Claiming agency with Sally Wen Mao

MARFA — Born in Los Angeles in 1905, Anna May Wong was one of the first Chinese Americans to make it big in Hollywood. And yet she often found herself playing caricatured roles like “Tiger Lily” (Peter Pan, 1924) and “mongol slave” (The Thief of Bagdad, also 1924).

“This was during the time when there were literal laws banning Chinese people from immigrating to the United States,” Sally Wen Mao, a Lannan Foundation fellow who arrived in Marfa last month, says of the racist and segregated industry Wong found herself in. “She was always killed. She always died. She was forced to play all these stereotypical roles.”

“It’s not a happy story,” Mao says of Wong’s life. “But it’s not a tragic story, either.” And while Wong’s biographer framed her life story as one of overcoming racism, the racism was “debilitating,” Mao says.

Wong never married. She developed alcoholism and died of a heart attack in her 50s. And yet Wong held onto her humanity in the face of adversity, including speaking out against the roles she was cast in. “I must always die in the movies,” she told an interviewer in 1931, “so that the white girl with the yellow hair may get the man.”

In 1960 — a year before her death — she finally received a Hollywood star. Mao pays tribute to the complex actress in her own work, including appearing at readings as the alter ego “Anime Wong.”

“I feel like the purpose of an alter ego is feeling more powerful than you actually are,” Mao says. “Often, I feel f—ed up and powerless as a woman of color. I never feel that okay.” A persona is about transcending human limitations, she says.

Themes like these are prominent in the poetry of Mao, a 32-year-old Bay Area poet who immigrated to the United States from Wuhan, China when she was five. She’s interested in the ways women and Asian people — and especially, Asian women — are exoticized and fetishized by the white male gaze.

Mao cut her teeth reading black women poets and by getting involved with Kundiman, a nonprofit and poetry collective for Asian-American writers. It gets its name from the term “kundiman,” a Tagalog word that describes what white colonists in the Philippines thought were traditional love songs — but which were actually songs of patriotism and defiance.

“My core concerns remain the same,” Mao said in an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel. “How do we recover the humanity of people whose humanity has been denied to them?”

Take, for example, her first piece of flash-fiction: “Xianning,” which ran in the art magazine Guernica in 2014. The story describes “men without bodies,” who just have eyes that “gazed at [the narrator], craved her, carved her into something unnatural, something ugly and immortal.”

Over the course of the story, her Chinese grandmother passes away. In addition to themes about white men fetishing Asian women, “‘Xianning’ was also about the fracture that happens when you immigrate from another country as a child,” Mao said.

Or take the poem “Occidentalism,” from Mao’s poetry collection Oculus, published this year. (Just before Marfa, she says, she was on “this crazy book tour” for Oculus that included stops in Boston and Grand Forks, North Dakota.)

The poem opens with a (presumably white) man who “celebrates erstwhile conquests” and has locked up his book “in a silo” even though it’s “still in print.” “I scribble, make Sharpie lines,” Mao writes. She “deface[s] its text like it defaces me.”

“The tome of hegemony lives on,” she continues later. It circulates “in our libraries” and “in our bloodstreams.”

“One day, a girl like me may come across it on a shelf, pick it up, read about all the ways her body is a thing,” she continues. “And I won’t be there to protect her, to cross the text out and say: go ahead— rewrite this.”

“I find that poem for me as a bit of an ars poetica,” Mao says of “Occidentalism.” It’s the “poem that reflects why I write poetry.”

Mao has myriad other interests as well. Take, for example, her first book, Mad Honey Symposium (2014), which concerns, among other topics, mad honey.

Mad honey — that is, honey produced from poisonous flowers, particularly rhododendrons — has been documented since ancient times and is known to sometimes produce hallucinations. “There’s this history of humans poisoning themselves in order to feel something,” she says.

Still, Mao says it’s hard to get away from themes of injustice, misogyny and colonialism when they still permeate our world. When researching mad honey, she learned about a rhododendron botanist who travelled to Tibet.

In his writings, he describes the native Tibetans as “savages” and what Mao describes as other “brutal, grotesque ways.” “Even when I was researching things like botany — even things like science — all of it is tinged with histories,” she says. “And that history definitely includes colonialism.”

Besides, “that’s what poets try to do,” she adds. “They try to find connections between things that don’t seem connected” but actually are. “Writers are always searching for metaphors,  parallels, analogies — things like that.”

After a brief fellowship at Lannan Foundation, Mao is leaving this Friday. When asked about how Marfa will affect her work, she says she’s become “hyper-conscious of this idea of a border.”

Not just the literal border between the U.S. and Mexico, though. “You have this border between the beauty of the earth and what people are doing to it,” she adds. And especially in a hip art town like Marfa, “you have this border between life in a small town and art, ideas, concepts.”

“I love being in the desert,” she says. “There’s something really magical about it. The light, and just being in a town where there’s so much art — that is also really exciting to me.”