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Anisfield-Wolf: Victoria Chang, In Search Of Words For Grief In 'Obit'

"Obit" by Victoria Chang [Issac Fitzgerald]
The poems on the cover of Victoria Chang's "Obit" are shaped to look like mini-obituaries

For the next several weeks, we continue to highlight the work of the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winners. This longstanding Cleveland literary honor goes to writers who address racism and diversity in their work.  

Los Angeles-based writer Victoria Chang won this year’s poetry prize for her 2020 collection, “Obit.” After spending more than a decade watching the slow decline of her parents, Chang said she needed to put her conflicting feelings into words. She looked to classic literature for guidance, but said those writers didn’t track with her Chinese-American experience. “Obit” emerged as a way to express her grief.

The process of writing the book took her down some unexpected pathways. She compared it to walking a dog.

Victoria Chang takes "Mustard" and "Ketchup" for a walk in her L.A. neighborhood. [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]

“Because, sometimes writers have ideas. We have things that we want to say, preconceived notions, preconceived ideas,” she said. “That is like the biggest nightmare for me as a poet. I do not want to know at all what I'm thinking or feeling. I just want to just be taken along in the process. So, something I always tell my students to is, like, you don't want to be the person that's walking the dog. You want the dog to walk you. You want the language to take you for a walk.”

The death of Chang’s mother in 2015 after an extended illness, prompted one of the fastest poetic walks she’s ever taken. She rapidly wrote dozens of poems over the course of a two-week period. But, all that writing actually focused on the loss of two parents – her mother, who died of the lung disease pulmonary fibrosis, and her father, who had suffered a stroke in 2009. Although he’s still alive, his descent into dementia robbed him of the ability to speak clearly or understand the simplest concepts. Chang said that watching the simultaneous decline of both parents was heart-wrenching.

One thing I always remember very vividly is like walking into my parents’ house and opening the door and just never knowing what I was going to find,” she said. “Would my mother be screaming at my dad because he’d had a stroke and he couldn't understand things very well? Would she be lying down and barely able to breathe? Would she'd be sitting up and feeling good? Would my dad be wandering around, mumbling something? What would I find? That was my life for, oh my goodness, like 10 years.”

The stress of such incidents informed her two-week burst of poetic inspiration. But the poems that emerged were very different from famous tributes to the dead penned by writers like W.H. Auden or Walt Whitman.

“I did not want to write traditional elegies because everyone else had done it and they had probably done it better than I could have ever,” she said. “And then also, being an Asian American woman with immigrant parents from Taiwan and China, I felt like my experiences growing up and everything about me is not very American. It's not very white, to be honest. And all these elegies were written by all these, usually, white men in the past. And my experiences just didn't feel like those poems.”

Instead of directly writing about the loss of her parents for “Obit,” Chang composed a series of poems reflecting on the myriad of smaller “deaths” that accompany the loss of a loved one: the death of friendships, the death of optimism, the death of language, the death of civility.

Civility - died on June 24th, 2009, at the age of 68. Murdered by a stroke whose paintings were recently featured in a museum, two square canvases painted white, black scissors in the middle of each, open, pointing at each other. After my father's stroke, my mother no longer spoke in full sentences. Fragments of codfish, the language of savages, each syllable a mechanical dart from her mouth to my father's holes. Maybe this is what happens when language fails, a last breath inward, but no breath outward. A state of holding one's breath forever, but not dying. When her lungs begin their failing, she could still say you, but not thank. You don't know what it's like, she said, when I told her to stop yelling at my father. She was right. When language leaves, all you have left is tone, all you have left are smoke signals. I didn't know she was using her own body as wood.  

- Victoria Chang, "Civility"

Unlike the celebrated elegies of English literature that praise historic figures, Chang said she was writing these words for herself, to try and express some deep feelings.

It really gave me the freedom to actually write about my own grief in a fragmented way, because everything died,” she said. “And then when my mother was sick, little things died every day and it was never linear. Some days would be better, but then it always goes down. And then my dad lost his language from a stroke, you know, 13 or 14 years ago. And so, loss is everywhere and every day. And then once my mother died, so much was lost. Even after that, it's like, her voice was gone, our language was gone. You know, she spoke to me in a way that she only spoke to me, and she spoke to my sister in a way that they have their own private world. And once someone dies, that private world is gone. And I miss it.”

Each of Chang’s mini-obituaries is laid out on the page in a narrow column, emulating the look of the typical death notice you might see in a newspaper. Throughout the book, she alternates this unorthodox style with a series of more traditional-looking poems, called tankas. Like haikus, tankas are a Japanese form written according to a strict syllable-count – in this case, lines one and three have five syllables, and the rest are seven syllables long. Many of Chang’s tankas are addressed to her children.

You don't need a thing

from me, you already have

everything you need:

the moon, a wound on the lake,

our footprints to not follow.

- Victoria Chang, "You don’t need a thing"

She said, one function of these verses is to provide the reader with some breaks from the pain and sadness of the obituaries.

“The tanka is definitely, I think, looking back on them, they seem to be trying to be more positive and hopeful,” she said. “And so, there is a little bit, tonally, of a change, whereas the obits are a little more stark and kind of like real talk, saying: This is what really happens when someone is dying and dying slowly. It can be very ugly.”

After spending more than a decade watching those losses, after dwelling on the hard lives her parents had lived and after considering what it takes to be a parent, Chang said her heart has gotten way bigger.

“I always describe it to people who don't have children: It's like your highs are way higher, but your lows are way lower,” she said. “You can have some really dark days as a parent and then you're just you're bursting with emotion and the peaks and the valleys are just more extreme and stretched out. And I think that it gave me a lot of generosity toward my own parents and how difficult it must have been to raise two kids in a different country and not really knowing the language that well. So, I appreciate that a lot more.”

And just because Victoria Chang had to invent her own way to write about grief, doesn’t mean she didn’t find some inspiration from classic literature. “Obit” opens with an epigram from Shakespeare.

Give sorrow words; the grief that

does not speak

wisper's the o’er-fraught heart, and

bids it break.

- William Shakespeare, "Macbeth"

“I think this is the perfect opening quote for this book because of, you know, Shakespeare's language saying ‘give sorrow, words; the grief that does not speak,’ you know, sort of implies that it's sort of duality, right? This is a grief that does not speak,” she said. “So, grief is something that is hard to put language to, but the act of wanting to give sorrow, words. And so, I think that's what I was trying to do with the whole book, which is give sorrow words.”

Ideastream Public Media's Mary Fectaeu and Shelli Reeves contributed to this report. 

Get to know more of the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners Thursdays in August during the "Sound of Ideas" on WCPN Ideastream Public Media. Celebrate all of this year's winners in a TV special airing Sept. 14, 9 p.m., on WVIZ. 

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.