A series in which Isabella is excited about everything that is happening at #GrowingRoom2019, so she sat down with some festival authors to hear about their work and what events they are most excited to take part in. Learn more about the 2019 Growing Room festival by visiting our website, festival.roommagazine.com.
Onjana Yawnghwe has written two books of poetry, Fragments, Desire (Oolichan, 2017) and The Small Way (Caitlin, 2018). She is currently working on a graphic novel.
ROOM: Hello, Onjana, how are you? Your second book of poetry, The Small Way, just came out this year. CONGRATULATIONS! I have to say, this isn’t just any collection of poems, for you are celebrating an occasion marked by something as intimate and courageous as having a loved one come out as transgender. Here, you are also exploring how that love endures over the shifting and changing landscapes of ourselves as we transition in and out of our bodies, through time, and in relation to others. Writing then, becomes sort of a journey as well, doesn’t it? Take us through the writing of this book. What came first, the idea or the words? How does it feel now that it’s out there?
OY: Hello, Isabella, great to talk to you! I like how excited you are about everything. Enthusiasm is an underrated quality in this day and age.
This book, The Small Way, is probably the most autobiographical and intensely personal thing I’ve ever written. And the writing happened quickly, miraculously; the first draft was written in a two-month period during which I was (in retrospect) experiencing situational depression. It was an intense summer of mourning a marriage, a time of rejection, losing a best friend, and having my life and everything I knew upended. It was a time of heartbreak, and only two things helped me: going to the movies and writing (oh, and therapy, that helped a lot). The book simply poured out of me; its writing was a compulsion. I wanted somehow to translate everything I was feeling onto the page, to be as direct as I could without being too overwrought and cringe worthy. At the same time, I still had this immense love and respect for my former spouse, and I wanted to pay tribute to her and our relationship as much as I could, but it was a difficult balance, because I wasn’t just telling my story, but hers as well. Our lives and identities were so intertwined that one story couldn’t be separated from the other. It was important that I had her permission to tell our stories and that she saw every draft of the book, although I know it was hard for her to read some parts of the book. Writing this book reinforced a few things: how we know ourselves better through loss and grief, how to memorialize something and let it go at the same time, and how things happen and we can never know the whys and wherefores of it.
Now that it’s out there, I feel absolutely fine about it. The book is a narrative of a very specific time, a time that feels quite distant to me now. I haven’t held on to that time, you know? So in some sense, the book becomes just an object, instead of this very personal experience. I’ve had friends who’ve read it say, “it’s so…intimate and personal” and I imagine it being weird to have access to the inner thoughts and fears of someone you know, but for me, it’s not strange at all. Perhaps this is an indication that I’ve healed, or that I just want this book to connect with others, or that it’s doing its job of being accessible. I think one of my favourite things is when someone says that they couldn’t put it down and read it really quickly. That gives me a thrill.
ROOM: One of the first poems I’ve ever read of yours was “A Homecoming,” where you had the lines, “For Loi Krathong we would perch thin/white candles along windows/When we left and gave away/the furniture and our calico cats/I return twenty years later/an elephant in a doll’s house/Chiang Mai flexed, crowed and crowded close.” Your poetry is as much about one’s connection to place as it is about people. You were born in Thailand but grew up in Vancouver, and we see that come across in your poetry. Where do you see yourself in relation to these two places?
OY: I used to think a lot about belonging, because I never really felt I belonged anywhere. I was born in Thailand, but wasn’t Thai; I’m part of the Shan people but I’ve never put my foot in our ancestral lands in northern Myanmar (Burma). But I’m proud to say I’m an immigrant to this land, but a land that belongs to the indigenous peoples. I am grateful for being able to live here. In general, being an immigrant, you’re often reminded (and it’s really engrained in your psyche somehow) that you don’t have a place here. And on top of that, being a woman of colour, and all the complexities that go along with that here. Like I said, I used to think about that a lot; it was a real source of anguish for me growing up. My poems used to be all about that.
But those feelings have dimmed, as has a need to find a place of one’s own. I think nowadays, my circles are in a sense smaller: I have a relationship with the house in which I live, the hospital in which I work, movie theatres, the pottery studio, but also, the clouds! The night sky, the trees. There is no real longing to belong to a group, a nation, a country.
ROOM: Speaking of place, I’d love to know where you turn to for inspiration — what are your favourite writing spots? favourite books that you return to time after time? other writers and communities? writing rituals?
OY: I’m a voracious homebody, so all my writing I do at home. Sometimes at my desk, oftentimes in bed. For me, this has to do with feeling safe, being able to be open and access parts of yourself that you don’t often show. Plus, home is where my cat is.
I don’t think I have that much in the way of writing rituals. I take notes and draft things by hand in notebooks, then do a proper draft on the computer. When I’m in the middle of writing or trying to figure out something, I often pace back and forth. It works for me. I like fountain pens, and I have a bunch of favourite “normal” pens. I’m particular about the types of notebooks I write in: they have to be plain-looking but with some harmony and pleasing to the eye.
All I did growing up was read books, so there have been a lot of books that have changed and influenced me. Fiction-wise, return Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar the most – I first read both when I was a teenager, and I love how the books have changed in meaning as I’ve gotten older. Poetry-wise, my first loves are Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson; Galway Kinnell and his Book of Nightmares was a turning point in my life, and his poems continue to hold my hand and reassure me. I love Dionne Brand, especially Land to Light On, for opening me up to the possibilities of language. And Anne Carson for her cleverness, wit, and humour. I love Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and have only recently discovered Joan Didion and her economical yet powerful prose. I love Miranda July’s books for their odd and beautiful sensibility. I read Thich Nhat Hanh for when I need peace and grounding. These days, I’ve been rereading graphic novels, and am again astounded by Epileptic by David B., Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
All the arts really inspire me. Like I love movies so much. Some movies are just perfect poems, and movies I love stimulate me a lot, movies are just a complete sensory experience and really draw out the mysteries and beauties of life. I love visual arts. Good paintings are the best, and I have so many favourite artists. And music. And good TV shows. I could go on and on about specific examples, but I will refrain, for brevity’s sake. There are so many things!
ROOM: Tell me more about your cat, and what your favourite ice-cream flavour is. I’ve been dying to know. I hear that you are also into pottery, which I feel is so much like poetry. You begin something that doesn’t necessarily have a form of its own. By committing to it, nurturing it, it becomes something that you create, and you see yourself being transformed in the process with it. Would you like to speak more to that? What does pottery mean to you?
OY: I see you have been looking at my Instagram feed (@onyawn), which boringly consists of: my cat, pottery, and clouds. And also food.
Well, I have a calico cat (age undetermined) named Aggie. She is quite possibly the cutest cat in the world and is so, so sassy. She is originally from Nanaimo but for some reason the SPCA brought her to the Burnaby shelter, and at the time I was a volunteer there, and I fell in love. I was in such anxiety over whether we’d get to adopt her. She is quite the rascal. She likes to sleep horizontally in the middle of the bed. One must not disturb her.
I’m quite new to pottery; I’ve only been at it for about a year, and I loved it from the very beginning, even though truthfully progress can be quite slow. What I like about it is how it taps into a kind of creativity that’s very unlike writing. Pottery is really akin to meditation: how you are touching the clay, and really connecting with the earth, how you breathe into the clay and discover its rhythms and become one with it. There’s an immediacy to the creative connection you feel, like there’s this instinctual thing happening. It’s very different from writing. Writing is hard, frustrating and full of effort. But pottery is like: zoom zoom! Aaaahhh! Yaaah! And glazing is also another amazing creative aspect: the colours, the finish, the magical transformations in the kilns. And suddenly (well, over a few weeks) you have this very solid pot that you made, that you can hold and pour tea into and drink from. It’s really magic!
I love ice cream, but it’s not my favourite. Actually, I love any ice cream with nuts in them – well, any nut except pecan and walnut. I love a good strawberry ice cream. But the best ice cream I had was in this pan-Asian restaurant in Little Tokyo in L.A. – the ice cream was Thai iced tea and it was the perfect ice cream representation of the drink. Locally, I love Ernest’s whiskey hazelnut. And even better, a whiskey hazelnut sundae with chocolate fudge and extra nuts on top.
ROOM: We have you featuring in the panel, “The Poetry En(Jam)bment.” But tell me, what are some other events that you are most keen on attending?
OY: I’m super excited to read amongst those marvelous poets in the Jam. Also I want to mention and I’m doing a workshop with the excellent fiction writer Hazel Plante, who will have her first novel out in the fall. We go way back and used to have a micropress together where we used to make these beautiful hand-made chapbooks. So our session is all about the basics and beyond of making chapbooks. It will be hands-on and fun!
The line-up is fantastic this year. I want to attend The Dead Book, all about what happens when a book doesn’t make a splash (it features one of my favourite writers, Betsy Warland). I really relate to that subject. Also Indigenous Brilliance! I mean, you have such a great group, including Eden Robinson there! And I’m curious about The Vast Inscape, all about writing about mental health. I work in mental health and feel that it’s so important to talk about our own mental health with others. Even though I’m a homebody, I’m going to try to attend as many panels as I can.
ROOM: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me, Onjana. I’m so excited to have you for Growing Room 2019!
Isabella Wang is a young, emerging Chinese-Canadian writer from Vancouver, B.C. Her poetry is published/forthcoming in Looseleaf magazine and Train Journal. At 17, she was the youngest writer shortlisted for The New Quarterly’s 2017 Edna Staebler Essay Contest. She is studying at SFU in the fall of 2018, working with Books on the Radio and interning at Room.