers when I perceive them practicing white privilege. Age gives me that right. Being a mother gives me that right, but we each have to allow ourselves that permission within our own circumstances. I will tell them, “We're practicing [white privilege] right now.” To have conversations with strangers that don't wind up in conflict, to voice a difference of opinion, and walk away, not disliking each other, but actually thinking and rethinking some of those notions that we had before, that might be a good day.

These are the issues we talk about with our family because we are a family that does hold different morals, values, ideas. To say to my mother, which is difficult, "Mom, your ideas are very old fashioned," and for her to come back to me and say, "You're right, they are old fashioned; it's hard for me to change, but I'm trying."

I have in some ways retold our story to my mom: “You arrived in this country for many reasons—for a better life, a better existence, better opportunities for your children—but you also came to this country for a sense of openness, and freedom, and a chance for your daughter and your son to be able to mix with, to talk with, to exchange ideas with people of other cultures.” Whether we want to believe it or not, this is still at the basis of our American identity. 

I think it’s very important to have these kinds of conversations at the dinner table all the time so that our children know this is how things change. Little by little we must acknowledge why racism persists. We ask: Who am I friends with? Am I friends with children of color? And if not, why? As parents we question: Why are you not friends with more children of color? Why am I not? Who am I inviting over to dinner? If I haven't extended myself, why not? What is within my culture, within my history, that's preventing me from reaching out? This dinner talk is important and I have the hope for my direct community and whoever I come in contact with that they too will take this up and be able to share these conversations at home. I believe this open family honesty will ebb outward to the larger community.

Having children by my side, I am trying to serve as a role model for them. I'm always very conscious that they're watching me. I think it's more important than ever that I'm very vocal about what I feel, but in a peaceful manner. I don't need to start wars to prove my point. I’m hoping to embark on a discussion, and I think the current state of our administration demonstrates this need for negotiation versus domination.

On poetic and literary forms:
After finishing “Hybrida,” I'm now working on op-ed pieces to support messages in the book. I wrote a Modern Love piece for the New York Times about once hiding my pregnancy from my traditional family and coming to terms with love and its ongoing lessons. This process of sitting with many thoughts after the book’s completion is causing me to think about the other writing genres I can breathe life into.

Poetry reaches people who love poetry, but my hope with “Hybrida” and with subsequent pieces is that poetry doesn't have to be read only by poets or those who study poetry. There can be access if the material and the subjects are current, and if those subjects affect us all right now. They should be able to reach beyond the genre itself. 

Allowing access to writing and poetry is also the work I’m doing as Brooklyn’s Poet Laureate, and it’s tied to my interest in working with children’s literacy. It originally started with my investment in my own children. I love to observe the way their minds function, not only the newness of how they experience the world, but also how incredibly intelligent and honest they are. This gives life to the idea that anybody can understand poetry. If you ask a child about a poem, about pure feeling and not line-by-line interpretation, they will answer immediately. In fact, the whole room will erupt in conversation and you might have to ask them to quiet down for a second and ask for a show of hands. Every child is just bubbling over with thoughts and opinions. 

So where within our educational process do we lose sight of the fact that we have access to poetry, that poetry is our friend, that poetry is really something that's meant for all of us? I am pondering the question, while valuing the genre that I've been studying all these years, of how the messages in “Hybrida” can live in different forms.

This was also the challenge of “Hybrida.” I had many emotions and thoughts about mixed race in America and there was no container for them. The more I tried to work my ideas into traditional poetic forms, the more they had their own energy and wanted to leak out of those shapes. The challenge of the book was to approach hybridity in terms of subject matter and also poetic tradition. While the subjects were weighted, the approach to form was experimental and fun. In that way, the book was telling me what it wanted to be. 

With “Hybrida,” I engaged with forms I had never tried before such as the zuihitsu, which is an ancient Japanese form that translates into “following the brush,” or a stream of consciousness. I first encountered the form when reading Kimiko Hahn's poetry collection “The Narrow Road to the Interior.” I was fascinated with her approach to a poetic structure that seemed so formless, so shapeless, so fragmented, and I was desperately trying to follow her thoughts throughout the book. Sometimes I felt like I got it, sometimes I felt like I was falling off a bicycle, and I was enjoying the experience of not knowing where the poem was leading me. As I studied some of her thoughts about the form, I realized the process matched exactly with the fragmented ways in which my mind was functioning.

What if I didn't contain my ideas? What if I lifted the lid off the box? What would happen? In that way, as a poet, it was frightening for me. But at the same time, it was really enjoyable—it was this joyous fright. 

I was in a place of consistent excitement writing “Hybrida.” I had complex feelings rising in me for my son, who is half Haitian American, half Asian American, as I thought, “How do I raise my boy to be proud of all aspects of his identity?” I wanted him to feel a sense of certainty about where he came from, when that background is incredibly diverse. That's the beauty. How do I relay that? 

At the same time, as a mother raising a boy of color, I was also filled with fear as I felt his vulnerability in a world that may or may not embrace him at every turn. It took me a very long time, many attempts, many years, to think about the aspects of his boyhood that I wanted to include, and the collage-like approach of the zuihitsu helped me. 

And just for fun:

What was the best compliment you’ve received? 
My son recounted the story of how he “chose” me as his mother. He said, “Mom, before I was born I was standing in a big room filled with a lot of women and someone said to me, ‘Choose your mother’ and I chose you.” I said, “There were probably a lot of good mothers to choose from. How did you choose me?” I thought my son would offer a very deep answer about his connection to my soul or how our spirits aligned, etc. He answered, “It was easy. I liked your hair. It was long and shiny.”

 What book, game or movie universe would you most like to live in?
There are two movie universes I’d like to live in and they both involve Maggie Chung. First, I’d like to live in the movie “In the Mood for Love.” I’d like to live in that lighting, the style, the framing, the longing with Tony Leung. I’d like to eat the food, walk down cobblestoned streets, stand in the rain, weep, and walk in slow motion to the most heartbreaking music. I want to live in that tension of possibility, desire. I want to smoke cigarettes and never have to suffer for it. I’d like to dab a handkerchief across my face as Maggie does, but the lingering perspiration is nothing less than sublime.

 The second movie universe I’d like to live in also involves Maggie Chung as Flying Snow and Zhang Ziyi as Moon in the film “Hero.” I’ve re-lived their fight scene in autumn leaves one too many times. I love the control that Flying Snow has as she clearly demonstrates her mastery of restraint set against Moon’s youthful rage. I love the balletic martial arts movements. I remember as a young girl watching kung fu films in Chinatown. This scene is what they call poetic. Everything is poetry to me: the movement and sound of red fabric rustling as they battle in the sky, the calm or severe expressions on Flying Snow and Moon’s faces as they duel, the whistle, fury, and then mournful gestures of trees as the leaves turn from gold to crimson upon Moon’s death. I die a little every time I watch this. I loved this movie so much I dressed my daughter as Flying Snow one year and she loved being a brave Asian American female warrior.

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

To add this important work to your collection, Chang encourages support of local business by ordering it directly from your nearest bookstore, or you can purchase it here.