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American Book Review: Speaker shares explorations of identity

By JEFFREY SARTAIN
Jan. 29, 2014 at 6:02 p.m.
Updated Jan. 28, 2014 at 7:29 p.m.


Thursday's speaker in the University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Reading Series is renowned poet Marilyn Mei Ling Chin. Through her writing, Chin wrestles with the experience of assimilating into American culture while fighting to preserve the culture of her homeland.

Originally born in Hong Kong, Chin's parents immigrated to Portland, Ore., when she was 7 years old. The tension between assimilation and preservation has earned Chin's poetry praise and fame worldwide. Chin's award-winning writing frequently is featured in undergraduate and graduate literature courses, and she has been one of the nation's important poetic voices for more than 30 years.

Here in Victoria, the audience will hear her read poetry as well as parts of her new novel, "Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen." Never satisfied with a single definition of self, this work represents a new phase of Chin's career, branching out from poetry into longer fiction.

I first encountered Chin's work in an undergraduate poetry course in the 1990s. I immediately gravitated toward Chin's sense of rhythm, the sound of her language and the strength of her imagery. Her poetry is always an experiment in form, and her search for identity through art is the particular theme that has always attracted me to Chin's work.

Later in my career, one of the numerous projects I was assigned as a young graduate student was to write an enumerative bibliography of a living poet, a cheekily-titled project called "Adopt-a-Poet." Bibliographies were one thing - I'd at least heard of those before, even been forced to write a few of my own in undergraduate term papers. But enumerative? I had no clue what this meant, but I knew it was going to be a lot of work.

And it was.

An enumerative bibliography is an exhaustive list of an author's writings - where they were published, what year they came out, what page they appear on and so forth. And the best enumerative bibliographies don't stop there; they include every interview, news story, book review and scholarly article that mentions the author or his or her work. Frankly, I had no idea about the scale of the task when I adopted Chin as the poet for my project.

What I found in my research about Chin's work was a committed, diligent and caring poet. Her poems are constantly under revision. Sometimes, the changes from one version to another are slight; sometimes, they are quite substantial. This is a sign of Chin's great care as a writer - her great passion for the exactness of the words.

What I also found was evidence of Chin's great openness and generosity. In interview after interview, news story after news story, her great compassion and care for people shone through.

When I finally hit a wall in my research, I wrote Chin directly. As a mere graduate student, I was truly anxious about contacting such an esteemed author. It was easier, though, having read so many positive articles about her. As it turns out, I had no reason to be anxious. Chin responded to my email almost immediately. She was enthusiastic about the project, and her help made it possible to complete the bibliography.

Since our first contact, Chin's reputation has continued to expand and diversify. She recently added long fiction to her repertoire with "Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen," and her fourth book of poetry, "Hard Love Province," will be released in June. In both works, she continues to examine aspects of the struggle between preservation and assimilation, recording the search for identity in the permanence of writing. For Chin, the artistic impulse is one of the most important tools for exploring identity, and she continues to share her explorations with eager readers across the globe.

Chin's impact on literature in the U.S. and throughout the world is immense, and ABR is delighted to welcome her to Victoria and to the UHV/ABR Reading Series on Thursday at noon in UHV's Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

Jeffrey Sartain is the managing editor of American Book Review and an assistant professor of English at UHV.

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