Identifiable in any gathering by her scarlet hair, L. Kiew is not a poet who seeks to conform. Her pamphlet, The Unquiet, was published by the prestigious independent publisher, Offord Road Books, earlier in 2019. A Chinese-Malaysian living in London, and working as an accountant, she is someone whose work I have loved for a number of years – for its originality, and willingness to take risks to arrive in new places, and open different ways of seeing and speaking. Over coffee in the Poetry Café in Covent Garden – ahead of a reading by her publisher Martha Sprackland – we spoke about her rebel great-grandmother refusing to have her feet bound, Chinese ghost stories, diaspora experiences, writing in multiple languages and dialects, arriving in England from Malaysia, and what feminism means outside of America and Europe. To give readers a sense of her multi-lingual poetry live, L. Kiew recorded three of her poems, which are available at the end of this interview, with more on her website.
AH: Your biog says that you’re an accountant and a dancer. Were you always a poet as well – and when did you start actually writing the poems down?
LK: I probably wouldn’t have thought of myself as a poet until my late teens. As a younger child I was happily writing little stories. In my late teens and early twenties I began to think a lot about language, and about the people I was speaking to, and about the challenges of communication. That is when I moved into poetry. I was very influenced by the more experimental work.
AH: Were there any poets who particularly inspired, encouraged or supported you?
LK: Very early I found Lisa Robertson. She was very very influential. I stumbled across Reality Street Press, so I was reading a lot of work from them. That really opened up things for me and made me think about language in quite a different way.
AH: When you are starting out, if you can find someone who is working in your area, it radically expands the field, and your sense of the possible. When it’s on the page, you can engage with it at your own pace. If you are taught in class, often it is being slightly pulled out of you – whereas sometimes you need to work more quietly.
LK: The curriculum was always quite conventional. The canon of English poetry. Obviously it is changing now. I read English at University.
AH: Likewise. Sylvia Plath was as close as we got to contemporary poetry.
LK: She was for me too. Sylvia Plath was quite a big influence on my work, as were a lot of the Imagist Poets.
AH: I really loved HD.
LK: That was a kind of beginning.
AH: Did you have any kind of mentors – or were you just writing on your own?
LK: Pretty much writing on my own. There was a writer in residence at the University. I saw her once. I felt very outside the thing that everyone else was doing so it didn’t really gel. All of my engagement was pretty much on the page.
AH: ‘Swallow’, the first poem in The Unquiet is about working within a multi-tongued framework. You write about “overeating from the dictionary” and “nouns as sticky as langsat”, but also that “The words I swallow become/ feathers poking through my skin.” Would you say that language learning can be a form of migration in itself, separate from travel?
LK: Yes, because I think when you learn language, you move from one view of the world into another. It is about a change of state. I am a different person in one language than I am in another. Jennifer Lee Tsai write about this in her poem ‘Another Language’, published in Wild Court this year. It is a poem about being different in Cantonese and being in English and I feel that very much too.
AH: I grew up speaking French as well. Your thoughts take different shapes, reflecting the word containers that are available. I wondered if it was important for you to allow your readers to make this journey as well, into a different language, through the physically embodied textures and sounds of Malaysian dialect words with which your poems enact themselves?
LK: Language is a visceral thing – because it comes out of your body, and you experience it through the body as well. I wanted that to be in the writing. I also wanted that sense of when you walk down the street, and things are partially heard. For me, language is all about the lines between one kind of experience and another. I think of conversations and literature and your experience of reading as beasts that rub up against each other. You may rub a little longer some times than others. Sometimes you rub, and you move on. I wanted all of those to be possible in the experience of reading The Unquiet.
AH: When you read words that you don’t understand, you pronounce them in your head because you are trying to get the physical feel of them, to make an engagement. That is definitely a kind of rubbing that also opens your head to different sounds.
LK: I think you can engage in things in all sorts of different levels. One level doesn’t have to be privileged over another.
AH: Absolutely. Would you be able to say a few words about your own childhood – because that is where your understanding of the world originated? You were born in Malaysia, where both your parents were scientists?
LK: Yes, I grew up in Malaysia until I was 10. I came to the UK to boarding school – only going back in the school holidays. Both my parents are scientists. My mother is a botanist and my father is a zoologist. Nature plays a really big part in my writing as well, because of that experience.
AH: Once you started to come to England for boarding school, you were cutting between Malaysia and England, so you were having parallel but very different climates and landscapes?
LK: Yes. In Malaysia, my parents would do field work at the weekend, so we often went on expeditions with them, when they were collecting locally. When my parents went on longer expeditions, we went too. My father ran a field study station for the University for many years, and we spent a lot of time there as children. People in Asia are very tolerant of children so the university students let us be underfoot. I had this wonderful experience – of playing there all the time.
AH: This was in the rainforest? With that density of sound and heat and visual stimuli?
LK: Whatever the students were studying, we were looking at too. We were alongside when they were trapping and collecting things in the rainforest. It was all very close.
AH: It sounds really fantastic. Like Natalie Linh Bolderston, whose pamphlet The Protection of Ghosts has just come out with V. Press, your poems occupy the voices of people from multiple generations. I’m thinking of Ląomà and Ah Jek in ‘Haunts,’ but also ‘Pitched in’ and ‘The Catch.’ Could you say something about those three poems?
LK: Some poems in the book are about ghost stories that I remember – family ghost stories. ‘Haunts’ is a series of ghost stories that I was told about people in the family. The Chinese love ghost stories. I really wanted to explore that because it’s not a genre that translates into English much. I was really wanting to write a whole series of ghost story poems.
‘Haunts’ is also about my great grandmother who came from China. I have been thinking a lot about her life, because she moved at a time of great transition. When you look back, she was an incredibly strong woman. For her time, she made very very difficult choices. She chose not to have her feet bound and she came all the way across to Malaysia. Because her feet were not bound, she had to marry a much much older man. He died very early and then she had a whole brood of children that she needed to bring up. She was a very successful matriarch in that way – but also so incredibly tough.
AH: She would have had to be tough from the start to be able to resist foot binding at a young age?
LK: She had an iron will, I have to say. You have to admire those people who get through life with that strength when so many around them are, in a certain respect, powerless around certain things.
AH: What period did she come over to Malaysia?
LK: I don’t really know. Sometime between the turn of the century and before the second world war.
AH: There is real sorrow, and pain in ‘Pitched in’, which ends simply “dragging steps/ msa”msĭ/ the water is dark”. The words feel wrung from the speaker, but also flinty. You begin:
kangbāng covered in dust
a worn shirt on the line
with no one to fill it
Father at the door
I refused twelve
this was all that was left
kiaogià empty rice bowls
anguish springs like bamboo
on steep slopes
LK: ‘Pitched in’ covers choices about whom you marry. I was thinking of my grandmother’s generation, where those choices were not great. ‘The Catch’ comes from a family story about my great grandmother and how she didn’t have sons until quite late, and she adopted one son.
AH: ‘The Catch’ has this wonderfully direct, but also swimming-with-feeling, emotional language. Its metaphors are viscerally embodied, and through this, inclusive of the reader. We get the mood of the poem, its love, combative-ness, and wounded-ness, because we can intuit them from the diction. I’m assuming ‘our little fish’ is her son? The poem in total reads:
When he brought that stinky parcel
of catfish home from the market,
Mother-in-law turned her eyes away
like swifts swimming across water.
My heart was an empty
house with its red door swinging wide.
I held our little fish
safe from the monsoon, the gossip
of storm clouds hurled and smashed papayas
against the shutters.
It’s impossible to wash the face of
our house clean.
LK: In Asia, it was quite common that if you don’t have a son of your own, and somebody else had an abundance of sons, then you would come to an arrangement. It is a rumoured in the family that is what she did, so one of my great uncles is apparently adopted. As with all family stories, only half of it comes down to the next generation.
AH: Children come into families in many ways. What matters is the welcome that they receive, rather than the door that they entered through.
LK: Yes, and in Chinese culture a son is very very important. A son is always treasured.
AH: I love all the physical textures in the poem. The “storm clouds” and the “smashed papayas” – and how they speak to a world of unarticulated, but deeply felt emotions around this tiny baby coming into the house from a different background. You’re making in your words a very different world to what some readers in London know – and making it very tangible and palpable. Having been born in Singapore, I really appreciate it. You register heat, and humid atmosphere. That level of physical detail makes different realities three dimensional – rather than saying one place is real and everywhere else is ‘on the map’.
LK: It’s very real for the characters in the poem. I wanted it to be the same for the readers.
AH: That really comes across. There’s also a strong strand of feminism which runs through The Unquiet, again spanning generations, and social classes. ‘Francesca’ pays a beautiful tribute to a housekeeper “who walks to church/ daily, strong as bamboo// as persistent.” Elizabeth Bishop also wrote about women in positions of service, and more recently the film Roma honours a woman obliged to take this role in her employer’s family. Was it important to you to give space to this area of working lives? You say also that she “makes sweet/ and sour pork better than anyone” and “tends/ the avocado tree, […] picks its fruit”.
LK: We privilege experience in different ways. I feel that work is equally valid regardless of where it is done. Everybody has a thing they do incredibly well, that is very valuable. I wanted to foreground that because it’s very easy, when you read from a position of education, to say ‘They weren’t educated. They didn’t have great options, so their lives must be less rich’. I don’t that is true. It is really important to show that all of these experiences are equally valid –regardless of their relative socio-economic position, regardless of the position that we read into it coming from the west and being educated, and with a certain reading of feminism as well. It is really interesting to be asked about feminism in relation to this because I read feminism as a western concept. I don’t think my great grandmother or Francesca would recognise it in the articulation that exists. They would say ‘well of course we do these things but there are constraints’. But you know you can get around these constraints. It’s just a different articulation.
AH: I think if you have Francesca’s role, you are a functioning economic unit and that gives you agency. Every being needs agency. Having a value put on your services gives you the ability to pay for food, to pay for housing, to educate your children. It’s a very powerful way of claiming your space as a human being.
LK: There were people who chose domestic work as a career path. That’s not any different from any other career path you would choose. You know I would say Francesca, from the stories that she told me, chose it deliberately. It wasn’t that there were no other options. This is a path she deliberately chose.
AH: That was a real profession and a respected vocation. I just love that poem. It’s really beautiful and unapologetically celebratory. It really chimed with me.
LK: She is a marvellous and again, a very strong woman. Lots of strong women in my background.
AH: ‘Learning to be mixi’ is one of several poems which suggests that acquiring English language and culture can be a bruising, as well as enabling, experience, socially and personally. You write:
I was buckled in, and taken off
to England, the boarding school
(not like Enid Blyton, not at all) and
Cambridge, the colleges,
the backs and the hate,
suppressing the suffix-lah,
being proper and nice, cutting
my tongue with that ice.
Could say something about this? It sounds as if you were not necessarily treated in the kindest way?
LK: England was a huge culture shock. I considered myself a speaker of English. My mother was English. I didn’t perceive myself as being unfamiliar with the culture, having read English storybooks. You have an expectation – then you arrive. It is so so different. As a child you just go through life. It happens to you.
AH: You live in your skin; you get on with it.
LK: It is only now that I am an adult, and have contemporaries with children at that age, that I look back and think that was actually quite a bruising culture shock. Behind this writing, there has been a lot of reflection – to do with reaching a certain point in my life and seeing other people’s children.
AH: The boarding school I went to very hierarchal and very prioritising of social class and conformity. My father was dead, and I was in a dormitory with girl whose mum was a single parent. The third girl was from Northern Ireland. We felt marked as different.
LK: There were a lot of children who went home every weekend. The ones that were left behind at the weekend had our parents very very far away. It made a barrier.
AH: Certainly in the 70’s, when I was growing up, English people were not very tolerant of difference. There was a reluctance to allow people to integrate in the schools that I went to. Hopefully that is shifting now.
LK: Yeah, it has shifted a lot. Not everywhere to the same extent but there is certainly a lot more openness. Moving from England to Scotland was a really interesting dynamic. Scotland was very mono-cultural but with a very strong self-identifying of itself against English. As long as you were not English, you were in. It’s been interesting to move around the United Kingdom.
AH: ‘Speech’ begins “Ah Ba speak red: liddat tone/ of voice sure salah wan.” The poem goes on to enact a merging of dictions, and dictionaries, ending:
And I let my words landslide,
ferrous, carrying both stone chips,
rice and tapioca roots.
I dig down, ah, I speak lah,
pearl and pebble, new shoots.
Did this combining reflect an act of healing that has taken place within the pamphlet by bringing in so many different sorts of words?
LK: As I wrote the pamphlet, I began to really embrace that movement across languages and through languages. Recognising it very much as the identity that I came from – because in Malaysia people are usually multilingual to varying degrees. That kind of dropping between languages is very common. Going to Malaysia with my partner was a lightbulb moment. I realised that shifting between languages within a sentence – something that I took as absolutely normal – was not something that everybody else experienced or practiced. I wanted to embrace that part of myself as I think in different languages. I grew up speaking different languages all simultaneously.
AH: My father was half-French so I have French and English. I learnt Italian, and can follow Spanish, so I’m quite happy to shuffle languages. My Italian and my Spanish are not particularly good but but I can get by and listen to radio or tv in all those languages. It gives you a different mindset.
LK: In England people tend to view a language like EU customs tracks. You are put into lines, but life is not like that. There is a lot of movement with the writing across languages. It is much more common than it used to be, and also in more of the poetry coming out of America, with writers who grow up with additional languages.
AH: Although you don’t give translations, because the words that you use are phonetically spelt, rather than written in ‘Chinese’ characters, and can be sounded out, I didn’t feel closed out as a reader. I could still get their sound quality. It didn’t feel that you were putting up icy walls that I couldn’t go across.
LK: I chose romanisation for The Unquiet because actually for me there is an interesting politics around the learning of characters, especially now when the only way to be able to learn them would be through Mandarin. And the primacy of Mandarin is a kind of construct that has come out of the rise of communism in China, and the development that they describe as Mandarin being the common language. That wasn’t the case previously. You can write all Chinese dialects in characters but when you do that, what tends to happen is that most readers will then attempt to read them as Mandarin, which they are not. I didn’t want that at all. I wanted to foreground the primacy of dialect in that space.
AH: Which is also functioning much of the time within the spoken space anyway?
LK: Yes. It is also about levels of literacy and levels of education which sit behind the text on the page. I am English educated, but I am not Chinese educated.
AH: You presumably hold the dialects primarily orally? As sounds in your head?
LK: For me, Teo Chew, Hokkien and other dialects were always oral languages. A lot of the older generation would never have completed school, so would read little or nothing. There is not much literature in dialect available outside of China and I’m not sure how much there is within China itself.
AH: So in fact the ghost stories you re-tell are political, in that they are a form of family literature, and shared storytelling. They may not be written down but they are your heritage and a resource. When we have stories in common, or stories that echo each other – even when you said read Enid Blyton and I got it – there is bonding over those common imaginative currencies.
LK: Yes, I think stories are common currencies across a lot of cultures. We all have a degree of archetype. They get changed according to the context – but there will be things that people recognise.
AH: I felt it with the “red shantung” dress in ‘Haunts.’ ,
Ląomà believes the dead
cling to their possessions.
My dress is red shantung;
its last occupant is
heartbroken and tugging
on my hem.
The widower holds me
at arms’ length, cold and stiff.
I waltz around, around.
When I sink down, a white hand
strokes my feet, smearing black
blood over my cracked heels.
It is saying that clothes which pass between owners carry stories, but the dress is also the vessel in which you choose to pour a meaning, that is probably an archetypal, universal one – which each culture, and reader, will particularise. It is a story about past and present, and difficult relationships, and strange things, but also how we make, and find, images to understand our lives. On that note, would you like to say something about your decision not to give any translations, so the English language reader has to try to hear and feel the words they don’t understand, rather than simply dismissing them into meaning? Poetry has that ambiguity built into it. When you don’t translate a word – are you making it an extreme poetry moment?
LK: The whole thing with poetry for me is the consciousness of language. I am foregrounding of it, and foregrounding the sound and the shape. For readers who can’t access the meaning automatically, they have to engage in it quite differently. I wanted those things not to be that smooth. I like your phrase ‘dismissing it into meaning’ because there is sometimes a tendency in how literature works that everything is made easy for the reader. That is, easy for the educated reader. So again there is a sort of dynamic of privilege that is in language. Choosing not to translate was partly about undermining. I want to privilege people who come from that multiple dialect background, and who can recognise some of it. I didn’t want to privilege the reader who has gone to Oxford and who has Latin and Greek but not any other languages. In their text, they might not translate classical Greek on the assumption that all the rest of us should understand. I wanted to shift that dynamic. We have Google translate these days and so actually it’s easy to find out.
AH: Yeah, I really loved it as it was. I think your realisation was a great triumph. Towards the end of The Unquiet, in ‘Cryptography’, you write about words which lie “like a forgotten cellar/ under the house of your childhood”. In ‘Lassaba’ there are “paper wings/ filling the hall with their shadows”. Whereas the earlier ghost poems called up histories in which there was suffering and cruelty, this seems like a more nourishing form of haunting – allowing the past also to be present in a sustaining way, and establishing a form of equilibrium. Does that seem fair?
LK: The past is who you are, and you can’t change it. Those stories form who you are. It’s about reaching an equilibrium, because you have to acknowledge it, and take where you are, then grow from that soil.
AH: If you said to me cheese soufflé, I would straight away see the cheese soufflé in my French grandmother’s house, because that’s where I ate it. Whatever that word means to anybody else, to me it means a kitchen in Normandy, how we beat the eggs, grated the Gruyère, the way the spoon broke the crust when it was served. Soufflé is just a word – but it holds so much for me.
LK: And it informs all your future cheese soufflés doesn’t it?
AH: I made it when my elder son came home from university for the first time. It was a deep celebration. I wanted to reach back into the good part of my past and have it with us. On that subject, I know you were with Nina Mingya Powles and Natalie Linh Bolderston on a Bi’an retreat for writers of Chinese heritage. Nina tweeted that there was a lot of food talk. How was that as an experience?
LK: It was actually amazing; I have to say, completely, completely amazing to be in a diaspora group.
AH: Nina is New Zealand Chinese. Nat is Vietnamese Chinese English.
LK: It was amazing to meet people who come from different places in the diaspora, in different the waves of diaspora. The commonalities and the differences were extremely interesting. Those sorts of things are really enriching and so very fascinating – because it wasn’t just a retreat for poets. I only really interact with poets on the whole, so it was fascinating to meet people who write fiction, who do life writing, who write for the stage and who write for the cinema. It was a really broad experience. We did some fascinating workshops around translation – which was also really interesting. Working with a group of people with different language levels to read across languages in terms of translation was absolutely fascinating.
AH: Nat and Nina I know came back very happy.
LK: It was an amazing experience.
AH: Have you taken part in any writers’ activities in Malaysia? I know that Romalyn Ante has been really supported by a programme, which she won a place on in the Philippines, for Filipino writers. Did you ever participate in anything like that – or maybe there aren’t those kinds of programmes in Malaysia?
LK: Not that I’m aware of. Malaysia until fairly recently had a small publishing industry. So most Malaysian writers you would come across, Malaysian writers in English, tend to have come overseas and are published overseas first.
AH: Before we go down to hear Martha and Jean Sprackland read, can I ask, in conclusion, where are you headed next, creatively and geographically?
LK: Creatively I am working towards my full collection. I have been exploring the language that people use about the natural world, and what is a native species and what is non-native species. It is very much about belonging – but also drawing on that heritage that I have, from my parents’ scientific background.
AH: That sounds really good. Are you going back to Malaysia, working on this?
LK: I don’t go back that often – every three to five years or so. The more I thought about it, the more I realised lots of things migrate. If you look in your garden, and see where your plants originally came from, you suddenly discover that they are from all over.
AH: I have this ferocious yucca – which is definitely not from an English hedgerow.
LK: Lots of plants we think of as very common, or that have become very common like cyclamens, are not from here originally. Cyclamens are from around the Mediterranean and down to Middle East. Tulips are as well. Lots of plants that we think of as native to the UK are naturalised. They weren’t originally from here.
AH: That sounds like a perfect note to end on. Thank you very much, and thank you also for give us live readings of some of your multi-lingual poems, featuring Chinese dialects, Malay and English, which readers will be able to hear with these links.
L. Kiew will be performing at Rich Mix in London’s Bethnal Green on Saturday 13 July – ‘with a sword on her head’. More details here.
There’s also a link to L.K’s website with more information about publications and performances. L. Kiew is shown with fellow poet and Westminster Library collaborator Joanna Ingham – whose debut pamphlet is due out with Ignition on 22 July.