Friday, March 29th, 2013
9th Annual Symposium on Wildness, Wilderness & the Environmental Imagination: The Future of Water
Interview by Nick Bogdanich
Wang Ping is the author of over ten books of poetry and prose. She is the recipient of the Loft Literary Center 2009 McKnight Artist Fellowship Award for Writers, the winner of the Minnesota Book Awards (2008), and the Book Award from the Association for Asian American Studies (2007). See more at http://www.wangping.com.
In March, Flyway’s Assistant Fiction Editor, Nick Bogdanich had the chance to sit down with Wang Pin who was in town for Iowa State University’s Symposium on Wildness, Wilderness, and the Creative Imagination.
Flyway: As a writer of poetry who often employs dialogue and a writer of prose who often waxes lyrical, the line between the two genres seems particularly blurry in your case Mrs. Ping. I wonder if you could tell us how you find that one genre informs the other. Or at what point in drafting a story do you usually figure out what genre the story is trying to be?
WP: I usually let the form of the story decide the form. When I have some idea and when I have some raw materials, I often take long walks. As I walk I use the rhythm to take me to where it needs to be and very often, also I let dreams take me. So often the form for poetry, for a poem, is decided in between the sleep and the waking. Like today I wrote a poem called Of Mice and Men, and I’m semi-waking up and the poem just started writing the first stanza. When I woke up I knew, I’m writing this today. As for form, because I write poetry, I also write prose and fiction, short stories; sometimes it surprises me.
In my last book, The Last Communist Virgin, (it’s a novella actually, it’s a fifty page story), when I started writing the story I wanted no more than ten pages, for that story, and then it just expanded and expanded into fifty pages. Then, the manuscript I’ve been working on for the last ten years is the same thing; I wanted to write it as a short story but it turned into a five hundred page manuscript. Every time I complete it, I destroy it and start anew. So this is my fifth version. Even when a big time agent from New York really liked that manuscript and wanted to publish it, he wanted me to do some minor tweaks. And I just couldn’t do it. I destroyed it. Started completely new. So just like a story, a poem has its own voice and personality and very often, I just have to follow.
Flyway: Your stories cover some pretty difficult subject matter: racism, rape, abortion. In one of your poems, Distilled Spirit, we catch a glimpse of the poet speaker discussing her work with a professor. The professor says, and I’m paraphrasing, “people are going to read what you write as personal stories if you write in “she” or “I.” Especially as a Chinese immigrant who writes about Chinese immigrants, how do you guard against people reading your fiction as non-fiction?
WP: People come to me all the time and say, “I’m so sorry you went through this.” And my book agent, always wanted me to write, to turn my story into non-fiction. When I told people, I said maybe they are ten percent factual. The others are all historical and emotional truths, which I think is much more truthful than just day-to-day autobiographical accounts. Often life is so dramatic that it becomes melodrama. If you just write down as it is, it’s not truthful. It appears fake. And so people get really nervous. They often feel cheated. They say, “I cried all these tears for you for nothing?” I say, “no it’s not true; you know these things may have happened to me and to my friends, to the generation, to immigrants even more.” When you cry, you’re not just crying for me, you’re crying for all the people who have gone through this. That’s why I’m writing this, because if I just write about myself, it’s a very small world, but if I allow myself to go through the pain and joy of millions of other people than my world is expanded a million times larger. And that’s the task for a writer and poet. You cannot just write for yourself. You have to write through the voice of others. Those who do not have access. That’s how you create this kind of vibration and energy that make connections with other people. They call it resonance. People say I can connect with this person, I can connect with this poem, I can connect with this book. That’s that bridging ability as a poet and a writer, but, meanwhile, as a writer, when I write about other peoples’ stories, and I turn their story into my own story, I always ask myself this question: what right do I have to write their story? And I always come to this conclusion because I have suffered, because I’ve gone through so many things, because I know pain, because I did not run away from pain. I go through pain and I turn the pain into something positive. That is my connection, my bridge into other peoples’ pain. That’s my license to write for other people.
Flyway: You spoke about that ratio: you said ten percent true ninety percent untrue. A lot of writers talk about putting their lives on stage or mining their experiences or relationships for fictive material. Would you say that ratio generally holds true? How much personal truth in fiction do you think is too much?
WP:I don’t know if it’s too much or not too much. Everyone is different. I can only speak for myself. I use my personal experience or emotion as a kind of springboard to dive into that ocean. Writing is often like standing on the cliff. It’s terrifying to jump in. And standing from the familiar ground, your personal story, is often a very easy and comforting and necessary springboard for you to dive into that. I think everyone, every writer, should start with the familiar ground. Then you get into this vast ocean and just play.
Flyway: Place is obviously very important to you and it is to your characters as well. They make pariahs of themselves and even risk death in order to preserve their ties with home. And yet these characters are often abroad. Yesterday we met at the Casey property to discuss your Kinship of Rivers program where you’ll actually be paddling the Mississippi and Yangtze with a fiction class. What is it with your own experiences being abroad that you’re trying to pass along to your students through this trip? Is there something about traveling that makes us focus on home?
WP: As an immigrant, home definitely is an extremely important and constant theme, and dreams, consciousness and unconsciousness, in the psyche. I think it’s also becoming the psyche for all the modern contemporary people. Can you tell me where’s your home, really? In the past, the Chinese people all said Old Home, which is your ancestor’s home. My ancestor’s home is in the north part of China and I never went there. I was born in Shanghai in the south and I grew up on the island. I’ve never been to my ancestor’s home. But that notion that I am part of the ancestral land, really settles me, gives me a kind of roots, it’s our roots. That root is just so difficult now and really exists only in the linguistic, in our dreams, in our writing, in our words. So it’s more important for us to become much more conscious and constantly go back and examine ourselves and the concept of home because I do believe we came out of dust, the earth. We do need to put our feet, as roots into the earth, no matter how far we try to get away from the earth. Taking my students paddling in the river is really to bring them back to nature, which is our roots. We’re so disconnected with nature, with the water, with the land, with the woods. Once I bring them back into the nature, into the river, I immediately bring them back into the past history, and the living history. For example, the Minnesota River is the living history of Minnesota. That’s the white settlers conflict with Native Americans. 1862’s Conflict, Little Crow’s Uprising, and the famous Mancato Massacre that Lincoln ordered to hang about 200 Dakota men. No one knows about that. But it’s really the most infamous massacre. And also there’s the Trail of Tears. After the uprising was defeated by the federal army, all the Dakota people were exiled out of Minnesota. But all the conflict is really, if you think about it, the root of capitalism, and all the conflict between white and Native Americans, it’s all about the home, it’s about the land. This concept is so deep and in our psyche. As writers we really have to dig into that and otherwise we just skip the surface. In my teaching I really challenge students; we do all kinds of things: going paddling in the river, meditation, even some whirling movements and tai chi movements: to open up because we’re all so closed. If you want to be a good writer, you have to open up, to become vulnerable first.
Flyway: Speaking about the Mississippi and the Yangtze, they come up recurrently in your fiction. About these two rivers, characteristically, is there something about them you find similar or worth comparison?
WP: Of course. It’s all about the cradle of civilization. Agricultural, cultural, hydraulic dams, all these things. And also New Orleans and Shanghai both are sinking. In the pretty near future, both cities could be under water. It’s all really interesting. But, the main thing is not really a comparison. The main thing is really to link all the water system because all the water, the earth is one body of water. All the water is linked one way or another through underground network, through rivers, through the ocean. The water just wants to flow into the river. And the rivers just want to flow into the ocean. It’s just their nature.