Photo of Christine Wu, credit to Leah Pohlman
“There’s a lot of emotion unsaid between my family and myself,” Christine Wu says over a call, reaching us from her maritime home in Kjipuktuk (Halifax). She is speaking of her immigrant parents and the silences they filled with food. “Somehow food has become the language that we speak to each other.”
This is a prelude to her award-winning collection of poems, Hungry Ghosts.
Steeped in loss and love, Hungry Ghosts is an eight-poem microcollection taken from Wu’s forthcoming book, Familial Hungers. The 36-year-old wrote the poems during an MA at the University of New Brunswick. Her triumphant academic return followed a decade-long break from writing, or what she called the “gestation period needed from the trauma of growing up.”
Its title refers to a traditional Chinese belief of the afterlife. Beyond the western concept of ‘unfinished business’, a hungry ghost must endure punitive measures: if in life you were ‘bad’, your fate is to return as a ghost and roam the world in a state of hunger. In practice, this extends into the Chinese tradition of altars, where ‘good’ descendants leave food for the hungry ghosts. The tradition continues to this day, as this week marks the beginning of the 2023 Hungry Ghosts Festival, held in the seventh month of the lunar calendar and celebrated by Chinese communities around the world.
Now, in a conversation that sets the scene — or table — for her forthcoming book, Christine speaks about growing up between cultures, finding her footing as a writer, and grappling with the ethics of writing about unspoken family trauma.
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PEN Canada: You begin your collection with “Obit”, which is in part a response to Victoria Chang’s collection of the same name. By referring to an obituary, the poem sets a tone for the collection and introduces characters and themes in a palpable, eloquent way. I was struck by your decision to begin with an ending.
Christine Wu: There is a clichéd aphorism about how there are “no endings, only beginnings”. This collection is a way in which I work through grief — the grief of fractured relationships, of lost language, of living through colonialism and racism, and of intergenerational trauma. As such, it is very much a collection that occurs after these losses have occurred. An obituary does not close the door on mourning, it merely points it out. Starting with “Obit” helped set the tone for the way in which the collection is an exploration of grief, of the many offshoots from trauma that emerge in living in the aftermath.
In the work, you hint at memories of Chinese immigration and displacement carried into a generation which did not directly experience them. This is not unlike ‘postmemory’, a term coined by psychologist Marianne Hirsch. What is your interest in postmemory? Can you speak to what you, alluding to Jenny Banh’s essays, call “shadow histories”?
My interest in postmemory stems from the ethical questions that emerged in the writing of these poems. There was so much I didn’t know about my family history, that I did not feel able to directly ask my parents about due to the fractures in our relationship and the ways in which they have avoided certain topics in the past — their shadow histories. And yet — these traumatic memories that my parents and grandparents experienced somehow seemed to be a part of my life. Our family’s collective shadow histories — the things that go unsaid — haunted me and I wanted to explore them in poetry.
I wrestled with whether the poems I was writing were factually correct, whether it was ethical to implicate my family in my flawed memories and projection. When I came across Marianne Hirsch’s definition of postmemory, I knew it described what I was doing — the poems are an imperfect construct that I have created. This is not to say that the narratives or imagistic details are necessarily made up but that, whenever we attempt to capture a personal truth within the limitations of memory and language, there is “imaginative investment, projection, and creation” (Hirsch).
It’s interesting that so often psychology finds its way into poetry. Ivy Kwong, a psychotherapist who specializes in AAPI mental health, has said “food is the Asian love language. It’s the cut fruit, sharing dishes, and sending you off with containers of leftovers.” She is not alone in saying this about food in Asian culture. So, for your poetry collection, why food?
In many Asian countries, “Have you eaten yet?” is a common greeting, akin to asking “How are you?”. It goes to show how pivotal food is in denoting care in Chinese culture. I wanted to centre food in my collection because, amidst all my family’s breakdowns in language and communication, food was a way in which we connected.
Despite the complicated realities of my relationship with my family of origin, along with the fact that I live on the east coast and they live on the west coast, I found myself making dishes from my childhood. In cooking and eating, I felt a deep connection with my family — with my mother especially — and it helped me to understand better how food was a language that spoke across barriers for us.
The term “hungry ghosts” has found a place in pop culture, in books and TV series. Why do you think an idea steeped in tradition speaks so clearly to the modern world?
Regardless of the many beliefs as to why one might become a hungry ghost — whether it’s the fault of the ghost themselves or the unfortunate circumstances in which they find themselves —the fact remains that they are cursed with insatiable desires, always hungry. In communities that have experienced trauma — particularly from colonialism, racism, and other structural inequalities — the idea of hungry ghosts and our flawed attempts to feed the dead are born out of a hope that one day we might be able to find a way to rest in peace.
The collection speaks to your second-generation immigrant experience, how you noticed resilience in your family as you grew up. Potently, in the poem Multilingual, you ponder the dysfunctions of a second-gen identity. Unpack resilience: What does it mean to you as a writer? What does that word mean for your family?
Like many other second-generation kids, I was mostly concerned about ‘fitting in’. As a result, I regrettably spent much of my childhood noticing how my parents did not fit in (amidst Western culture) and how that affected me. Exploring this strained relationship with my family of origin, I have been able to get a slightly bigger picture — one in which my parents have experienced trauma and tremendous hardship yet have carried on in face of it all.
It is both unfortunate and poetic irony that both my parents grew up in British-colonized countries (Hong Kong and India) and moved to yet another British-colonized country (Canada). In that sense much of their lives were not their own and yet they exercised as much agency as they could in immigrating to Canada with the hope of a “better life”. Surviving colonization and white supremacy is an act of resilience. It’s incredibly difficult to move to a place where you don’t know the language, have few connections, and are looked down upon. I now see how the ways in which my family lived were acts of resilience. As a writer, documenting these memories is one way to acknowledge the strength behind them.
You reference the work of two poets, Jane Wong and Victoria Chang, and you write of mothers, aunties and daughters. In an industry where female poets, especially those of colour, are underpublished and underread, what role does female mentorship play for emerging writers?
Representation matters. I was first introduced to literature through a mostly white, male canon and while I fell in love with poetry, I wasn’t aware of many contemporary Chinese poets. Emerging writers — or, as I like to call myself, “baby poets” — often begin learning through imitation, trying out new forms and techniques we have seen on the page. Even though the act of writing is inherently creative — as in, the possibilities are endless — it helps to see examples of what is possible, especially when you are just starting out.
In my case, it was revolutionary to see poets like Victoria Chang writing about postmemory as a Chinese daughter, and Jane Wong talk about her childhood with lines such as “During elementary school, I did not say a single word, not even when called on, and thus the teachers and administrators decided I could not speak English because they looked at me”.
Seeing other writers reclaim painful memories of being Othered through writing was empowering. It allowed me not only to see the possibility of writing my experiences, but helped me realize I was not alone.
If you were to have a meal with the collection’s hungry ghosts and the people you mentioned that are closest to you, what foods would you start, serve during and end the meal with?
I would start with ginger scallion fish, steamed and served whole to be shared amongst everyone. Steamed whole fish is one of the most symbolic Chinese dishes — always served at Lunar New Year, as the word “fish” is a homophone for prosperity, surplus, abundance. I’d want this to set the tone for the meal and its guests — the idea that there is more than enough to go around.
I think I’d want the main course to be hot pot, partly because it’s one of my favourite celebratory meals that’s best eaten in community. Again, there’s a lot of abundance in the way the meal is set up: plates full of sliced meats, seafood, tofu, mushrooms, leafy greens, root vegetables, noodles, dumplings, various dipping sauces — it’s truly a feast. It’s also incredibly fun and interactive to be able to cook at the table, an hours-long event that allows for a lot of connection and lingering over the food. As a host, it also brings me great delight (and relief) to be able to accommodate a variety of preferences and to know that there’s something available for everyone.
I’d end the meal with tong yuen, little glutinous rice balls (often with a filling such as black sesame seed paste) served in a sweet and gingery hot broth. Here again, tong yuen are symbolic because “tong yuen” is a homophone for togetherness or completeness. It would be such a sweet way to complete the meal together.
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Christine Wu is a Chinese-Canadian poet who lives in Kjipuktuk (Halifax, NS). She holds a BFA from the University of Victoria, a MLIS from Dalhousie University, and a MA from the University of New Brunswick. Her work has appeared in various literary magazines, including Arc, Contemporary Verse 2, The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, and Room. She was a finalist for the 2022 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and won the 2023 RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award for “Hungry Ghosts”.
She is currently working on a second collection of poetry, about her experience deconstructing faith and leaving evangelical Christianity as a Chinese-Canadian woman. She is also getting Familial Hungers ready for publication.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.