In Review: Cranesong

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Cranesong by Rona Wang. Half Mystic Press (2019, 76 pages). $15, paperback. $7, digital.

Rona Wang is, in Carissa Dunlap’s words, a “badass creator,” and I couldn’t agree more. Wang is the type of creator who gives other creators pause, who makes one ask, what have I been doing with my life? Not nearly as much as this sophomore at MIT who is already a prize-winning writer (Wang won the 2016 Adroit Prize for Prose and a 2018 Isabelle de Courtivron Prize from MIT’s Center for Bilingual/Bicultural Studies, just to name a couple) and has created a writing mentorship program, an online learning platform and community, been named one of “22 Under 22 Most Inspiring College Women” by Her Campus, and has written a gorgeous and gut-wrenching debut of short stories. And she’s only 21.

Cranesong, published by Half Mystic Press, is a collection that puts the rest of the world on mute as each story peels open. In one story, a “barely-eighteen college freshman” returns home for Thanksgiving and realizes “[e]verything [she] knew of home is gone,” and some things can’t be replaced. In another, a village is transfixed by the “Guiyang girl in the rice paddies,” her power transcending death. And in another, a young Chinese girl finds a precious moment of friendship in a war-time America determined to erase everything she cares about.

Wang’s skills as a storyteller are a joy to behold. She shifts smoothly and seamlessly from one point of view to another, from present to past and back again, from realism to magic realism and back. Legend can sit beside YouTube; each element, no matter how quotidian, jumps forward into something close to wonder, but the painful kind, like sunlight bouncing off snow. In another writer’s hands, these shifts would be incongruous. But in Wang’s, they’re magic.

And Wang’s characters are so real: they lift makeup they can’t afford, “stealing promises for the lives we yearned for,” crave connection so hard that when they look at the person they love, they “wanted to crawl inside of her, make a home out of all that tenderness,” and say yes against their better judgment because “it feels so good to be seen.” And they’re often in free fall, trying to find their place in a world that asks them to break themselves against its closed, and often locked, doors.

As they deal (but not always cope) with culture, language, sexuality, loss, and racism, and yearn for love, beauty, and home, it’s impossible not to ache right along with these complex characters, many of whom exist with a foot in two or more different worlds, watching, being watched, and sometimes targeted by those that “shimmy like they know they belong in this moneyed, neon world.” In “Liv, Liv, Lipstick Liar,” Liv says, “Some people would walk for years to have something magnificent and entirely theirs.” These are characters walking, getting a little messed up in a messed up world, and the reader gets a little messed up, too.

Wang has a talent for slipping the floor out so that each paragraph, each story, reverberates through muscle and bone to something central. Her imagery is so arresting (“skies that swung open like switchblades” in “The Evolution of Wings”), her diction so startling and fresh (“Skeins of green grains embroidered her limbs and neck” in “The Girl in the Rice Paddies”), the whole of her collection so true to the raw emotion roiling under each surface, that I’d be willing to follow Wang pretty much anywhere. Better pay attention to this bright, vibrant new voice.

Cranesong is available here.

Rona Wang: Guest Post

cranesongIn December, STYLE was coming to Los Angeles on their world tour to promote a new album. It was all the Fashionista forums could yammer about. Online magazines with short, snappy names released thinkpieces about the global rise of K-pop. I used Python to compose a script that would purchase concert tickets the minute they went on sale.

—From “Style”, Cranesong

When I was in ninth grade, K-pop wasn’t cool in America yet. I had only a few queer Asian friends, but we all loved K-pop because it was different from the Western music we heard on the radio—and, more importantly, because it was perfectly fine with being different.

Which brings me to “Style.” In Cranesong’s leading story, protagonist Kitty and her best friend Janie are sort-of-kind-of-high-key obsessed with a Korean pop idol group called STYLE. Fun fact: in the story, only the lead singer of STYLE, Yuna, is named. However, STYLE has five members, and their first initials spell out the name of their group. Cute, no? It’s not a real group, but rather a conglomerate of every K-pop artist I looped over and over when I was in high school. (To give you some context: this was right after “Gangnam Style” blew up. I had a Sony Walkman, y’all.)

I attempted to make a full-blown playlist for this blog post, but quickly scrapped that idea upon realizing that it was about 98% 2NE1 and GIRLS’ GENERATION. So here’s some of my old-school favourites:

At the time, I didn’t know that K-pop can be problematic as hell. It has been criticized for questionable business practices that devalue performers. It appropriates Black culture. But with “Style,” I wanted to tell an honest story, one starring a deeply flawed girl scrambling to survive. A girl who shoplifts from Sephora. Who lies about herself on dating apps. Who is so entrenched in her own insecurities that she turns to find comfort in a subculture that exalts heteronormativity, colorism, and commodification, all because—at least in her mind—it is everything she is not.

Despite its flaws, K-pop has steadily gained visibility in America. Last year, BTS became the first South Korean band to debut an album at No. 1 on the US Billboard chart. I wonder how Kitty would feel about that. Maybe she’d feel vindicated; she’s totally the petty type. Or maybe she’d be that one person who has a compulsive need to inform everyone, “I liked K-pop before it was trendy!” Most likely, she’d be irked at the intrusion, at everyone claiming her subculture for their own.

Yep, she’s kind of a mess. But who isn’t?

Rona Wang is a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For her writing, she has been named a Her Campus 22 Under 22 and nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. She is originally from Portland, Oregon. Her debut short story collection, Cranesong, comes out from Half Mystic Press on February 13.

Half Mystic Press’ debut short story collection—out February 13, 2019—is, above all, a bright thing. Cranesong explores the trauma that clutters our bones, the echoes that infuse our language, every dawn that insists on spinning into existence despite it all. At the same time, it lingers inside wild wind, consumes the cartography of longing, interrogates all the colors piano music can hold. These stories pinwheel from realm to realm—some fantastical, some deeply modern, and some settling in between. Yet there is an ancestral lineage that braids them together. These characters don’t exist in the same world, but if they did, perhaps they’d recognize each other. Preorder your copy here.

Lunar Notes: An Interview with Featured Writer Khaty Xiong

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Khaty Xiong is a Hmong American poet from Fresno, CA. She is the author of Poor Anima (Apogee Press, 2015) and three poetry chapbooks: Ode to the Far Shore (Platypus Press, 2016), Deer Hour (New Michigan Press, 2014), and Elegies (University of Montana, 2013). She has received a fellowship from MacDowell Colony and a grant from the Ohio Arts Council. Her work has been published in POETRY, The New York Times, How Do I Begin?: A Hmong American Literary Anthology, and elsewhere.

Why poetry? What pulled you in, and who was the very first poet you read/heard?

Although I get asked this question a lot, I find it humbling and important because sometimes in this busy and hellish world, I forget the reason. When I do remember, the chest always burns a little. So, why poetry? Poetry has long been a form of honesty for me, a space that helps “understand the clutter” as a friend and poet once said. I find poetry as sacred as the language of my parents, Hmong refugees whose grief has taught and continues to teach me very much about the world we live in. They are the very first poets that lit the torch and taught me how to listen. I continue to hear their voices.

Your first full-length book, Poor Anima, was the first full-length book of poetry published by a Hmong American woman in the U.S. What was the experience of this first book like? Do you still approach poems the same way? Has your focus shifted, and how so?

Poor Anima entered the world quietly. Because Hmong American poetry is still taking shape, I don’t think the publishing world knew how to talk about or celebrate this book’s release. I myself continue to not really understand what space I occupy besides the fact that I am Hmong and I am writing poetry, which, as I mentioned above, is still a very new literary landscape. There’s a lot of doubt on my side because I’m not sure where I belong in the spectrum of things.

Back home, I had a little book launch in Fresno, CA, that was hosted by California State University, Fresno and Hmong American Writers’ Circle in 2015. Although the makeup was largely family and friends, it was the first time in my life where my audience was Hmong. My parents were in the audience. I read in English because all of my poetry is primarily written in English. I still think about that experience often. I wished that I was able to read or convey those poems to my parents in Hmong, but that’s every immigrant struggle, isn’t it? Language. At the podium, I remember apologizing, in English, to my parents that they would probably not understand what I was going to read. Prior to the launch, however, I had explained to them the gist of my book. They were quiet but proud because they understood one thing: that they were in it. I love my parents deeply. Their burden. Their sacrifices and trauma carried from the Secret War in Laos. I stood before my friends and family and read my poems, something that I had never done. The emotions I felt that night tugged at me in every direction.

Approaching the poems in that book was like facing all these uncomfortable truths—in my life and in the lives of my parents, the Hmong diaspora—and giving them the room to grieve, and in a way, permanently in the archival sense. Hmong history is still not known very well. The poems in Poor Anima, which discuss my anxiety of being bilingual and bicultural, are a little different than the ones I am writing today. I suppose the focus hasn’t changed too much. I’m still in the same forest—just taking a different trail, which is filled with regret and grief over the sudden loss of my mother and other members in the family. Every poem is hard. Every poem feels like a test. The biggest surprise of this journey is that I am still writing. Grief did not take poetry away from me. It brought me closer.

Are you working on a second full-length book right now or just moving poem by poem? You write so movingly, so viscerally, about grief. Would you consider that your work’s center right now?

Thank you. I am definitely working on a second collection of poetry, which deals with my grief as stated above. I suppose you can say that grief has always been at the center of my work, even before I wrote Poor Anima. As for the second book, I received a two-month residency at MacDowell Colony in 2017 that helped materialize a huge chunk of it. Still no title—though I have ideas. Since my return, progress has slowed, but I’m content with the time I’m taking to write these poems. Besides, I still have a lot of research I’d like to do before putting it out there in the world.

I have been applying for grants to help fund a trip to Laos and Thailand with my father, since he knows where much of my family lives/lived in Laos, where the dead are buried (unmarked gravesites), where the refugee camps are in Thailand, and so on. Because Laos is the missing piece in my relationship with my parents, I am desperate to see the landscape that scarred them and the families of others. It would also cement in me a kind of truth I’ve long been searching for.

I am grateful that my father has always been open and transparent about his life. When I was a kid, he spoke freely, though in fragments, about his time before, during, and after the war. Sometimes I prodded him with questions, but only when he was sharing. Seldom did I ask for these stories out of the blue unless I was trying to connect some dots in my own research. I understood that his stories were full of hurt, so I trod carefully. Many families choose not to talk about the war because of similar reasons, but I also think it’s because they don’t know or understand that they can talk about the trauma. Rather, they don’t know how. For Hmong children in this kind of household, they end up learning about the war later in their life and wonder why their parents never shared. Of course, it’s hard to conduct these kinds of projects because you never want to exploit the traumas of a people, especially when the trauma is also your own.

My father, however, has always been supportive of my work, even though he doesn’t understand poetry or the act of writing poetry. Because my father was an orphan, where his life was dictated for him by the men in his family, living under communist rule in Laos, which set him on the path as a boy soldier, he really values the freedom to speak and to create. In many of our conversations, he has asked me to make sure the world would not forget him. It is such a burden and a privilege to be in this position, to be his daughter.

If you were the last person on earth, and you pulled the last book from a pile of ash and cinders, what do you hope it would be? Why?

Oh, this is difficult. There are many books that I hold dear, and certainly many more I have yet to read. Let’s see, I need to imagine this as if I were walking through a poem. If I were the last person on earth, and I pulled the last book from a pile of ash and cinders, it would be Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The answer is complicated because the book is complicated, and it would match my despair about life, death, and the responsibilities and consequences of creation. But also, very simply, it’s one of my favorite stories of all time.

Who are some poets youre really excited about right now? Is there anyone who makes America in 2018 a little more bearable? Who do you have on your shelf/in your ear/on your mind right now?

America is buzzing right now. Of course, there’s also a growing stack of “to-read” books in my office, both by living and dead writers. Right now, however, I am incredibly excited by Victoria Chang’s work, Don Mee Choi and her translations of Kim Hyesoon, and very recently Nabila Lovelace. I just saw Nabila at a reading here in Columbus. I was completely entranced. I can’t wait to dig into her debut poetry collection, Sons of Achilles, which was just released in June from YesYes Books.

If you could go back and say anything to your teenage self, what would it be?

“Have patience. Be ready. Find the strength to keep going.”

You can read Khaty Xiong’s work in the fourth issue of Night Music Journal, which will be released November 19th.

NMJ 4 Final Cover

Presenting the cover of NMJ V.4! The featured writer will be announced November 15th, and the issue will be available November 19th!

There’s still room for your poetry, essays, and hybrid creatures in NMJ V.5, so please submit!