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Interview: Tammy Ho Lai-Ming


Our Bookclub Author of the Month for August 2017 is Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. Find out more about Tammy and work, and read three of her poems on our Bookclub page here. We're delighted that Tammy has taken the time out of her extremely busy schedule to answer some of our questions!

Tell us more about your writing - have you always written in English? 

When I was at school, I wrote poems and stories in Chinese. They had hardly any literary merit; they were just silly little nothings, scribblings. I did write a novella, following the style of Xi Xi’s A Girl Like Me, in Chinese. But the hand-written manuscript—the only copy I had—is long lost. I vaguely remember the story, which is about a bored Hong Kong girl working in a stifling office and her fanciful dreams, which are in fact quite modest.

It wasn’t until I got into university that I started writing in English. Being taught poetry, fiction and drama at the University of Hong Kong was a transformative experience for me. I was perhaps at first a little intimidated by my classmates, many of whom had gone to famous local schools, so much so that I used a pseudonym to write a number of posts on an online discussion forum of one of the courses. But the professors who figured out who I was were very encouraging—one later even became my thesis supervisor. It was during my university years that I published my first poems and stories, in English, and I have not stopped writing ever since.

Although I now write mostly in English, both in my creative and academic works, I also want to be connected to Chinese/Cantonese through translating others’ poetry (mainly from Chinese to English) and also researching on the place of Cantonese in Anglophone writing.

The three poems we feature this month cover a broad range of themes, from the personal to the political, and also, especially in the case of 'One Little Room', literary experimentation. Can you tell us a bit about your process of choosing the subjects and forms of your poems?

I keep an ever-expanding folder titled “Poetry Ideas” which contains quotations, news headlines, observations and random thoughts. There are many subjects I want to write about but these days, due to lack of time, I tend to be very selective. And I also write a lot less about my family, a fact that makes me sad sometimes. When I do write poetry, I mainly focus on social, political and topical issues. I also think that there are subjects that cannot wait. They need to be written down and read now. For example, some of my published pieces in recent years were responses to the Umbrella Movement, the disappearance of the Hong Kong booksellersthe ‘two-child policy’ being introduced in China in December 2015the censorship of an art installation in Hong Kong and the death of Liu Xiaobo. Writing may not be able to effect much (immediate) change, but it is at least something. And in some cases, writing is an act of defiance, resistance, protest.

As for form, I am not as experimental as I would like to be. I admire the works of David Markson (Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, The Last Novel and Vanishing Point), Padgett Powell (The Interrogative Mood), Édouard Levé (Autoportrait), B. S. Johnson (The Unfortunates), Raymond Queneau (Exercises in Style) and my fellow Hong Kong poet Nicholas Wong (Crevasse), among others, and would like to do something innovative in my own writing. This desire for experimentation, unfortunately, is often superseded by the need for straightforward exposition on urgent topics—a compromise, perhaps. I do write list poems (“Official Causes of Death in a Chinese Prison”, “How The Narratives of Hong Kong Are Written When China Is in Sight”), found poems (e.g. “This Brick: A Found Poem”) and employ insistent repetition for emphasis (“Hula Hooping”, “One Little Room”).

Cha: An Asian Literary Journalwhich you co-founded, is ten years old this year. How did it start, and what have been some of the challenges and rewards of editing a journal?

As I have said elsewhere, my co-editor Jeff Zroback and I started the journal in 2007 because we saw that there wasn’t any online English-language publication based in the city, even though it was a common thing in the West and in some other parts of Asia. We felt that Hong Kong, and Asia more widely, had something to offer to English writing and we wanted to do something about it. Jeff is an editor by profession and I had the experience of editing creative works and so we were confident that we were in a good place to start such a project.

The experience of editing Cha has largely been a very rewarding one, which makes all the work worthwhile. The journal has been acknowledged by a number of media outlets and listed in university libraries around the world. Many pieces first published in Cha were subsequently collected in books—and when writers tell us their good news we are always very happy for them. We have maintained a good relationship with a number of past contributors and guest editors: a literary relationship that we treasure immensely. Of course, Cha is not possible without the assistance and tireless support of our Reviews Editor Eddie Tay and other editors and guest editors, and the interest of readers and contributors alike.

Do you feel that it is necessary for writers to be politically engaged?

I can’t speak for writers in general and I don’t think writers should be politically engaged for appearance’s sake—it is not a trivial matter. Speaking personally, however, living in Hong Kong and seeing what is happening to the city, it is impossible for me not to think about politics. My own academic and creative writing increasingly reflects this sense of urgency. That said, I have not written that many political pieces and I think there are writers who express opinions and thoughts relating to politics far more effectively and passionately than I do. Still, I’ll keep writing while I can.

Every time I visit my family’s public housing flat in Tin Shui Wai where I grew up, I stay behind—after my two sisters and their families have left—for an hour or two to chat with my parents. In these two years, we usually talk about my niece and nephews (such as how cute and how smart they are)—a topic that we are all very enthusiastic about, and sometimes we comment on current affairs being shown on the television, which is only turned on when the little ones are not in the flat. Last week, one week after the death of Liu Xiaobo, my father warned me not to write critical things about the Chinese government. My mother, who is generally a woman of few words, said nothing. My father believes that intellectuals and writers who speak their minds might get themselves into trouble—the question is what degree of trouble. He said there is nothing we can do now to change anything. He didn’t go into detail. My father’s concern speaks to a general sense of fear and paranoia—one that propels people to censor and writers to self-censor. I will be more careful and vigilant. But I won’t stop writing.

And finally, can you tell us about any of your current projects?

I am working on a number of things for the rest of 2017 and beyond. The tenth anniversary issue of Cha, which will be released in December 2017, will focus on Hong Kong entirely. We want to celebrate our beloved city, its writers and the inspiration it affords us in a special “Writing Hong Kong” edition. Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema from Hong Kong and Singapore, which I am co-editing with Joshua Ip of Sing Lit Station, will be published in the two cities later this year. This anthology, partially funded by the Institute of Creativity at Hong Kong Baptist University, will help cement the literary connection between Hong Kong and Singapore and it is hoped that the collaboration will serve as a precursor to collaborations between Hong Kong and other Asian cities in future. I have also recently been awarded a research grant from the Hong Kong government to study and cross-translate post-1997 poetry on Hong Kong written in both English and Chinese. This research will preoccupy me until late 2018. Lastly, I am finalising the manuscripts of a new poetry book and a new collection of short stories—the former will be published by Math Paper Press and the latter by Delere Press—and a book of essays for Springer.

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Tammy!