Thursday 28 July 2022

'Possibility and Communion': An interview with Jonathan Chan

Editor's note: When I arrived at the launch of his debut collection going home a fortnight ago, the first thing that struck me about Jonathan Chan was his voice; thoughtful and even, but with a hint of the self-assuredness that characterises so much of his writing. In the days since, I've been fretting about whether you – the reader – will be able to "hear" his responses to my questions as I hear them, with the same gentle conviction. But reading the interview in full, I realise I needn't have worried: the responses speak for themselves.  


Once again, congratulations on this beautiful book. At the launch, your publisher, Eck Kheng, mentioned that this book was initially conceived around narratives of travel and movement. Indeed readers will find, at the very start, what you've called 'A Brief History of Movement': a chronology of your family's migrations since 1900. 

It's evident that they haven't just moved geographically, but also in terms of language, status and identity; there are a few pivots, mostly through overseas education, that have brought your parents (and you) to your current station in life. Could you say a little about these more invisible migrations, and how they have shaped the book?

I felt it necessary to frame the book with the opening sequence as the book's poems align with my family’s chronology. The geographical pivots that the first segments touch on have not always resulted from educational opportunities – my forebears from China moved to Malaya likely because of deprivation or some sort of domestic strife, my maternal grandfather moved his family from Seoul to Hong Kong for work and out of political concerns amidst conflicts in 1960s South Korea, my paternal grandfather moved his family from Kuala Lumpur to Houston in the 1980s in large part because of his frustrations with state corruption in Malaysia, while my own parents moved to Singapore from New York because of my father’s work. Of course, there were temporary ‘migrations’ of a sort when my parents, grandparents, and relatives moved to attend university, yet there was no sense of permanence to these moves.

Moreover, these migrations have not always been invisible – most of my immediate family continues to be based outside Singapore and my own family is the only one with members who have become Singaporean. We continue to travel when we can to Texas, New York, South Korea, and Hong Kong to spend time with family, so the ways in which my family has migrated and established itself across the world continues to bear real and tangible effects on my life and consequently, my writing.

Growing up in Singapore, however, I would say that many of these migrations were invisible to me to the extent that they preceded my coming into being. I had a deep sense of the many possible lives I could have lived had my parents not decided to move to Singapore. There was a persistent sense of our history of movement in the languages I heard growing up – Cantonese, Korean, as well as the various accents of English spoken by my extended family over time. The very fact that I speak, and indeed write, in English is a reflection of the legacies of British colonialism my family has experienced in Malaysia and Hong Kong, as well as their Anglophone education in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Of course, this is also a consequence of my growing up in Singapore's Anglophone educational system as well. 

These gradations of movement my family members experienced have obscured a prevailing sense of a single origin. It is hard to say my paternal family maintains any meaningful links to China, while my maternal family has not been centered in South Korea for a long time. Both my parents could be considered ‘third culture kids’ given that they did not grow up in the countries of their birth. My having grown up in yet another country provided much of the restlessness out of which these poems were conceived and written. I began to sense that I needed to  engage with, understand, and make sense of these complications to understand how I am situated in history and in place. Many of the poems in going home, especially in the first segment, tackle these moments of friction and assimilation where contests of language and culture are concerned. These poems very much grew out of stories I’d heard and read about growing up.

The ways in which my family has migrated and established itself across the world continues to bear real and tangible effects on my life and consequently, my writing.

Many of the poems near the start of the collection (e.g. 'malaysian-american', 'sik fan', 'yangban') have a strong sense of liturgy to them, created through repetition that builds almost to incantation. How do you see the interaction between received traditions (of faith) and more 'ordinary' heritages - like these moments from family history?

The comparison to liturgy is interesting, since liturgy takes as its main concern the transmission of correct doctrine or an articulated set of beliefs. Liturgical practice is as much a question of substance as form, since so much of it is pedagogic – incantation acts as an aural mnemonic, a way that the faithful can repeat and remember codified core beliefs. Perhaps the incantatory nature of the poems points to that orality as well as my own impulse to not forget the stories of family. That also gets to the importance of texts, especially in Christian traditions, which of course poetry also finds a place in. However, that attention to correctness and disambiguation can often set liturgy against the ways that poetry operates in religious life.

I’m doubtful as to whether one can say that anyone’s heritage is ‘ordinary’. If we look back into the stories of people’s lives three or four generations back, we find remarkable and compelling narratives of disruption, wartime, and migration, especially in a place like Singapore where so many were born from people who migrated here. I  think of Min Jin Lee, for whom the writing of her novel Pachinko only became compelling when she shifted her attention from contemporary Zainichi Korean subjects to their grandmothers, as well as to Tash Aw, whose novel We, The Survivors addresses the extreme material disparities in Malaysia that hardened within a single generation. Perhaps heritage can be regarded as ordinary when it is seemingly commonplace, especially when so many Singaporean stories have been aggregated within specific national immigrant narratives, though as Viet Thanh Nguyen has said: all stories are interesting, it’s just a matter of knowing the means by which to tell them.

I would also say that it is difficult to disentangle faith from my family history because it is part of my heritage. The presence of Christianity can be traced back five generations on my father’s side, though on my mother’s, she and her sisters converted first before her parents came to the faith. In a way, faith persists as something that was transmitted generationally, and this makes its way primarily to poems related to my paternal grandparents, especially as faith formed the spiritual backbone and muscle of their family. My paternal grandparents were deeply pious and I see their faith as essential to understanding not only why they chose to move to Houston but how they found ways of adjusting to a challenging and new environment when they were really the only Asians in their neighbourhood. This was different from prior sojourns to the United Kingdom or Australia, whether for my grandparents or their children, where there was a provisionality to their being there. Faith has proven a more immediate tether to my paternal family despite being some distance away, as my grandmother continues to live as an exemplar of it. The poems, especially ‘malaysian-american’ and ‘sik fan’, deal with faith as a kind of ordinary, everyday presence and as a reflection of how they coped with living in a new place.

Where my maternal family is concerned, my grandparents adhered nominally to a set of traditional Korean folk beliefs prior to being baptised as Christians. I remember partaking in jesa ceremonies in remembrance of my late grandfather and the array of dishes laid out during them – fruits, fish, types of kimchi. Since their coming to Christianity, the practice has been ‘secularised’ as an act of memorialisation rather than veneration. Yet, this runs in parallel with how Christianity has become entwined with Korean culture, especially after the Pyongyang Revival of 1907 which saw many Koreans turning to Protestantism. Part of the appeal of writing poetry has been the space it’s given me to trace and describe a grand sweep of history in which  providence has been an animating force, an accumulation of instances of fortune and happenstance that have allowed my life to be as it is today. ‘yangban’ is an example of that, though the poem is more attentive to the ways in which feudal and social structures in Korea were transformed after Japanese colonisation, partition, and war. 

The titular poem (which you read at the launch), appears about a third of the way through the collection - and draws a pretty explicit connection between migrant workers praying in their dorm rooms, and you, praying at home. It's a tender moment, but also one that carries a little discomfort; because 'going home' refers (at least in a material sense) only to one side of those parallel scenes. How do you navigate that?

I wrote ‘going home’ when I was questioning who gets to belong in Singapore. I’d been working at a non-profit delivering social, financial, and legal aid to migrant workers in need. That was during the first year of the pandemic when lockdowns and restrictions were forcing many to return ‘home’, wherever that may have been to them. I’d returned to Singapore from the UK as a result and was thinking about the privileges that allowed me to get through the pandemic’s peak and emerge relatively unscathed. It also solidified the sense of Singapore as ‘home’ for me, though I was also thinking about how ‘foreignness’ continues to operate in my life and the lives of others who have migrated to Singapore in some shape or form.

Returning home after work at the non-profit resulted in my becoming more attentive to the workers I’d interact with in my neighbourhood, those labouring to build homes and repair roads. At sundown, I’d see the busyness of their activity slowly dissipate as they’d board lorries and depart for places of residence. I thought of this as a moment of resonance as I’d head home as well, resulting in my writing of ‘going home’. I didn’t mean to flatten any material differences between myself and these workers in the poem, but rather to think about how part of making a home lies in devising routines and practices to anchor the end of each day. I see religious belief as essential to that.

Moreover, that period was also when Singapore was beginning to ease its restrictions at large and workers could return to their worksites and leave their dormitories again, albeit under strict provisions. It had me thinking about how that period of darkness did not have to persist in the imagination entirely as an abyss of despair, but could provide a space where hope and the imagination could be kindled. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her book Hope in the Dark,

"the present and past are daylight, and the future is night. But in that darkness is a kind of mysterious, erotic, enveloping sense of possibility and communion. […] And so much for me of hope is, as I was saying, not optimism that everything will be fine, but that we don’t know what will happen."

In the composition of that poem, I sensed that a return to stability could yield some proximate feeling of home and hope through this recognition of possibility. In my mind, there was an interplay with a line from the Gospel of John, which speaks of how light shall overcome the darkness. It was in thinking of moments of enveloping darkness, as people prepare to go to bed whether for myself, my family, the domestic helpers who live with us, or the workers living in dorms, and how it augurs a sense of possibility that coalesced in that poem.

I was particularly drawn to your poem '', later in the collection, and partly for personal reasons - the character appears in my name too! There's a bit of theology in here, which I imagine to those who neither read Chinese nor are familiar with the Christian faith, might come across as a little puzzling. How much do you feel the need to explain poems like this (as you've done through a footnote) and other similar pieces?

It’s a funny coincidence that we share a character in our Chinese names – I suspect it might be common among those who claim both a Chinese and Christian heritage. Not speaking or reading much Chinese himself, owing to his English-language education and Cantonese heritage, my grandfather turned to a Chinese pastor at their Chinese church in Houston for advice. For our generational character the pastor suggested yi ( or), arguing for its ideogrammic significance. The word is composed of the characters for ‘lamb’ () and for ‘I’ or ‘me’ (), with the lamb over the self and the word ultimately meaning ‘righteousness’.

The word first appeared in oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC), with the ancient character resembling a serrated long-handled weapon used as a ritual instrument. The dismemberment of a lamb () by that weapon () was performed specifically for the execution of slaves, captives, or for ritual purposes. The later association with righteousness has been attributed to the necessity of individuals being kind to one another, as sheep were themselves regarded as symbols of kindness, and kindness as the basis of righteousness. An alternative attribution has been to a sheep’s head being placed on a weapon in the guard of honour as a ceremonial representation of righteousness. A Christian interpretation of the character has been applied retrospectively, with the lamb as the sacrificial lamb, Christ. There is some danger in reading too much into Chinese characters but in this case, they reflect the aspirations of my Malaysian Chinese American Christian grandparents.

Of course, it’s difficult to have all this included in a footnote, not least when the act of citing or footnoting can often detract from the act of reading a poem itself. In a way, the preambulatory timeline is an attempt to contextualise the entire sequence of poetry – how it’s framed, and the particular shift from a prehistory of the self to the present of the self. I am sympathetic to proponents of practical criticism who suggest that one should be able to read a poem on its own for the strength of its images, sounds, and cadences. Basil Bunting, writing about his seminal work Briggflatts, spoke of a resistance to notes on his poems because he wanted to preserve this sense of integrity about his work, with his assertion that the reading aloud of the poem was far more vital. I also think of Hamid Roslan’s parsetreeforestfire, a sequence which proclaims ‘Don’t ask me for footnote’, while being full of footnotes that work as a parallel poetic sequence without acting to contextualise his lines. Pooja Nansi also does this in We Make Spaces Divine, both to build parallel poems within the footnotes but also to channel her frustrations over misconceptions about Singapore’s various Indian communities. So footnotes can be activated to structural, though not always explanatory, ends in poems.

I don’t know if my poems necessarily possess the same type of orality to Bunting’s, yet I do think that there will always be a measure of distance when it comes to understanding poetry, in part because poetry lends itself to mystery and beauty as a form. I may possess a similar impulse to explain certain elements of my poems through footnotes, as in Nansi’s We Make Spaces Divine, though I also think that in coming to any kind of literature, there will always remain a gap of knowledge as a person would never have a perfect understanding of its subtleties and the places from which writing can emerge. It’s often a question of how literature meets people where they are with the literary touchpoints they do have, or how poems as self-contained entities can be in dialogue with other mediums and traditions as well as with a reader’s specific intellectual or emotional responses.   

There will always be a measure of distance when it comes to understanding poetry, in part because poetry lends itself to mystery and beauty as a form.

Finally, where to from here? You mentioned at the launch that you envision the themes of faith, travel and identity to be part of your work for some time to come - have you begun exploring these ideas in new or developing ways?

With the launch of going home, I’ve been mulling over how the collection represents concerns from an earlier part of my life, especially those pertinent to my adolescence and young adulthood. The sequence is a kind of bildungsroman, and I like to think I’ve emerged from that feeling more settled as I am, where I am. In the last two years, I’ve been thinking about the place of poetry in bearing witness to suffering, atrocity, and injustice as a matter of moral and ethical import; in particular the notion of ‘bright sorrow’ in Orthodox Christianity that derives from the Greek compound noun charmolypê, variously translated ‘bitter joy’, ‘joyful mourning’, or ‘affliction that leads to joy.’ I’ve been thinking about that not only theologically, as a means of more realistically describing the emotional husk of faith, but also of drawing attention to the suffering that continues to be faced around the world. This betrays the influence of the poet Christian Wiman, whom I studied under this past year.

Poetry is equipped to capture the absurd contradictions with which we currently live, whether in terms of deep material inequalities, the immediacy of the climate crisis, political catastrophes around the world, or the brutality of war. The question remains of how one at a distance can bear witness to those who suffer, and how to do so without making a spectacle of such suffering. Some of these sentiments can be found in poems in going home such as ‘lament’ or ‘brother’, though I continue to be careful in navigating them from the particular position I occupy.

In terms of other writing, I’ve been working on poems shaped by my experiences of travel and of being with friends and family in the last year and have some essays and reviews in the pipeline. I’m reworking some translations I’ve done of the Korean poet Choe Chi-won, who was an official in the Tang Dynasty, and also thinking about how some of my written work as a graduate student might find new life elsewhere. Hopefully these projects will come to fruition and prove insightful and provocative if and when they’re published.


Jonathan Chan is a writer and editor of poems and essays. Born in New York to a Malaysian father and South Korean mother, he was raised in Singapore and educated at Cambridge and Yale Universities. He is the author of the poetry collection going home (Landmark, 2022). More of his writing can be found at