Anarchic Undersongs: Twin Interviews with Sarah Howe and Layli Long Soldier

by Stephanie Sy-Quia

This is the first in a new series of interviews by Review 31: we will be placing interviews with two authors side by side, allowing the correspondences in their work to come to the fore. For the first instalment, we have a twin interview with poets Sarah Howe and Layli Long Soldier. Sarah Howe is a British-Hong Kong Chinese poet who lectures in poetry at King’s College London, and whose collection Loop of Jade won the 2015 TS Eliot Prize. Layli Long Soldier is an Oglala Lakota poet from Dakota who teaches at Diné College in the Navajo Nation. Her collection Whereas is a response to the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, which was not read aloud or delivered with any tribal leaders present. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2017.

We’ve chosen to place these women’s work in dialogue because of their use of found poetry derived from legal texts, their differing subversions of imperial epistemologies, and their writing of the Umbrella Movement and Standing Rock protests, respectively, from afar. Here, Review 31 examines the modes these two remarkable women have employed to confront the utterances of oppressive states.

Long Soldier was interviewed over e-mail and Howe in the Quaker House on the Euston Road, chosen for being fully pram accessible (Howe’s seven month-old was also in attendance).


You’ve spoken before about how your book operates at a register of chinoiserie. I thought that was interesting because it’s so self-aware. Can you talk a little about the complications of engaging with tropes of personal pilgrimage and cultural authenticity?

As you say, there are moments in Loop of Jade that borrow – I might say ‘don’, like a disguise or costume – a register I associate with a certain strain of poetic orientalism: Pound’s Cathay et al. It was a mask I found strangely enabling, because it allowed me to speak allegorically, indirectly, not in my own voice – to question the possibility of ‘my own voice’, even. I was interested in how the poems might buck against that insidiously racist tradition, undermining it from within. And yet the poems are conflicted too.

I think of a poem like Tame, and the competing impulses that went into it. I wanted to write seriously about the traditional Confucian preference for sons, which likely led to my own mother’s abandonment as a baby. But another part of me wanted to mock a Western hunger for Chinese suffering, to rail against the publishing industry’s commodification of (female) Chinese pain. The poem’s title is a submerged joke – not a ‘Wild Swan’ but a ‘Tame Goose’; its tropes and trappings of folkloric Chineseness (lychees, clouded hills, Mid-Autumn) are almost cringeworthily, OTT. And yet for all those parodic gestures, the poem ran away from my intentions for it: its emotion is real, its tragedy not emptied out by bathos. It takes something out of me to read it aloud. Have I just served up another round of consumable ethnic pain? Would it be better not to say anything? I have agonised about this. In its traps and ironies, the poem documents that bind – one I suspect many minority writers grapple with.

Chinoiserie is so full of contradictions: elegantly charming but comically grotesque, alluring yet repugnant; a display of cosmopolitan taste or gauche kitsch; predicated on exoticism but produced in the West. I’m working on a commission right now with Nandini Das’s wonderful TIDE Project and the World Museum in Liverpool, creating poems in response to their collection of Chinese export porcelain. I find these objects utterly fascinating – especially the lack of distinction drawn, at the height of their 18th-century popularity, between Chinese ‘originals’ and European ‘imitations’. Even the imported Chinese wares were more often than not stylistic hybrids. ‘Cultural authenticity’ is only a viable concept if you ignore the global circulations of trade and influence that have always been with us.

I spent my twenties haunted by a sense that I could never pierce the veil separating me from Chinese culture, however much time I spent there in life or in study. That immigrant, mongrel pain is there in the poems, even as they come to realise that any notion of an essential, original culture is a mirage, and a dangerous one at that. The same trope crops up, I’ve noticed, in the way minority poets are reviewed in this country. ‘Authenticity’ becomes a stick against which they are measured, their voices approved or found wanting on those dubious grounds, which inevitably say more about the reader and his or her preconceptions. It goes deep, the touristic desire for a ‘native informant’, for the authentic voice of the other – you see the same dynamic in the reception of white working class writers. These were the sorts of questions around race and reading Sandeep Parmar and I wanted to discuss in the early seminars with our brilliant Ledbury Emerging Critics: for many of us, it felt like flinging open a window in an unaired room.

What are the peculiarities of engaging with Hong Kong as an interface in which two imperialisms (Chinese and British) collide? (You left when it was still in British hands.)

I was conscious as a child, though I wouldn’t have had the language for it, that I was growing up in a dying outpost of the British Empire. It was like there was a clock ticking through my early childhood: adults would constantly be talking about 1997 [the date of the handover]. I knew that was the endpoint before which my family would come ‘back’ to England, which was always presented to me as ‘home’. Like a microcosm of the place, I guess my parents’ marriage played out the relationship of coloniser to colonised in some quite upsetting ways.

Historically speaking, you’re quite right that the power dynamic is more complicated than a coloniser/colonised binary, especially given China’s own imperial past and present abominations: the terrible murmurings about the re-education camps in Xinjiang, for example, have just made it into the western media this last fortnight. Hong Kong is a small but emblematic part of a much longer story that goes back through the Opium Wars, as well as earlier interactions between China and the West where it was far from clear that Europeans were on top.

Hong Kong people tend to think of themselves (ourselves) as a minority culture, one which is increasingly embattled and endangered. The difference from China isn’t one of ethnicity but of language – Cantonese – and a culture whose distinctness is bound up in complicated ways with the colonial past. It’s grimly ironic that the freedoms of speech and the press, the rule of law, etc. currently being eroded are legacies of the British – though, of course, democracy wasn’t one of the institutions they (we) left.

I feel that your relationship with your Chinese heritage is very bound up in the fact of your mother’s adoption. You’ve mentioned that she was abandoned, most likely because she was a girl. She was adopted and taken away from mainland China, to Hong Kong. There are multiple removes at play here: your mother’s distance from mainland China, and her distance from her birth mother, your birth grandmother. How does the one trouble the other?

The surname my mum gave me for the purpose of writing down my Chinese name is Ho, because it sounds like Howe: the same logic of transliteration Chinese people apply when naturalising foreign words, or sometimes when choosing English names for themselves. Likewise, my Cantonese first name, Seoi Waa, is a sort of echo of Sarah, and vice versa. As a poet, I find it fascinating, this groping towards imperfect sonic equivalences, where naming becomes almost a kind of homophonic translation. Surnames are very important, because they locate and anchor Chinese people, identify your clan, as it were. In a Hong Kong context, they can place you in a particular village in the New Territories going back generations. There will be ancestral stones and books detailing all of that heritage, which is a huge part of your identity, especially if you’re male.

I sometimes wonder whether I should change my Chinese surname to be the same as my mum’s, but then hers is hardly more meaningful: it’s the family name of her adoptive mother’s sometime partner, who was married to a different woman. He had another family back on the mainland, so my mum wasn’t a legitimate part of that household either. Her surname has nothing to do with her birth family, where she’s from, or even the woman who raised her.

There’s no village for me to go back to. I envy the experience sometimes narrated by second or third-generation Chinese immigrants coming back from the diaspora. They go back and find the graves, the tablets and stelae. They encounter their ancestors. I can’t do that. It is all lost to me. Instead I have these difficult fragments of what my mother’s adoptive mother told her, much of which is piecemeal or contradictory. It leaves one in the position of a historian who has no sources to work with, and it’s hard not to feel like a tourist when I go back, especially when I have no family to welcome me there.

I think that your relationship with language – English, Mandarin, Cantonese – introduces another element of dispossession – if that doesn’t frame it in too pessimistic a term. Later on you engage with the Western tradition of elevating Chinese as a language of absolutes, particularly in the written form.

Dispossession is probably about the right word: I’ve spent much of my adult life experiencing a profound sense of loss at my lack of Cantonese. A childhood language spoken around you ambiently, but which you can’t process as language, is something I find very interesting as a poet. Though I still can’t really understand it, the sound system of Cantonese is deeply familiar to me, comforting even, and it meant that learning Mandarin in my twenties was a strange experience, because it sounded ‘off’ to my ear. There’s also another remove at work in that I learnt the simplified characters now current in China, whereas my mum only knows the traditional script still used in Hong Kong: she will stare quizzically at a mainland Chinese newspaper trying to work out what’s going on.

You’re quite right that my valorisation of a lost mother tongue sits amusingly in parallel with Western narratives about the recovery of a lost Edenic language, possessed of a one-to-one correspondence between sign and referent. The notion that Chinese ideograms might be perfect signifiers that could end the fallenness and displacements of language – enshrined by Pound and Fenollosa for Western modernism – is just another piece of idealising intercultural projection. Some of my poems have fun with that idea.

This is a book about exploring dislocation from parts of your heritage. To structure it, you have used Jorge Luis Borges’s tongue-in-cheek, tautological ‘Chinese Encyclopedia’**. Why?

Because it’s perfect! And hilarious. When I stumbled across it as a graduate student, I thought ‘this is a brilliant, wry summation of the meeting currents in the world that explain me!’ As Foucault recognised, what looks at first, in Borges’s hands, like an encounter with a radically incomprehensible alterity actually points us towards the aporias and blind spots in our own systems of thought. I hope that Loop of Jade, for all the grimness of some of its subjects, is also sort of funny at points – maybe not laugh-out-loud funny, but a grim, bad-pun, low-level passive aggressive kind of funny. Some of that tone came from the Borges, but also reflects the sense of self-recognition I felt in the absurd contradictions embodied by the Chinese encyclopaedia.

Moving on then towards the Umbrella Movement – this is actually the only question I have which faces towards Long Soldier’s work. Both of you have written about seminal recent protests to take place in communities you can lay claim to in recent years. She has written about Standing Rock and you have alluded to the Umbrella Movement and other forms of protest against Beijing, but neither of you were actually there. What were the aims and complications of contemplating these events from a distance?

First off, Whereas is a tremendously powerful book. At each revisiting, I find myself astonished by its humanity, its formal ingenuity and rhetorical force. In their reckoning with history, Long Soldier’s poems skewer the hypocrisy of the state: something I’ve been interested in too, in another key. The way she turns back on itself the official language of the treaties used to genocidally dispossess native peoples like her own: I am in awe of it.

I find it hard these days to talk about my abandoned poem, Two Systems, which is an erasure of the Hong Kong Basic Law [Hong Kong’s ‘mini-constitution’]. I had some fun making the rather dry legal text say things like ‘Power to the people’ or ‘There is a need for art’, releasing its anarchic undersongs. It was an abortive project that I worked on for a number of years, before and after the Umbrella protests, but I don’t think I’ll publish any more of it. There are a number of reasons for that. One is that I started to feel like I didn’t have the right to do that work. One of my great pleasures of recent years has been making contact with a community of Hong Kong poets writing in English, who tend to be quite politically active and vocal about the territory’s present struggles. When they publish poems on this subject, they are genuinely risking something. The worst that could happen to me, as a British citizen resident in the UK, would be to be denied a Chinese visa. I’m not going to be disappeared in the night. I thought that maybe a participatory public art project might be a way of getting around this issue of my voice, or any individual voice, being not quite right. If you could host, say, an online platform where lots of people could create infinite different versions of the poem by erasing their own path through the official language… People in the art world there told me – this was a couple of years ago – ‘If you want to do a project like this, you have to do it now, because it might not be possible soon.’

But the real reason I stopped work on the poem is that it just started to feel too sad. That reflects the way the political situation has changed in the years since the Umbrella Movement in 2014. As the authority of the Basic Law is eroded by Beijing – week by week, it feels at the moment – Hong Kong’s existing way of life is looking more and more precarious: activists imprisoned, electoral candidates disqualified, political parties banned. I don’t have the heart for the project anymore. As things stand now, it would no longer be a live protest, but an elegy for a hope that’s passed. And Two Systems doesn’t feel like quite the right form in which to write about that sadness.

** Jorge Luis Borges’s Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, classifying animals from his Chinese Encyclopaedia:

(a) Those belonging to the Emperor
(b) embalmed ones,
(c) those that are trained,
(d) suckling pigs,
(e) mermaids,
(f) fabulous ones,
(g) stray dogs,
(h) those included in the present classification,
(i) those that tremble as if they were mad,
(j) innumerable ones,
(k) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
(l) others,
(m) those that have just broken a flower vase,
those that from a long way off look like flies.


I am very interested in the epigraph of Whereas (‘Now / make room in the mouth / for grassesgrassesgrasses’). What relationship do grasses have to the formal utterance of the United States with which you are engaging in this work?

The grasses, for me, represent a personal connection to the Northern Plains and Pine Ridge. Because I grew up in the Southwest, I have spent most of my life traveling up north several times a year to maintain connection to my relatives, the land, our home. On the drives, as I journey north, it’s always the grass that signifies ‘home.’ The sight of waves along grass as the wind blows; the rich, heady smell. Grass, in my poems, has become a symbol for our land. And of course, LAND is at the crux of all this. The continual conflict, loss, and fight, post-contact. All of this began because of land and continues because of land. It’s my belief that Native people and their nations will FOREVER be in the position of defending and protecting land rights, boundaries, sites and resources – continually holding their arms out, holding ground against the push of capitalism and the insatiable Western impulse toward expansion. The drive to CONSUME seems to be part of the American DNA. Thus, the prologue foreshadows what’s to come in the book, especially the piece, ’38,’ and the concerns one must swallow down – whether Native or non-Native – in coming to terms with where we are at, this land, this place, who we are and how we position ourselves. So to answer your question, the prologue has everything to do with formal utterance(s), policies and history of the US with Native Nations.

You have talked before about the circular path that poetry provides. Could you talk about this as a way of engaging with European teleologies of ‘arrival’, genocide, and attempts at cultural eradication?

Poetry can provide a necessary circular path, especially if you’re like me, where the page offers a place to think out loud. But poetry, simultaneously, provides a way OUT of the circularity and the spin. It can provide unexpected resolution – a quick turn, surprise, a daring jump, or rupture. In my poem ’38,’ I write, ‘Sometimes when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap.’ But in order to get OUT of the spin and circularity of language, we must be conscious that we’re in it, first.

I’m thinking about one of my favourite writers, Zitkala Ša (Getrude Bonnin). As a Dakota woman, writing in the late 1800s / early 1900s, she wrote in the English language, within its confines and structures – and specifically, the confines of that era. She addressed political, cultural and spiritual issues facing her community and people, but had to work in a way that made sense to the English speaking reader. There’s a circularity – and by default, a spin – she was immersed in. I’ve thought about her short piece, ‘Why I Am a Pagan,’ in which the speaker thinks through the pressing forces and spiritual conflict between Dakota philosophy and Christianity. The closing paragraph is particularly important to me: ‘I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens […] in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.’

What interests is the last line, ‘If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.’ Her use of the word ‘if’ signals a very deliberate questioning – that is, she questions English as the language she must use to communicate the ‘spirit’ of her pen. She’s peering down the barrel of her pen, we might say, taking aim at the word ‘pagan.’ And, in my humble opinion, she’s therefore NOT saying, ‘I am a Pagan’ – but, really, she’s declaring, ‘I am DAKOTA.’ However, she’s caught in the circularity of knowing that English speakers will not understand ALL that it means, philosophically and theologically, to be Dakota. The meaning of the word ‘Dakota’ to English speaking readers of the time – the connotations and associations – were, quite frankly, slanderous. So she concedes, she breathes or sighs with, ‘then at present, at least.’

Admittedly, ‘Why I am a Pagan’ is prose. So, to the matter of poetry and circularity, what I appreciate about poetics and, most especially, its contemporary forms is that it allows for the duality of circularity. We can think things out and circularity becomes a means for return, wholeness. Conversely, the poem as an art form allows for fragmentation or sudden leaps—a springboard OUT when circularity has spun us into a trap. One can take giant steps in a poem—what often seems impossible in the essay or short story—and find a clearing, a profound opening up, a much-needed space for the new new.

‘Beware: a horse isn’t a reference to my heritage.’ Your work is grounded in your experience of Native life today. What do you think are the greatest pitfalls in the ways we talk about Native and indigenous art at present, and would you like to see them change?

I’d like to answer with an anecdote. . . Once, an online journal accepted a few ‘Whereas’ pieces and published them under the title ‘Whereas,’ which was great; it was exactly as I’d submitted the work. Later, they kindly offered to print those same pieces in their hard copy journal. When I received the print journal in the mail, I flipped the pages open to find that the editor(s) had printed my pieces under the title, ‘To Exhaust a Horse,’ not ‘Whereas.’ ‘To exhaust a horse’ was taken from a line in the very poem you’re referencing. Seeing all of my ‘Whereas’ poems under this title was deflating. It had 1) erased the Congressional language that was a vital, unifying thread to the poems, and 2) emphasised a familiar lexicon of Plains imagery which I was, in that poem, ironically and intentionally upending. It was, I felt, a typical and disappointing decision on the part of the editors to title my work with this language – creating immediate association for readers with a Native writer and the horse. It’s possible I’m being too sensitive. It’s possible the editors’ intentions were well thought-out, and the point was lost on me. However, I still feel there was a lack of awareness of all the gears and mechanisms that I/we, as Native writers, are constantly operating, contending with, and navigating through language. I had an email exchange with the editors that seemed positive and, maybe, educational. My hopes are that it created awareness around issues of art and language – a historical and sometimes damaging lexicon – that had not occurred to them. These situations happen, I believe, because of the lack of interaction and exchange with Native artists, writers and their work at a DEEPER level. Those in decision-making positions – curators, publishers, organisers, critics – are still, so often, operating on their own assumptions and are, still, so unaware of how deeply they are influenced by the Western gaze, consumerism and production. Change, I think, will come with a rejection of speed and consumerism in favour of patience, listening, and the willingness to come close to work, come close to us.

‘Here, the sentence will be respected.’ If the sentence, with its linearity, is the primary tool of the invader’s version of history, then in your deadpan account of the Dakota 38, I feel you have created an almost Nemean poetics. You have turned the sentence as epistemology of the imperialising force against itself. Can you therefore expand on the definition of a poem offered in ‘I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem’?

The act that I refer to in the poem is, of course, the pivotal moment in ’38’ when Dakota warriors assassinated the settler-trader Andrew Myrick and stuffed his mouth with grass, following his declaration that if the Dakota people were hungry, they could eat grass. I heard this story as a young person and this moment – Myrick’s words and subsequent assassination--echoed inside me for years. This was the poem. This action spoke for itself. As a poet attempting to bring this to the page, I felt a responsibility NOT to detract from the action with language – not to embellish or make it ‘shimmer,’ but to lay it bare with all its stark, plainly evidenced power. This leads me to another idea on language, a discussion I’ve been having with other Lakota artists and language activists; the idea that Lakota language is verb based. That is, to express a complete thought, the sentence must include an active verb. There must be some kind of doing in order for a thing to be; the verb tenses ‘are’ and ‘is’ cannot function as complete forms. We might say, There IS no IS-ing in Lakota language! This, to me, is a kind of SENSIBILITY. And this sensibility translates, in some ways, to what I hoped to honour in ’38.’ The doing, the action, IS the poem. The action IS the essence. Thus, form or words on the page are almost inconsequential.