[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
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
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
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
INTERVIEWER: Is that why your mother came up with the story of the
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
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
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
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
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
PAISLEY REKDAL: —Is me!
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
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.
INTERVIEWER: Loh fan.
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
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
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
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
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
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
INTERVIEWER: Perhaps that’s why you no longer feel the need to write more
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