Interview with Muriel Leung on Imagine Us, The Swarm

Muriel Leung’s latest book, Imagine Us, The Swarm is now out with Nightboat Books! In this edition of Sticky Fingers, Editor in Chief Dorothy Chan talks with Leung about this stunning collection.

Dorothy Chan: Muriel, Imagine Us, The Swarm is an incredibly stunning book. I’m obsessed with this line from the opening section, “This is to Live Several Lives”: “To write a book is to write into a future and I am not ready.” Wow. I feel that this line also sets the stage for how time is presented in this collection: nonlinearly. Which then makes me think about the relationship between nonlinear time and sequencing in this collection. Along with white space. They all seem to work symbiotically together—could you talk about this? 

Muriel Leung: So much of Imagine Us, The Swarm is about time travel for me—moving between past, present, and alterations of time to create a different future. The book opens with “This is to live several lives,” which moves through the past, specifically the ways in which my father’s history is interwoven with mine, and the inextricable nature of our bond means that I inherit what he has seen, felt, and carried in his body too. Each essay-in-verse to follow explores the ramifications of this inherited trauma, the various ways in which they continue to show up, amplified by the persistent forces of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism that I continue to encounter daily. I would like to think that the book is about how time allows for the pain and hurt we have inherited to transform, that this travel through time is a way to rectify what previous generations in my family could not resolve in their time. 

Regarding the white space, it feels like a natural output of the essay-in-verse form, in which the essay is taken apart and rendered into poetic fragments. The white space communicates what exists in between, itself a passage of time. White space not as what cannot be said, but that in moving through time, we cannot reassemble what has already come apart into the image of what it was, but we can at least come into greater understanding of the ways in which memory is frayed, what still haunts us, and what deserves a different life.

DC: I want to talk about water. I’m also obsessed with the numerous definitions and symbolism of water in literature. I think about these lines a lot: “In one delicate swoop, the water of my life / can fall—each splatter, a new pattern I cannot escape,” from the second section, “The Plural Circuits of Tell.” This symbolism of water, along with its physicality of “can fall” works together with the footnotes in this powerful hybridity. I feel all these layers. 

I then connect this to “Life of a Drowning,” especially the quote of how “our lungs are 90 percent water…” and “French immunologist James Benveniste says that water is capable of memory…” I’d love to discuss the meaning of water in this collection, along with any influences of the symbolism of water from literature (or other media in general). 

ML: In Imagine Us, The Swarm, I wrote about my father swimming to Hong Kong during one of the great migrations to the then British occupied city during the Cultural Revolution. It was a journey that I later learned several other family members made, a crossing that was very dangerous at the time and punishable by death. My father was caught and sent to work at a labor camp, an experience that he only spoke of once to me. I imagine it was a harrowing and traumatic time. I’ve always gotten the sense that my family insisted everyone become good swimmers for this reason. 

I’ve tried to swim for the longest time, and I have always thought that my affinity for water would help make the learning easier. However, to float, one has to relinquish the body to the water, and that is something I can never seem to do. I don’t feel like the water has conquered me though; merely, I am at its mercy.

When it comes to literary references of water that I am constantly returning to, I think of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, how Hamlet’s constant spurning of her drove her to madness. I’ve always interpreted her madness as the embodiment of the bloodshed and tragedy surrounding her, how feminized bodies easily become the container for men’s violence. In her case, it was the violence of her beloved committed against her father, her beloved’s persistent vengeance, at the cost of her life and sanity. The circumstances surrounding her death have been widely debated, but I think one interpretation is that she chose a different course of action than anyone else in her vicinity. There would be no end to the bloodshed around her, and so, she opted out—she drowned herself. In the context of this story, her suicide was a means of communicating what existed in secrecy around her. In a space where her agency was constantly countered, she found a way out before she could be further witness to the bloodshed around her.

I know this reference is grim, but I think about Ophelia often in the water, what it means to be the container for the truth. She is often thought of as a weak character, but she also possesses knowledge of what transpires around her. There’s immense power in that.

DC: I admire so many ekphrastic elements of your work. For example, in the section, “I Marvel At the Noises A More Perfect Vengeance Makes,” we get this amazing triptych structure in the piece, “Geum-Ja is sorry three times:” This is then coupled with the visual elements of your poetry. How do you look at the interplay between form(s) and the visual?

ML: Firstly, I love Lady Vengeance. I watched that film 15 times in a row one summer to write the section, “I Marvel at the Noises a More Perfect Vengeance Makes.” The essay-in-verse moves between Geum-Ja’s narrative and my own, seeing something of my experiences mirrored in the protagonist’s drive for vengeance. Geum-Ja’s vengeance is notably excessive, overdone, and elaborate, but there is a reason behind this meticulous planning—her rage is endless, and so, the vengeance must match its ferocity. In the writing of this essay-in-verse, I thought about how violation has informed my life in much the safe way Geum-Ja is haunted by the harms done against her. To be locked into the story of that violation for years that it becomes a vital part of your identity.

I want the essay-in-verse to show the parallel between Geum-Ja’s interior voice and my own, how the seeking of justice is not excessive in itself, but that we should be asking why we seek justice in the first place. It is because the world is not just and continues to operate against the best interests of those most marginalized. Do we continue to abide by a system that keeps us locked in our trauma then? We have to find an alternative way. 

DC: Femme, in my opinion (and probably so many others) is one of the most beautiful words. I love it when it appears. I also love this line especially: “But my queerest self, buckling against the frame, is something other.” I feel like this line is such a “camera focused” moment on the speaker—it’s very heightened and powerful. 

I know this is a very broad question, but how do you look at queerness and poetry? 

ML: Queerness is an evolving part of my identity where every time I think I’m about to arrive, something has already changed. It reminds me of the capaciousness of a life, the various ways in which it can unfold beyond the cis-heteronormative script. That very much informs my poetics, which is the belief that form and language can take infinite shapes, that they are possibility-filled. 

I remember coming out to myself when I was younger and realizing that everything is about to change. The knowledge wasn’t chaotic at all—I loved and desired who I loved and desired, and that was that. It was the rest of the world that was hostile. And I think that instilled in me a certain confidence in myself, that no matter what the world said, I knew who I was. This sense of fortification is something that certainly makes its way into my poetry. I know in my gut what I have to say, what feels missing, what needs to be there. I write towards it, knowing that even as I’m about to arrive, I’ve already changed.

DC: I really connect with all the Hong Kong history / familial Hong Kong history present in your beautiful collection. My parents are from Hong Kong—we try to visit my mother’s side of the family every year. The literary scene there is so much different—it seems that many students are looking for more outlets for creativity. But then I think about the long history of poetry within Chinese culture. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this (sorry, I know this is another very broad question)! 

ML: My parents’ families are descended from various parts of the Guangdong province of China, and most of my mother’s family migrated to Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution to escape persecution. There’s a fraught history between mainland China and Hong Kong, for my family and for inhabitants of both places, especially with Hong Kong’s autonomy in relationship to China after British occupation. I know this has deeply shaped my family’s relationship to Hong Kong, even now, just as it continues to shape the people in Hong Kong and its diasporic communities today.

That said, I think it’s impossible to think about Hong Kong without mention of its political landscape. I think of Henry Leung’s Goddess of Democracy (Omnidawn), which is about the Umbrella protests in Hong Kong in 2014. I remember very well Henry’s documentation of those protests while he was there on his Fulbright, thinking that it is impossible to be in Hong Kong as a poet at the time and not write about what is happening. I also think of the work of Wawa or Lo Mei Wa, whose poem “維多利亞港天台建國/Rooftop Nation of Victoria Harbour” we published in Apogee Journal as part of our #NoDAPL folio. For Wawa, there’s a parallel between the struggle for indigenous rights in the Americas and what is taking place in Hong Kong. Although Wawa has shared in an interview that she feels the message of the poem is “naïve,” I think it expresses a hope for a different future for the people of Hong Kong.

I think it’s important to highlight the decolonial activism that still persists in Hong Kong today, so I want to spotlight the writing in Lausan, an online journal that features political writing about major issues affecting Hong Kongers today from a leftist perspective. 

DC: Can you tell us about your upcoming projects? We’re such big fans of your work here at Honey.

ML: Thank you! I’m currently working on two projects: 1) an essay collection that explores the relationship between Asian American writing and hybrid genre work. The essays are a hybrid, moving between memoir, critical theory, and historical account, circling the question of why Asian American writers turn to hybrid genres and forms, how the blurring of genre and form lines speak volumes about where Asian American identity is headed. 2) A short story collection, “How to Fall in Love in a Time of Unnamable Disaster,” which follows multiple generations of Chinese American ghosts during an acid rainstorm that falls over New York City.

In the meantime, I’m still promoting and doing events for Imagine Us, The Swarm. To learn more about upcoming events, I hope folks can follow me on Instagram or Twitter at @murmurshewrote.

About Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is the author of Imagine Us, The Swarm (Nightboat Books), Bone Confetti (Noemi Press), and Images Seen to Images Felt (Antenna) in collaboration with artist Kristine Thompson. A Pushcart Prize nominated writer, her writing can be found in The Baffler, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, and others.

She is a recipient of fellowships to Kundiman, VONA/Voices Workshop and the Community of Writers. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Gold Line Press and the Poetry Co-Editor of Apogee Journal. She also co-hosts The Blood-Jet Writing Hour Podcast with Rachelle Cruz and MT Vallarta. She is a member of Miresa Collective, a feminist speakers bureau.

Currently, she is an Andrew W. Mellon Humanities in a Digital World fellow at the University of Southern California where she is completing her PhD in Creative Writing and Literature. She is from Queens, NY.