Epigraph Interview with Ting J. Yiu

Ting. J. Yiu is a Stockholm-based writer with an MA in Transnational Creative Writing. She writes poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. Her works have appeared in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Two Thirds North and Orientaliska Studier. Her writing has been selected for publication in New Zealand’s first Asian literary anthology A Clear Dawn: Asian NZ New Voices (Auckland University Press, 2021). Ting was an environmental educator in New Zealand where she spent most of her time teaching in a wetsuit while submerged in oceans and rivers. She now lives in Sweden, writing for an urban cycling sustainability startup. In 2019, Ting founded The Writers’ Collective where she leads creative writing workshops. She is currently working on a short story collection and a polyphonic novel about the Chinese diaspora.  

Amy Weng: When I first read your story, I was reminded of the writing of Han Kang. Specifically, the way you described the visceral encounter with death and dying, and how experiences of trauma reverberate across time. Is this something you had experimented with before? What about these ideas draw you in?

Ting J. Yiu: Death and dying are recurring themes for me because I find the corporeal morbidly fascinating. I’m a fan of both true crime and diaspora/immigrant narratives. They seem unconnected, but the two often intersect in unsettling ways. Society fetishizes dead women’s bodies, garishly displaying them in the media, their bodies objectified as sites of frequent sexual and physical violence. The immigrant body is similarly contextualised through histories of upheaval, war, and death. Both are subject to a gaze that erases the very real people experiencing those traumas, reducing them to spectacles for consumption. Of course, I’m guilty of participating in that gaze too, so this story is an attempt at mediating that fragile boundary between trauma and its fallout. As crude as it sounds, it’s giving a face, a mind, a history, to those bodies.  

Despite growing up with multiple Chinese festivals centred around death and practising ancestral worship, death remains a very taboo subject in our culture. It wasn’t until I returned to Hong Kong for a funeral that I experienced an absolute disconnect (I explore this in “Food and Liquor for the Dead and Dying” forthcoming in A Clear Dawn, 2021). Suddenly, my family had an avenue to openly tell stories about sitting vigil with the dead, exhumations, picking through bones for second cremations, and many other visceral concepts that were so overwhelming because they had never been broached before. It has taken me years to fully process, and it’s still something that I don’t quite have the bandwidth for. Gutting is my way of exploring those messy feelings, because death isn’t an abstraction or intellectual theory. It’s a universal experience that almost everyone has difficulty reckoning with. I wanted to understand it in a very matter-of-fact way because at its core, the minutiae of death are bones, blood, and guts. If we’re lucky, we never have to witness the visceral process of decay and rot. I wanted to imagine the consequences of death when the boundaries we artificially place around it are removed. 

I’m interested in the epigenetics of trauma where psychological burdens can be inherited, seeping through the generations. My characters are haunted by communal scars common in diaspora, hidden things that follow their ocean crossings and are articulated in aberrant, visceral, bodily ways. Navigating cultural and national boundaries intensifies dislocation. Their experiences are often invalidated in new countries where they lose their ability to articulate existential loss, or because the experience of otherness itself transcends language. Besser van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score helped contextualise the psychological implications that cause people to negotiate trauma through their bodies. In the absence of a voice, immigrants self medicate, inflict violence, or self-harm in order to dull their suffering.  

Like organs in my story, their secrets are hidden. Writing unearths that which is deliberately buried. When our insides – literally and figuratively – are exposed, turned inside out, we are forced to reckon with our selfhood. Their bodies become conduits for psychological pain, manifesting in ugly, tortured ways that are, ironically, a way to escape suffering. I read Monica Chiu’s Filthy Fictions to further explore how Asian female characters subvert stereotypes via vulgarity or filth. The characters in my collection are similarly deviant or defiled, people who transgress social boundaries by inhabiting their bodies in unacceptable ways. These bodies are uncontrolled, untamed vessels that refuse to be contained because and despite their displacement. My characters engage with their traumas by occupying spaces where they are not welcome, exposing their pain when it should be hidden. It’s a recurrent theme that uses the repulsive to confront our ideas about belonging, questioning the consequences of breaking social contracts.

AW: Kim is trying to escape a horrific event from her past. There are ways in which the landscape and environment echo her psychological state – a certain immutability or inevitability in the way her past catches up with her. Was this intentional? How did you come to the resolution of the piece?

TJY: I’ve always been taken by the ways different landscapes shape us on micro and macro levels. To me, the land has a strong psychic magnetism. I studied human geography, so I have this weird cartographical way of thinking about place and its relationship to people. As a child, moving from Hong Kong (one of the densest places on earth) to the sparse isolation of New Zealand, I experienced something akin to agoraphobia. With time, I fell in love with its stark, loneliness. But there’s a dark pull to this beauty that I wanted to capture. Dunedin’s stunning landscapes led me to conservation work but it also took me down a rabbit hole exploring its disquieting history; the massacres at Whareakeake (Murdering Beach), Mapoutahi Pā, and Aramoana, the haunted Seacliff Asylum, links to the Pacific Island slave trade and multiple sites of violent colonial encounters. It intrigued me that this isolated place could harbour so many hauntings and deaths, could remoteness create an insularity ripe for brutality? It reminded me of Frank Sargeson’s A Great Day where placid landscapes conceal the banal violence of being human. I wanted to capture this dichotomy between beauty and bloodshed, where landscapes intersect and interact with the psyche in disturbing ways. It’s how I created Kim’s psychological dissonance between past and present through her drastic environmental shift, how terrain and dislocation can unmoor a person. The shape and smell of rotting whales stranded on the lonely beach, the way land and sea dominates everything until the deafening silence overwhelms her, forcing Kim to confront a past that she’d rather hide. It’s this kind of isolation that can swallow a person whole.

I hesitate in saying this because it makes writing seem like an esoteric, unteachable process, but the graphic image of a woman wrapped in a deer carcass appeared so vividly before I even had a story that I was compelled to build a narrative around it. I worked backwards to create Kim so I could understand how a woman’s history and choices could lead to such an ending. It was important for me to show how her emotional and cultural dislocation is connected to the way deer are invasive, yet tolerated as game – both inhabit a tenuous, contested place in the landscape’s physical and cultural ecology. 

Someone once said that my “crazy women” are unrelatable, unempowering and unfeminist. Defensive at the time, I struggled to respond. My friend Nikki Torres dissected it really well: “To constantly write empowering female characters denies our histories because many women, especially women of colour, survive their relationships and traumas in ways only they know. We, their daughters, had front row seats to their lives. Most of the time, the way they navigated life was not empowering because of a whole list of factors: no support system, no money, no job, no belief in one’s abilities and struggling between two cultures. Women have to be these virtuous role models that aren’t allowed to break down. Your female mains break down in ugly, unorthodox, violent and seemingly petty ways that are still unsettlingly close to how any one of us could break down. We would do a disservice to omit these stories.”  

I’m starting to understand why I’m fixated on unsettling endings such as Kim’s because they come from a place of granular recognition. They’re not always uplifting because as immigrant, bicultural women, our experiences of carving new identities out of otherness is fraught with challenges. The toll of diaspora – a constant negotiation of physical, cultural and psychological boundaries – rarely results in the sense of belonging we need. The marginality of being a person of colour often leaves women damaged. Their experiences of domestic abuse, sexual and political violence are so far from the normality of certain audiences, that “crazy” seems to be a pejorative for “foreign” or “alien.” That’s why intersectionality and representation matter in any exploration of identity politics in and outside of literature. Coming from places of chaos, oppression, and denied agency, women who find themselves in new environments of quietude suddenly have to confront their traumas. Without adequate tools, support, or language, their empowerment is often attained through the only avenues they have left – the viscera of their bodies, engaged in the vulgar or taboo, using unhealthy coping mechanisms. And sometimes release only occurs through death. 

AW: I know that you have been living away from New Zealand for many years. What made you want to revisit this work?

TJY: Moving to Sweden as an adult I became an immigrant for the second time in my life. It made me reexamine my experiences growing up in New Zealand. Childhood shields you from the harsher realities of assimilation, you’re more resilient and naive. In Sweden, I finally understood how my parents detached themselves from everything they knew, giving up stability, their sense of self, trading wholeness and language for a shot at something uncertain. It gave me a more nuanced understanding of the difficulties of cultural assimilation. That’s why many of the stories in my collection have a New Zealand connection, they’re all narratives experimenting with these very personal questions. 

New Zealand is often portrayed as a utopia, but this version of our country excludes the experiences of people in the margins that are often invisible. It struck me that New Zealand’s beauty and isolation also hides its greatest pathologies. It’s a place where people can shed their past to remake themselves into anything they want. That’s the myth of migration right? Like the whales in Gutting, immigrants hone in on new places as beacons of hope, hanging their dreams on something entirely fragile and intangible. Sometimes because they have no choice, sometimes because they want to disappear. People like the Japanese tourist Keiko Agatsuma who was found living alone for months in a cave on Stewart Island, escaping a violent secret. Or Gu Cheng, the Chinese modernist “Misty Poet” who murdered his wife on Waiheke Island, and later hung himself. What are the costs of reimagining identities? What kind of damage can happen if we run too hard, or change too much? Those are the questions that keep me returning to New Zealand as a setting.

Also, having participated in the trapping, poisoning and sometimes shooting of invasive mammals, I found the language used in conservation – the preservation of a “pure” untainted nature – eerily similar to the narrative of New Zealand’s “Yellow Peril”. In both instances, violent measures are used to maintain artificial purity. Chinese were barred from entering New Zealand with the Poll Tax. They were pathologized as vectors of disease, thus by extension incapable of assimilation, just like the purging of invasive pests. I wrote part of myself into Kim because I’ve always wanted to belong, in the same way she does by performing her New Zealand identity with hunting. At the same time, she subverts it because it’s an activity highly symbolic in constructing the New Zealand male identity, but the ending suggests a liminality where she inhabits none of those things. It’s the diaspora experience in a nutshell. 

Another reason I keep revisiting it is because it won’t leave me alone! It’s been eight years since I worked in marine conservation, but I still have vivid, recurring dreams of diving in the Far North. New Zealand likes to haunt me from afar! If you love a place down to the bones of its geology and its ocean trenches, there’s no escaping it is there? Writing myself home is ultimately an act of longing. I can engage with nostalgia safely from a distance. The irony being that since I no longer live in New Zealand, my identity feels less contested. No one in Sweden questions my Chinese face paired with a New Zealand accent. What they do is question my Swedishness, but that matters less because I don’t feel this hungry need for acceptance or belonging here. I’m ok with inhabiting multiple liminal spaces. I can add “Scandinasian” to those messy hyphenations without losing my sense of self. 

AW: What inspires you? What are you reading at the moment?

TJY: I used to own an enormous National Geographic collection. Those bright yellow spines have inspired countless adventures in both life and fiction. I attended a workshop by Aimee Nezhukumatathil where she recommended natural history textbooks for inspiration. So Dorling Kindersley encyclopedias are my current obsession. I have a 500-page tome on oceanology, I use their excellent photographs and scientific captions as reference and for writing prompts as my collection is marine inspired. As I said earlier I love true crime, so I binge podcasts or documentaries when I need to decompress. Yes, it’s morbid, but real life is insane fodder for fiction. The lengths to which some people will go to satisfy their urges is terrifyingly compelling. I balance that with lighthearted shows like Kim’s Convenience and Lovecraft Country that are both doing fun, subversive things on TV. I’ve recently rediscovered fountain pens, so I’m experimenting with slowing down by writing first drafts by hand while improving my penmanship which has become illegible in the digital age. 

At the start of the pandemic, I didn’t have the brainpower to engage with fiction, so I read poetry instead. Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was An Aztec, Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus: Poems, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds are all thematically cohesive, sublime experiences. I’ve read a lot of linked collections lately because I’m experimenting with polyphonic voices. Some favourites are Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Women, Other, Regina Porter’s The Travelers, Mia Alvar’s In The Country, and Akil Kumarasamy’s Half Gods. Books that trampled me with their genius this year were Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Cathay Park Hong’s Minor Feelings and Rose Lu’s All Who Live On Islands. James Nestor’s Breath and Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim are helping me survive 2020!