LoReLi alumnus Kassy Lee returns to talk about her recently published chapbook, The Period of Warring States. There is so much to say about the work (and the socio-political context behind it) we’ve decided to break the conversation into two parts and post them separately. Part I of the interview follows a poem from the collection.
IN THE AIR
Win-Win Thinking! plastered on the posters. The Party manipulates
the pollution clouds into stories suitable for children. Back in my home
country, another unarmed black child is murdered by police.
It’s neither here nor there. I have to explain, “I’m Barack Obama
black, no darker,” for the English tutoring company to hire me.
My student asks me if there are clean rivers in America
where kids can swim. He asks
why do the police not like the Africa people in America? If I were a America kid
I wouldn’t play with Nerf guns outside because sometimes the police will kill
you. Maybe the police not like the Africa people. Well, I think the Africa people
are pretty nice.
I just say
Me too. And it’s African people, not the Africa people.
I get a week off from tutoring for
The Seventieth Anniversary of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression
and Global Fascism!
Military men line Tiananmen Square as Uncle Xi waves, his body
pressing through the car’s moon roof like a needle in the back
of a black cat. The point of the parade is to say they’ll never
be humiliated again. After the military procession, I take selfies
near the military tanks with Lucy. Uncaged doves mean
peace, or at least they mean we’re not white and dead yet.
A week later, four policemen come to the capital to swallow
poison to protest corruption in their provincial city. Their final
breaths must mean uncaged doves. Nobody has taken such
measures to protest in America, or at least there are no such reports.
It’s neither here nor there. A story suitable for a child starts with
win-win thinking and ends in uncaged doves and the freedom
of a black cat. Perhaps I will also die on concrete
which will make me feel humiliated. To think all
of us used to be buried the same way: we’d rest
in the earth as the trees breathed us into air.
DE: First, I wanted to ask you about the title.
KL: The phrase initially comes from this period of Chinese history known as the Period of Warring States. This era was before the Chinese empire was unified under the first dynasty. This occurred thousands of years ago, slightly after when Confucius was around. There were many tiny little kingdoms fighting for power. There’s a lot of back story to that particular historical time, but I wanted to play with this idea of states fighting one another. I wanted to take that idea and extrapolate it into the future. My question was: ‘What if the United States broke apart and became states warring one against another? Shutting off state lines like they’re national borders.’ I liked that idea of the play between this time period in Chinese history and the prospect of the American future. I thought it was a cool phrase to work with.
DE: And do you feel we’re getting to that point in the United States?
KL: No, I don’t. But this project was a quote unquote “fun” thought project for me. I was reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower where the breakdown of the United States is a central plot point. I was living in China when all these movements were happening in the United States that were new and different. Black Lives Matter had just started when I moved here. When I first came on the scene in Beijing there was so much racial tension. In response to Black Lives Matter, some people would say things like, “All lives matter,” and I was like, “Ugh.” I really disagree with the impulse to say All Lives Matter because it doesn’t take into account that the murder of black men by the state is the problem we’re addressing when we say Black Lives Matter. We’re just saying that it is unacceptable how many black men are murdered by the police and then the police who perpetrated the murder is acquitted. So that whole tension was starting when I was here. Trump was on the down low and getting more and more support. Every time it seemed like he was closer to becoming president, I was like “I don’t believe this is happening.” I saw most of the recent presidential race happening from China and it just seemed so absurd and I couldn’t understand what was going on. In the same way, I wanted to take the absurdity of the Trump campaign to the next level and say “Well what if America doesn’t stay together as a nation?” Keep in mind, I wrote all the work in these poems between the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2016. Another realization I had due to living in China is the brevity of American history. The history of America as a nation is so short in comparison to China, but we like to think of America as so stable. We like to think as if the United States of America has always been here and always will be here. But in the course of history, America history goes by in a blink in the eye. So I wanted to problematize the idea of the inevitability of America.
DE: Do you see this as a work of science fiction?
KL: I would say it’s speculative fiction more than science fiction because there’s no need for technology that doesn’t exist already for this to happen. It’s supposed to be set in the future.
DE: One or two of the poems had a post-apocalyptic feel. Something about tearing apart the Statue of Liberty for scrap metal?
KL: Yeah. There’s definitely a climate change/natural disaster narrative in a way where I think if we did develop into warring states it would be over access to resources, which is what happens in the Octavia Butler book that I used as the epigraph. So that idea is present. Climate change might make it really come down to “we need these resources, we don’t have them, we need to fight for them.”
DE: I’m curious about the process of selecting poems. Were all of the poems written specifically for this chapbook? Or did you choose a bunch and curate them together? How did you go about it?
KL: This project was seeded in my brain in 2014. When I first moved to China there were three major police murders that happened in America. They were the murders of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown all back to back to back. Those murders were weighing on me heavily. Then the Black Lives Matter movement started. I thought the movement was really positive and necessary. Also, Trump was running for president—I can’t believe he’s president. The terrible Republican primaries had just started. I was living in China and I was trying to express my feeling of being abroad while this stuff was going on in my country. There was also the weirdness of being in a place like China. I was thinking about all of these different forces of politics, nation and history. I was writing a lot about those themes, and I was also writing about my romantic and platonic relationships with other people in China. I wrote about the role of race here in Beijing. I was working with Chinese kids in my job, and I found the perspective of Chinese kids really interesting. I learned a lot from my friends from different countries, and we talked about politics from a more global standpoint than I had in the United States prior to moving here. So by the time I left China I seriously had around 70 pages of poetry. I wouldn’t even call it all poetry necessarily, some of it was very “Dear Diary.” While I lived here, I was going to Spittoon’s monthly poetry night every month, and I was trying to write new stuff to read there every month. I had this idea for a chapbook in my brain. I knew I was going to write this chapbook. But I wasn’t holding myself accountable to putting it all together into a coherent narrative, I just had the concept seeded in my brain. So when I left China in December of 2015 I had all this poetry, and I planned to edit it and put it all together. I edited the first draft by July of that year, submitted it a press that year and got denied. Then I gave it to my friends Simon and Kelly who both work on the Spittoon Literary Magazine. So they did some heavy edits that really helped me. Then I submitted to some more presses. And Another New Calligraphy press (ANC) responded and said he wanted to publish it like three days after I sent it to him.
DE: Love at first sight.
KL: My first chapbook was published by dancing girl press and it came out a full year after I submitted it. But ANC published it really quickly. I was really honored and humbled by that. When I came to culling the 70 pages down I also had to add some more poems to follow the narrative I was trying to create. So I added some sections. I added Lucy as a character in the thread. So I definitely did more to create some connective tissue between the poems. But all the poems were written in China and edited after.
DE: And who is Lucy? I wondered, when I was reading, whether she was a real person.
KL: Who is Lucy!
DE: Who is Lucy?!
KL: So Lucy is interesting. I’ve always had strong female friendships and connections, romantic relationships as well. So I wanted Lucy to toe this line between…is she a lover? Is she a friend? Who is this Lucy? Also, there are some poems that are just about random Beijing relationships and I put Lucy into some of those scenarios as well. So for me Lucy is like an ode to deep female friendships and the role of that in my life, both romantic and platonic. She’s not white. She’s Asian-American.
DE: I did wonder if Lucy was Chinese.
KL: She’s Chinese-American. That’s why I chose the name Lucy, because it’s a very common Chinese-American name.
DE: I like the fact that she’s kind of this invisible friend/advisor.
KL: Yeah, I wanted her to be more connected to China than I was. But at the same time I also wanted her to be American and also have a sense that this is a strange place. I also sent an earlier draft of the chapbook to my friend and she said “this is too straight.” So, okay, I’ll add more queer elements. The book has changed a lot. It’s also very racial too because I think in Beijing you get into more interracial relationships or like dating interracially and sometimes that brings race to the forefront. For me there was a lot of processing to do around interracial dating. So I wanted to have this element of cross-cultural female friendship that is very intense, very important to both the women.
DE: There’s one poem where you’re applying for a job and you say, “I’m Barack Obama black, no darker.” If you look in the Beijinger, you’ll see job postings for “English teacher wanted, Caucasian only” are pretty ubiquitous. So I wondered if Barack Obama was like a color you’d select out of the Crayola box or if the meaning was more cultural, to say “I’m normal, not too exotic.”
KL: I wish I had been clever enough to come up with that phrase, but it actually came from an English Center one of my friends worked at. And it just means, “If you’re darker than Barack Obama, you’re too black to work here.” And that pervasive—I don’t want to call it racism, because I think racism has more to do with white supremacy and power, things that are particular not only to America, but particular to certain countries that have a history of colonialism that is slightly different than China. But Chinese people, for whatever reasons historically, both from colonialism and from Chinese history nowadays have certain views of black people that are very negative.
DE: My understanding is that China borrowed some of its racial ideas from European thinkers.
KL: Yeah, exactly. The history of colonialism is vibrant across the world, unfortunately. I read this really good book in college called Drawing the Color Line, and it was talking about how it wasn’t just by accident that all these countries developed racism, it was actually a deliberate borrowing of policies between different countries. For example Australia looked at the Chinese Exclusion Act from America to learn how they could also stop Chinese immigration.
KL: I also read Langston Hughes’ journals. When he spent time in Shanghai in the 1930’s, one of the things he said was “It’s amazing how white people can draw the color line even against people in their own country.” For example, these European colonists were being racist against Chinese people even though you’re a guest in China. They segregated and excluded them. He has an interesting time where he goes into the Chinese neighborhoods of Shanghai, even though the white people warn him not to because it’s supposedly not safe.
But he goes and finds the Chinese people treat him way better than these white colonists living in Shanghai. So that’s part of the history of China as well. Also, American media isn’t very friendly towards black people. You’ll show a picture of a black person to a Chinese kid and ask what their job is and they’ll say he’s a basketball player. There are certain roles they think black people can fill—basketball player or thug, basically.
DE: Which is maybe how the US thinks as well? So it could be a distilled version of our national stereotypes.
KL: Well, but in the US you can have black friends, real life black friends, so you know that that’s not the case. But when you look at our media, it’s still unfortunately very much like “You are a thug or a basketball player.” That or you’re constantly dealing with “being black.” It’s so rare to have a show about black people where you don’t have to talk about race all the time. There’s not a lot of narratives where a black person just does normal things that white people do like fall in love or struggle with aging. Even though it is important to have media about racial identity, there’s not enough media about black people to show the complexity of blackness.
DE: How would you compare racial prejudice in the US versus in China?
KL: In the US, we were founded as a white supremacist state. In a way our Constitution outlines white supremacy and says a slave is worth 3/5 of a human being, slavery is legal, slaves are property, slaves are not people. So that’s the founding of our country. So everything in the US, all of our laws, are based on that founding. Our neighborhoods, our schools, our healthcare. Every little thing you can think about in America is changed by white supremacy. As well as settler genocide (the genocide of Native Americans) that was also very much tied in. And I almost view those two strains almost as “this is what America’s about.” I know a lot of people were surprised by Trump. A lot of good Democrats were so shocked and surprised, but I was like, I told you, white supremacy is real. It’s not made up. And it infuses everything. So, America is a racial state. I like this joke by Hari Kondabolu He says, “Being obsessed with race in America is like being obsessed with swimming while you’re drowning.” So that’s kind of how I view life in America. In China, I don’t know that much about their racial history or even if race is a useful term here. There are different ethnicities, that’s for sure, but I’m not sure the logic of race necessarily applies here.
DE: I just mean in your personal experience.
KL: In my experience? I don’t know that much about Chinese history. I’ve read books by foreigners about China, but I don’t want to speak to why China is the way it is. I’ve experienced more just like clueless racism. Like this person saw this racial stereotype on TV so they think this is the truth. There’s a legacy of colonialism here in China as well, but not it’s not as thorough as countries like India for example or South Africa, where there’s a very distinct caste system. In China it’s very different. When people do racist things here, I don’t think of it as being as historically implicated as I do in the United States.
Kassy Lee is a poet living in Beijing. Her most recent chapbook, The Period of Warring States was published by Another New Calligraphy press in 2017, and her first chapbook zombia, was published by dancing girl press in 2014. Her poems have been featured in Perigee, Spittoon Literary Magazine, and the Columbia Review.