“A battle cry against dehumanization, erasure, misrule, and oppression.”: An Interview with Poet Debora Kuan

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.
Lunch-Portraits-Cover-Image
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!

BOOK:

Lunch Portraits from Brooklyn Arts Press

POETRY:

“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

FICTION:

“Love in a Time of Trenches” from Juxtaprose Magazine

TWITTER:

@dwkuan

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