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A Quick Chat with Paisley Rekdal
An author interview by David Remy

Paisley Rekdal

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Selected poetry by Paisley Rekdal

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The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee (US Edition)

A Crash of Rhinos (US Edition)

[For readers unfamiliar with Paisley Rekdal’s poetry, a selection is available in our on-line library]

At twenty-nine, Paisley Rekdal is already a writer who expresses herself eloquently in more than one literary form. Her first volume of poetry, A Crash of Rhinos, was published in October 2000 by the University of Georgia Press. That same month Pantheon published The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In, a memoir which addresses many of the cultural paradoxes Rekdal encounters as a result of being half Chinese and half Norwegian. “The Myth of My Family’s Laundromat,” an essay adapted from that book, appeared in the July 16, 2000 edition of the New York Times Magazine. Rekdal was recently chosen as one of The Village Voice’s eight Writers on the Verge.

I spoke with Paisley Rekdal as she prepared to move from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, to Laramie, Wyoming, where she will begin a teaching job this fall. Though stacks of boxes can be found throughout the one-bedroom apartment in various heights and configurations, a bookcase lined with volumes of poetry and fiction stands to one side of her desk, secluding it from the rest of the living area. Above the desk is a framed parchment with Chinese calligraphy that tells the story of two dedicated but poor scholars who, because they had run out of money to buy candles, could not pursue their studies. One scholar remedies the problem by collecting a jar of fireflies and placing it on his desk. The other moves his desk closer to the window so that the snow reflects moonlight onto the pages of his book. Additional examples of Chinese art can be found hanging on the wall; they will be the last thing the movers take with them. Rekdal pours each of us a cup of ginger tea as the interview begins.

INTERVIEWER: Your mother’s Chinese and your father’s Norwegian, so how did you get the name Paisley?

PAISLEY REKDAL: I know. I know. What can you do? I’ve been asking for years, but they don’t have a good explanation for it. My mom just thought it was pretty. I do have a Chinese name, Wei-ying, which means “intelligent, elegant lady.” All the Chinese of a certain generation in my family have the same beginning: Wei. So all of my cousins are Wei-something: Wei-ying, Wei-ling. I don’t know why my mom wanted to name me Paisley. If I had been a boy, my dad would have named me Rufus!

INTERVIEWER: One of the many paradoxes you chronicle in The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee is that, throughout your travels in Korea and Japan, everyone identifies you as American. It’s almost as though your Chinese heritage is purposely ignored.

PAISLEY REKDAL: Completely. Which is what surprised me when I was in China because I would find that people assumed I was Chinese. In other parts of Asia, such as Korea and Japan, you can sort of say, “Oh, there is a typically Japanese or a typically Korean appearance.” But in China you really couldn’t say that because you see how racially mixed the people are. There are people in China called the Uighur [pronounced weeger] who live in the far western province and look Turkish or Russian mixed with Chinese. I became fascinated with the Uighur as a child once my parents bought me a book about them and I realized that they looked just like me. I’ve wanted to see them ever since. I tried to make it over there, but to get from Beijing to the Uighur province by train is about a week’s journey.

INTERVIEWER: In A Crash of Rhinos you describe an experiment scientists conducted to determine what would be the most attractive face. If I understand you correctly, you believe that physical appearance, as much as race, determines one’s ethnicity.

PAISLEY REKDAL: At least in America—or almost anywhere else in the world. I got that quote from Time or Newsweek many, many years ago. They had this cover story about what really makes a person attractive, and their main point was that it is a completely symmetrical face. So they said, Well, what is the most symmetrical face? And they took all of these different races and measured them for symmetry. Then they started to combine them in this computer, which basically shuffled them all together until they got something that looked like the ultimate pan-ethnic face: dusky skin and this very round face with slightly almond eyes. And I thought, Well, when is that century going to come up? because my friends and myself would certainly fit into that idea of attractiveness. But it was also interesting to me because they had to combine all of these different races to come up with something that doesn’t look like any particular race. So how do we categorize it? Would the person’s race matter anymore? They didn’t even talk about how race would play into attractiveness.

INTERVIEWER: The focus was on appearance only?

PAISLEY REKDAL: Yeah, as if we could ignore how race has historically defined our ideas of attractiveness. But everything in my experience has told me that people are still attracted mainly to white features, a white beauty type. Desire still tends to be tied to ethnicity.

INTERVIEWER: In your memoir you relate an episode with one of your Japanese hosts, a girl who, though your facial features closely resemble hers, insists upon identifying you as American. She makes the point that certain hallmarks of a cultural identity can’t be imitated. She even goes so far to say that, because your mother is American, she can’t speak Chinese.

PAISLEY REKDAL: Yeah. And I couldn’t tell how much her translation is correct—I assume she’s a much more sophisticated thinker than that. On the other hand, I wonder if that is the mind-set that a lot of Asian immigrants originally had when they got to America; that once you get to America your point is to assimilate. That’s the way my grandmother acts. You don’t talk about Chinese things unless you are with other Chinese family members, but when you are outside, among strangers, you are an American. It’s hard to generalize, but it makes me wonder whether this was part of Fumiko’s mind-set, accepting the fact of nationality over ethnicity. But it’s easy for her to say this because she was—and is—Japanese in Japan, so she wasn’t conflicted about how to define herself.

INTERVIEWER: That’s an interesting point, one you address in an essay published recently in the New York Times Magazine which examines how people emigrating to America need to create a mythology to assimilate. Two of the myths which instill your memoir with a sense of personal history would be your mother’s encounter with Bruce Lee and how your grandfather acquired the laundromat.

PAISLEY REKDAL: When the average person thinks about the Chinese American experience, our Chinese American cultural symbols, he might think of Bruce Lee, railroads, and laundromats. And I’m sure if I dug hard enough, I could come up with a railroad story from my family too! I think there must be an equivalent in other cultures. The Jewish American experience must involve the Holocaust at some point, for instance. The Irish Americans had to deal with religious discrimination.

INTERVIEWER: — Or some other misfortune, like the potato famine.

PAISLEY REKDAL: Exactly. There is no way that you can get away from these stories. Someone has to either resuscitate or invent them. Really, I think every single ethnic group has this in common. In fact, every individual has this story. I mean, Catholics have certain ideas about what it is to be Catholic, whether those ideas are true or not, so perhaps capturing the actual truth doesn’t matter as much as trying to capture the emotional truth. I am half Chinese American, third generation. I speak English. I am completely assimilated in all the ways we assume assimilation to happen, but I don’t look the same as my white friends. I don’t feel the same. I can be obliterated or ignored by the general populace. How do I make myself an identity that gives me something I can recognize as true about me: that I am not exactly like every other American; that I am assimilated and yet different. I think people often feel that if they don’t look like the dominant culture then they are automatically at the fringes of it. And I think that a lot of the mythmaking that goes along with these feelings is self-protective.

INTERVIEWER: Is that why your mother came up with the story of the laundromat?

PAISLEY REKDAL: She was mad when that Times piece came out, which I didn’t expect.

INTERVIEWER: Before we go further, we should say that your mother is “honesty incarnate.”

PAISLEY REKDAL: She is a good woman, yes. She is a very complicated woman, too, I think. My Aunt Ruby once said to her, “You know, your father has a very, very dark side to him.” And my mother never knew what that meant. I still don’t know what that means either, whether it meant that he was involved in tong activities, was violent occasionally, or once had been a drinker. No one seems to know what that dark side was about, but Aunt Ruby stated it like it was a known fact, which must have haunted my mom. I think it would haunt any child who felt like she understood her parent and then one day was told by a relative, “Oh, but don’t you remember your father’s strange behavior?” Suddenly, this child’s left with another personality or identity she needs to create in order to reconcile her ideas about her father. I don’t think my mother just made it all up, however. I’m sure she did hear something about a laundromat, something about a Japanese man, and pieced it together.

INTERVIEWER: Japanese Americans were interned in camps shortly after the United States entered World War II, so Mr. Y had to act quickly if he wanted to save his business.

PAISLEY REKDAL: He sells the laundromat to my grandfather for a dollar, who gives it back with a dollar twenty years later when Mr. Y shows up, completely unrecognizable, with his son. All of these incredible little details—none of which, apparently, are true. My grandfather actually bought the laundry from a Chinese man.

But the other reason I think that this story might have flourished has nothing to do with my mother. It has more to do with someone like me and my grandmother Irene (Ilene in the book) and my father. The people I heard the story from originally were the white members of my family who had spoken to my mother many years ago. And so part of it could also have been embellished by them, which again goes back to what people assume are symbols of the Asian American experience: laundromats, Bruce Lee, and railroads. This story would be a perfect Tom Hanks movie in some ways, you know, the sort of ethnic bonding together under adverse circumstances and the message of hope. I mean, if you know anything about the Asian American community, there was no great love between Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans in the beginning.

INTERVIEWER: During the war many Chinese placed signs in their shop windows to distinguish themselves from the Japanese.

PAISLEY REKDAL: Right, because the Japanese were the enemy, but the Chinese were suffering for it as well.

INTERVIEWER: Is it because “They all look alike”?

PAISLEY REKDAL: Yeah, “They all look alike.” When I was in high school there was this thing called the Wah Mee massacre in Seattle where several Vietnamese youths walked into a gambling club called Wah Mee and shot the place up. At the time, the authorities thought it was a racial incident or a tong incident, but in the end they said it was just a burglary gone wrong. But, needless to say, it was Vietnamese killing Chinese. And I grew up hearing my grandmother’s stories about Filipinos, the “niggers” of Asia. There is this very, very strong interethnic conflict that the older Asian American generation faced. People who understand that find the laundromat story appealing because it’s about Asian Americans getting along together and assimilating into American life.

INTERVIEWER: Certainly, part of your own mythmaking is this book.

PAISLEY REKDAL: Oh, definitely.

INTERVIEWER: However, in the poem “Joe Louis and the War Effort, or How My Grandfather Acquired the Laundromat” you tell the story differently. Your grandfather is not as magnanimous a figure as you depict him in the memoir.

PAISLEY REKDAL: Exactly. I have to say right now, however, that I wrote the poem many years before I knew that this story was false. In fact, I wanted to take the poem out of the collection because I knew that it was a lie. But if I did, it would have taken out a large section of the book! [Laughter] But then I thought, well, you know, it is interesting.

INTERVIEWER: Your version of the story entertains more than one motive for the sale.

PAISLEY REKDAL: I liked the idea of preserving the lie for my child. If my child were to read both versions, it would be interesting to say, “Look, frankly this is what I want to believe, that poem.” I am interested in the moral ambiguity of the man who has this dark side to him who may want to cheat the Japanese American out of his business. That, to me, is the really interesting thing, the moral ambiguity of this person. My mother would have never entertained that possibility. She created the myth in order—I shouldn’t say “created”—she had this story to bring out whenever she wanted to dispel the myth of her father’s dark side. Obviously, it is something that appeals to me just as much as it appeals to my mom, so it’s not like I am pointing my finger at her and saying she’s gullible. I am just as gullible, if not more so.

INTERVIEWER: Which brings us to the other story that shapes the memoir from a mythological point of view, the story of when your mother met Bruce Lee.

PAISLEY REKDAL: What is interesting about that story to me is that, again, it debunks an American myth. Growing up, I always thought that Bruce Lee was it. That chest. That yowling scream. He was just hot. And then to find out that no one liked him and that all the other Chinese who worked at the restaurant thought that kung fu was a really stupid thing to do.

INTERVIEWER: Because he was, in his words, “real Chinese.”

PAISLEY REKDAL: Because he was “real Chinese.” He had been born in America, actually, but he went back to Hong Kong and spent most of his life there. Still, he was “real Chinese” in the ways that counted because he spoke the language, he lived in the culture. And he practiced kung fu.

INTERVIEWER: —Which is all the rage in Hong Kong. Most of the other Chinese who work in the restaurant ignore their past. If they do acknowledge it, it is through images of the distant past like Ming vases and not so much those associated with recent political events like the Cultural Revolution. Only pleasant images and associations remain.

Another interesting aspect of that story is the parallel you draw between your mother and her desire to attend Smith and Bruce Lee’s aspiration to become a movie star. It was their cultural identities, as much as anything else, that shaped their futures.

PAISLEY REKDAL: What is interesting is that he succeeds and my mother didn’t. Whereas the American dream would tell us that both should succeed: if someone comes to America and is a member of an ethnic minority but wants to succeed and wants to assimilate and go to the colleges that the white kids go to and become a doctor or whatever, then this can happen. I think it can happen, but I think people who say this don’t necessarily realize how many people will tell you that you shouldn’t do it and can’t give you a better reason than “Well, Smith is not for girls like you,” which is what the counselor told my mom. She never qualified that by saying “Chinese,” but it was pretty obvious that that is what she meant. It was also an economic statement: my mom came from a poor background.

INTERVIEWER: I’m interested in the role silence plays in your memoir. Your mother is silent. Your grandmother Po Po is silent. And Gung Gung, your grandfather, hardly speaks a word. The only figure in the book who is not silent—



INTERVIEWER: There’s also Aunt Opal.

PAISLEY REKDAL: Yeah, that’s true. That’s why I like her so much. My mother in her real life is not silent at all, however, and I don’t think that she would want to be silent. The metaphor of silence I use illustrates the inability to talk about one’s past. My mother would, I think, very much like to talk about that. I think my mother is crippled culturally because her mother won’t tell her the family history. In my family it was a rite of passage when you started to hear more about the family. As a child, you never hear things. Then, later on, relatives drop this hint or that hint. My mother has been picking up pieces that my grandmother Po Po’s been dropping for the last sixty-nine years and still can’t seem to get a hold of what it means to have a Chinese identity.

Silence is really something I tried to address in the book because, first of all, to go into Asia and try to pick up these different languages is hard. You sound like an idiot most of the time, and so you are silent in that literal way. And then you are silent in a cultural way because you don’t feel comfortable. There are certain things you see but don’t know if you can actually talk about.

INTERVIEWER: Regardless of where you are, there is that need to reinvent your identity in order to protect yourself from the dominant culture. The China you found when you visited wasn’t the one you expected. It wasn’t Susie Wong, it wasn’t Dr. Fu Manchu.

PAISLEY REKDAL: And it wasn’t Tiananmen Square either, which is the more political idea I had about China. I should jump in and talk about anonymity as well, because silence and anonymity are two subjects I have been trying to talk about in terms of how they resonate with my cultural life or my own ethnic identity. But I don’t know if it is entirely about that. Ever since I was a child I have been afraid of disappearing; I’m terrified of not being able to speak or to be absolutely identity-less. You could argue that this fear is about growing up mixed and with mixed feelings about being mixed. But part of it might also stem from an exaggerated sense of mortality.

INTERVIEWER: You describe Chinese as a “silent, aggressive language.”

PAISLEY REKDAL: When I was growing up, the only time I heard people speaking Chinese is when they were fighting or when they scolded me. And so I grew up thinking of Chinese as a language you resort to when you are upset or you don’t want someone to understand you because you were telling secrets. My mom told me how, as a child, she would listen at the door and try to figure out what her parents were saying. In my essay “A Tempest,” I discuss how my mother would stop speaking to me when she was upset with me. The feeling of not being able to communicate, or being isolated because you had done something wrong or because people didn’t want you to hear something, is a devastating emotion for children. And, culturally, I think that it mimics what has happened to my mom and grandmother.

INTERVIEWER: But you’re different. You identify yourself as Chinese the more people try to oppress that side of you.

PAISLEY REKDAL: I go nuts! I get really aggressive. And I try and make it clear that it’s a character failing on my part and that it’s easy for me to associate anger and vengeance with being Chinese. But I also think that it’s something that I have been prepared for culturally all of my life. If I wasn’t conscious that I was making this racial stereotype, it would be very easy for me to think, Oh, every time I go to my Chinese house, they are angry, they are speaking in Chinese, they sound weird, they do these strange things. It’s stuff I’ve never seen at any of my friends’ houses. It’s this primal passionate place. Whereas my Norwegian side is all about repression.

INTERVIEWER: You hardly mention your Norwegian family at all.

PAISLEY REKDAL: There is an essay in the book about my dad’s father, an almost mythological figure himself: a Norwegian bar fighter who for years was a trapper and fisherman.

INTERVIEWER: Your Norwegian grandfather would have belonged to the same socioeconomic class as your Chinese grandparents, working in the Alaskan canneries alongside other immigrants, yet he wouldn’t have had anything to do with them.

PAISLEY REKDAL: And they wouldn’t have had anything to do with him either. They would have looked at each other as savages of the worst sort.


PAISLEY REKDAL: Which means, you know, “old savage.” Images of barbarianism really fascinate me, which is why I reference Shakespeare’s The Tempest so much. I once saw a really bad production of it where they had a young black woman play Caliban, but then made her crouch and shuffle around. It would have been fine if she had been able to stand and speak her lines. You know, it’s a parody, the fact that she’s being called a barbarian when she speaks these beautiful lines. She recites poetry, but Trinculo and Stephano do not. The director tried to reinforce the notion that maybe she really is a black savage, which pissed me off because, if you grow up in America, you already have this stereotype. Other ethnicities have equivalent stereotypes: Latins are sexual demons and the Chinese are scheming and secretive. I remember thinking that during the movie The Crow. Did you ever see that movie?

INTERVIEWER: No, but wasn’t Bruce Lee’s son in that?

PAISLEY REKDAL: Yeah, Brandon Lee, right before he died. They had this woman named Bai Ling who played the evil dragon lady, and it was the worst caricature of Asian female sexuality I have ever seen. She sits there cutting out peoples’ eyes! And, of course, there’s a huge dragon tattooed on her back and she’s wearing this chang-sam looking like Susie Wong from hell. This sort of barbarianism is something you see constantly in films.

INTERVIEWER: It’s a way of making things more palatable for white society. That sort of mythmaking serves a dual purpose.

PAISLEY REKDAL: Oh, definitely. Which is why I think my mom’s telling the story of the laundromat is ultimately a positive creative act because either you define yourself or you are defined. And if you don’t take a stand, who knows how you are going to be identified in this culture.

INTERVIEWER: Famous voyagers and navigators are found throughout your poems, though they are portrayed as less than conquering heroes. In your poem “Captain Cook in Tahiti Discovers Tattooing,” it is the white Europeans who must assimilate to the customs of the land. They are the ones who are considered barbaric.

PAISLEY REKDAL: To a certain degree they are the ones that assimilate, right. I never thought of that, but you’re right.

INTERVIEWER: And, to prove it, they get tattooed.

PAISLEY REKDAL: They get tattooed or, as in the case with Magellan, he starts to admire the people he’s traveling with—it’s the sailors who hate him, you know, because he’s Portuguese and they’re Spanish. Francis Drake just dies. But you’re right, Captain Cook and his men, in my poem, assimilate. I should also say that that is a lie. I read the journal of Captain Cook and they did anything but assimilate, frankly. They did see the Tahitians as savages. Some of the men did actually get tattoos and they did “lie with the women,” but Captain Cook has, in the poem that I create, a much more sympathetic, empathetic view of the situation and he actually enjoys being in Tahiti, whereas in his journals it’s pretty clear that he’s miserable and thinks the Tahitians are the very definition of savages. He is occasionally surprised, but in general not.

The reason I changed it was because I brought it to a workshop and people pointed out, quite rightly, that that’s what you would expect from Captain Cook, isn’t it? It sounds like white male bashing. And I thought, well, it is more interesting if he becomes attracted to the tattoo and all of its sexual significance. Because it better parallels the story of my parents; the narratives can come together and illuminate each other. Of course, you can never entirely wipe away the stain of imperialism with Captain Cook, which is not the situation with my parents’ marriage.

INTERVIEWER: It’s 1968 and your parents are in Paris, and it’s anything but a celebration because your mother has married a white man. Someone who was not Chinese, let’s put it that way.

PAISLEY REKDAL: But they are abroad and they know that if they went back to America all of those cultural pressures they grew up with would be applied; their marriage means something different in Europe. They can fall silent. They don’t have to listen to French. They can be anonymous there, whereas in the States there is my mom’s family again saying no, no, no.

INTERVIEWER: Many of your poems make use of the dramatic monologue. “Rogue’s Gallery” and “Love Phones” come immediately to mind.

PAISLEY REKDAL: That last one is my favorite in some ways, though it’s gotten the least positive reception of all my poems. [Laughter] I love the dramatic monologue because, before I started exploring that form, I had felt trapped into writing and imagining a certain form of poetry. There was an assumption that when you write lyrical poetry that “I”—the lyrical “I”—is you; that you are always the narrator. And I found that I, as myself, couldn’t write very well about certain things. I felt like I was trapped in my own thinking. With the dramatic monologue, I could put on someone else’s persona and open up.

INTERVIEWER: You can be a sex therapist taking phone calls at a radio station.

PAISLEY REKDAL: Exactly. Actually, the second book of poetry that I have just been finishing up is filled with monologues from so many different characters: talk show hosts, mythological gods and goddesses, painters, and even Denis Diderot. It is just such a liberating form for me. I get very irritated when people assume these monologues represent me. I think it’s because we still have such a limited idea of poetry’s scope that any “I” poem has to be the writer because it cannot be a made-up persona.

INTERVIEWER: “Convocation” juxtaposes historical figures and events with ones that occur within a more personal sphere. The poem begins, “Pain is a threshold that changes.” Could you explain that?

PAISLEY REKDAL: It starts with Francis Bacon leaning against a tower wall, wondering about science. I didn’t know this, but Sir Francis Bacon was, in addition to being a scientist, a torturer, which shocked me; so I speculate in the poem about the relationship between torture and science and, most especially, the idea of choice and pain.

I also took an anecdote from a book about the medieval English judicial system, which tells how an English nobleman was falsely accused of sedition so that the government could repossess his lands. If he denied the charge, then he would have to prove his innocence in one of two ways: either he would undergo torture or he’d give up his lands and title.

INTERVIEWER: The medieval idea of trial by ordeal. If you survive, then you must be innocent.

PAISLEY REKDAL: Right. And the problem is, of course, if you decide that you’re going to give up your land, you have nothing left for your children. That’s the subject I deal with in the second part of the poem: the sacrifices parents make for their children out of family loyalty. The third section of the poem focuses on my Aunt Ruby, who is dying, and the role history plays in all this. Where is science? What is choice? Really, what are we talking about when we talk about these things? Do they have any meaning? To be honest, I don’t know. Having written this poem, I was fascinated mostly with the idea of pain as a threshold that changes historically, scientifically, and also personally through our notions about family.

INTERVIEWER: Your parents knew they were going to encounter obstacles from both cultures when they decided to marry.

PAISLEY REKDAL: For me, history is something that is continually present, something that is continually hovering in any individual’s choice. When I say “history,” it’s basically a big black bag of terms that includes science, religion, ethnic and cultural affiliation—all of those things get dragged along with a person’s decision-making, and so I find that the kind of poem I like writing is the one that opens that bag up and lets people see the other narratives that parallel the individual’s decision, the individual narrative.

There’s also a poem in the collection called “On Getting a Dog and Being Told that What I Want Is a Child.” It’s a narrative about a woman deciding that there’s no point in her having a child to fulfill contemporary ideas about what it is to be female. But the external narrative is the story of Magellan wandering around and feeling very isolated, unloved by his crew members, desperately searching for new lands and not being satisfied with anything that he sees, really. At the end of the poem Magellan is watching an Indian woman sneak aboard his ship and hide some nails from the ship in her vagina. I couldn’t entirely articulate why I think the two stories go together, but it seems to me that the world is much more than the individual narrative, and that it’s much more interesting to see how things parallel each other and expand the emotional experience.

INTERVIEWER: Everyone endures.

PAISLEY REKDAL: That’s why pain’s a threshold of changes. If you say that my pain is individual, I think you’re missing the point of how pain works; of how choice fits into pain.

INTERVIEWER: You begin A Crash of Rhinos with an invocation, though it’s not the traditional invocation of the muse.

PAISLEY REKDAL: The invocation is basically to the physical world. It starts out praising things like radio boards and ends up with blue-footed boobies. I got the idea for the invocation from reading Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell, where he talks about choice and physical control. He says that we like to think of ourselves as being entirely in control, but that there are things in our bodies that are so complicated and yet so easy to do that they confound us. It’s so simple to breathe, but it would exhaust us if we were to think about it. There is no way we could intellectually control it. I like the idea of praising something which you can’t control whatsoever.

INTERVIEWER: I thought it was a novel way to introduce a collection of poems, to entertain the possibilities of what will follow as opposed to the poet addressing her source of inspiration. Then again, it’s not an epic!


PAISLEY REKDAL: That’s a small point now. Not being a terribly spiritual person, the only thing I can do is talk to the physical world, since I’m not interested in the spiritual one.

I should also add that the invocation comes out of an interview with Dennis Brutus, a South African poet who was imprisoned on Robben Island with Mandela. He told me that, though many of the prisoners had actually never written poems before, they started writing regularly, even saving their one sheet of toilet paper to write on. When the guards figured out that’s what they were doing, they started memorizing their words. In fact, Brutus memorized tons of his work so he could get out later and write it down. I found that fascinating. It was such a horrible experience that it turned them into poets! It transformed them. This is what we force people to do to appreciate the value of poetry!


INTERVIEWER: Do you have a writing routine?

PAISLEY REKDAL: I try to write five days a week. I try to write after I walk the dog early in the morning. I try not to do too many reading activities beforehand unless I am desperate. If I get lost in something or feel I am stuck in a corner, I will start reading to see how other people get themselves out of that situation. But, in general, I do my reading in the afternoons and my writing in the morning for at least two hours and then I’m done.

INTERVIEWER: Do you see yourself primarily as a poet?

PAISLEY REKDAL: I used to. And I do still, in the abstract, think of myself as a poet. But I have been writing so much prose that it is beating the poetry right out of me. I haven’t written a poem in six months. It’s been pretty agonizing, actually.

INTERVIEWER: Will you turn to the essay form again?

PAISLEY REKDAL: Maybe, but not for awhile. It’s really exhausting, writing them. I can imagine doing short, humorous pieces, but I can’t imagine doing anything like the scope of Bruce Lee. I feel like I’m tapped out, that part of me. I’m deep into a novel, on the third draft. And I’ve finished my second manuscript of poems.

INTERVIEWER: Throughout the book you struggle with wanting to be fully Chinese and being a part of white America. By the end, however, you accept that you will always belong to two cultures.

PAISLEY REKDAL: It’s funny that you say that. You seem to get it. People have asked me, once they’ve read the book, What do you consider yourself as? Which makes me wonder, What did I write? How ambiguous was it? By the end of the essays, I feel like I have understood that my mom’s life, my grandmother’s life, and my Aunt Opal’s life are different from mine because they’re not racially mixed. This whole time I was really searching for a paradigm for what it is to be mixed. And I was looking to one half of the family for an answer; I didn’t realize that, essentially, I was going to have to make it up myself. I was going to have to create my identity, and that that’s not a negative thing; it can be extremely positive. So I call myself half Chinese or Eurasian—”mixed.” I have no problems with that. I don’t feel as forced to choose as I did when I was younger and began writing these essays.

INTERVIEWER: At the end you declare that, “I am one of the people thrown simply into the mix, filling in a family and identity with—when I can’t find fact—perhaps its more truthful, emotionally potent, fiction.”

PAISLEY REKDAL: And I’m fine with that. When I first wrote that, I was bitter. I was feeling like I’m only half fact. But now that I have finished up, I think that fiction’s wonderful. What person doesn’t ultimately have to self-invent? It’s no different for me than for anybody else.

INTERVIEWER: Perhaps that’s why you no longer feel the need to write more essays?

PAISLEY REKDAL: Maybe. After all, “Writing only comes out of ‘deep pain.'”


David Remy, a contributing writer to The Richmond Review, conducted the interview. He lives in Decatur, Georgia

Copyright © 2000 David Remy


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Copyright © 1995/2003 The Richmond Review