I wished I would have kissed the sky where it held the full moon up like a mirror: A Conversation with Molly Zhu about Asian American Translations – curated by Tiffany Troy

Molly Zhu is a Chinese American poet and attorney. She likes to write about alter egos, chasms, dreams, tears, rage, translation and the women in her life. She was twice nominated for Pushcart prizes and has been published in both print and online journals including Hobart Pulp, the Ghost City Press, and Bodega Magazine, among others. She serves as poetry editor for Passengers Journal, and she is the winner of the 2021 Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize awarded by the Cordella Press. Her debut chapbook, Asian American Translations, is now available for purchase.

Asian American Translations brings readers to the immediacy of memories of the speaker’s family, through cooking and food, as the “five of us would huddle around the Formica counter, / heads down in a chopstick-dotted silence, / when breakfast was a kind of worship,” the love carried palpable across space and time, spanning tongues and years.

Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem, “As American as” set up the rest of the collection that follows?

For me, it immediately draws me into the home of a loud American family, and the connection between food and culture, between family history and identity, as well as the plethora of experiences you bring in as the poet.

Molly Zhu: Yeah. I think you’re right about setting time and place, and it’s a snapshot of what I remember from my family. It’s funny because I feel like after things are printed on paper, I’ve gone back and written other things. I think I read a poem at our Garden Party at Unnameable Books two weeks ago about my family. I wrote that poem after this book was published, and then I had this thought where I kind of wish that had been the first poem. So it’s hard, because depending on the day, I feel like it [“As American As”] is the right poem or not. I feel like the tone of this poem is very neutral in a way, whereas the tone of the other poem highlights some more turmoil and unsavory things about my childhood, which I don’t want to shy away from but it didn’t pop up in this poem. I don’t know if that really answers your question  I think I’m trying to make the point that I’m struggling with poems once they are printed and published because life goes on and things change constantly.

TT: I agree, and I love how you bring in your Chinese name when you write of “green for rebirth, / for the dream of something new, / for the first moment of spring.” That’s an incredible way of letting the reader into the world of this collection, which, as you said, is a lot about the memory of things, in addition to the here and now.

You have also spoken of how you recently began writing poetry in the earnest. Could you describe what the process was like writing the poems and putting the chapbook together?

MZ: I started writing poetry at the end of 2019 for a very specific reason, which was that I had a lot of time on my hands, which I now understand is so crucial to being a writer.

It coincided with my “introvert renaissance,” which is my understanding and realization that I’m actually an introvert but I’ve been trying to be an extrovert for a lot of my life.  In 2019, because of the pandemic I was able to feed into my introversion, and found out I really liked it. One of the reasons was that I had a lot of time to write and think. At the time my family was very separated, and it was very scary because I had so much family in China. Politically, it was a really tough time to have ties and even to travel to China. I wrote this collection because I just had a lot of time where I was just thinking about how much I missed everyone. I just don’t know how to explain why poetry was the medium that I chose to express myself in.

TT: When you began writing about your family, did you jump right into poetry?

MZ: Oh yeah, I did. Before I started writing poetry, I didn’t really write, and I don’t know if that’s normal or not. I still sometimes struggle with considering myself to be a writer, but I certainly never wrote quite in the way that it is religious for me to write now.

I never really wrote about my family in any other medium. But when I first started writing poetry, my family members were the first things that I started to write poetry about, so it was probably pretty top of mind for me. I was talking about this with another one of my friends: I’ve been creative my entire life, but not necessarily a writer.

TT: That process is so interesting, especially as I follow your trajectory. Your newer poems pivot slightly away from family, which is of course topical at that time as you described. You’re turning now, at least from my perspective, towards using a fantastical lens to look at the real world like your poem “The Girl with No Hands” is calling to.

MZ:  I’m really touched that you said that because as a writing goal for this year, I really want to explore different types of writing. In this chapbook, there is a certain voice that comes through, and it is my voice, but it’s pretty much the same voice throughout. There’s one poem that I think I wrote really early on, and it’s funny because I feel like I’m writing more like that now. It’s “Dreams from a Parallel Universe”  which I feel is closer to how I want to write more now, or how I am writing more, which is, you’re right, fantastical.

TT: The title of your collection is Asian American Translations. What does translation mean to you? How do you incorporate translations in the chapbook?

MZ: Translation at the end of the day to me is about trying to understand someone. It’s about putting in the effort to bridge a gap, or a chasm, in understanding, not just literally, but culturally, and in every form to transmit your feeling, your thoughts, your emotions and your point to someone else. Another word for translation is just communication... I feel like my whole role in my family is to be a translator literally, but also culturally. At times, that is and has been a burden for me, but I also think that it’s one of the most rewarding things that I have been able to do for my family members. I also feel like a translator for myself a lot in that I often feel misunderstood because I’m someone who’s not good at telling other people what’s going on in my head. So translation also means self-translation in a sense... I’m trying to understand how to communicate what I’m thinking to other people. That title, using the word “translation” specifically, is a great metaphor for what this book is for me, which is being able to describe my background or my family to someone. Everyone comes from such a nuanced place, and it’s so hard to say in a few sentences describing your relationship with the most important people in your life.

Tiffany Troy: I admire how that’s connected to your “introvert renaissance.” When I heard you at the reading it felt like your interiority is speaking,  reflecting on what has happened, and translating for yourself what that experience means.

What interested me too is how your father translated three of your poems (“Grandmother Magic,” “To My Grandmother’s House,” and “You Make Me Cry”) into the Chinese. That’s incredible, because while you act as a translator for your family in some ways, he acts as a translator in other respects.

MZ: Being a translator, in a broad sense, is something that’s also very special to me. It’s special when I see it in other people as well. I don’t think it’s just limited to literally translating. But someone who, like my father in this example, is actually translating these works is very, very special to me, even more so than I’ve realized. My father is translating these poems, and my grandmother is my maternal grandmother. My parents are divorced, so their relationship has changed a lot throughout the years. So as he’s translating the language, he’s translating my relationship with his mother-in-law.

First of all, my father is an incredible translator and an incredible writer, and I really respect his work, too. But we were talking about him translating these works, and I was just telling him that there is nobody in the entire world that will do as good a job as he can, because he knows me and my grandmother.

TT: I agree with that assessment in the choices he made, on the level of diction. At the Yu & Me Books Poetry Reading, we were talking about the word 「茗」, for instance for the word ¨drink” in the poem “Grandmother Magic” translated as 「姥姥魔法」.  In “To My Grandmother’s House,” there’s something about the differences in languages between the English which is more tentative versus the Chinese which is more concise in the sense that it speaks more per word.

How does form–whether poetic form or how the stanzas appear on the page–inform your collection? When you write does the poem finds its form, or do you sort of pick a form and start writing?

MZ: This is a great question because I was reading some of your recent poems, and reveling at this amazing form... how you break your stanzas up, and was really drawn to a lot of that that you’re working on. And it’s because I’m not really thinking about form.

First of all, a lot of the form that these poems just kind of organically happened. It wasn’t like, Oh, I’m thinking about this, I’m gonna make the form special. It’s more just like, Oh, it feels like this is a new thought. I’m going to start a new stanza. Even when I write now, everything is kind of in a block chunk. One of my writing goals is to think about form more, actually, because I don’t really do that.

I think the only poems in this collection where I was very adamant about the form are “Pepsi” because it’s more experimental in the form, and “Weather Patterns,” where it’s in a tripartite form. My answer to your question is that I wish I were thinking a little bit more about it, actually.

Tiffany Troy: What was so beautiful about “Pepsi,” is how you conduct a real or fictional interview with your mother. There’s something visceral in the sense that in the form itself, where the italics set off your thoughts versus what was said. For me, “Pepsi” was a great way to tell family history through oral history.

For me, within your collection, there are poems and then there are more prose-like poems, and thinking about prose poetry as a form and how the prose-like form allows for more space for  thought in the sense that it’s not as truncated or quickly moving from one thought to another. That in turn creates this variation in your collection. That made your collection cohere well while adding variation. By that, I mean most of the poems in your collection follow the organic form that you described, with stanzas setting off the different ideas. Then there are other poems as in “Pepsi” or “Weather Pattern” where the ideas are more expansive and that creates interesting variation for the reader as well.

How does eating or cooking food connect to Shanghai or China and how do they find their way into the collection? What do you want the readers to get out of that experience?

Molly Zhu: I come from a family where everybody loves to cook. Growing up, our kitchen was always full steam. Growing up in our house in Princeton, we had 2 kitchens. Then when we moved to the UK, the kitchen took up like 50% of the house. We had 2 dishwashers in the kitchen, and for an Asian family that’s already crazy. And I just remember people were always cooking. My grandmother loved to cook. My grandfather was such an amazing chef. They both lived with us, and grew up with me and my siblings and raised us. My mother loved to cook. My father’s an amazing cook. My brother and my sister are such amazing chefs. I actually am the only one who’s not the biggest cook. So I feel like a lot of the times when I’m writing about food, it’s about the memory of someone showing their love through this act. And because I personally don’t cook a lot, what I really miss is that home food that other people are cooking for me. That was a huge part of my childhood especially because in my adult life, now it’s such a stark contrast where I just don’t cook anything. I mean I go out to eat and I’ll eat restaurant food. But it’s not really the same.

TT: I agree with you a hundred percent. As someone who almost always just eat out, there is something so wonderful about cooking at home and thinking about what that means. I still remember, like you at the reading, where you talk about the texture of the food and how the food glistens in the light can be a container for memory and a vehicle of longing. I think that is also just phenomenal in terms of in your collection, something that I really admired.

Do you have any closing thoughts like anything you want to share with your readers?

MZ: I’ll just share some of my writing goals. I want to write more experimental poetry, mostly fantastical poetry that’s grounded in daydreams rather than memories.I am trying to write poems about things that may or may not have happened, things that are a little less concrete, stylistically at least. That’s what my next collection is about: alter egos, mainly. Tied to that idea is freedom, which is one of my favorite things about writing poetry. I don’t know about you, but there are very few things in this world that make me feel as free as writing poetry, especially in different experimental forms and non-classical subject matters. I feel like freedom of identity is definitely a really big theme in the works that I’m writing now. So that’s kind of where I think that’s going.

TT: Absolutely, I feel poetry is a way for me to explore the unknown. I love how for you right now the unknown moves away from  memory and steps into your imagination, and allow your imagination to roam free while absolutely bringing snippets of your lived experiences to the foreground, but in a way where the reader, and perhaps yourself are so sure what is real and what is unreal.

Xu Xi said to me recently, during an interiew, quoting from the Dream of the Red Chambers is this inscription: “Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real,” and what you said reminded me of that inscription from the classical Chinese text.

Tiffany Troy is author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.