JinJin Xu Interview
JinJin Xu is a writer, filmmaker, and artist born and raised in Shanghai. She is an MFA candidate at NYU, where she teaches hybrid ballet/poetry workshop through NYU Tisch’s Art of Future Imaginations Grant. Regardless of genre, her work grips its viewers with force and refuses to let go.
Her debut chapbook, There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife (Radix Media, 2020), is one of the winners of the inaugural Own Voices Chapbook Prize. It is an evocative collection—a hybrid work exploring different forms of censorship, individual and collective traumas, and the ways that those who have left us can still make their voices heard.
We talked via email, discussing what makes a poem a poem, the problem of self-censorship, the infallibility of memory, and more. To read more of JinJin Xu’s work, or to see her installations and performance art, visit her website.
I thought it would be beneficial to start our discussion with some context. The third and eighth poems in the collection make up a series called “To Red Dust.” You previously described red dust as a Buddhist way of seeing the world we inhabit; you even say that all of your poems are influenced by this mythological place because it is where they live. It is “the only place we have language for,” yet words often fail in the attempt to define it. Would you characterize all attempts at understanding our world—through poetry, documentary, painting, etc.—as being obscured in some way by red dust?
“Obscured” is an interesting way to describe this, because red dust, while certainly encloaking our lives—a common saying is “for sight to pierce red dust”—is also the very material of our being and not something I can discard or see through. While I may be aware of it, I am also made of it, and so are my poems.
I don’t quite know how to articulate this feeling, and I don’t want to theorize about Buddhist principles I know little about—to me, red dust is a feeling of the body, this raw, blasphemous feeling of being alive, the questioning of it.
So I think about our existence within language, how Paul Celan says, “The language with which I make my poems has nothing to do with the one spoken here or elsewhere.” And I realize this is what my poems are always trying—and inevitably failing—to reach towards: a language to break through the lolling, sticky feeling of being on this earth.
But of course, There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife is not only comprised of “language” in a literal sense. It is a hybrid work in that a number of the poems included contain some form of communication not traditionally found in poetry, such as images or footnotes. For instance, the second poem in the collection, “Night People,” illustrates darkness in a literal sense: with a page that is almost entirely blacked out in ink. Have you always included outside elements in your poetry? How can these elements help facilitate meaning in a way “traditional” language cannot?
Yes, although I don’t think of them as outside elements—to me, poetry was the foreign form, and for a long time, I felt trapped by how a poem should sound or look. The page itself felt like a restriction. In the first poetry workshop I took, I was taught to write in all kinds of traditional forms—but they always felt unfamiliar, the syllabic forms like loose-fitting shirts, or corsets. I didn’t know how to make space for the clashing rhythm of Chinese and English, the breath in between words, the way a sound lingers on the page like the tail of a dash, the light in between the image and the words. But most of all, I felt trapped by the physicality of the page, and it was a lonely feeling because no one else seemed bothered by it.
It took me many years to dare to return to poetry. In the interim, I learned to make poems through printmaking, sculpture, filmmaking. But I found myself ultimately devoted to language—which is how I found my way back to poetry, but with more ways to imagine and embody the very inarticulateness of language, its inherent fallibility. With each new poem, I am still reaching for a form, a container, that can intuit its inarticulateness.
Yes, I noticed that you are not only a poet, but a prose writer, artist, and filmmaker, as well. Having worked in different mediums myself, I know that it can be beneficial to explore other forms of expression, as they all have something distinct to teach. Can you speak more to how your practice working in these mediums affected the way you relate to form? How it affected your definition of “poetry”?
I think I resist trying to write poems that sound too like Poems — and while I will always have so much to learn from poems, I know I am particularly vulnerable to the lures of imitation. Often, when I read a lot of poetry, I begin to write like someone else, and my own writing becomes boring—too neat, I think, and I lose whatever slippery, messy intuition I have that is my own.
I don’t think I can define poetry; it is a form that lingers in the unknown. But because I am easily fooled by language—it is through other forms like sculpture and film that I learn to nurture my attention, to let silence linger, to follow a tension, or lack thereof, moving moment to moment without arrival. This strips away the aesthetic scaffolding of language, and teaches me to approach, care for, what is unknown inside of it.
When I am making something, I don’t set out to write prose, or make a film or poem. This restricts and pre-determines what the piece needs to become—in fact, I see it as the reverse. The work tries out whatever physical, visual, linguistic, logical, ethical medium it needs to take—and gradually takes shape inside the most fitting container. Of course, there are many pieces I am struggling with that may never find its form. Recently, during these lonely pandemic times, I’ve been learning so much through collaboration with others, which expands my work into possibilities I would never have been able to find on my own. For example, I have a few poems that recently found its way into a VR light installation, a form previously outside of my limited imagination. So poetry, to me, is a form that feels very fluid and embracive in this moment.
I love the way you phrased that, the “aesthetic scaffolding of language.” On a similar—if more specific—note, many of the poems in the collection consist of large amounts of white space. In some poems, such as “To Her Brother, Who Is Without Name,” this white space takes the form of caesura, splitting the poem completely in two. In others, such as the “To Red Dust” poems, these holes fall between brackets, implying missing words and dates. What function(s) do these empty spaces serve in your work, particularly in this collection?
I love that you noticed the space—though others have called it silence, which feels strange to me because the absence of words does not necessarily equate to silence, in the sense of its Gothic verb anasilan, ”wind dying down,” or the Latin desinere, ”stop.” Rather, I think the spaces call out to absences—swelling with what lies outside of language, over-flowing with what cannot be said. They are in fact very noisy in my head.
The brackets in my poems attempt to convey what is unsaid between loved ones, what cannot be said to those no longer here, language censored and erased. The empty brackets in “To Red Dust” originally did contain dates and places—but due to political sensitivity and privacy, I have chosen to “self-erase.” So perhaps the question becomes, who is this silent to? Because when I read it, there is so much there that I can’t even capture it in language.
I struggled with the brackets for a long time because it makes me feel complicit with self-censorship, but I did it out of necessity, trying to figure out ways to use censorship against itself. In Chinese literature, or in any Chinese discourse, public or private, we are taught to listen to what is unsaid, which is often louder than what is actually spoken. Double-speak can sound dystopic, but it also taught me from a young age to turn language against itself—where I first learned to listen to homonyms, slant of rhymes, to utilize the power of turning language on its head. Of course, I also learned how easy it is to weaponize language.
I’m glad that you mentioned self-censorship, because I wanted to discuss another topic that I believe ties in very closely with erasure and suppression. There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife is a collection which deals in large part with the imperfect process of memory. What is your relationship with memory in regard to your work—or, how do you reconcile your own memory with the memories of the others who appear in your poems? How do you reconcile memory with history, and its tendency to be manipulated by those in power? How much of your writing process is collaborative or research-based, if any? And can memory, like language, be weaponized?
Wow, these are the sort of questions I’ve been obsessed with my whole life, thank you for bringing me here. My awareness of the fallibility of memory began very young, when I realized my vivid memory of childhood was distrusted by adults. I remember with clarity many things before the age of three, but for some reason, adults always tried to convince me otherwise, telling me that I am merely remembering things they once told me. Which is true—our memories are inherently collaborative and ever changing, and my memories are inevitably altered every time I revisit them or hear them described through the eyes of another. And yet, there is an essence of a feeling you cling onto in memories you know is your own, even as they slip.
The poem you referenced earlier, “To Your Brother, Who Is Without Name,” was written out of this very helplessness. What happens to a memory when the person you shared it with is no longer here to corroborate, to deny, to share and embellish it together? There seems to be no greater responsibility than one’s attempts to convey a shared memory after finding the self and the memory suddenly alone when the other holder of that memory passes—any attempt to preserve its authenticity will always fail.
When I was sent to an international school in Shanghai at the age of eight, I began learning about the gaps in my Chinese history textbooks—which reflected the gaps in my parent’s memories, and thus, in our collective memory. It wasn’t an “enlightening” experience, in fact, it was violent, the way these foreign teachers made me confront what they saw as “the truth” I was blind to—their critiques were very colonial. I felt betrayed by adults in all positions of power and by the hand behind historical accounts—but I also felt a shattering within myself, when I realized how varying historical accounts clashed, especially between those that are state sanctioned, and the censored materials I now had access to in English. As I had no friends at my new school because I did not speak English, I made my way through all the English books in the library and compared it to what I knew (that was how I learned English). I also learned to bypass the firewall for the first time and looked up the news in English to compare to the news I saw on CCTV. I remember feeling the ground beneath me shift, realizing how truth could not be found inside historical records, or the news, or even words, but in the gaps when I pushed the two languages together.
And yes, certainly memory can be weaponized. I often felt guilty writing poetry until I read about Carolyn Forché’s poetry of witness—which is not to say poetry has to serve such a purpose—but to me, my role as a writer suddenly came into clarity. This year, during Covid, when I was at a loss for poetry, I began writing the only things I could—“Pandemic Diaries” inspired by Wuhan writer Fang Fang’s attempt to document the everyday and by the words of the exiled Chinese writer Yan Lian Ke:
"If we can’t be a whistle-blower like Li Wenliang, then let us at least be someone who hears that whistle. If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories. Having experienced the start, onslaught, and spread of Covid-19, let us be the people who silently step aside when the crowd unites to sing a victory song after the battle is won—the people who have graves in their hearts, with memories etched in them; the people who remember and can someday pass on these memories to our future generations."
I’m glad to hear that these questions are hitting the mark—it’s definitely gratifying to be able talk about the things that preoccupy us the most, especially when they seem so in flux.
With all of these big ideas in mind—memory, responsibility, censorship, the pandemic, the potential power of words, and the things we pass on to others—what role do you think poetry can play in times of such intense global unease as this? Can it be a way for an individual to “speak out loudly”?
I inherited the belief in poetry from my parents, though they did not have a literary education and are by no means of the “literary” world—but it was with them that I learned how one turns to poetry when at a loss for words, how poems lend us language. I recently watched Ai WeiWei’s documentary “Coronation,” which was made with footage secretly filmed during the Wuhan Covid lockdown. There’s a scene that struck me deeply: an elderly woman holding her son’s urn on a park bench, suddenly throws her head back, howling a tuneless elegy. I’d never heard the song before, couldn’t even make out the words, yet something inside me recognized it. Her spontaneous, unmediated grief called to something beyond language. Poems, too, imprint onto our tongues so we can reach past the realm of meaning in moments of desperation, holding us when there is nothing else to be said.
Through our private utterances, poems ripple into the public, collective consciousness—which makes me think of what a poem can say outside of ordinary language. In my poem “On The Isle of Fast Flowing Waters” (cut from the chapbook due to its length), I riff off a line that my father—and others in his generation—always quote: ”Black night gave me black eyes, I use them to seek the light,” from ”A Generation” by the exiled poet Gu Cheng. Like its prophetic title, the poem awakened a whole generation in the 90s into social and political consciousness. It has been quoted in countless protests since then to say what cannot be said and was recently sprayed onto the walls of the Hong Kong protests.
Of course, I do not think poems should fall into this realm of symbolism, like how that poem became a shorthand against oppression, against the state’s silencing. What is important when reading poetry is how it stirs us into recognition of another. What is loud, then, is not necessarily its public outcry, but the clang of its aftermath echoing inside our bodies and memories. It is the deep recognition of another consciousness, of “you, too” and then, the awareness of me—us.
That was beautifully put. Thank you so much for all of your insightful answers. I thought we’d wrap up this discussion with the classic question: what’s next for you? Are there any new projects in the works to watch out for?
Thank you! Your questions have given me so much to think about. I haven’t written much this year—I haven’t felt the clarity, or courage, to face my interiority, which I am realizing is necessary so I can enter, without fear, into my writing. But that’s okay; I hope we are all collectively resting.
Instead, this has been an unexpected year of “harvest”—I started sending out the things I’ve been working on over the past two years, and suddenly, I am finding my work in conversation with others outside of myself, which is exhilarating and strange in a year of being inside my four walls. When I am writing a lot, it’s hard for me to switch between facing inwards and outwards—but this year, because I am not writing, I was able to extract myself from the work to revise, putting poems next to each other and stepping back to see their outlines emerge, noisily next to each other.
I have also been following my impulse for documentary—filming mundane things and writing the previously mentioned “Pandemic Diaries.” I can’t yet process my experiences this year into poetry, but I just want to see and document everything. Another reprieve I’ve found is a children’s book project I’m writing with my friends Mei Kanamato and Alicia López. I am also working on a full-length collection, which expands from the central ideas/poems of the chapbook. Mostly, I’m learning to be at home—in a land and language I left seven years ago—learning about who I can be here.
Love in a Time of Pandemic
by Tamara Watson
... To escape / from the tyranny / of the invisible, / they dream / of living flesh ...
The Dolphin Lane Motel, Off-Season (1993-1996)
by Derek Maine
... You were too young to remember any of this ...