Audio

Suzi F. Garcia in Conversation with Jennifer Shyue

February 22, 2022

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT

The Poetry Magazine Podcast: Suzi F. Garcia in Conversation with Jennifer Shyue

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Jennifer Shyue:

(READS EXCERPT FROM “mujer comida por gatos” by Julia Wong Kcomt)

ya no tengo nariz, hay un hueco. ni tráquea. hay otro hueco.

Suzi F. Garcia: Welcome to the Poetry Magazine Podcast. I’m guest editor, Suzi F. Garcia. For this week’s show, I sat down with translator Jennifer Shyue, to discuss the work of Julia Wong Kcomt. Jennifer is a translator focusing on contemporary Cuban and Asian-Peruvian writers. And she’s been translating Julia’s work for the past few years. Julia was born into a Chinese Peruvian family in 1965. And although Jennifer was born in the US decades later, they share many obsessions. Julia traveled from an early age, traversing country borders, different languages and cultures. And these multiplicities motivated her to write poetry. Jennifer’s interest in hybrid identities and linguistic border crossings also motivates her to translate. Peru is home to Latin America’s largest Chinese diasporic population. After the abolition of slavery in 1854, Chinese laborers were brought into Peru, large-scale, to replace slaves. We get into these complex racial histories as well as the connections between language and identity.

Jennifer Shyue: I think I was lucky to grow up in New York, which has a very strong Sino diasporic community. The school I went to up till the sixth grade was like 90% children of Chinese or Sino immigrants. My parents are Taiwanese immigrants. So, I’m Taiwanese American. I do feel very lucky to have had, you know, access to, you know, take a train ride, and I’m in Chinatown, where most of what I’m hearing are various dialects of Chinese, and that’s really cool. But yeah, I mean, I think just, you know, growing up as a child of immigrants, person of color in the US means not seeing yourself reflected in certain spaces and like, you know, how far representation can go is a, you know, big question. Whether it should even be a goal to work toward, or be the end-all be-all of the things we’re working toward, I think, is a big question.

(READS EXCERPT FROM “el desierto ahuyenta este campo sagrado de insinuaciones burdas” by Julia Wong Kcomt)

complejo de ciudad, de alma humana queriendo abigarrarse en hierro, cemento, vitrales, ósculos de santos

Suzi F. Garcia: My exposure to translation was very rigid. There were certain people who could do it, mainly white men. The focus was on accuracy above all, and accuracy to the original writer’s vision, which meant a great deal of, do you have access or privilege to this knowledge. That made translation feel very scary to me, made it feel very off limits to me, no matter what my experiences were with language or with poetry. Can you talk a little bit about the expectations you had of translation going into it and how you either worked with or against those?

Jennifer Shyue: Yeah, slightly embarrassed to say like, growing up, I don’t think I even thought about translation as something you could do. Right, like, obviously, a lot of the books I was reading in my school curriculum were translations, but they weren’t talked about as such. And I don’t think I, like, recognized translation as something that was happening to bring books I was reading in school into my hands. But obviously having spent more time in translation spaces, yes, it’s very white, historically often been very, you know, associated with academia, where notions of mastery around language are sort of rigid. There’s maybe less of a regard for the kinds of knowledge that you, you know, acquire growing up in a multilingual household, gauging understanding by like, how well you conjugate verbs or how many vocabulary words you know, or, you know, things like that, that I think, has historically made translation sort of a little closed off from heritage speakers or people who may not speak English as a first language. We’re definitely having more conversations about that, which is important. To answer more directly your question, I think the ways we’re pushing back against some of the realities as they stand right now in translation is to, you know, build community around, uh, for people who may stand outside of the realms from which translators have, in the US, have historically come.

Suzi F. Garcia: I kind of want to talk a little bit about why Peru with you. And this history of Asian influence in Peru, specifically. Can you share a little bit about what influenced you to begin in Peru?

Jennifer Shyue: To be honest, that was sort of an accident. After I got into university, there was a gap year program that my university offered. And one of the sites in that time was Peru. And I thought, “Oh, I studied Spanish in high school, this seems like a cool once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and I applied, ended up going. So, yeah, very accidental first encounter with Peru. And then in college, when I was in my first translation workshop, we were asked to find untranslated work to translate, you know, as part of our assignments for that class. And I thought, “Well, I’ve spent nine months in Peru, let me go check out an anthology of Peruvian work in the library.” And so I did. And I came across a name in the book that looked like Chinese, like a Chinese name to me, and I was like, “This is so interesting.” And then I looked more into it and I realized, you know, there’s this whole history I had no idea about of Chinese and Japanese migration to all of the Americas, you know, not just the US but all the Americas.

(READS EXCERPT FROM “el desierto ahuyenta este campo sagrado de insinuaciones burdas” by Julia Wong Kcomt)

(FADES IN)

arena en la boca, una incomodidad casi necesaria para recrear el aura gloriosa de una mente feliz, tranquila

(FADES OUT)

You know, after I did my MFA in literary translation at the University of Iowa, I had a Fulbright to Peru to learn about the Chinese Peruvian community in Lima and, and work with Julia Wong Kcomt on translations of her work. And the year I was there, 2020, was the one hundred and seventieth anniversary of Chinese migration to Peru. So there were lots of commemorative events around that date. And, you know, Chinese laborers were brought to replace enslaved Afro Peruvians after slavery was abolished in Peru. So, a lot of Chinese laborers went to, you know, the guano fields that were so important as a source of fertilizer. And the haciendas, agricultural laborers. So yeah, and it was mostly men, which is, you know, also has similarities with the migration to the US. Mostly men, a lot of whom married into the local population, had families with local Peruvian women. So that’s, I guess, a backdrop of Chinese Peruvian history.

Suzi F. Garcia: This gender dynamic must have had profound effects on how Chinese Peruvian families began. Can you expand a little bit on that?

Jennifer Shyue: Yeah, it was really interesting to go to some of these events commemorating the 170th anniversary of Chinese migration to Peru when I was in Lima, because there were some, like, more oral history-oriented events, where you would hear themes, or I would hear themes sort of come up like oh, the silent father, grandfather, great grandfather, who’d never really spoke Spanish. And given how language is often transmitted through the caretaker, the primary caretaker, which is often a mother, you know, Chinese lived and then died with the, you know, Chinese patriarch. Chinese as a language lived and died with the Chinese patriarch. And the specific dialect of Chinese often was Cantonese, because a lot of the labors that came to all the Americas were from Cantonese-speaking regions. So yeah, this figure of the silent patriarch was, is something I felt like I saw a lot of in some of these reflections around Chinese diaspora in Peru.

Suzi F. Garcia: Silent patriarchy is so fascinating to me. Because, I think that, you know, I spent time in Peru not at a scholarly level. I was there to see family, which gives you a totally different, like, experience because mainly you have to hang out with your family (LAUGHS) and you’re like, “I’m in a different country, but all I’m doing is hanging out with my frickin’ family.”

Jennifer Shyue: (LAUGHS) Totally feel that.

Suzi F. Garcia: Not that they’re not great. (LAUGHS) Like, there is such obvious Asian, and specifically Chinese, influences in Peru. The food is very, very Asian-influenced. I mean, lomo saltado is the national dish of Peru and it is a stir fry. It’s a stir fry over rice. It’s the best stir fry in the world. I mean, everyone should have a lomo saltado.

Jennifer Shyue: It’s great.

Suzi F. Garcia: It’s got fries in the stir fry, that is like, oh my god, that blew my mind. But chifa restaurants are one of the most popular restaurants in the country. But the influences aren’t discussed as openly. I feel like, what you’re saying about a silent patriarchy is reflected throughout the entire culture of Peru. This part that has been interwoven into the culture, but that we don’t necessarily talk about.

Jennifer Shyue: Yeah. I totally see that. I mean, definitely the influences in the food. I also find fascinating the influence in language, in Spanish spoken in Peru, right. Like, Peruvian Spanish, for example. In a lot of varieties of Spanish, the word for ginger is jengibre, but in Peru, ginger is often referred to as kión, which, you know, based on my amateur sleuthing, I think comes from the Hakka word for ginger. I don’t think it’s the Cantonese word, because I don’t think the Cantonese word sounds very much like kión. But I think yeah, the Hakka word does sound like a lot like kión. And so, you know, like it changed literally the makeup of the Spanish language spoken in Peru.

Suzi F. Garcia: I think that people often think of Peru, which is roughly the size, double the size of Texas, but a few million shorter in population, as being one, maybe two kinds of races.

Jennifer Shyue: Yeah.

Suzi F. Garcia: Like a mestizo or a Spanish or an Incan. Those kinds of races. And aren’t thinking about the complex racial dynamics that come from a country with such a long history.

Jennifer Shyue: Mm-hmm.

Suzi F. Garcia: And I think some of that has been reflected in Julia’s writing. She talks a little bit about anti-Chinese sentiment in Peru. Well, let’s slide into reading poem to kind of dig into her work.

Jennifer Shyue: Yeah.

Suzi F. Garcia: Let’s hear the poem, “woman eaten by cats.”

Jennifer Shyue:

(READS POEM IN SPANISH)

“mujer comida por gatos”

uno por uno alguien come mis ojos, me va sacando la carne de las orejas, se mete dentro de mi pecho, me saca el corazón.

(FADES OUT)

(READS POEM IN ENGLISH)

someone is eating my eyes one by one, and stripping the flesh from my ears, climbing into my chest, pulling out my heart. those must be whiskers i’m feeling on my skin. little whiskers and also light scratches; i bleed, feel somebody’s tongue and tiny teeth. it’s simultaneous, all over my body, on my face, scalp, feet, stomach, chest. all of me covered in soft footfalls. one thing: it doesn’t hurt, or tickle; that’s all. the beating of four delirious paws, overwhelming me.

i don’t know how i ended up in this room, don’t know how i fell unconscious as they rushed forward. they began to devour me, little by little. nibble by nibble, lapping at me. i no longer have a nose, it’s a hole. nor a windpipe. another hole.

i must’ve lived alone in this horrible house. someone abandoned me, and let them seize everything.

my neighbor is from tucumán. my neighbor hates me. she’s blocked off the window. there’s no light, everything is dark, she’s closed me in. she thinks she owns the light. she raised the cats, and then they came to my house.

and i fell, parched, lightless. my neighbor must be happy. i have no lips. there was no one to kiss me.

i am not hot or cold. someone should tell my neighbor to open the window. that way the cats will go back the way they came.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Suzi F. Garcia: Thank you so much. I love that poem. (LAUGHS)

Jennifer Shyue: (LAUGHS)

Suzi F. Garcia: I love it. I just think it’s so amazing. So, “woman eaten by cats” is a poem from a new book of Julia’s poems that you’re translating, Un salmón ciego. How will you translate that title?

Jennifer Shyue: I think I’m going to translate it pretty literally, I guess is what we would say, although I often don’t know what that word means, really, in translation. But yeah, I’m going to translate it as, A Blind Salmon.

Suzi F. Garcia: Can you tell me a little bit more about Julia and how you came to translate her work?

Jennifer Shyue: Thank god for Interlibrary Loan. Really miss having that, now that I’m not a student. I dug into, you know, scholarship that was available, and there was a monograph by the scholar Ignacio López-Calvo named, Dragons in the Land of the Condor. And it was about several Pervuian writers of Chinese descent. Julia was one of them. And so I, you know, dug more into the work, and really was drawn to Julia’s work. Yeah, it feels like we share maybe a lot of obsessions, and her work—there’s a lot of her work. I think she’s at, like, 17 books of poetry now, is how many books she’s published.

Suzi F. Garcia: Can you share a little bit about what those obsessions are that y’all share?

Jennifer Shyue: Yeah, absolutely. I think definitely an interest in multilingualism. Julia speaks, obviously, Spanish, English, German, Portuguese, you know, very multilingual, has lived in a lot of different places in a way that I admire. Obviously in Peru and Mexico and Argentina, Portugal, and Hong Kong, Macao, Germany. And Julia was born in 1965 in Chepén, which is a desert city in the north of Peru. So, different generations. But I think she also has, you know, spoken to me about feeling like she didn’t fully belong to one place. And I think that comes across in her work. Like, all of her languages show up in her poetry. And, you know, the feeling of being in between, not being wholly of one place or another, mother-daughter relationships. And the body, I think, is an important thread in her work as well. So all things I resonate a lot with as a reader in general. And then, given that translation is, in many ways, a deep form of reading, also things that I’m really drawn to as a translator.

Suzi F. Garcia: Can you speak a little bit about what it’s like approaching translation through the lens of hybridity as a hyphenated individual. (LAUGHS) Like, I also am a hyphenated individual. Sometimes I also think of us like adjectival individuals, right? Because we’ve got, like, all of these, like, commas and stuff in front of our, our names sometimes. So, thinking about how hybridity works in language, as well as in identity in these cases.

Jennifer Shyue: Being on the hyphen, which is also in itself a construct that is very complicated, I think there are a lot of Asian American writers who have fought to, for Asian American, the term, to not be hyphenated, right, because “American” comes first or is qualified by “Asian.” That’s, like, the move in style guides now, is to not hyphenate the term Asian American. I really love the hyphen, because I think it implies the creation of a new thing, which is how I think of my identity, it’s like not wholly of one place or another, but also not like a separation between the two parts of that term. You know, I don’t want “American” to have primacy in the label, Asian American, in the way it seems like maybe prior generations or other Asian American people in the US have wanted it to. And I see sort of some of that happening, too, in this discussion around Tusán identity in Peru, that is definitely being cultivated, right, very purposefully, by people who want for, you know, some of the Chinese influence in Peru to come more to the fore, for there to be more conversation around how vital a part of Peruvian history and the Peruvian fabric the Chinese migration is. So like, this word, Tusán, which is a borrowing from Chinese, I’m not sure which dialect, but a phrase that in Mandarin is tǔshēng, which is “local born.” So it’s a borrowing from Chinese, but is now, you know, a Peruvian Spanish word that is used to refer to Peruvians of Chinese descent. I personally see echoes of my interest in creating like a space that’s, you know, doesn’t have to answer to one or the other side of a hyphen.

Suzi F. Garcia: So, when we think about translations, we often think about a one-to-one situation. But there’s not a one-to-one English translation for Tusán. Tusán is a Spanish term for Peruvian citizens whose ancestors came from China. Can you talk a little bit about why there isn’t the one-to-one translation of that word?

Jennifer Shyue: How these words come to be reflects, like, different conventions in language as well, like, I think it’s kind of hard to use a hyphen in that way in Spanish, right. And this idea of Asian American—Asian is also a political construction that has a starting point in the 1960s in the US. At least until very recently, doesn’t really have an equivalent in, you know, the Peruvian context, I don’t think, at least from what I’ve heard from conversations with people. Right, like Asiatico is not really a word that, until very recently, has made sense as a word that people actually use, right? You know, if you want to say Chinese Peruvian, like, someone I spoke to was like, Oh, yeah, when you say, “Peruano Chino,” like, that sounds like the association, right? Like, that doesn’t sound like a person, right? And there’s also no hyphen in that construction in Spanish, Peruano Chino, Chino Peruano, depending on how you’re saying it. Or Chino, Chine, China, right, like, reflecting it by gender. I mean, this is something I struggle with. How do I translate Tusán? Do I even, like, I think at this point in our, you know, collective understanding, I kind of do want to translate it, because otherwise it’s just this thing that people are like, “Oh, I’ve, you know, like, this is just a word that maybe I’m not going to look up,” and so I do sort of right now translate Tusán as Chinese Peruvian. Whether that’s the right translation for Tusán, I think is very much up for debate. Given how we construct identity in the US, maybe the one that is going to be accessible in a moment makes sense to readers. But yeah, whether it’s the right way to translate the word Tusán, I don’t know. Like, I think that’s definitely a conversation to be had. And I think, I mean, you know, like, I think, my mom when I was growing up would call me ABC, which is American Born Chinese. And that’s like, sort of a shorthand that I think a lot of maybe Sino diasporic parents would use, right? I don’t, I don’t think I ever called really myself ABC. I don’t know if that’s a term I identify with, but there are, you know, these words come from all different corners. Yeah.

Suzi F. Garcia: Well, I think that I’m going to end on kind of a biggie question. You once wrote, “Who does the American English belong to?” Who do you think it belongs to?

Jennifer Shyue: I think it belongs to anyone who uses it. I also think, you know, like the construct of belonging to begin with, right, like, how it’s rooted in capitalist foundations and why maybe that is a question at all is like: What belongs where? Who belongs where? What belongs to who? Yeah. But I would say in short, my short answer is, I think American English belongs to everybody who uses it.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Jennifer Shyue:

(READS EXCERPT FROM “el desierto ahuyenta este campo sagrado de insinuaciones burdas” by Julia Wong Kcomt)

ahuyenta este campo sagrado de insinuaciones burdas, complejo de ciudad, de alma humana queriendo

(FADES OUT)

(READS “the desert dispels this hallowed ground of coarse insinuations,” English translation of “el desierto ahuyenta este campo sagrado de insinuaciones burdas”)

the desert dispels this hallowed ground of coarse insinuations, complex of city, of human soul wishing to daub itself in iron, cement, stained glass windows, saintly osculations, medieval mosaics.

the desert brings in that infinite layer, its color between white and flesh, between beige and cinnamon smeared on the horizon; it delivers clear thoughts, sand in mouth, discomfort almost necessary to recreate the glorious aura of a happy, calm, dissolute mind, capable of harboring it all and digesting it, precise mouthful.

the desert flays the chewed nails, sloppy polished, among the chaos of a bored housewife, poorly peeled squash, broken buckets, soap for floors. it returns me to image and likeness of the music brushing against the cleaning of view, blood turning to sand. dunes and dunes, those words. footsteps in the silence, unambiguous. a tempering of well-used will, as if no morals were needed, nor history between the agrarian movements in which the measure of chastity was lost in the metropolis oozing coffee, cigarettes, amazons struggling fashion, cosmetics, the unscathed gaze of plasticity.

desert in your eye.
desert in my hand.
desert cold and hot.

desert on a mild night, in the ready ear of a queen bee preparing the battle’s final stinger.

a pair of fabricated wings furrows the corollary of twilight. the desert shrinks rage, burnishes poison and i’m the sky’s fabrication, i’m a blown-up cloud. with my love i strike down the whole street, i am a whale.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Suzi F. Garcia: Jennifer Shyue is a translator focusing on contemporary Cuban and Asian-Peruvian writers. You can read Shyue’s translations of Julia Wong Kcomt in the February 2022 issue of Poetry, in print and online. These two poems are from the book, Un salmón ciego, which Jennifer is in the midst of translating. Her translation of Julia’s book, Vice-royal-ties, came out in 2021 from Ugly Duckling Presse. If you’re not yet a subscriber to the magazine, there’s a special rate for podcast listeners. For a limited time, you can get a full year of the magazine for $20. That’s 11 book-length issues for just $20. Visit poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer to subscribe. That’s poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer. This show is produced by Rachel James. The music in this episode came from Resavoir, Alabaster DePlume, John McCowen, Rob Mazurek, and Irreversible Entanglements. Okay, that’s it. Until next time, be well, stay safe, and thanks for listening.

This week, Suzi F. Garcia sits down with Jennifer Shyue, a translator focusing on contemporary Cuban and Asian-Peruvian writers. We hear two poems by Julia Wong Kcomt, whose work Shyue has been translating for the past three years. Kcomt was born into a Chinese Peruvian family in 1965, and although Shyue was born in the US decades later, they share many obsessions. Kcomt traveled from an early age, traversing borders, languages, and cultures, and these multiplicities motivated her to write poetry. Shyue’s interest in hybrid identities and linguistic border crossings also motivated her to translate. Garcia and Shyue talk about what it means to write and translate from hyphenated or adjectival identities, as well the connections between language and identity.

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