Cathy Linh Che is a Vietnamese American writer and multidisciplinary artist. On this episode we discuss her book, Split (Alice James Books). She is winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize, the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the Best Poetry Book Award from the Association of Asian American Studies, the co-author, with Kyle Lucia Wu, of the children’s book An Asian American A to Z: a Children’s Guide to Our History (Haymarket Books), which will be published in May 2023, and the chaplet Zombie Apocalypse Now: The Walking Dead (Belladonna*). We chat about the impact that sexual assault has had on her family and work as well as the healing she has undertaken to work through her trauma.
Discussed on the show:
Split by Cathy Linh Che: https://www.alicejamesbooks.org/bookstore/split
Kundiman retreat: http://www.kundiman.org/retreat
Kundiman classes: http://www.kundiman.org/online-classes
The Body Keeps the Score: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/313183/the-body-keeps-the-score-by-bessel-van-der-kolk-md/
A is for Asian American by Cathy Linh Che & Kyle Lucia Wu: https://www.powells.com/book/
Connect with Cathy:
Recognize Our Power_S1E5_CathyLinhChe
[00:00:00] Kelly Wallace: My name
is Kelly Wallace. I am a writer and sexual assault survivor. I've undergone decades of therapy to overcome what I experienced, and writing is a part of my healing process. In this podcast, we will talk with other writers who have also overcome sexual violence. Their stories are often neglected, but to me they are an inspiration and I'm excited to.
Be able to share them with you. Welcome to recognize our power. The topics we are discussing are sensitive and do come with a trigger warning. Please take
care of yourself.
If you are in need of resources, please visit our website www.recognizeourpower.com and click on the resources
My most generous audience, weirdly, would be myself. I think it's like writing to a younger version of myself who I think might need to hear that they're not alone.
Welcome to the Recognize Our Power podcast. I'm your host, Kelly Wallace. I'm grateful to be speaking to our guest today, Kathy Lynn Cha. She is the author of Split From Alice James Books. Winner of the Kunden Poetry Prize, the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America and the best poetry book Award from the Association of Asian American Studies.
Her work has been published in The New Republic the Nation, MC Sweeney's Best American Poetry and Poetry Magazine. She has received awards from McDowell. BR Loaf, Tenhouse and Wanee Writers Conference. She has taught at the 92nd Street Y. New York University, Fordham University, Sierra Nevada College and the Polytechnic University at Y U and she was Sierra Nevada College's distinguished visiting professor and writer in residence.
Wow. What a resume. Welcome. I'm so excited to be speaking with you today. So for our listeners who may not be familiar with you, can you tell us a little bit about your background, what your growing up years
[00:02:25] Cathy Linh-Che: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. Really thrilled to be here. Thank you for me. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California.
My parents are Vietnam War refugees, so they ended up as boat people in the aftermath of the Vietnam one war in the Philippines. Stayed for 11 months, stateless, awaiting arrival into the United States, and they did immigrate to the United States in 1976, which is a year after the end of the Vietnam War.
And four years later I was born. I grew up for 10 years in Highland Park. Beautiful, wonderful. Neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles and very working class, middle class immigrant background, mostly Mexican and Salvadorian immigrants, as well as a smaller number of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants. And that formed a lot of my upbringing up until the age of 10.
And then we moved to Long Beach, California. Where in terms of my own exposure to different groups of people, long Beach is a little more diverse in terms of it being pretty evenly distributed between black, Latinx, Asian, and white folks. So that was also a different type of exposure to a different community.
And in terms of writing, I went to David Star Jordan High School. Wonderful high school. That had really dedicated teachers, and that's where I had my creative writing classes, a literary art magazine that really kind of set me in the direction of wanting to become a writer.
[00:04:14] Kelly Wallace: Wow. That's amazing. So it sounds like you came to writing at a very early age.
I know that you are a poet. Is that your favorite medium to write in? I know that you're at work on a memoir, I believe. If you had to choose a favorite, do you prefer both or? Or what would you say is your favorite?
[00:04:35] Cathy Linh-Che: Yeah, I primarily identified and wrote poetry. Mm-hmm. Until the age of 40, so I'm 42 now.
Yeah. And so I felt like I couldn't write anything else. That was all I had. I was a poet. Right. And a poet forever, and I'm very proud of. Being a poet and interested in what poetry had to offer. When I was in high school, I took an intro to creative writing class. Mm-hmm. We learned fiction, play writing poetry, but it was always poetry that really made sense to me.
Yeah. It always, always poetry that expressed most beautifully the things I wanted to. Both read and write, and so I think it was something I fell in love with early on and I continued to have a strong connection to throughout my writing life. After I graduated from college, I became a high school English teacher with the LA Unified School District where I was raised myself, and I didn't write during that time because I was teaching English, which for all you public high school teachers out there, you know how hard it is.
In your first couple years of teaching high school grad, 150 papers from 150 students. It's a lot of work to do that day in, day out. Yeah. Um, teach five classes, day in, day out on four different preps. So it was just an immense amount of work and energy for an introvert. So I just, so I had a long break from writing and then doing my.
Reengaging with writing happened primarily through an institution where I applied and got into an M F A program in poetry and was reunited with poetry and also entered a community that really supported me through that. So that's all I knew. I knew poetry for years and that's all I pursued and that's all I wrote.
And I journeyed through all types of iterations of the vastness of that particular genre. Yeah, for many years.
[00:06:44] Kelly Wallace: So
where did you complete your M F A program?
[00:06:48] Cathy Linh-Che: I completed my M F A program at NYU U, and that's what brought me to New York from la.
[00:06:53] Kelly Wallace: Gotcha. I was
reading some of your poetry and listening to a podcast that you did, I think with the Poetry Foundation and
of your poetry links, trauma with humor.
How did you come to link the two of those
[00:07:13] Cathy Linh-Che: It's really interesting because I actually think my entire first book is entirely humorless. Uh, I'm immensely proud of it, and it is very interested in looking directly at sexual violence and war, which were the two mm-hmm. Intersections that I was interested in.
Well, there were several intersections. I was interested in exploring the personal and the political. But also war violence. Yeah. And sexual violence. So these were accesses that I really wanted to take a hard look at and think about exploring, look at the language of sexual violence more directly. Look at personal narrative and memory and how it recurs.
So I think that book, I am funny outside, like surrounding writing this very clear eyed, but deeply felt work. Is sort of my own personality, which the percentage of humor, like I'm not very funny, I'm just, nor like I'm average. I have an average amount of humor in me. Yeah. I do describe my book for new people.
I'm like, oh yeah, just a warning. The book is Trauma Rama. Uh, and and I think in the aftermath it was exactly how I wanted to express it and exactly what I wanted to do though. I was always curious about how people wrote things that were funny. Yeah, that's actually something that is still new to me. So, It's interesting that you would say that cuz I don't think of myself as writing in poetry as having any sense of humor whatsoever, but I think there are natural ironies that I've been exploring mm-hmm.
Around my parents' stories. Yeah. Of war and the more recent. Project that I'm engaging with, it's just highly ironic. So there's something adjacent to humor, which is, so my parents are refugees from Vietnam. When they were in the Philippines, they were cast as extras in the film Apocalypse Now. Which is a Vietnam war.
Epic. Yes. So they were cast into a movie that placed them into the margins of their own story. Yes, yes. So that I think is ripe with sort of irony, which is akin to a kind of humor. Yes. Also, my parents are funnier than the average person. So my parents are extremely funny people, and I think oftentimes a narrative around Vietnamese people and the Vietnam War is what is captured as trauma.
Pain, sadness. Look at what you did to us. Mm-hmm. And all of that is true. There's nothing untrue about that. But there is also beyond those moments, cuz that's not the totality of any person. Right. And especially not me, and especially not my parents, is the reality of all of the emotions. Joy, humor, frustration, anger.
Sexual desire, except for my parents. They have none. Um, no. No sexual desire from my parents, but I'm just kidding, obviously. Right. They're whole human beings, not just my parents.
[00:10:39] Kelly Wallace: Exactly.
I think there's so much nuance in trauma and I think. I know for myself when I'm writing about trauma, it can be so heavy that if I inject a little bit of humor into the writing, it almost allows me to breathe.
It allows the reader to breathe before moving on to something that might be I. Trauma Rama. I love what you said. So, yeah, I was listening to, I think it was the same podcast where you were talking about your parents being extras on Apocalypse Now, and I've never seen that movie. I know that my mom watched that movie when I was growing up, but how did that inform who you are
as a writer?
[00:11:20] Cathy Linh-Che: Yeah, I think 100% my parents' storytelling. Yeah. Formed me as a writer. Mm-hmm. I think that. You know, my parents are people who work with their hands. My mother, her trade that she learned at a young age and just continued was to learn how to be a tailor or seamstress or a garment worker. There's all types of vocabulary around what she did.
Mm-hmm. And also somebody who gardens, somebody who cooks, and she only went to the sixth grade because of a lack of opportunity related to the war. And my dad also didn't graduate from high school. But again, it's. A similar story, and he's a machinist, but I was a helicopter mechanic. Works with his hands.
So there's a kind of way that people might say, and maybe I might have in an earlier. Understanding of myself said that my parents aren't writers, they're not readers. I came from a place where I am sort of unique within that realm, but when I really listen and think about what do I write about and how do I approach writing, it really comes from coming from a family of storytellers who.
Also are really good listeners too. So I think that the exchange there is, it's just a different format, but it is a form in my mind of reading and writing. Yeah. So I think that their story and their live stories, because my father has never been back to Vietnam, so him telling me about his life was his way of telling me about who he was.
So I think that the transmission of these stories, For me, a sensitive listener was a way of telling me about myself. So it's our way of self-defining, I would say in the absence of the home that they left, it's creating a new home in language, which is the only way that they could ever sort of transport themselves or me back to this place that they'd left.
And. Created within me the desire, I think, to also tell their stories to a wider public, because I did feel growing up that the larger narrative of the Vietnam War was really dominated by a perspective that really erased who they were and erased their fullness and humanity. So, The impetus to write was to write into that space of erasure or silence.
And it's not silence because my parents are not speaking, but it's a silence because there's a lack of literature. Yes, there's a lack of their voices. But for their voices to be legible or to an American English speaking audience, it would have to be in English. And that's sort of where I come in because I am fluent in both languages and able to listen and transmit and, and to go back and forth and navigate between the two languages.
[00:14:19] Kelly Wallace: Love that.
Wow. And so when you were at nyu, did you go on and get your PhD
[00:14:30] Cathy Linh-Che: No, I, I actually just dropped out of a PhD program. Oh. Yeah. I went back to school in 2021. Oh, okay. To get a PhD in English. And I thought it would kind of buy me more writing time, but it ends up that you have to do more academic paper work than I wanted to do, so.
Right. I thought I could maybe sort of negotiate it all, you know. It didn't work out the way I wanted it to and, and also there's just many factors including during covid and yeah, going into classroom spaces where it's mandatory to go in person rather than being kind of able to do it from home also impacted my decision.
[00:15:22] Kelly Wallace: You are listening to recognize our power. I'm your host Kelly Wallace, and my guest is Kathy Lynn Cha. We will be right back after this break.
Welcome back to Recognize Our Power. I'm your host, Kelly Wallace, and we are talking with Kathy Lynn Chay. I know you briefly touched on your book about sexual assault, but what role has that played in your life or how has
that factored in?
[00:16:06] Cathy Linh-Che: I think that in terms of my writing, it's pretty adjacent. Mm-hmm.
To the desire to tell my parents' stories, because I think that it's still not extremely legible because within popular culture, within the newspapers, movies, the perspectives that are shown are really oftentimes very sensational. Anytime you see a visual depiction or even a. The literary depiction of rape, it's often from people who haven't been raped themselves.
Mm-hmm. Or been sexually violated themselves. And it's often a tool to create feeling, whether it's the feeling of disgusted at this disgusting man mm-hmm. Or the feeling of terror. You know, I think about being a child and having to watch one of these Charles Bronson films, so it's like a catalyst to justification.
To somebody's revenge narrative. And so I think that so little of what I saw out in the world reflected what I knew personally, and I really wanted to write something that entered into that space. And it's similar to what I mentioned about my family. It's, it's a space where you can reclaim the old country or something like that.
It's a, a space of reclaiming one's own. Ability to self-define. Yeah, so I think that in measuring what people think of or imagine when they hear the word rape or child molestation or you know, these words, I think carry this aura that doesn't really feel. Real. And oftentimes people will say, oh, it's unimaginable, it's unthinkable.
You know, these sorts of things that are actually happening every day mm-hmm. Are not actually unimaginable cuz they happen to people and not unthinkable. It's not just happening every day. But there's a long history Yeah. Of sexual violence that has been a part of our cultures and it's not just an American phenomenon at all.
This is worldwide. It happens. All the time, every day to many people. And if a single person might not be affected by it, sort of in their own personal lives, they definitely know somebody who has. But the knowledge of it, it's, it's always in a sort of secret or whispered way. It's presence is. Through secrecy or whispers, and I felt the strong urge to take it away from this secret place and bring it into a more public space so that I could be seen.
[00:18:43] Kelly Wallace: Yes, yes.
And did it play a role in deciding to start working on your creative
nonfiction, your memoir?
[00:18:51] Cathy Linh-Che: My memoir is really not about, so I have another project. Mm-hmm. That is not my memoir. Oh. So the memoir right now was really, I was working really hard on the Apocalypse Now Project, right. In poetry Form.
And then Prose sort of happened because once I was coming to the end of my second Books Poetry Project Arc, I realized there was more information around the poems that I wanted to get across. That perhaps. Wasn't suited for poetry as the kind of expression poetry I don't think of as the best way to get information across.
Right. So that's kind of what prose provided for me in the memoir. But I do have a second prose project. That was the original project that I was thinking about. Mm-hmm. And that that original project was extending the idea of my first books. Writing out about sexual violence. And so it's really thinking about what does it mean to grow up and contemplate ideas about beauty.
Mm-hmm. And the kinds of ways that beauty to be beautiful. To be visible mm-hmm. Had been for a long time for me to, to feel, um, vulnerable, to feel like I would be personally more subject to some sort of attack. Mm-hmm. And it might not be physical, it might be verbal. Right. Or it might be just like the ability to be seen in the world as a woman.
And to be beautiful is even more frightening in many ways. So I think sort of wrestling with my own journey with having a body that's visible and coming into terms with that and my own body in all the intersections, including me being like an Asian American woman, right? Or Vietnamese American woman raised in a Catholic church.
Like there's just so you know, my mom coming from a little bit more of the countryside. So just like your own relationship to makeup or. Non makeup or you know, what's natural and what's like, um, seen as, you know, being done up in a certain way. So I just think that this project is this contemplation about beauty.
I don't have a title for it. I was, I. Contemplating a title yesterday. All my projects have the same title and I'm slowly transforming them. Cuz that makes sort of searching for a particular one. Very difficult. Yes. Yeah. So originally it was called Fade In because the first line of. Many movie scripts, but including Apocalypse now, it is fade in.
So how do you sort of think about being sort of like faded out and like moving into visibility? Yes. So I think like all of these do intersect, but at this moment they're two different projects. Yes.
[00:21:50] Kelly Wallace: So I know that you are the executive director. Is it Penman the.
Non-profit. Yeah. Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Can you tell our listeners a little bit about the work that you're doing there?
[00:22:01] Cathy Linh-Che: Sure. Yeah. I'm the executive director of a non-profit organization that nurtures Asian American voices as well as nurtures writers and readers of Asian American literature. And a lot of the work really thinks about what it means to. Yes. Sort of center and generate community around our mini multiple complex questions and potentially find room for discussion and commonality.
But it is very much similar to my other projects where it's like, what does it mean to take something that's on the margin? And shed light and moved your center to that space?
[00:22:43] Kelly Wallace: Yes. So you.
You provide like retreats and
[00:22:48] Cathy Linh-Che: Yeah, so primarily the signature program is a retreat for Asian American writers.
Awesome. Earlier in their career. Mm-hmm. Where they might be interested in learning for people who are a bit more established. So we convene for five days as a live-in program. At Fordham University in the Bronx. And yes, in addition to taking workshops, it's a really intensive community building atmosphere.
So I'm not, SIF is gonna teach there next summer Uhhuh, and she's a great poet. We did our MFA together at nyu and I was talking about what can Duan would be and she said, yeah, it's like camp. I was like, yes. So there is a strong sort of live in community building the summer you'll never forget type vibe.
And then when it comes to our classes, we're because of the pandemic and that's when things started. Yeah. For us online, we offer eight week workshops and three hour craft classes that are available to both Asian American writers and to writers of color writ large. So that is also a program and we have a third program, which is our regional group.
So people all across the country in 10 regions, including an international group, can find community among and with other Asian American writers.
[00:24:06] Kelly Wallace: Wow, that's fantastic. You have your hand in so many different writing pots. It's just fantastic. So, What advice would you give to someone who maybe hasn't started writing or started exploring their own sexual assault through writing?
What words of advice would you offer or words of encouragement to get them?
[00:24:31] Cathy Linh-Che: I do think that the biggest, most important piece of advice I had received was when I was questioning, is this telling or is this art? And I couldn't determine what was the difference between the two. And sometimes the telling is the art and to sort of really take a lot of.
Care and love for your voice and to not allow ideas about what craft is or what craft isn't to direct. Mm-hmm. What you are allowed or not allowed to say. So I think that's one. Important part of what I would give to somebody who's getting started in this. I think another aspect is that naturally when we write, we're thinking about an audience, but as much as possible, think of.
The most generous audience that you can imagine. I think that would be also important. My most generous audience, weirdly, which is not true of everybody, would be myself. I think it's like writing to a younger version of myself. Yes. Who I think might need to hear that they're not alone. So I think that is.
Absolutely. Another aspect, and I think I had this other reservation around my writing, which was I didn't want to be melodramatic. You know? I didn't want to make more of my experience than it actually was because I felt like that would be a disservice to sensationalize. Yeah. My own experience. But I think my friend Soma, is the same friend.
Told me, give yourself permission to be melodramatic. So for me, it's Melo drama, right? Yeah. But it might be some other thing that you need permission for. You might need to give yourself permission to write badly. You might need to give yourself permission to be funny, or you might need to give yourself permission to be extremely sad and dark and.
Whatever the feelings are, I think you can allow yourself these things. I notice sometimes it's very difficult in a public setting to read out these poems, and sometimes people will go up and apologize because their stuff is not funny or uplifting, and I think at least when you face the page, that shouldn't be your concern.
Like whether or not you're gonna entertain someone with your. Own writing or you're going to be a downer or like be, be sad because I think there has to be a recognition that somebody out there in the same way that we need to express somebody out there needs to read it. You know? Yes. I think that that is, Very true and hard to remember often.
[00:27:21] Kelly Wallace: Definitely, definitely. Have you had a specific experience around healing from your past traumas, whether it's through therapy? I know that these are often, you know, sometimes these are just economic realities that a lot of people are not able to. Have access to, and it's often a, a source of privilege. But have you, has writing been a source of healing for you?
What has helped you move
[00:27:49] Cathy Linh-Che: Yeah, so I'm listening to The Body Keeps a score on audio tape right now. Oh yes. And I'm at this section where it talks about, The experience of trauma and it, it talks about trauma broadly, whether that be sort of somebody experiencing P T S D from being out in a war zone or having experienced sexual violence or sexual assault.
Mm-hmm. And it talks about, uh, A region of the brain that essentially in whatever scans, I'm not a doctor Yes. But will appear to have a white.in it. Mm-hmm. And that white.is means that the blood is not flowing there. And so it's a lesion in the brain that's similar to receiving a stroke or having a stroke.
And there's a way that that trauma sometimes can create a space where language becomes very difficult to. Access because you're made very still by that moment. So the fact of my own ability to reclaim writing and writing about these experiences, I do believe has changed my consciousness in terms of how memory works for me.
Mm-hmm. The writing has transformed my memory recall. Mm-hmm. Before I wrote my book and shared out the poems publicly. Many times over, I had recurring nightmares or a recurring cinema that would mm-hmm. Sort of just play at, at various moments or, or just be a memory. It's like, uh, yeah. I would go in, grab the memory and it was very cinematic.
It was very bright. Mm-hmm. And strong. It didn't stop me. It wasn't terrifying in a certain way, but it was. Part of my consciousness, it was very present where I would replay incidences of sexual violence or being sexually violated in some way, and in writing it down and in sharing it with others. During the course of the writing of, and the publication of my book and the sharing out of my book, I would say now like incidences where I think of or even dream about, or have any recollection of sexual violences that have occurred really, mm-hmm.
Have stopped. So I do think that writing it had given me the ability for me to integrate several songs. So first I think it was just, Pinning down the memories in writing, helped it to contain it and give language to it in a way that had. Altered me. Yes. Physiologically. And another aspect of it, I think, was that the secret self that was, I was so afraid that people would come to know, suddenly became very public.
I had this big fear before my book came out. People were gonna like sort of see me and they'll see this like similar to the Scarlet Letter, some sort of red a a for abused child, you know? Yes. And I think that that fear. Just came closer into it is who I am, but that's not the totality of who I am. And that yes, sort of became, rather than being secret, it became public and that public self.
Mm-hmm. And that private self no longer felt so split apart. Yeah. I was becoming more integrated. The other aspect that was really important was that my family who didn't know about this at all, Learned about it. Like my brothers, my brothers, oh, read my book of poetry. I had to send it to them. In advance.
Only when I realized that all of these, you know, I grew up in a Catholic church. All of these people were pre-ordering my book. I imagined it would just be my poet friends. Like that's who I thought my audience was. I didn't think it, oh yes, that the kids I grew up with who are now adults in my Catholic church, would ever read these poems about what had happened to me privately.
So it became, Terrifying to think that they would get their hands on this before I even told my brothers, well, I sent them the manuscript and they were incredibly supportive. So I feel very lucky for that. Yes. And people would come to me kind of like whispering that they had experienced the same things and that also felt like it wasn't sort of this thing that was like some sort of mark on me.
It was actually like by being. Marked in some way. It allowed other people to feel less alone in their own experiences as well. So it was a very powerful experience for me in terms of how it altered, not only how I saw myself, but how I related to my family, how I related to being a person who had at all a slightly more public self around sexual violence.
[00:32:42] Kelly Wallace: Yes.
I think, yeah, just by putting voice to our stories, it just allows others to come forward and that identification is so, so important. Where can people
[00:32:55] Cathy Linh-Che: So my website is cathylinhche.com. And that has all of my information that will be updated. I have a children's book coming out in May, 2023 that's called A's for Asian American.
Awesome. My website also has information about my first poetry book split, so you can also find that on Alice James books. Website. The children's book is coming out with Haymarket books, so you can also order from Haymarket as well. It's actually also widely available. You can pre-order at target.com.
Awesome. That's what I discovered the other day. Apparently there are two books called As for Asian American, but mine. It has my name on it, Kathy Lynche. So you can, it's okay. You can order both books. That's totally fine. Love it. Yes, for Asian American books out of the world, the Mary. So yes, I'm on social media though.
I'm mostly a lurker. Kathy Lynn Cha on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at this moment as well. Okay.
[00:34:00] Kelly Wallace: Awesome. Well, I'll link all the information, uh, in the show notes to all your socials, your children's book that's coming out in May and website. To find out more about our podcast, please follow us on Facebook, TikTok and Instagram, or visit our website www.recognizeourpower.com.
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I'd like to thank
my guest today. Be sure to check out our show notes and website, www.recognizeourpower.com. Follow us on social media, on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. I'm your host, Kelly Wallace. This podcast is produced by 3 Wire Creative.