BY MEGAN CATTEL
Poetry is very hit or miss for me (as a prose writer.) Sometimes the words roll right past me, and sometimes they leap off the page and electrify every cell in my body. The latter was my experience reading writer Ysabelle Cheung’s poem “Ex / Re / Patriate ” in the Jellyfish Review two years ago, which outlines a British-Chinese woman’s experiences in Hong Kong’s expat social scene. In one stanza, a white American man (unironically) tells the poem’s speaker, “You all don’t understand. We have it just as bad. We’re all discriminated against here, in Asia.”
Like a film montage, several short scenes of similarly uncomfortable, enraging anecdotes are stitched together from the speaker’s perspective, who was raised in the U.K. to Chinese parents. With each section, I had to remind myself that this poem was a fictional lampooning, despite its uncanny ability to skewer arrogant expat behavior that often flies under the radar in the real world.
Over the past two years, I’ve read Ysabelle’s far-ranging work with delight, from her nonfiction essays, to her short stories. In an interview I did with Ysabelle for NüStories, she shares her thoughts on her writing, the possibilities of transnational Anglophone literature, and her perspective as a HK-based writer. This interview was conducted over e-mail correspondence.
MEGAN: Thank you so much for doing this interview Ysabelle, I’m so happy to ask you questions about your writing.
To kick things off, your poem ‘Ex / Re / Patriate’ in Jellyfish Review is pretty much seared into my brain at this point. As a Chinese American who lived and worked in Mainland China after college, I also witnessed the bad behavior of white expats on a daily basis (and many incidents mostly escalated due to cultural or language barriers, not to mention spurred on by Eurocentrism and good ol’ fashioned racism.)
However, as you pointed out: “Where is home? One asks. What is diaspora identity? Are we part of the problem?” Someone of the diaspora, fluent in English, is privileged in their ability to become enmeshed in expat work culture and social circles. I wanted to ask how these anecdotes came together as a way to examine not only the after effects of colonialism and expat entitlement, but also the speaker’s complicity within these unequal power structures.
YSABELLE: Thank you for this question! It’s nice to revisit an older piece, especially since Jellyfish Review shut down recently.
“Ex / Re / Patriate” does indeed take a dig at the clichéd behaviour patterns of expats. I’m not ashamed to admit that I found writing the piece deeply, grossly satisfying—a type of relief only matched by picking at a scab or popping a zit. However, I did also want to convey that to reduce someone—anyone—to a cliché or a binary only perpetuates colonial perspectives.
There’s a reason this is a flash fiction piece; I also wanted to encapsulate in this very brief format the idea of complicity and external judgement, how easy it is to laugh at others and engage in systems of complicity. As someone born in London but now living in Hong Kong for over a decade, I try to reflect on my own privilege and understand that identity is a nuanced and complicated thing.
MEGAN: In ‘Ex / Re / Patriate’, the words “rage”, “the spat”, and “hate” are sprinkled throughout the poem. The speaker’s anger is impossible to avoid for the reader. Most of her social circle looks away, refuses, or is unable to see the reason behind her rancor. I wanted to delve deeper into the role of anger in this poem. (Side note: Not sure what you feel about the divisive book Minor Feelings, it’s kind of a love it or hate it type of book, but that title came to mind especially when examining the speaker’s anger.)
YSABELLE: It’s funny because I would say that, to date, this is my angriest piece. It’s also one of the shortest. I had people writing to me after it was published, and they would say “I loved your poem essay” or “your nonfiction piece really spoke to me.” It’s actually entirely fictional, although of course some elements relate to my personal experiences. I’m guessing that the anger in the text makes it appear autobiographical, because when you’re writing fiction—at least for me—there tends to be a time-based distance between yourself and the character. It’s hard to hold onto that blistering, shimmering type of rage when you’re working and revising something for so long.
But to answer your question: the role that anger plays in this piece is that it is the driving force behind the most challenging questions one can ask about themselves. I think that hate and shame sit very close to each other. Most of the time, when rage fills you up, it fills a place that might be typically inhabited by feelings of loss—the lost selves that never came to fruition, the loss of a place or a person or a future. The title of the piece hints at the idea of repatriation, of something being returned, but it is also led by “ex,” a prefix that often indicates a banishment or, literally, “out.”
Can I confess that I haven’t read “Minor Feelings” yet? I feel like I deal with too many major feelings already, haha. I’m really behind on my reading.
MEGAN: (I understand the major feelings thing, especially during the last few years we’ve all had.) Wow, I’ve actually never thought about rage as a filler emotion for loss, and the grief of “lost selves that never came into fruition.” This is a notion that is explored in a lot of immigrant fiction, as well as believing that migrating can result in new possibilities worth the sacrifices and grief involved.
Your short story, “Please Get Out and Dance” depicts a daughter, mother, and grandmother preparing to leave an island that is disappearing, literally and figuratively, under state control:
“Frankie whispered something to her grandma. A word to say she was sorry, to say that there was more to this life, to say that new photographs were being developed, that the light was blurring image into view, the shapes roping themselves into existence. To say that this all might be worth whatever came out of those pictures, even if the images were obscured, hidden from them—even if, in the end, they were barely visible.”
I found this section incredibly moving, and wanted to ask you about the significance behind the “barely visible” images/photos, and why despite the characters’ best efforts, they may be “hidden from them” through it all.
YSABELLE: Thanks for this question! “Please, Get Out and Dance” began as a series of visual fragments in May, 2020. At the time, I didn’t quite know what form or shape the text would take. I remember all these questions. Was I writing nonfiction? Fiction? Notes that I would bury later; notes that I wouldn’t be able to show anyone? Over time, I added and polished, subtracted and hollowed it out. In many ways, I feel like that story is so different to the type of stories I usually write. I remembered feeling immense emotion when reading or working on it.
Sometimes I would have to stop and take a break. But even long after I finished the story, it remained a mystery to me. Even to this day, some aspects of it are hidden; it’s weird, for example, how I kept having this vision of buildings disappearing but only during that time. And it was actually the image of the mountain that appeared to me first—not the mountain that already exists, but the mountain that Frankie wants to build anew.
I think, perhaps, that’s what that section is about. Trauma can’t be easily explained in the moment; we tend not to realize the psychological and physical repercussions until much, much later. The same can be said about change, or new beginnings in life. Often we can’t tell what shape they will take until later, and sometimes you just have to take that leap of faith. Sometimes you just have to hold onto that hope.
MEGAN: In your short stories, “The Patchwork Dolls” and “Mycomorphosis” I was struck by the depiction of violence towards women of color and Chinese immigrant women; the protagonists of these short stories were also victims of physical assault and targeted violence. Despite the circumstances, both characters were defiant against societal expectations (and the expectations of their peers) in their own ways.
I wanted to ask you about your approach to covering these very real issues of gendered violence, racial violence, and exploitation through fiction, and what draws you to writing surreal, otherworldly environments for your characters to inhabit.
YSABELLE: There’s this theory that the traumatized or violated child is drawn to situations of abuse in their adulthood, not to exactly recreate those relationships, but to subconsciously figure out a way to escape them and regain power. It’s a controversial theory but I think that’s what I’m attempting in my fiction. In all of my recent stories, which I’ve put together into a collection now, I place a protagonist in a near-impossible scenario and we devise an escape route. I realize I sound pathologically psychoanalytical, but then I remember the works of Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama, both artists who were keenly fascinated with rebirth, destruction, trauma, and the psyche.
Having said that, I’ve never been interested in writing a revenge narrative. I know many people find them cathartic, and I myself enjoy watching and reading them, but I find myself going down a binary path if I consider revenge as the primary motive. With “Mycomorphosis,” I really wanted to consider the idea of beauty as a metaphysical experience, fungal agency, and how bodies can exist on this violent earth. In “The Patchwork Dolls,” I was drawn to complicity in exploitation and the price of admission. There are some other stories in that collection that tackle violence and agency too, but in quite different ways.
I’ve always found surrealism, or magical realism, very powerful vehicles for which to address real life issues. Maybe it was the way that books raised me. As a child I was socially awkward and daydreamed constantly, sometimes even more than being present—I think now they call it maladaptive daydreaming—and so I have always felt a little detached from the world. Then I discovered that reading could bring that same sort of fulfilment that I found with daydreaming, and I started devouring all sorts of fairy tales, folk tales, ghost stories, children’s fantasy books.
I read Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits when I was eleven years old and it probably changed my brain chemistry. Of course, that book is also deeply sociopolitical and speaks to generational trauma, similar to Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I can only hope that I possess even a single drop of talent that Allende or Marquez have, but what I mean to say is: people have been speaking of violence, trauma, and the political through magical realism for a long time already. I’m just humbly following that tradition.
MEGAN: In your op-ed for The Atlantic, “Hong Kongers, Don’t Idolize the U.K.” you write about your childhood in London, the British education system (which doesn’t like to highlight the negative legacy of colonialism) and the cruel bullying you endured while in school. Published two years ago, the article came about in a time when many Hong Kongers were fleeing to Canada and the U.K. in the wake of the passing of the national security law in HK I wanted to ask what compelled you to get vulnerable and share your perspective, given the sensitivity of the subject during that time period. How did you find the reception to this op-ed?
YSABELLE: My answer to this question isn’t going to be exactly inspiring, but it will be honest. I think I was struggling, on a psychological and physical level, to understand what was happening. My body was shutting down—insomnia, eczema, painful ovarian cysts—and I had a very hard time figuring out what day it was or what time I was in.
At the same time, I was seeing examples of people successfully expressing their trauma or pain through writing, or the arts. I think I mistakenly equated success for happiness, relief, or catharsis. Several smaller magazines or journals reached out to me to ask if I wanted to write something, and I thought, well, if I’m going to cut off a piece of my flesh and sell it, I might as well sell it to the highest bidder. That’s really what it felt like. So I reached out to my friend, the video journalist Xinyan Yu, to ask if I could be put in touch with her contact at The Atlantic.
The reception to the piece was overwhelming. People were emailing me, sending me private messages on Twitter on Facebook, and trying to message me on Instagram too. There was a lot of backlash, of course, and I absorbed and processed it all the best way I could. I think I actually have quite a strong tolerance for criticism and critical feedback, so that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that some of the comments were directly related to my personal, private identity—there were accusations of my character that were unrelated to the essay—and I only had myself to blame for putting myself out there in public like that.
On a more positive note, I did have a lot of people, especially younger students in Hong Kong and China, writing to me to let me know that they really appreciated the complexity of what I had been trying to say. I think those are the people that I had been trying to write the essay for, but somehow along the way I had gotten a bit lost.
Up until that point, I had never written extensively and publicly about my childhood, my feelings around being British, my feelings around being in Hong Kong, any of that. And I don’t think I ever will again. It was a very difficult experience for me. I truly admire people who can write memoirs.
MEGAN: You’ve pointed out (rightly so) the American-centric nature of Anglophone writing and publishing communities. I really value your perspective on “Asian American” writing and identity discourse as well—of relating to some aspects of this identity but also seeing its limitations. I wanted to ask you about building a writing community while in HK, of finding solidarity with other writers, and the possibility of transnational writing communities. How can global Anglophone writers, editors, and publishers around the world do better to de-center the West (and look beyond neat, tidy, marketable categories like “Asian American” when scouting for talent?)
YSABELLE: For the longest time, I thought I didn’t have a writing community in Hong Kong. But now when I really think about it, I realize I do, but it might not look like your typical post-MFA community or Euro-American-style literary circle. Most of the people I hold dear and trust with my writing are in the arts in some way: they are curators, artists, translators, editors. We’re not bound by genre, so I am very grateful for that, and grateful for the opportunities to open my eyes to new forms and different ways of thinking and seeing.
I think that’s what being transnational really means; not being bound by any forms or borders or traditions or location. Recently, I was invited by Asia Art Archive to join a writing workshop, initiated by their online journal editor Paul Fermin. We are six participants, and our only instruction was to write something—anything. At first, I found the lack of structure deeply unsettling, but over time I’ve come to find it refreshing, and freeing. Ask yourself: what would happen if you freed yourself from the constraints of tradition, of genre, of Western-centric forms and structures?
MEGAN: I understand you took a hiatus from creative writing, lasting nearly a decade. I’d love to ask you what led you back to writing, and what is currently feeding your creativity to sustain your writing practice? What authors have informed your work, and where are you looking for inspiration?
YSABELLE: After I graduated from the University of East Anglia, I really didn’t have ambitions to become a full-time fiction writer. I knew I wanted to work in a field adjacent to writing, so I actually completed some internships at publishing houses and literary agencies. Then I found my footing in the magazine industry, and I latched onto art criticism in particular. There’s some aspect of creative expression there, I believe—ekphrasis (a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art.)
Over time, I think I leaned into nonfiction writing and left the fiction behind. Part of it was due to my incredibly long working hours, and part of it was fear. The writer Xu Xi kept telling me: don’t leave it too late. But I think I knew what I was doing. If you never try something properly, then you can’t fail, right?
When I turned 29 years old, I began to re-evaluate my life. I was working at a job that was emotionally and physically taxing, my confidence was absolutely destroyed, and I had so little time to write reviews or features that I was starting to wonder if it was even worth it. It was at that time, weirdly enough, that I felt like turning back to fiction was the right move. When I was at my lowest.
My good friend and curator Eunice Tsang recommended the writing of Carmen Maria Machado to me. Her Body and Other Parties really shook me out of my state of despair. I thought to myself that I wanted to write like that. I wanted to make other people feel the way I felt when I read her work. That’s kind of how it all began again. I quit my job, and began freelancing, while at the same time working on my fiction writing practice.
This is becoming a very long answer now, but since you asked about inspiration, I’d like to name a few authors whose works have been very important to me: Kazuo Ishiguro, Banana Yoshimoto, Angela Carter, Dorothy Tse, Isabel Allende. I have to also mention the poet Yanyi, who was my mentor for that first magical year when I turned back to fiction writing, and whose guidance helped me become a more generous writer and person.
MEGAN: I really love Carmen Maria Machado’s work as well! Her work is so moving. And Yanyi’s newsletter The Reading is such a gift. If you were to give advice to writers who are just starting out — maybe they are getting ready to finish up some dusty old drafts—what would you say to someone who is just getting started? Perhaps what you would say to your 29-year-old self that is still on the edge of starting, and maybe is hesitant to take the leap to write fiction again.
YSABELLE: I’ll start with some practical advice that Yanyi gave me: space is important! If you’re writing in a place that reminds you of other tasks, or the dishes in the sink, or your day job, it will be much harder to begin. Clear a space or desk, and keep it that way for the duration of your writing practice. Add a few things that bring you into that mindset. Yanyi recommended flowers or a candle, but I find that a stack of my favorite books within sightline always works for me.
As for the writing practice itself, there is no way around it than to write your way through it. Julia Cameron’s famous morning pages actually works. Allow yourself to be really messy, and really cluttered in your thoughts, and just get it all down on the page first (always the most difficult part for me, the eternal obsessive perfectionist). When I’m stuck in revision hell, I like to obsessively read about how other authors have revised their stories or written endings and then I deliberately mess up my story and try everything out until something sticks. But that’s just me; I will pursue all routes until exhausted!
One thing I wish someone had told me when I was younger is that it really doesn’t matter what age or stage of life you’re at when you begin or restart. When I was 29, I felt really old already, and by some industry standards, I probably was. There are so many 30 under 30 lists, and emerging writer awards (but only for people under 30), and headlines around youthful authors. It took a while for me to get over this idea that I was already too old, and that I shouldn’t even try.
What helped me was that I did it really quietly at first. I didn’t tell a lot of people, only my partner, and maybe one or two friends. It felt like a pleasurable secret, that I was writing. I wrote for myself. As I did this, I gained some distance from all those publisher’s marketplace announcements and award news, and I realized that it’s all completely arbitrary. The most important thing is the writing itself, and building that relationship.
About Ysabelle Cheung
Ysabelle Cheung is a writer and editor based in Hong Kong.Her fiction writing has appeared in Granta, Catapult, and the Rumpus. Her short story ‘Please, Get Out and Dance,’ published in The Margins (AAWW), was nominated for the 2022 Pushcart Prize.
Her essays and cultural criticism have appeared in the Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Artforum, and Lithub, among others. She is co-founder of the contemporary art gallery Property Holdings Development Group.
She is represented by Jade Wong-Baxter at Frances Goldin Literary Agency.
About Megan Cattel
Megan Cattel is a freelance multimedia reporter currently based in Tampa, FL. For the past three years, she has reported extensively on Asian American and immigrant communities. Her byline has appeared in Teen Vogue, WBUR, the Center for Public Integrity, The China Project, and the South China Morning Post. She edits the NüVoices Podcast and is an occasional co-host.