Rita Wong's new book, forage, is now available from Nightwood Editions. Her first book of poetry Monkeypuzzle (Press Gang 1998) won the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop Emerging Writer Award. She has published prose works and poems in Parser (2007), Shift and Switch: New Canadian Poetry (Mercury 2006), Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literatures in English (Oxford, 2006), Ribsauce: a CD/Anthology of Words by Women (Véhicule 2001), The Common Sky: Canadian Writers Against the War (Three Squares 2003), and Swallowing Clouds: An Anthology of Chinese-Canadian Poetry (Arsenal Pulp 1999), and more. She teaches in the Critical + Cultural Studies program at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and is also a visiting instructor at the University of Miami.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
After the book was published, I went on a tour called Writers for Change with four other writers—Ashok Mathur, Tamai Kobayashi, David Odhiambo and Rajinderpal S. Pal. Organized by Larissa Lai, the tour was a great experience; we visited schools and various venues from Vancouver all the way to the Black Cultural Centre in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. It was a wonderful experience that helped me to better appreciate how writing is both fed by and gives back to many different communities. The readings and talks that have come about because of the book have balanced my introvert tendencies by reminding me of how much there is to learn and enjoy in public interactions.
2 - How long have you lived in Vancouver, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I moved to the unceded Coast Salish lands known as Vancouver to enter the Archival Studies program at UBC in 1994, and ended up staying. I feel strongly connected to both Calgary and Vancouver. When I moved here, part of Vancouver’s attraction was the existence of groups like the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop and feminist publications like Kinesis (which sadly closed down in 2001). My first book was published by Press Gang, a feminist press whose loss I mourn.
Apart from being grateful for the work of feminists, socialists, environmentalistis, and anti-racist activists (and more) who came before me and make my work possible, I am interested in thinking about the ways in which race, gender, and class continue to work in taken-for-granted or normalized ways, and how examining this can challenge power imbalances. Language, perception, and action are all intertwined; race or gender or class are lenses through which to analyse our assumptions and our desires. They are part of a larger picture that I am increasingly thinking about in terms of relationship to land, older cultures and what it might mean to decolonize in this day and age.
The artist Mike Macdonald once quoted an elder, who said the crime in this land was not just that indigenous peoples had their language and culture beaten out of them in residential schools, but that the people who came here did not adopt the culture of the land (in Revisions, Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1992). I feel I will spend the rest of my life trying to learn and articulate the culture of this land. While race and gender are social mechanisms that have been used to divide and conquer (Komagata Maru, Chinese Head Tax, Japanese Canadian internment being historical examples that come readily to mind), focusing on what it means to be a steward of the land, and respectfully learning from the wealth of diverse work produced by indigenous writers and artists is a huge influence on my work.
3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem can begin with a feeling, a word, a sound, an experience, an intuition. I tend to write short bits that accumulate over time. There are recurring obsessions and themes, though they are not always conscious when I begin writing.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Public speaking did not come easily to me, but it is a way to contribute to a larger conversation, and when I’ve taken the risk to speak up, I’ve been happily surprised and grateful when people in the audience share their responses and knowledge.
5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I want to understand what it means to act ethically in a globalized world. For instance, as someone who relies heavily on computers, I am implicated in the degradation and eventual destruction of ecosystems (mining for coltan, for instance), and I am also related to the labour of people whom I may never meet, but who nonetheless help make my work and my life possible. How do I reconcile my intent (to work toward peace and social justice) with my consumption patterns as a citizen in North America? Writing offers a space to explore these difficult, uncomfortable questions, and the form that such writing takes may also be uncomfortable, but I hope that the reading, research, thinking and feeling that I do will be useful to readers who struggle with these questions. This struggle is hard, but it is also hopeful. Delving into our contradictions involves both terror and courage, and a constant querying of the relations between writing and other forms of action. What shifts in consciousness and behaviour are needed for us to co-exist peacefully with each other and other life forms? We are living in the midst of a mass extinction, a rapidly degrading ecosystem and a warming planet; how we respond to this crisis is a question that pushes me to keep reading, writing and talking. While the problems are serious and daunting, the knowledge and wisdom of many thinkers, writers, and activists is also inspiring (Winona Laduke, Linda Hogan, Joy Harjo, Jeannette Armstrong, Lee Maracle, Vandana Shiva, Dionne Brand, Maude Barlow, and many more, come to mind—I can’t give up when there are so many people doing amazing, compelling work).
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
For my first book, I was very fortunate that Claire Harris agreed to act as an editor. Working with her and Barbara Kuhne (at Press Gang) was a pleasure and an honour, as I reflect back on that process.
7 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
I packed a Bosch pear in my lunch sometime back in the fall (October? The semester is a blur now), one I purchased at the Granville Island Market. When I can, I buy my fruit from the farmer’s markets. I love to eat local!
8 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I’m not sure it’s the best advice, but here’s a recent piece of advice from Rob Brezsny’s horoscope site, which I occasionally turn to for fun and relaxation:
"Dear Rob: Here are my New Year's resolutions. (1) I vow to Siamese-twin together my bad-ass, no-hype, wide-eyed self with my tricky, strategic, puzzle-loving self. (2) I vow to rage on like a dancing warrior in the urban wilderness, keeping peak experiences and total slaphappy victory at the top of my priority list, while at the same time I play hide-and-seek with the dark delicious secrets that fuel my soul's lust for wicked meaning. (3) I vow to deepen the collaborative efforts of my suck-out-the-marrow-and-spit-out-the-bones craziness and my listen-carefully-to-the-flow-of-the-underground-river caginess. -Double Intense Scorpio." Dear Double Intense: Scorpios everywhere will benefit from hearing your resolutions, which is why I've made them 2008's first horoscope.
Gotta laugh and not take myself too seriously sometimes, to balance the hard, serious work. There’s hope and survival in multiple perspectives.
9 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Both are ways of thinking out loud in a way that can integrate emotion, body, spirit, and creativity. I like to move around as a writer and reader. The appeal is to give back even a little of what I have been given as a reader. I sometimes say that reading saved my life. I mean it.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a predictable routine, but I admire people who do. During the school term, I don’t get much writing done because I have a heavy course load. In the summers, I would ideally have all day to read and write, but of course, all kinds of activities intervene. I snatch moments to write and scribble regardless of the season, but have more such moments in the summers.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read, read, read. Language inspires. Walking, trying new activities, having time to daydream, talking with friends, watching movies, going to concerts. Meditation. Trips to special places, such as the visiting of old growth forest facilitated by the Utsam (Witness) program which ran for ten years, in which the Squamish Nation generously shared their wild spirit places with urban folks like me. Their work is helping to preserve these endangered spaces, and that is inspiring.
12 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
Both books have anger, protest, and bewilderment in them, but also joy, love, and humour at times, I hope. Forage continues the process of questioning that led me to write monkeypuzzle. In some ways forage is more experimental in form than my first book, and at times I feel caught between different kinds of readers.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Yes, to all of the above: nature, art, music, science, and more.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
See questions 5, 16, and 18; I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction as well as poetry. I also want to acknowledge how mentors and writers like Fred Wah, SKY Lee, Roy Miki, Lee Maracle, Jam. Ismail, and Lydia Kwa, have made my writing possible. I could go on forever about writers who matter to me: Hiromi Goto, Larissa Lai, Ashok Mathur, Walter K. Lew, Marie Annharte Baker, Nalo Hopkinson, Audre Lorde, Chrystos, Wayde Compton, Roger Farr, Jeff Derksen, Ken Belford, Rob Budde, Si Transken, Louis Cabri, Weyman Chan, Juliana Spahr, David Chariandy, Richard Van Camp, Garry Gottfriedson, Anne Stone, Jacqueline Turner, Phinder Dulai, Garry Morse, and that’s just off the top of my head in no particular order, with many more still missing. The bibliography at the back of forage is also a good place to start. In terms of writing, I also want to acknowledge the importance of dialogues fostered in journals like West Coast Line (edited by Glen Lowry, Michael Barnholden, and others), XCP (edited by Mark Nowak), and more.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
That’s a secret – I don’t want to jinx it.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
If I was to start all over again, I wish I could have studied botany. I want to learn more about the ecosystems around me and how they relate to other places in the world—it feels like urgent and necessary knowledge that also happens to be fascinating. Reading books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Linda Hogan’s Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, Janine Benyus’s Biomimicry has me thinking this way.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I love reading and writing, and I followed my heart. This involves good fortune, privilege, and responsibility.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just finished reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which was recommended to me by Wayde Compton [see his 12 or 20 here]. I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction (as you can see if you look at the bibliography at the back of forage), and the images he brings together in this book are going to stay with me for the rest of my life: the North Pacific Gyre, a huge and growing island of plastic garbage that I think will increasingly impact oceanic ecosystems, the Korean DMZ (demilitarized zone) that is full of landmines and empty of people so that birds and wild animals have taken shelter there, among others.
Bing Ai, a documentary of a woman who refuses to leave her village area even though it has been submerged by the Three Gorges Dam. Her love of the land and her courage is really inspiring.
19 - What are you currently working on?
One, a collaborative poem with Larissa Lai on water. I also hope to teach a course on water next year, and am doing research on that now.
Two, I’m still very involved in exploring the obsessions that forage materializes. I think Walt Whitman spent his whole life writing (and re-writing) one book; I could easily see myself doing that, writing and writing, and someday narrowing/widening it all into one book.