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Massy Interviews / Jody Chan

On Tuesday, September 20 at 6pm, join Massy ArtsMassy Books, and poets Jody Chan + Zoe Dickinson for the launch of their poetry books: “sick” (2020, Black Lawrence Press), and “Intertidal: poems from the littoral zone” (2022, Raven Chapbooks).

At the in-person event, authors will read passages from the books, and address their research in poetic literature. After the readings, Chan and Dickinson will also answer questions from the audience and engage on intimate conversations with readers.

The event will be hosted at the Massy Arts Gallery, at 23 East Pender Street in Chinatown, Vancouver.

This event is free + open to all of our community, and registration is mandatory. The gallery is wheelchair accessible and a gender-neutral washroom is on-site.

Covid Protocols: For all in-person events, attendees must provide proof of vaccination, and use of mask at all times when at the gallery. We ask that if you are showing any symptoms, that you stay home. Thank you kindly.

Please be sure to register for this event.

Purchase “sick” by Jody Chan at Massy Books.

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To inspire new writers to trust their themes, Rafael Zen interviews Chan for Massy Arts, investigating how to translate intimate and personal conversations into poetry, and  by asking about the author’s process of re-telling and re-discovering oneself.

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Jody Chan / Using language to disrupt the systems that distribute care and dignity

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Rafael Zen – Why this title – sick? What do you think it evokes of your poetry collection, and what do you think it says about your themes as a writer? What can readers expect from this book?

Jody Chan – For me, the title evokes and holds the ambivalence of sickness. Isolation and rejection, alongside sick/disabled kinship. Self-acceptance, alongside hope for healing. Grief, and possibility.

Sickness is a lesson in form. To be sick is to live with constraint; to know that your body, your mind, your desire, the boundaries of your life, are delimited by dehumanizing narratives and systems of diagnosis, confinement, and state power. How, when you internalize those narratives, shame inevitably lurks in the white space between what you feel and what can be expressed.

I think this book observes that to exist in the world is to always be contending with power. Language can sanitize acts of violence, trick us into accepting all kinds of atrocities.

So how am I using language to disrupt, rather than to reinforce, the systems that distribute care and dignity unevenly, depending on people’s position in those systems and whether they are deemed worthy of living?

In interviews and lectures, Solmaz Sharif has said — here, too, using the lexicon of sickness — that poetry can embody diagnostic or curative modes. I hope sick occupies some space in between; to report on what must be dismantled, while insisting on some otherwise, some elsewhere, that’s still possible.

Maybe that ambivalence, between-ness, restlessness is where I’m most comfortable.

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RZ – Why is the concept of a “favourite person” familiar to those in the borderline personality disorder community – and why is it important in your writing? Also, how do you translate these intimate and personal conversations into poetry? How was this process of re-telling and re-discovering?

JC – I relate very differently now to the label of BPD than I did when I first began writing the poems in sick. Through the work and sharing of sick/disabled/mad folks and, to some extent, my training as a therapist, I’ve come to understand BPD as a manifestation of persistent, complex, relational trauma.

That said, at a time when I was newly grasping for any anchor of meaning with which to understand myself, the label was important.

In many online BPD spaces (which were the ones I had access to), “favourite person” refers to someone who becomes a saviour figure, obsession, fixation. These spaces were full of people asking for advice about what to do in FP relationships, from both sides of the dynamic.

At the root of it, the conversation I’m interested in having about a “favourite person” is about power: the power you give away when anyone has so much influence over your emotional states and well-being; and the power and control you must inevitably try to wield over them, to maintain your access to such a precious resource of security and survival.

The poems in sick dealing with a “favourite person” are concerned with how we can witness the most undesirable parts of ourselves, how vulnerability means neither punishing nor condoning them. I think that’s something I’m always trying to do.

I think poetry, in particular, gave me permission to attempt — an image, a feeling, a silence, a self — and to assert that curiosity and play and discovery belong in every episode of my life, even the most painful ones.

The revising and revisiting of traumatic experiences served to strip those events of their charge, to enable me to integrate them into my narrative of myself.

Together, these poems hold a past version of me, which I tried not to edit out, but which is no longer necessarily who I am now. In a way, it was, and continues to be, liberating to get to inhabit all these different selves.

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RZ – How do you think your poetry book complicates the idea of nostalgia? Writing between homeland/diaspora, sickness/wellness, and self/community, whose voices did you bring along to build these poems?

JC – My relationship with nostalgia has definitely evolved since writing the poems in sick; looking back, I find myself wanting to disrupt the diasporic gaze — in terms of longing for cultural acceptance, or some kind of uncomplicated relationship with lineage and place — which, using the language of sickness, can corrupt and infect our capacity to accurately assess our political realities.

In many ways, that romanticized, imagined homeland never existed; and the people of that place, divided along lines of gender, race, ability, class, were never unified in their needs and interests at all.

In A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne Brand writes, “Nation-states are configurations of origins as exclusionary power structures which have legitimacy based solely on conquest and acquisition.” Nostalgia, then, that can be mobilized towards fascist or nationalist political projects. Nostalgia as an avoidance of the present.

So how can we find a way to build community and belonging within ourselves, that no longer relies on the violence of borders, on any state definition? Speaking on her relationship with home, Mia Mingus says, “I am part of different diasporas and each one pulls at me constantly. And each one holds that constant refrain: I am, but I’m not; I am, but I’m not.”

I think poetry can be a method of holding that duality, without giving in to simple answers. When I say this, I am holding with me the voices of June Jordan and Audre Lorde, whose work first opened me to the possibility of being deeply committed to poetry as both a political and aesthetic pursuit.

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RZ – As your book’s synopsis claims, I would like to ask you the question that echoes throughout this collection of poems: what about the past is worth bringing with us into the future? And even further – how to make this decision? Do you think there is any poem/passage in the book that could illustrate your answer?

JC – Each one of us carries our ancestors and our descendants within us — both biological and spiritual. We have no choice about our inheritances; but we do get to choose how we live out what’s been passed on to us.

As a couples therapist, for example, watching people who love each other ensnare themselves in devastatingly painful cycles of conflict, I’ll sometimes ask, “What ghosts are here with us in the room?” Each choice we make to heal and transform is a gift in both directions on the timeline; and outwards as well, to everyone whose lives touch ours.

In “letter to my future daughters”, I feel myself struggling toward a different relationship with my own ghosts; that is, the voices of my family. To name their suffering as well as the violences they committed in the name of survival, without discarding them wholly. To give myself permission to define myself affirmatively, rather than in opposition to my shame.

In Medicine Stories, Aurora Levins Morales writes, “If slavers, invaders, committers of genocide, inquisitors can beget abolitionists, resistance fighters, healers, community builders, then anyone can transform an inheritance of privilege or victimization into something more fertile than either.”

This reminds me that healing is multi-generational. I find comfort in knowing that the work of transformation cannot be contained to one lifetime.

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RZ – If you could choose one poem from your book – one that represents the core theme/style of your book, what would this poem be? Can you share it with our readers? Why did you choose this one?

JC – One of the engines of this book is an obsession with the “mother” — the biological mother, the motherland, the mother tongue. Throughout these poems, the mother comes to signify care, lineage, guidance, connection to land and home.

As with nostalgia, though, there is danger in becoming stuck in a process of grieving potential; of idealizing a love or belonging that never was. What happens when the attachment to the symbol transcends the attachment to the mother herself?

In “home remedies”, the form becomes a container against which that obsession presses, through rhythm and repetition, and eventually ruptures. At the same time, it also moves aspirationally towards a relationship with what has not yet been lost that can be healing and reparative.

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