PRISM editorial board member Melissa Bull interviews Gillian Sze.
Gillian Sze’s latest collection, Peeling Rambutan (Gaspereau Press, 2014), was shortlisted for the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. She is also the author of The Anatomy of Clay (ECW Press, 2011) and Fish Bones (DC Books, 2009), which was shortlisted for the QWF McAuslan First Book Prize. Her work has appeared in a number of national and international journals, and has received awards such as the University of Winnipeg Writers’ Circle Prize and the 2011 3Macs carte blanche Prize. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from Concordia University and is working on her doctoral thesis at the Université de Montréal.
Congratulations on your beautiful book, Peeling Rambutan. Can you tell me a bit about how you came to write this collection?
Six years ago, I accompanied my parents to China and had the opportunity to return with them to their home villages. We also followed my grandparents and great-grandmother’s routes to Malaysia, and other parts of South China. I never intended to write a collection about the trip, but, as you’d expect, something so personal and embedded in history would seep into my writing. For a writer, such a trip is just one big and generous gift.
I noticed you dedicated this book to your great-grandmother. Did you ever meet her? What is the link?
I did – but so much of how I know her is through stories. My maternal great-grandmother was the matriarch of the family and deeply respected. There’ve been so many tales about this woman: how her stepmother insisted she have her feet bound, how she still worked the fields, how she raised two small children on her own, how she was a devout Buddhist but believed that goodness in any religion was the crucial doctrine. She was also very liberal and was known to insist on the equality between men and women – which was rare for someone born in 1895, living in a country where sons are revered and preferred (still) over daughters. By the time I was born, she was in her nineties, living in a nursing home in Vancouver. She was always the first person we’d see after driving the two days from Winnipeg. So for me, my great-grandmother came to represent so many things: Woman, strength, duty, storytelling, and history. She passed at the ripe age of 104.
At the age of 104! How incredible. I love the way the notion of inheritance reveals itself in everyday details in your work. Can you talk about the poetry of the aphorisms, superstitions, and recipes alluded to and included in this work? What do they mean to you?
So much of Chinese culture is, at its foundation, poetic. Our language and everydayness are steeped in mythology, superstitions, and deep history. Rhyming idioms were scattered throughout my childhood. We recited Chinese poetry in our Saturday Mandarin School. There’s something distilled in the Chinese character (which is derived from pictographs), so that even a single word can tell a story by its strokes. A word is compact – both in its visual presentation, and in its meaning. Each graphical component, unique in its own sense, lends itself to the whole significance of the word. So it’s no surprise, for instance, that the radical for “female” (女) is attached to characters that mean “mother,” “older sister,” “younger sister,” and so on. In “East is behind the tree,” I touch on the metaphor found in the assemblage of the Chinese character:
Peace is a woman rooted beneath a roof. Brightness is the sun beside the moon. Leisure is moonlight through an open gate. East is the sun behind a tree.
It continues to fascinate. I don’t know Chinese intuitively – English very nearly beat it as my first language – so I continue to live a little outside of the words. The language, its imagism and synthetic structure, still remain strange for me. To examine my heritage, ethnicity, and family history is to encounter this strangeness.
In the same vein, food and flowers have such delicate and vital positions in your poems. Can you tell me how the fruits and flowers of nature play into your work?
Every culture has a different relationship to its ecosystem. Flora are everywhere in Chinese painting and poetry. Everything is symbolic, meaningful, lucky, or inauspicious. In the chapter on sex imagery in the Chinese language, Lin Yutang tells us that even “the dew dropping in the peony flower is decidedly obscene.” Nothing is just one thing – that’s obvious enough – but it continues to be infinitely alluring.
Can you tell us a bit about “rambutan”? Can you talk a bit about “peeling”?
The first time I saw a rambutan was in Malaysia. It’s an odd looking fruit: aggressive, hairy, unearthly. You break it open by splitting it in the middle and peeling back its shell. Inside is a smooth, translucent, white fruit that’s sweet, much like a lychee. I bring up the rambutan in my poem, “Eating Fruit,” which is a poem about encountering and savouring new foods. I like the word “peel” for the book as a whole. The stripping off and uncovering (or discovering) something foreign, different, novel, other.
There is a lot of prose poetry in this collection. Did anything or anyone in particular draw you to this form?
Stuart Ross, who read an earlier draft of this manuscript, really pushed me to make use of the prose poem form. I initially had only a few prose poems, but I think Stuart’s suggestion immediately opened more possibilities when I allowed myself to switch from the rhythm of a verse to the flow of a sentence. In my revisions, I turned to the sentence because I preferred its roominess. Unlike my other collections, this one had a distinct temporal trajectory from childhood to the present, interspersed with recent and deep family history. I like the prose poem because it gave me some space to explore time, to slow down experience, and to maintain narrative.
“Always, our lines will lean against the night. Always, I will teach you how to walk in snow.” Tell me about “lines”. Lines as lineage? Lines as inheritance? Lines as calligraphy? Lines as poetry?
Probably the most important fact about a line is something that everyone learns in elementary geometry. What we draw as a line is really a line segment. A line, in fact, is immeasurable. It has no end points; rather, it continues to extend in both directions indefinitely. Always.
Melissa Bull is a writer, editor and translator based in Montreal. Her writing has been featured in Event, Matrix, Lemon Hound, Broken Pencil, The Montreal Review of Books, Playboy and Maisonneuve. She has translated such authors as Kim Thuy, Évelyne de la Chenlière, Raymond Bock, Alexandre Soublière and Maude Smith Gagnon for various publications, including Maisonneuve, where she is the editor of the “Writing from Quebec” column. Her translation of Nelly Arcan’s Burqa de chair was just published and her collection of poetry, Rue, is forthcoming.
Gillian Sze‘s latest collection of poetry is Peeling Rambutan (Gaspereau Press, 2014).