The Heart’s Traffic, Arktoi Books/ Red Hen Press, 2009.
Ching-In Chen is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a Kundiman Fellow. She has been a community organizer in the Asian American communities of San Francisco, Oakland and Boston and currently lives in Riverside, California, where she is in the MFA program at the University of California at Riverside.
The Heart’s Traffic is subtitled “a novel in poems,” though it’s quite the unconventional novel given the range of forms (from the zuihitsu to the sestina, from syllabics to a prose interview, from forms that owe a debt to such innovative poets as Harryette Mullen to forms that are clearly Ching-In Chen’s own poetic experimentation at work). But the book always comes back to “a riddle.” There are nine of these riddles, whose titles are phonetic variations (e.g. “cool Li,” “cruelty,” “gruel, tea”) on “Coolie,” as in the Chinese railroad workers. In any case, the book is constantly in a state of transformation or reinvention, mirroring the immigrant experience, but also the coming-of-age, the changes of heart, and the ways people respond differently to other environments or other people. The dust never settles on a tone or even a character, though there is the dominant protagonist Xiaomei. The labor in reading this book is intense. What was the experience like in imagining such a complicated structure and putting it together? What were some of the most challenging forms in the book? And why the riddle as a connecting tissue?
I didn’t have a complicated structure worked out ahead of time when I began writing The Heart’s Traffic. I didn’t even know that this was going to be a book! I arrived at my first writing residency with a group of 30 “assignments” from my writing group and used one assignment to jumpstart my writing each day, with only my writerly obsessions guiding me. After writing that first set of poems, I knew that something (or rather, someone – my main character, Xiaomei) had surfaced that I wanted to follow. For me, the writing process was an organic one of learning and discovery, which is why this may be mirrored in the reader’s experience of these poems.
As someone who had mostly written in free verse before writing this book, I was pleasantly surprised that the structure of the poetic forms I chose to write in helped anchor me when the emotional content of the story was overwhelming. I’m naturally drawn to hybrid forms like the zuihitsu and the haibun so the stricter forms (like the sestina, villanelle, crown of sevens or ghazal) were more challenging for me. I wrote a double sestina because people told me it was an impossible form and I shouldn’t even bother. I thought, why not? Let me see what it can bring to this story. I guess that was the rebellious poet in me. I discovered that it was the perfect form for the coded fragments and secret notes that Xiaomei and Sparrow pass back and forth to each other.
I intentionally wanted to draw from the multiple worlds I existed in, which meant including the Western forms I was introduced to (and sometimes forcefed) in high school to Eastern forms introduced to me through reading Asian American poets like Kimiko Hahn to forms invented by other American poets of color introduced to me by teachers like Maiana Minahal, Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Cornelius Eady.
The use of the riddles as poetic form also came from this impulse to draw from the world around me, and not just what we recognize as poetry in a traditional sense. I was searching for some way to link Xiaomei to the larger community she was entering, with all its attendant and complex histories, but also to acknowledge that Xiaomei changes this community by entering it. I wanted to play with that idea of how everything in our lives shifts and transforms as we grow, or as we encounter other ideas that bump up against what we already hold true. While I was writing the middle section of the book where Xiaomei is in transition as both a new immigrant and someone who has just lost her best friend, I read Li-Young Lee’s The Winged Seed: A Remembrance, which incorporates riddles into these long poetic and obsessive passages about Lee’s father. This triggered my memory about long car rides where my family told riddles to pass the time and being forced to learn Chinese riddles in Chinese school.
Besides Xiaomei, a second figure that plays an important role in the book is Sparrow. These two young women are like sisters or twins, binary opposites and complements whose relationship is shattered by their separation. Xiaomei comes to America and is sensitive to her outsider status, unsettled by “Chinaman” jump rope rhymes, by her father’s comfortable assimilation. Xiaomei’s unhappiness bleeds into her language and her dreamscape. Meanwhile, Sparrow soars out of reach, her fate uncertain. In the end, nothing escapes critique: the book takes to task Orientalism, the trappings of the American dream, cultural displacement, and even the rage of self-loathing. Is there hope for innocent victims (like Xiaomei and Sparrow) of the unstoppable migration currents? How is survival possible and why is poetry the most appropriate avenue to communicate this journey?
I see this story as a survival story, particularly one of how a queer immigrant girl like Xiaomei learns how to navigate her life in a way that makes sense to her. Though this book explores the relationships that Xiaomei has with others, the central journey is how Xiaomei makes it on her own in the various worlds she moves through and how she loves herself. Xiaomei loses Sparrow and can never get her relationship with Sparrow back, but she gains other experiences and memories as she continues to move in the world.
Poetry allows me the flexibility to play in multiple voices, to shift the narrative in a way other forms wouldn’t have. Some of these poems are like songs, some like sculpture, some like history reports, some like chants at a political rally. Juan Felipe Herrera says that poetry is the broadest, most inclusive form of writing because it holds the possibility to incorporate it all. This makes sense to me as someone who collects fragments from everyday life and incorporates it into the stream of writing poetry. What other form allows me that kind of freedom, which is necessary to survival?
Though there is a strong political and linguistic charge in the book, the love poem or the expression of longing for love occupies a large space in The Heart’s Traffic. It’s a desire that’s without nation or identity, and yet there’s a strong sense that these words of affection (and lust) is communication between women. Or is that even a consideration in a book with shifting planes, landscapes and hybridities? Is sexuality one of these changing variables also?
Xiaomei’s journey is in part an exploration and constant learning about her sexuality, which is transforming throughout the book (as I think it is for most of us throughout our lives, no matter how we identify our sexual orientation). I see Xiaomei and Sparrow as twins or shadow selves – and the haunting by Xiaomei of Sparrow is perhaps also a type of nostalgic longing for herself, the self she has already and is always leaving behind.