On Oct. 4, the Kenyon Review hosted poet Shelley Wong in Finn House’s Cheever Room for a reading of her work. Wong read selections from her most recent collection, As She Appears, which was published in May of this year.
Much of the poetry Wong read was inspired by her geographic and cultural background. Born and raised in Long Beach, California, she is fourth-generation Chinese American, which Wong called rare. Perhaps it is rare to encounter an immigrant family that has established itself in one community for four generations, and it is certainly rare to encounter art about a fourth-generation experience as opposed to art about a first-generation experience. Whereas the latter might feature familiar themes of being caught between two worlds, Wong’s poems are about Asian American women who are firmly rooted in the United States but possess both the ability and the need to see where the influence of their Chinese origin is present in their own growth and development.
Wong read her poem “Private Collection” early on, providing what might be considered her thesis statement. With this poem, she introduced many of the themes that recurred throughout the reading: that search for the identity she has inherited from her family in the society in which she has come of age. In the poem, the speaker notices that a painting she had once taken note of in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is no longer on display; the speaker’s partner notices a painting of “a blonde woman reading a newspaper.” As they walk through the museum, the speaker notes that “no women resembled us.” Here is a world filled with markers of white American life; yet it remains undoubtedly the speaker’s world.
Wong also shared poems that spoke to her queer experience, describing scenes of romance, celebration and turmoil in queer spaces. Poems set on Fire Island, a New York vacation spot popular with gay people, as well as in New York City during Pride celebrations highlighted the predominant whiteness of these queer spaces. In this way, Wong spoke yet again to the notion that the identities some assume to be separate — in this case, race and sexual orientation — in fact constitute one fraught, nearly unnavigable world.
Wong’s refusal to acknowledge these arbitrary divisions in her work is reflected in her penchant for pop culture references. In her poem “All Beyoncés and Lucy Lius,” Wong calls forth a wave of cultural artifacts that each represent an entanglement of various Asian and American cultures. That Wong came of age in the wake of that tide, bearing witness to Hello Kitty, Lucy Liu in “Charlie’s Angels” and the yellow Power Ranger, speaks volumes, once again, to the falseness of a separation between the cultures Wong inhabits.
With As She Appears, Wong makes a mission of exposing the arbitrariness of a division between an American upbringing and a Chinese upbringing. For someone like her, these things are not just related. They are not just tied to one another, and they do not even merely bleed into one another — this is one culture that she must navigate. Anything one might have considered as purely “American” or “Chinese” before her reading now appears to be a particular passageway of its own through this world of Wong’s.