Hello, fellow Germs, and welcome back to another edition of Belle Lettres. This month’s “Belle” is Marilyn Chin, an award-winning poet, novelist, feminist, and activist. Her poetry draws from her experiences of dealing with a bi-cultural identity, particularly from an Asian American point of view. Her poetry also looks at the complexities of assimilation and being a woman in American society.
Born in 1955 in Hong Kong, Chin and her family moved to Portland, Oregon, when she was a young child. She was born Mei Ling Chin, but her father, who ran a restaurant, insisted on changing her name to Marilyn. In her poem “How I Got That Name: an essay on assimilation,” it’s revealed that the name change was based on her father’s fascination with Marilyn Monroe and his claim that it was necessary for her and her siblings to change their names when they start school. Chin received her B.A. in Chinese Literature from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1977. In 1981, she received her M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Iowa.
Her first book of poetry, Dwarf Bamboo, was released in 1987, and its follow-up, The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty, was released in 1994. Both books explore the themes of assimilation and her feeling caught between her homeland of China and her new home in the United States. Chin’s writing combines personal and political voices — such as in the poem “Composed Near the Bay Bridge,” where the narrator asks, “Isn’t bondage, therefore, a kind of freedom?” Dwarf Bamboo was nominated for the Bay Area Books Reviewers Award, and The Phoenix Gone won the 1994 PEN/Josephine Miles Award.
In a 2004 interview with Asian American Press’ Bryan Thao Worra, Chin said “I always write from my subject position: which is a Chinese American minority poet, born in the Chinese diaspora of Hong Kong…to a poor family…all roads are built from my personal experience.” Chin continued to address her Asian American identity in her third poetry book Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, released in 2003. In the book, Chin focuses on the struggle between her grandparents’ and parents’ world and what life is like through the eyes of a female poet. The title is a nod to the rhapsody of the Han Dynasty.
In the poem “The Half is Almost Gone,” from Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, the narrator reflects on the increasing loss of her Chinese culture and language. The following is an excerpt:
You are Chinese!
My mother was adamant.
You are a Chinese?
My mother was convinced.
Are you not Chinese?
My mother now accepting.
Chin released her first novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, in 2009. The novel draws on references of Chinese tales and ghost stories, and it’s a mix of satirical prose and lyrical metaphors. Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen tells the story of two sisters, Moonie and Mei Ling Wong, who deliver Americanized Chinese food in their neighborhood in Southern California. As they transition from food delivery girls to successful women, Moonie and Mei Ling find themselves grappling with the influence of their Chinese heritage.
Chin has translated two books of poetry: Devil’s Wind: A Thousand Steps or More by Yoshimusu Fozo and The Selected Poems of Ai Qing by Ai Qing. Her work has been included in anthologies, such as The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women and The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry. In 2012, Chin’s poem “The Floral Apron” was chosen by the BBC to represent the nation of Hong Kong during the Summer Olympics. She is currently a professor in the M.F.A. program of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.
Chin released her most recent work of poetry, Hard Love Province, in 2014. Adrienne Rich — a writer and poet who Chin called one of her influences — called her poems “powerful, uncompromised, and unerring.” The poems in Hard Love Province share an overarching theme of love: love for another, for art, for oneself, for social justice, for womanhood, and for sex and sexuality, as well as giving and receiving love. Chin was selected as a poetry finalist for the California Book Award for Hard Love Province in 2014.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Chin said, “When Americans talk about racial politics, they talk about the poles of black and white, where one group may be demonized and one group may be sanctified. I think that we must meet in the gray space in between to find harmony.”
You don’t have to be Asian American to understand the struggle of finding a balance between two identities. Her poetry explores the insecurities, confidences, and complexities of many people who look to belong. In the end, they learn to belong to themselves and to find peace with that.