Poetry never appealed to me much growing up. I didn’t feel the call of the sonnets, or become seduced by ballads. I think in a way, I viewed poetry as somewhat mechanical, or emotionless, which is ironic. (I blame the public school system for this one.) It wasn’t until recently that I became familiar with work that engaged me on a personal level, in terms of confronting my own ideas about life, racial/cultural identity, and savoring memories that will last a lifetime. Debora Kuan’s ‘Lunch Portraits’ made me laugh, made me question, and made me feel grateful for every satisfied bite I’ve taken out of a sandwich. I never realized that a 1PM meal could be so salacious and eye-opening at the same time. I had the pleasure of interviewing Kuan for Black Nerd Problems, so please enjoy!
BlackNerdProblems: I’m curious to know your inner nerd! If you could road trip with any fictional character across the United States, who would it be and why?
Debora Kuan: This is a tough one! It occurred to me as I tried to answer it that most of the characters I’ve been most drawn to in fiction are pretty unlikeable and unpleasant and some are downright despicable. So I definitely wouldn’t take any road trips with them! But right now I am reading Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I’m pretty fascinated by the voice of the Pakistani narrator — which is the entire novel, since it’s written as a monologue — Changez Khan. At this particular moment of incredible Islamophobia and 45’s outrageous travel bans, his account of living in America during and post 9/11 feels even more relevant than it did when the novel came out. I think it would be sobering to experience a road trip through the U.S. with him.
At this particular moment of incredible Islamophobia and 45’s outrageous travel bans, [M. Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist]… account of living in America during and post 9/11 feels even more relevant than it did when the novel came out.
BNP: What are some books that completely took over your life for awhile? Do you have any go-to faves?
DK: For fiction, I loved Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I read it backwards and forwards in total abject admiration, trying to learn how to construct a perfect story — and perfect sentence! — from him. Also, Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, which is just a triumph of the collective first person voice. I couldn’t believe he could carry that voice for the length of a book — it was such a feat. Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal was pretty fantastic as well — I thought it was a pitch-perfect tour-de-force. Same is true for Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin.
For poetry, I love Melissa Broder, particularly her book Meat Heart. Dorothea Lasky. Lydia Davis. Anais Duplan’s Take This Stallion blew me away. Years ago, I couldn’t put down Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy. Its sheer originality and the infinite places to which he was able to take his conceit were awe-inducing to me. I thought it was brilliant.
For memoir, I thought Cheryl Strayed’s Wild was amazing. I also regularly consult her book of advice letters, Dear Sugar. I also really enjoyed Lena Dunham’s book of essays, Not that Kind of Girl. It goes without saying that she is a wunderkind. Whatever you may feel about her, she has a voice that is uniquely hers — and it is, in fact, the voice of a generation.
When I can’t write, I often turn to Beckett or Grace Paley or Don DeLillo.
BNP: This may be a bland or unsophisticated question, but how do you avoid triteness in your writing? I noticed how colorful your poetry is, and I love that I feel like I’ve never seen anything like it before.
DK: I don’t know if there’s any particular remedy for triteness other than to read a lot and to be a ruthless editor of your own work. I also had great editors for my books, so that helped. Joe Pan of Brooklyn Arts Press made great suggestions for my book, and they all improved my poems immensely.
BNP: Do you insert any kind of political or social commentary within your work? Do you find it’s critical to your writing?
As a woman of color, what I say and exercising my right to say it is a battle cry against dehumanization, erasure, misrule, and oppression.
DK: All art is political, especially now as the arts and humanities are being threatened by this administration. Just the act of making it now — when all the forces are against you — is a statement about what your values are. As a woman of color, what I say and exercising my right to say it is a battle cry against dehumanization, erasure, misrule, and oppression.
BNP: Any literary ambitions for the future?
DK: More books of poems, for sure! And I hope to write a book of personal essays. My novel is deep, deep, deep on the back burner now that I have a 17-month-old. But I hope to get back to fiction one day too. At least short stories, which were always more my form.
Find Debora Kuan all around the internet!
“Pastoral” on the Poetry Society of America website
“Sunday Service” on the site HTMLGiant
“Mantra” on the Awl
“Teen Ghost” at Blue Lyra Review
“Portrait of a Sea Woman” at the Literary Review website