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"Your Victory, a Terrible Beautiful": An Interview with Kenji Liu

Kenji C. Liu is a 1.5-generation immigrant from New Jersey living in Southern California. A Pushcart Prize nominee and first runner-up finalist for the Poets & Writers 2013 California Writers Exchange Award, his writing is in or forthcoming in Los Angeles Review, Barrow Street Journal, CURA: A Literary Magazine of Art and Action, The Baltimore Review, RHINO Poetry, Best American Poetry's blog, and many others. His poetry chapbook You Left Without Your Shoes was nominated for a 2009 California Book Award. A three-time VONA alum and recipient of a Djerassi Resident Artist Program fellowship, he holds an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Social Transformation.

His poem, "A Kung in the Philippine Jungle, 1945," appeared in Issue FIfty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about World War II, his paternal grandfather's experiences in the war, and conquest.

What role do the two-line stanzas, often comprised of lists of charged items (“no wife, no songs, no daughters”), play in this work?

While I often naturally turn to couplets to order my poems, it’s only recently that I’ve focused consciously on what they do and how they do it. On one hand, it’s a very precise, restrictive container that allows just a brief statement of no more than two or three ideas before it becomes overburdened. So it forces an economy of thought and expression. On the other hand, for me, this kind of restriction can elicit and express a type of spaciousness within a phrase or stanza. In this poem, the experience of the poem’s narrator is hinted at through specific material items, items that increasingly expand into the metaphysical—by posing a correspondence between these items and the narrator (I/me=object) over the course of nine couplet stanzas. I’ve tried to use these couplets to produce evocative oppositions and analogies.

In terms of flora and fauna, and landscape, too, what prompted/furthered the juxtaposing descriptions of clothing and undressing?

When my paternal grandfather, a soldier and colonial subject of the Empire of Japan, decided to surrender to the United States, he thought he would be killed if he presented himself dressed in uniform. So he stripped naked before he approached the US forces in the Philippines. This is a shrewd calculation that speaks to an understanding of how his own body would probably be read. The US military would not or could not make distinctions between threat/non-threat, Japanese/Taiwanese, unless he was completely stripped to his bare body—bare animal, a part of the jungle, or clothed by the jungle.

In addition, there’s a somewhat repressed erotic component to the psychology of conquest—one that is obviously visible when it comes to military sexual violence—and also in the hypermasculine narratives of conquering land, bodies-as-land, and their attached resources. The discourses of colonialism, imperialism, and militarism interweave to try to spread and impose the vestments of a nation, culture, and people. These impositions can be quite intimate as self-perceptions and everyday ways of being become colonized. This is another aspect of the poem’s landscape.

I read this piece as an identity poem, not wholly but significantly. The narrator, addressing the “conquering flora,” admits “my landscape clothed in sky, not mine,” finally involving the last line as a culmination of identities. Flora and fauna are humanized in moments, made into conquerors and the conquered. Can the identity of this narrator be a conqueror?

If by identity we mean an always-changing series of stances we take towards the world based on the history and events that shape us, then yes it’s in part an identity poem. I’m usually not a fan of poems about identity in a more static sense. 

In this context, flora and fauna might be both conqueror and conquered because the lines aren’t always clear. The jungle itself is in the Philippines, which the poem describes as “lush empty,” yet it might not be an empty island. I don’t know enough to say if the island was already populated. Did the poem’s narrator conquer the jungle because he is a soldier? Is he a conqueror of the Philippines because he is with the Japanese Imperial forces? Is he the conquered because he is a Japanese colonial subject from Taiwan? Is he conquered because he must give himself up the United States? Is the jungle the conqueror because the narrator is lost in it?

Can you speak to the historical ends of this poem, the tangible references of victory and battle—“map,” radio,” “rifle,” “flag,”—as well as the title?

These are all references to the final days of World War II, when the Japanese Empire was losing the war. Taiwan, where my paternal grandfather is from, had been occupied by Japan since 1895. By this point, colonial policy in Taiwan was to assimilate the colony as much as possible into Japanese national identity. Japan was aggressively pursuing military and cultural wars on and through the bodies of soldiers, civilians, politicians, men, women, children, everybody. All bodies are maps for battle, no matter which war we’re talking about.

What are you currently reading?

O Bon by Brandon Shimoda, Doubled Shadows by Ouyang Jiangghe, The Morning News is Exciting by Don Mee Choi, World Ball Notebook by Sesshu Foster, Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle. I’ve also been taking an online class on “Poetry and Feminist Theory” (taught by Kristina Darling), which has familiarized me with poets I’d like to read more of, like Jenny Boully and Khadijah Queen.

What are you currently writing?

While I’m waiting for my first poetry manuscript to attract a publisher, I’m working on a second one. I’m wrestling with the challenge of writing a collection based on a theme. So far it involves war and cyborgs. I also have some poems coming out in Los Angeles Review and The Pinch Journal.

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