NICOLE WON HEE MALOOF / TAMMY NGUYEN / JOHN YAU
Moderated and Text by Alison Karasyk
November 3, 2018
Alison Karasyk: I want to begin by asking Tammy and Nicole to speak about how their dialogue that led to this show started, and their process of co-thinking.
Nicole Maloof: I initiated the conversation by bringing the video that’s showing here to Karen, who runs this space. And she got us in touch pretty quickly thereafter. And we met, and I forget where the timeline of the ideas for your paintings came into mind?
Tammy Nguyen: I remember first seeing your video, I think at an event here. And Karen was like, “And I know you’ve done something with a banana before?” And I was like, “How did you know?” She said, “Oh, well, I saw it on Instagram.” The series she was referencing was How to Breathe in Selected Tropics, which was a four-part artist book that I made that was shown at SAIC in Chicago. It included the four chapters of Banana, Hog, Cyclops, and Fans. Fans for helicopters and hogs for pork and fat and delicious things that come out of the tropics. And politicians. And bananas, I was thinking about bananas as being guns and bananas as being phalluses and bananas as also being nutrients.
John Yau: And the racial thing.
TN: And the racial thing, too, the racial slur of being called a banana.
NM: It’s explained in the video.
TN: And so that’s where this all started. From then onward, I continued to think about what that artist book was about, and then developed these paintings.
NM: And then the semester ended and I finally had some free time, and one thing about the video that people—I don't know who’s seen it yet in this room—but it’s a lot of information. It’s sort of like a quick series of diagrams in 13 minutes and there’s sort of no break. And I’ve had friends tell me that they had to watch it multiple times, and they had wished that there could be some moment of pause to kind of contemplate the connections that are being made. So I decided to take the form of etching, also knowing that Tammy’s a printmaker, too. And so I decided to make some works on paper to provide a moment to sit with the relationships in the video. So through printmaking, etching, and engraving specifically, taking what used to be the way in which paintings would proliferate, before you had the internet and photographic means with which to get images out to a wide group of people, across continents.
But video has the proliferation ability within the fabric of its medium. And so I thought it would be kind of cool to subvert that instead, taking video stills, turning them into etchings, to deal more with the slowing down of time. And so those got made in the summer and I sent Tammy some pictures of them. And then things just kept going on their own—our studio making, our art making and our respective studio practices, but we had this contact over time, but minimally. So it’s kind of amazing how everything came into being. I think the things that we’re concerned with, they have a relationship to one another, but we didn’t want our frameworks to get too intertwined in an artificial way. We knew that there was enough connections between our concerns around content that we just trusted that the making process would lend itself to connections being made organically.
JY: I have a question for the both of you—you were talking about the in-between and about not having a kind of pure state in a way that’s reflected in your mediums. And you were talking about how some artists can only be seen politically and some can be seen only normally and that both of you are interested in how to bring these together and obviously through different mediums, so it’s not like this is the medium that works best. So can you talk about that?
TN: Yeah, in-between spaces.
JY: We were talking about that in the taxi
TN: Yeah, about your poems and in-between spaces. I think that in-between spaces, I guess the way that I’ve been thinking about them-
JY: Diasporic spaces, right?
TN: The term that I keep thinking about a lot in my studio these days is confusion, confusion versus curiosity and when I think about the diasporic space and the in-between space, I think about it as a space that’s constantly vibrating with confusion. You can choose to end the confusion by closing the blinds and just going to sleep and you know and that’s fine, but then you can also push forward and the vibration just gets louder and louder and louder as you constantly pursue these very complicated and nuanced spaces of culture and thought and politics and history. When I think about it in regards to painting I’m always trying to think of images that are confident but that simultaneously cancel each other out in terms of the selection of images. So for example, the painting in the back that has “nobody” written across, there is the hand of another feeding the upside down woman with bananas and you can’t help but not think that it’s forced. But at the same time, the woman is eating the banana, and so that type of collision is the kind that I really aspire towards, something pleasurable yet also a little oppressive happening at the same time.
NM: Yeah, that’s sort of the point of the video. You take an object that seems really familiar and going through the different ways in which, maybe we don’t know things that we find to be familiar and easy and simple. And maybe this is going back to the idea of medium. I do think now within the art world it’s a little more acceptable to say I’m an interdisciplinary artist, you’re not just a painter you’re not just a sculptor you’re not just a print maker. People are starting to be ok with artists being many things, but I still think sometimes there is this desire to be defined by one simple thing, and I think that that’s a really dangerous thing to do, also in terms of how we consider our politics right now. You’re either one thing or another and that you can’t go across multiple categories. I think the oversimplification of objects, our understanding of the world, and one another, has great implication for how this world is organized, beyond the scope of art. And so to me, it makes sense in my own practice to use different media because different mediums can do different things. I don’t really create a hierarchy of what I consider myself more of. Yes I draw all the time, and I’m also video editing and I don’t see why those things can’t coexist side by side.
TN: I think that both of our studio practices are whole worlds of our brains and worlds are complicated, but I think that sometimes maybe some of my anxiety and frustration is that I want to send a message that can then blossom into many many things.
JY: You want to send a message?
TN: But that message is way too many words over the twitter limit. And so that becomes the difficulty of understanding artists who work in in-between spaces. You want to get the full thought out and you want your audience to know that there’s this entire universe and all these different materials you’re working through, but you’ve got a mass public to communicate this to and that’s difficult.
AK: I’m interested in hearing you speak about your relationship to painting and layering, and flatness and opacity—elements of your work that generate a material and formal sense of confusion
TN: When I paint I think about, or when I think about painting language and the sort of formal aspects of it, I think a lot about juxtaposing extreme opacity next to extreme degrees of transparency as a way to allude to space.
JY: You should let them know that these are watercolors.
TN: These are watercolor on paper and they’ve been mounted on wood panels.
JY: So you’re opening up the definition of painting in some way right? I mean Asian painting can be seen as just ink on paper, right?
TN: This is true.
JY: Just saying
TN: But I like the juxtaposition of transparency and opacity as a way to imply extreme space as opposed to shaping it incrementally with value or something like that. I don’t really like that challenge.
AK: In thinking about the collapse of space, I’m made to think about the use of the term “two servings” in the exhibition title and and the concept of reflection as well. There’s the mirrored aviator motif occurring in many of your paintings, Tammy, and the use of the split screen throughout much of your video, Nicole. Can you both speak a bit about the role of distortion and what it means to look in and out at the same time?
NM: Yeah I think that’s another strong connection between our work. The video is sort of looking at how things are presented in popular culture and our everyday world, and then there’s a kind of behind-the-scenes narrative that’s happening simultaneously. So the video goes into the process of production in terms of how bananas come into being. At the same time, it addresses how they’re sort of consumed through the idea of nutrition—they’re healthy—but there’s a really bloody history behind how bananas even came to be popular here in the U.S. If you think about it, it’s really strange that a banana is familiar to everyone in this room. They don’t grow here and they’re cheaper than apples, yet apples are grown locally, apples are much hardier than bananas. So how is it that that came to be? There’s the appearance, or the form in which you take them in, and then there’s the actual way in which they come into being. So there’s this ongoing double-ness that happens in my video. And I also really loved that you had the same kind of logic happening with your figures and the aviator glasses.
TN: I’m always thinking about the blaze of history and the blaze of war. I’ve always really liked using glasses and eyes and items that are reflective in painting as a formal way to create another opportunity. A formal way to create a reflection or something you see through or some method of distortion. When I was thinking about creating these Cyclops women, I was thinking about the aviator glasses which are so signature of American soldiers in the global south. When you think of Joe, Joe wears aviators. So I thought what if I just broke that in half and welded it together then like an aviator monocle for a Cyclops. And so when you think about these women, they’re wearing this thing that Joe wears, Joe the soldier. And as they wear the aviator monocle, the things that are reflected in them are the things that Joe brings to them, and so slowly, they start to see through the eyes of the American soldier.
JY: Of the oppressor?
TN: Of the oppressor.
JY: But we were talking about W.E.B Dubois double consciousness being something that we kind of all live in all the time. It’s kind of something you need to read and that double-ness, I mean there’s a part in your video when Beam Crosby sings “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” and I remember seeing that when I was a kid and instantly thinking, what does he mean by white Christmas and then thinking later, where does that thought go at ten years old? I mean it doesn’t just disappear, it kind of comes back and you’re always aware of that use of language having a double edge in many ways. What does it mean?
NM: In the video it’s juxtaposed with a movie about Malcolm X and he’s reading from the dictionary about the definition of white, and so, he goes through the definition and is like wait a second, this was written by white people, wasn’t it? And it’s in the dictionary and so the way in which language presents a natural narrative for how our social order is, and again, why things are told in certain ways that again appear to be natural, just as the fact that a banana is commonplace should appear strange to everyone in this room is not recognized. Just as the same stories that get told over and over again by those in power don’t appear strange when you don’t sense that disconnect. To many in this country, you do sense it and it’s very clear that there is a double-sided-ness and so I feel that in both of our bodies of work, we’re sort of pointing to that idea through what is deeply familiarized and sort of twisted so that it can become clearer to people who are viewing the work. So that even if it’s not your personal experience, one can actually look at the work and start to draw these connections. Through both storytelling and formal composition — I think that we both believe it’s important that this be recognized.
JY: What should be recognized?
NM: The idea that there are stories that proliferate that appear to be natural, universal, when they’re not. They benefit maybe one particular group of people but not everyone and maybe it’s not the universal.
JY: Or even the categories may have been lying from the beginning, right? That separating everything into these quote “categories,” Aristotle — it’s the wrong idea to begin with. Some would say but they were just white guys, well I’m not afraid to say that. I mean I was thinking about when you told the story of being in the taxi in Korea, and the cab driver’s response, this kind of double-ness that happens everywhere, not just here. That he would have a particular view of you having not seen you that you spoke English so perfectly. And then realizing why?
TN: When you were in Beijing did people know you were from America?
JY: Absolutely, by the way I looked. My father was half English, and so whenever I went to a place where they checked your passport, the guard usually just stared at me and then would talk with my wife or the person I was with, and they would have a two minute conversation while the line would be getting longer and longer, and then they’d be kind of laughing about it and then I’d be let through and it was always the same response: He’s Chinese, but he’s not Chinese. And they didn’t quite know what to do with that. Then she would explain “his father was half Chinese, half English” and they would just look at us as if to say, that’s not possible. That does not happen. Particularly because it happened in 1919. They were just perplexed because the Chinese are not known for the their interracial marriages in China.
NM: What about when you were in Vietnam? Because you were there for three years?
TN: I was there for four years. It became less and less obvious by year number four. I was actually thinking about Vietnam a lot this morning before our talk and at the beginning, I was talking lacquer painting at the university in Ho Chi Mihn and we would hang out in the studios all the time. And I remember one night at the beginning of my time there a lot of people wanted to talk about the way I looked. I don’t know, I don’t think I have particularly bigger eyes than other Vietnamese but it was just something that people liked talking about. And somebody just slammed their beer down and was like, “well you know, when you grow a banana tree in Vietnam and then you take that banana and you plant it in America, it’s gonna taste different!” And I remember thinking that just summed it up in a nutshell.
NM: That’s so funny, because I had the opposite experience — I lived in Korea for two years on the teaching fellowship and Koreans and Westerners alike insisted that I was Korean. I had white people in Korea tell me how good my English was and I was like, “You can hear the American accent, you should know when you hear your people… I sound like you guys!” But it was very strange that Koreans would insist, I’d say no, I’m American, and they’d tell me “no, but your heart is Korean. We don’t understand how you could not be Korean. But it was that my presence as a package was uncanny to them because in their brain I was categorized as a Korean but then what came out of my mouth was like a three year old’s Korean, with a heavy verbal confusion disability. It was clear that I even made children uncomfortable. I was so scared of not using the conjugation where you’re talking up to people and so I didn’t want to accidentally sound disrespectful to the teachers that I worked with. So I would add “yo” to the end of my words. But I did that with children too and they were just like you cannot. They took me aside and said, “you cannot talk to us like we’re your boss, this is so awkward. You can’t talk to dogs like that, you can’t talk to pets, you can’t talk to children like they employ you. You can’t do this, this is so horrible for us. Please remove the ‘yo”’from the ends of your words.”
JY: That’s the whole thing about language. I lived in Chinatown in New York in the seventies and after two years of going to this store every night, the same guy looks up at me as if somehow I’m a new person and says “Are you Chinese?” and he then said “do you speak Cantonese?” and when I said “no,” he said, “you’re not Chinese.”
My mother is from Shanghai and thought Cantonese was not Chinese and she’d say “oh Cantonese, I don’t understand it.” And when we’d go to a Chinese restaurant, she would write down everything that she wanted because she couldn’t speak Cantonese and then complain about how bad Cantonese was, it was just a total embarrassment. So you just feel like language is so deeply impregnated with all sorts of assumptions and and how it’s supposed to be spoken etcetera etcetera etcetera and it becomes a kind of construct that traps us and then we have to figure out our ways through how to negotiate.
TN: There’s another term in Vietnamese that I still struggle with, I’m Vietnamese-American and that’s fine and well in English but in Vietnam there’s another term called “Viet Kieu.” There’s multiple definitions of it, but the one that I frequently use is for people who were in Vietnam, left because of the war, and then came back. And so because I was Vietnamese-American, then a lot of times other Vietnamese people would regard me as “Viet Kieu” but I was always really uncomfortable with that because I didn’t flee a war and so that was something that I always grappled with because I don’t have the memory of war and that makes me a different banana. So it’s just one of those little subtleties where you won’t align me right if you consider me someone who has a memory of war.
JY: Right, it’s a category you don’t belong in and the categories are so wrong-headed. I think that’s what I was talking about with Edouard Glissant saying creolization. We can make something new, why follow the categories that exist or even make up a category? Anything that’s static is going to be wrong in the end.
NM: International adoption in Korea happened because of the Korean War. You had all these babies who were sort of a product of U.S. soldiers and Korea was left a war-torn country after. No one could take care of these babies, so missionaries came in and said they’d find a home for them. And so, international adoption in Korea has a direct tie to the heart and to international pain so it was weird because I was just sort of this walking object of national pain and so the same thing would happen in these taxi cab rides. I would speak Korean, I wouldn’t have to say much, just where I was going and they would just say “Why didn’t your parents teach you Korean?” They were confused. And then I’d have to say that I grew up in the U.S. and Korean has the same word, which is “Kyopo,” a Korean person that moved but you’re still Korean. You’re still more Korean than whatever place you went to and so then they would say, “but your parents surely must of... if they were good people, they would have taught you Korean.” And then I’d have to say “well I was adopted” and that’s when the tears would start. Because it was this direct almost efficient route to the get to the Korean War and the idea of the splitting of family. And so then they’d ask if I’d searched for my family and I’d say yes, I found my mother and then just all sorts of tears, so many cab rides where this would happen. It was just strange, my literal self was a very quick shorthand symbol for what had happened to Korea in the fifties. It was very strange to sort of take on that emotional burden because I didn’t know that this was going to happen. I just arrived in Korea very excited to learn Korean and eat the food and all these things, and then suddenly I was like oh my god I can’t because I couldn’t hide my accent, my very strong American accent on my Korean. So I had to be confronted and roll with it every single time it happened, which got easier.
AK: You’re making me think about the relationship between language and myth — larger frameworks that are such important parts of both of your bodies of work.
JY: And it’s not directly autobiographical, as we were talking about earlier, there’s this emphasis — if you’re Asian, you’re supposed to write about your grandmother and railroads or whatever. And it’s like, no, why do I have to do that? But somehow it’s still informed by it without being transparently autobiographical — a category that I rejected.
NM: I have a science background, so for me to reference science in my work is autobiographical. But sometimes that gets denied because people want to see my autobiography through purely a racial lens and that can be really frustrating and limiting when I want to explore other things that have a deep connection to my personal history. I consider science to be one of those things.
TN: With one of my really close friends and colleagues, I co-taught a course last year called Cannibalism 101.
JY: A food course.
TN It was a philosophy course. And we were coming up with literature, because the class was really about cannibalism as a way to critique capitalism. And we came across Book 9. We knew about Book 9 already, but then we re-read it together.
JY: Book 9 of The Odyssey.
TN: Sorry, Book 9 of The Odyssey, where Odysseus tricks Polyphemus into thinking that Odysseus’ name is Nobody. But prior to this, Polyphemus, this wild savage, according to some translations, picked up one of Odysseus’ men and ate him.
JY: Two men.
TN: Two men, yeah. And I just thought that trick was so slick. I fell in love with this trick.
JY: When Polyphemus asks him his name, he said “My name is Nobody.” Then when he blinds Polyphemus. Polyphemus is screaming and the other Cyclops say, what’s going on? He says, “Nobody has hurt me.” And so of course they don’t come to his rescue.
TN: And I thought that was so clever. And I kept thinking about it… what are other situations where one would trick you into saying something that would cancel out your cry for help? And then as I began reflecting on that, I was thinking a lot about colonialism, which is already part of the bedrock of my family history and what I’m thinking about in my studio practice.
AK: Because you so often work in bookmaking, Tammy, Book 9 and its series of events makes me think about sequencing versus non-sequencing. When one enters the gallery the story that your paintings tell is not entirely clear. And it’s same with your etchings, Nicole, they are stills, breaking down the the connective threads in your video into isolated moments of pause. Within the space of the exhibition as a whole, there is no precise order and yet, there are distinct narratives being communicated. How does this factor of reading influence your respective practices?
TN: I’m always thinking about how to tell a story and the question that I also ask is, how do people read? Reading from page to page isn’t always the way that one reads now. A lot of people read by scrolling, tapping, or maybe by looking at advertisements on a subway. There are many different modes of reading. And when I make artist books they always open in unconventional ways. Secret pockets, pages that don’t turn quite right. And I think about painting in the same way. Where you have a cyclical relationship to time in that you stand in the gallery, and you are surrounded by paintings. You choose the order of how you want to see them or not see them, right? And so I guess that’s how I’m thinking about narrative in painting. You’ve got a very exciting and complicated playground with the audience, where there are very pointed and specific stories that I’m telling, in each frame. But because of the serendipity of who sees your paintings and how, I’m excited by that unexpected order of logic that will come with the audience.
NM: And even though the etchings are basically direct video stills from the video which has an order to it, it also plays on loop in the gallery. And it is really a sort of a proliferation of these connections that happens. The etchings are more just a moment of rest, and a moment to actually trigger the memory of having watched the video. Almost like a grounding point, then, from which to think about a series of diagrams that flashes before your eyes. A seed to remember how these connections came about, without necessarily having to remember what happened during a particular point in time.
TN: How do you think about that, actually? Because you’re a writer of many forms. But there’s going to be a first word and a last word, right? So there’s an implied order, maybe. Or an implied sense of time. How do you think about time and reading when you’ve switched from looking at paintings to writing poetry?
JY: I’ve been obsessed with a form called a pantoum.
TN: What’s that?
JY: It’s a poem in which every line is used twice. And the first and third line are repeated in a specific order at the end. So it just kind of goes like this.
TN: Like Row, Row, Row Your Boat?
NM: Does the meaning change?
JY: If you use the same line twice, and the meaning doesn’t change, then you’re going to bore somebody.
NM: That’s true.
JY: So how do you make it change in relationship to the line it comes before and after? I’ve been obsessing over this form for about ten years. I just would do it as a kind of writing practice. You know how some people practice the piano, doing the scales. My practice was writing a pantoum. I wrote hundreds of them, and they were all horrible.
TN: What first brought you to them?
JY: It’s a poem that John Ashberry had in his first book. He derived it from Gautier , and I believe it’s based on an Indonesian song form. So it became a way to play around with how words and language change. And I’m really interested in what happens if you use words that sound alike, but mean different things, or puns. I wrote a series of sonnets called Opinion Sonnets. I took the word “opinion” and changed it to “o-pinyin,” as in “pinyin” being the English version of Chinese. So then it’s like two words in one. That strikes me as double hearing. You hear something and it means something else to you. And then I got into this really ugly space in those poems.
TN: In one of your Opinion Sonnet poems in the second line there are these Chinese names, like Wong and Song and Tong and I like this friction between a slur and an observation. It’s extremely in-between and those words are so oral.
JY: Right and the poem is about the fact that Asians in movies are often props that are killed off early on so that they can get onto the real story and that they don’t really have to have a name. So I was making up names for them because they didn’t have them. I’m thinking of science fiction movies and how they’re always killed off at the beginning so they don’t have to develop a character. if you know the story of the actress Chloe Bennet who changed her name from Chloe Wang and started getting jobs. So there’s a lot of that, which I’m kind of aware of partly through my daughter, who is seventeen. She sees what’s happening in terms of representation of Asians in movies. Scarlett Johansson getting to play what should be a Japanese role and she’s just kind of horrified. Her hyperconsciousness has influenced my writing in some way.
AK: Tammy, why didn’t you paint Odysseus?
TN: We’re Odysseus. I think. John asked me that last week and I think we are Odysseus looking at them but then there’s those purple people, they could be Odysseus too. I think they’re Odysseus’s men and we are Odysseus.
AK: Hearing you bring up the purple people makes me want to hear from you both about color. It’s such an important part of your video, Nicole, in thinking about the concepts of the stroop effect and color constancy. I’m also thinking about the kind of paper that you work with, Tammy, and the tricks that you’re both engaging with through playfully subverting the viewer’s relationship to color.
NM: Yeah, I guess I’m entering color through a psychological framework.This was actually the second video, the first failed and I had to throw that one away. It was aimed towards thinking about color and its relationship to racial discourse. I’d read some texts and thought it could be an interesting idea to go there and it didn’t turn out very well but then through the research, I learned that there’s phenomena that happen in our brains. One is color constancy, the idea that when you’re under sunlight versus fluorescent lights, the literal hue will change, but your brain recognizes that its not actually changed color which is kind of crazy. Literally, the information that your eyes are receiving is different, but there’s something in your brain, if you know that your shirt is not going to change color, it will just accept that. Then the next was the stroop effect – you’re asked to name the color of the word but it’s a word that names a color that doesn’t match and it takes a few seconds, longer than you would think, to name the color of the words. These two things, color constancy and the stroop test, are sort of aimed at de-familiarizing your own vision because I do think we all understand our vision and our relationship to color but it’s quite a complex system, our visual system, and so it’s infected by things like knowledge.
The better you know an object, the quicker color constancy is going to kick in. And that’s actually how I came to the banana – it was more that I read a bunch of papers and there was one where they’d wrapped the texture of different fruits around the corresponding shape -- an apple, an orange and a banana. It showed that the the more telling the texture was, there were more cues to recognize what the fruit was and so the effect was more pronounced or, it was much faster, so the way that I edit video is very much the way that I draw – it’s very intuitive. People think, oh video editing, you write the script and then you shoot it and then you edit it That’s not how I work. It’s usually the research and the script writing and the editing happening together so when I start a project I never know when it’s going to end. So this project actually started as a color project and then took on all this other meaning as I got deeper into the research about bananas, about sight, and about the ways in which bananas enter our lives in the everyday. So really color was the foundation from which I started.
TN: When I started these paintings I was looking at a lot of images and thinking about every time the sky would light pink after a storm. I would try my hardest to remember those interactions and I was also looking at a lot of images of hurricanes and the aftermath of hurricanes and noting how greens and blues show up. When I set out to do a series of paintings, I have a pretty controlled painting environment so that I can kind of play later on, however, everything is pre-selected and premixed and these are my limits. The limits are vast, there’s like twenty colors, it’s not like there’s four.
These paintings actually all started on bright fluorescent orange paper, so all the moments of orange that you see are actually just areas that have not been painted. That was how I wanted to heat the paintings, heat them with the light of the sky after a storm, but color is also simultaneously symbolic for me. Years ago I remember talking to a friend about Kerry James Marshall’s paintings and I think somewhere in an interview he talked about painting black people into his paintings and thereby painting black people into the history of painting. But as some of you might know or many of you might know, the color that he paints a lot of his figures is so black and I was thinking about about how beautiful and expansive that was, the simultaneity of color being this very seductive thing and also very political at the same time. I did wonder if I could do the same with the color yellow because yellow is different, obviously its politics are vastly different, but as a color sometimes it is light, sometimes it is the sun, sometimes it is gold, it’s so many different things. And so I was thinking about the color of this Cyclops and it took a couple of tries to mix the right – I guess ochre – so that it would read as skin but not quite — it would read as global south. It wouldn’t read as say, East Asia, Vietnam or the Philippines or Tonga or Fiji and so it took a couple of tries but I was thinking about that duality, what color would be poetic optically and also poetic in its politics.
JY: Right and you were mentioning the poetics of politics. How do you put the two together?
NM: And then how do you talk about it?
JY: And then how do you talk about it? I think it’s very hard to talk about. When you think about how to put it together, you do all the time, but I think it’s really hard to theorize because you can’t always think this is how you do it and then follow that way. I think it’s really different theorizing it than in the 60s, for example, when it was theorized by different groups as this is how you did it, you have to tell the story of your people, my reaction in the 70s to Asian American poetry was that I didn’t want to tell the story of my people because being of mixed marriage, mixed racially, what people would I tell the story of? I kind of reacted against that, but for a lot of Asian American poets, it’s like you’re not white in the right way, and I think that’s something I’ve always been conscious of too. I don’t want to theorize that, I want to discover it and I feel like that’s what happens in your work. You discover it work by work and project by project and it kind of changes – I don’t feel like there’s a constancy to whatever it is you’re getting at, which I think makes it difficult for mainstream societies, like if you don’t give them a product, they reject you.
NM: Maybe that’s where the difficulty is. I asked John earlier about how it seems like now political art is in now because of the last election. But before that, I felt like political art was not okay, not as cool, and so no matter what it was that you were making, if any politics were present, that was the only thing that people would want to talk about and not any of the formal aspects of the work, what was working and what was not working in line with the concept that was being addressed. So it seems like before we can’t talk about the formal or poetry at all because it was just heavily criticized for its content and now sort of post-election, everyone is making political art or claiming to. We can’t talk about how the work is operating formally or poetically because again the emphasis is on content, but for a completely different reason. So I was just curious if there was a way, because I don’t think there should be a prescribed way, in which to melt or merge these things together. It would just be nice to be able to talk about the work in its entirety.
JY: I’m interested in discomfort and how you deal with the sort of discomfort of something you’ve experienced or know about without pointing a finger, without saying you’re a victim, without holding someone else accountable. Could I bring the reader to that uncomfortable space through purely them hearing the sound of a word and without saying you’re responsible? They’re not, right? They’re reading it. So I can tell you that I’ve read some of these poems to an all Asian American audience and there’s no response.
JY: I might as well have been a corpse. It was really unnerving. Does that mean I’m successful or unsuccessful?
NM: Right, did you strike a nerve?
JY: I feel like I have to deal with that and accept it, but it’s something that I’m quite conscious of. I want to kind of deal with the discomfort because I feel like most of us experience levels of discomfort every day… it could be because of our gender, or sexual identity and then in this certain way that language is used, somehow we’re going to bump into it and it’s going to make us go uuuuhhhh right? So how do you bring that.. that’s not the only thing I want to do, but it is something I want to do. How do you kind of bring it into the work and let it just sit there for the viewer or reader to experience? I guess one way I’ve thought about it a lot is puns, words that mean two things and how do I bring that into being.
NM: I’m into puns.
JY: I think that’s because you’re alienated from language in some way and also though I don’t know many of you, there’s probably some special person you met in high school who made puns all the time, like everything he said, and you realized how amazingly deeply anti-social that person was. He’s trying to make everybody laugh but he’s really a pissed off human being and I’m not that person, but I identify with that person. It’s like he never heard you, he only heard what he could turn it into. And then you realize, oh, this man is so alienating, and so estranged, and human discourse, you know, and that estrangement interested me, that you can exist in a world, speak this language, and then be so deeply cut off. Right? And then to think that humans can be that cut off from each other should give us a clue as to how fucked up we’ve become, I think.
TN: Yesterday I was talking to a friend about a pathway to redemption and retribution. We were talking about the different movements that have been happening – #metoo, and various protests and we were talking about how in some ways the problem of showing your morality as your first card, you know you can’t do that, that’s wrong, you can’t say that, that’s wrong, and how after you use that card, there’s no way the other cards can compete with that card you know. And we were talking about these in-between spaces as well and at the end of the night we joked and had a laugh and said well we’ll never get caught because no one’s going to figure out what we’re talking about. But I think that was kind of the sadness but also the joy of this in-between space, it’s that there are a lot of things that aren’t righteous and are actually just really fucked up but you there’s a part of you that wants to share that story to many many people, but unless you can get into the weeds with one of us then it just won’t happen.
JY: On Christmas once I went out with a Turkish artist and we went to a Muslim restaurant and all they did was tell anti-Christian anti-Christmas jokes, it was like they were testing me, let’s see how anti-Christmas our joke can be and is this man sitting with us going to laugh? And it was pretty great because I had to get over a kind of initial discomfort and it wasn’t meant meanly there was just a kind of humor about it and I thought ok, I’m going to stay and hang out with this artist and her friends but it was really like you suddenly see, oh the world is so multiple and with so little exchange on some level, and that was really striking to me.