David St.-Lascaux (Rail): In the initial "Slumber" stave of "Episodes," you wrote:
I always find myself back
in the Dust Room where
my face is broken in the reflection
of fine porcelain. I have so many
white dresses I will soil for no good
occasion. Common things
call to me: crickets, at night black ducks
drowning in the weeds.
There is nothing complicated about this
except sleep walks to lie down
in the shape of my body.
Lewis Carroll wrote at the end of "Life is But a Dream":
Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?
My first impression of Of Gods and Strangers was that it is essentially oneiric: that its author is recording ornate dreams, sleepwalking, or hallucinating a Ouija board doppelgänger (the Empress). What's happening here? How was Gods invented?
Tina Chang: It's such a beautiful introduction to use that for the book. I have to admit that this is the first time that I'm talking about the book. It seems rather dreamlike to be talking to you, another person outside of myself, about it. So much happens in the imagination of the writer as they're making a book. This the first time I am giving order to the whole process of what I was going through as I was writing.
I use the word doppelgänger and it's exactly what I was thinking about. I was thinking about the Empress Dowager (all of this was written after 9/11) and I couldn't help but feel like I was in a dreamlike state after that happened. Right after 9/11 at first I think there was a sense of powerlessness, in fact I actually just wrote about it for a Brooklyn paper as I was reflecting on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. My immediate reaction was that I stopped writing for a while. I became very silent. I felt a huge sense of powerlessness. I always thought that phrase "habit strong" affects all people, that I could change your world with my words. It was why I became a poet to begin with, and then after 9/11 I thought: What are the reasons for all of my words? What can I really say about my world, my situation, g*d? If I wanted to say anything about g*d, is that the core of all conflict in the world or is it people's interpretation of g*d that offers the conflict, or the wrong interpretation of g*d? And are there wrong interpretations of g*d?
I wasn't able to answer those questions, so I felt deeply powerless in my endeavors and I became silent for a long time. It wasn't until I had co-edited an anthology called Language for a New Century [ed.: with Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar] that I began to discover these incredibly strong voices from around the world, and at the same time I was doing research on the Empress Dowager of China. Now here is a person suddenly I could connect to, and why was this? She wasn't only a doppelgänger: she was a ghost to me, an alter ego; she was all of these things to me. Here was this woman in a time when women were supposed to be powerless and lifeless. She was a very powerful figure during that time period. She was an unknown peasant who came into power because of her wiles—some people say because of her manipulation, and because of her power she rose to a point where she was ruling China. And it was through this doppelgänger that I thought I had a hook; I could attach myself to her, and through her I felt that I could gain this power, this power to write again.
In fact many of the poems in regard to the Empress are persona poems: they're not written as me. I was living my life through her. I began to slowly gain my power back again. And talking about it feels emotional especially with the passing of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. It was about the fall of myself as a writer and a poet, and then regaining that power through this figure in time. You reference this idea of dreams, and I use this image of the dress to stand in for a figure or shape. I say that we inhabit these bodies, and inasmuch as can inhabit them we can let them grow. Who are we here in this lifetime? Our lives can pass so very quickly! What are we doing here at this moment of time? What is our purpose? All of these things are called into question in this book. I wouldn't use the word therapeutic, but it did assist me in gaining my voice back, once again.
Rail: In "The Full Faces of Dogs are Barking," You write:
… The last thing
to do was fall asleep, the body so spent, it lay
in exhaustion like a flat tire. That felt like truth
but it was more threatening. I once saw a dying horse
The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker identified five markers for morality in "The Moral Instinct" in the New York Times. Remarkably, no one [surveyed] identified truth as a moral value. Why do you think that is, and what is the importance of truth in your poetry?
Chang: Something that was really affecting me at the time on a personal level was the sense of truth and what the truth is. The word truth pops up in many of my poems. At the time, I was being untruthful about my entire life. I felt like I was living many different lives, and not telling the truth to totally different people, and I think it was to keep up an end of myself. Writing this book allowed me to shed the notion of the façade, so masks come up a lot in relation to the truth.
I was trying to explore what truth was. Even now when I talk to my students in class I always say truths are separate from one another. And in this lifetime, we need to find ways to have our truths compromised. Everyone's own sense of truth was conflicted with each other's around the time of 9/11. Everyone's interpretations of either the Bible or the Quran; at the moment when they're sitting there with the text, they think, this text in front of me is the truth, and I will follow that truth to the end. And I thought "If that is truth, then I don't think I can follow it." I had to go out on this journey to discover what that is, and by the end of it I found it was something personal. The closest I could get to truth was what I was writing in my poems. Writing this book is the most truthful I've been in the last ten years. The entire book is not about sex or intimacy: it's about the interplay between truth and g*d, or truth and g*d in relationship to what intimacy is—our relationships to one another. In regard to truth, it becomes eventually a personal interpretation, almost on the same level as prayer. Everyone's relationship to it is singular, internal and different from another's.
Read the rest of this wonderful interview here, at The Brooklyn Rail.