A Conversation with Oriana Tang
By Laura Liu
Oriana Tang is a senior at Yale University majoring in English. She was a 2015 Presidential Scholar in the Arts and a Davidson Fellow in Literature. You can find her recent work in Plan A Magazine and the Yale Literary Magazine. She grew up in New Jersey.
I was fortunate enough to sit down and ask Oriana some questions. Read on for the result!
Laura Liu, Interviewer: Let’s start off light—what was the most recent poem you read that struck you? What about it did you find so impactful?
Oriana Tang, Writer: Hmmm… tough question! I very recently read The Wilderness by Sandra Lim and rediscovered some poems I first encountered in a workshop a few years ago, most notably “Snowdrops” and “Human Interest Story.” They’d left an impression on me then, but I had no idea why; I didn’t really understand how poetry worked or how to tell whether a poem is good or bad. Reading them now, I’m struck by their peculiar stillness. Each long line is its own, self-contained thought; you’re not quite prepared for what comes next; yet fixed in the kind of relationship Lim has chosen, it’s hard to imagine the poem could comprise anything else. The surprise that wells up in the spaces between the lines is so unusual and so wonderful.
I’m going to cheat and say that I also recently read and loved James McMichael’s Each in a Place Apart, and that the poet I find myself coming back to most has been Arda Collins (I love “Spring” and “A History of Something” and “The News”).Terrance Hayes’ new book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, is just incredible.And one of my favorite poems of all time is Louise Glück’s “Figs,” from A Village Life.
LL: You have written for several Yale publications, such as the Yale Daily News and the Yale Literary Magazine. What do you think is the relationship between news (as in, articles) and poetry? Do you approach each form with an entirely different mindset?
OT: The most obvious answer I could give would be that both news articles and poetry (and, indeed, all writing) are about politics on some level, whether that’s explicit in the piece or not. That said, writing shorter news articles, unlike poetry, always felt somewhat formulaic to me: you have the lede and the nutgraf and there’s a particular number of sentences to insert after each quotation and you end with an objective fact and so on and so forth. There’s more freedom with longform articles, but on some level even they follow a prescribed model—you begin with an introductory section that presents some kind of question or problem, then you have a section on the history or backstory of the issue, etc. The terrifying and wonderful thing about poetry is that there is no single way a poem should be put together, and there are no limitations on topic besides what you yourself set. You’re also beholden to the truth in different ways. My poems are typically some mixture of fact and fiction; you can’t have that kind of looseness in a news article. So I think I have to approach poetry differently from reported pieces—they don’t operate on the same terms just from a craft perspective.
LL: In 2016, you co-founded “Negative Space,” a project that “aims to create a more nuanced portrait of Asian-American identity.” What led you to pursue this project (rather than just gathering frustration with the status quo), and what have you learned from it?
OT: In the fall of 2016, when we started Negative Space: An Asian & Asian American Oral History Project, my suitemate and co-founder, Haewon Ma, and I were both on the board of the Yale Herald. I was assigned to be Haewon’s managing editor for a cover piece she wanted to write about Asian American identity. In the course of conducting interviews, however, Haewon realized that it would be impossible to synthesize the many kinds of experiences people told her about in a single article. At the same time, I was taking a class that semester on the Asian diaspora, and I fell in love with Lisa Lowe’s “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences.” To paraphrase it somewhat reductively, this essay argues that rather than trying to understand Asian America(n culture) as a monolithic force, we should see it in terms of its diversity. Haewon’s and Lowe’s articles collided, and we started talking about whether there might be room on campus for some kind of project on the Asian American population here. We knew for sure we didn’t want to do something that would “soundbite” or cherry-pick among people’s experiences, since that was exactly what had been the problem in the Herald piece. In the end, collecting oral histories seemed like the most promising and equitable solution.
It’s hard to say why we didn’t just let our frustration fester. I think it probably came down to a matter of timing: we had the willpower and the incentive, and the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media was offering funding that fall for interdisciplinary arts projects, so everything kind of came together. It’s been really exciting to watch the project grow—we expanded to a team of five about a year ago, and Ananya Kumar-Banerjee, Sarah Jho, and Tien Tran have been instrumental to making the project more manageable, more ambitious, and more inclusive, especially since Haewon and I had no idea what we were doing when we first started. We just had an informational meeting, so we’re looking forward to taking on more interviewers this year as Tien and Haewon and I get ready to graduate and turn the project over to underclassmen.
The driving concept behind Negative Space is that everyone has something meaningful to contribute by virtue of just having lived their lives, and I’ve yet to find that disproven—that’s probably been the most valuable concept I’ve learned from the project, to say nothing of the perspectives and histories I’ve learned from individual interviewees.I don’t think people realize how much they know or how meaningful their insights about their experiences are until they actually sit down to talk about them.
LL: To what extent do you feel Asian Americans are appropriately represented in today’s literary world, or the world in general? How do you think the representation or awareness of Asian Americans changed through writing?
OT: This is a difficult question. By “appropriate,” do you mean “accurate,” or do you mean “sufficient”? I don’t know if I could say whether the contemporary literary world accurately represents Asian Americans or whether Asian Americans accurately represent themselves; I don’t think I know enough about existing Asian American literature to say, and I certainly can’t speak to whether it’s “objectively” accurate (if anything like objectivity even exists in this situation), only whether it aligns with my personal experiences and expectations. As for sufficient—to be honest, I’m frustrated by that obsession. On the one hand, I understand why it’s so important for Asian American readers, especially young readers of elementary- or middle-school age, to see themselves and their stories reflected in the texts they read. And I understand that the kinds of literature and representations currently available are heavily East Asian and that there’s a long way to go before we can say that Asian Americans, as a heterogeneous group, are anywhere close to well-represented.
On the other hand, however, I think that emphasizing underrepresentation as the problem to solve lets us conveniently evade thinking about other, trickier problems. One of these might be the accuracy I just mentioned—are the stories being told “fair” or “true” or “authentic”? Those are all fraught and complex terms, but we might set aside those complications for a minute to think about the market: how do publishers and consumers push certain kinds of narratives that aren’t accurate onto Asian writers, who then feel obligated to write stories they don’t want to write in order to make a living? What exactly does “representation” consist of? Is it merely that the writer is Asian American, or is it that their work is about being Asian American? What does it mean to be Asian American—is it a matter of self-identification or is it a label other people (i.e., consumers and publishers) slap on writers to sell their books? Does that distort the way a writer might want or not want their work to be read? Who do these writers write for—are they writing for other Asian Americans, or for a “general” (that is, white) audience? Does it matter?
If any kind of writing by an Asian American person or on an Asian American experience counts as representation, we get to valorize a whole swathe of works without asking these questions. We get to call them “important” without seriously considering whether they have literary merit, whether they make aesthetic or theoretical contributions to the world, or whether they just recycle tired tropes of Asianness. At what point do we stop worrying about representation and start worrying about other things? When Asian Americans are represented at the same percentage they make up in the population? When Asian Americans are represented at the same rate white people are? Do we then put down our megaphones and declare racism to be over? The demand for representation comes from a good place, but I take a lot of issue with the way achieving representation is treated as some kind of pinnacle of racial equity.
LL: You have been nationally recognized by many organizations for your writing, such as the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the National YoungArts Foundation. Do you have any words of advice for aspiring young writers out there who may look at such accomplished writers such as yourself and feel inadequate or insufficient as artists?
OT: I don’t think anyone should look at prize citations as a measure of worth. I didn’t know Scholastic or YoungArts existed until I’d already been writing for many years; when I decided to submit work with my friend and writing partner Christina Qiu, it was because we thought it might be fun. Many of the best writers I’ve met in college are people who never submitted or won competitions in high school at all. I think the mania over winning Scholastic medals or becoming a YoungArts finalist stems from the fear that without these accolades, you won’t be able to get into a “good” college. That, first of all, isn’t true—there are many avenues to getting into college, and there are many ways to get a great education and have a successful and worthwhile life that have nothing to do with the top twenty schools ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Second of all, I worry that stressing over competitions obscures the actual point of writing, which is love: love for language, love for craft, love for the complicated pleasure of creating something meaningful for yourself. Why write, otherwise? Commitment to that love should come first, or else writing and its attendant suffering are just a waste of time. I hope young writers remember and work towards that love, and forget about using competitions as a way to determine whether their own or someone else’s work has merit (because competitions don’t determine anything). You can always tell if someone has put their heart into their writing, and that’s more important than anything else.
LL: Finally, you are currently an English major at Yale College—what’s in store for you? Will you continue to write and publish, or pursue another interest primarily?
OT: I’m not sure what my next step is. As of right now, I don’t think I want to be a career writer, but I want to always be writing, so I’m still trying to figure out how I can balance writing and doing other work. I’ve become really interested in art history in college and would love to do something in that field. But it’s all open-ended.
Laura Liu is a senior at Conestoga High School, and has been writing her entire life. As an editor for her school's literary magazine, The Folio, she is always looking for ways to help herself and her peers develop mastery and voice in writing.
Laura is a 2019 Merit Award Winner for Writing (Poetry) from the National YoungArts Foundation, and has won top prizes in competitions such as the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) Student Contest, and the Central League Writing Contest. She was also published in NFSPS' annual poetry anthology, Encore, in 2017.
Header Image: Oriana Tang