Poet Victoria Chang Is Done Apologizing for Her Ambition

Victoria Chang’s website lists her as “poet, writer and editor”—but just three words can’t contain all that she does or who she is.  She is also a teacher at Antioch University, MBA graduate, editor of the New York Times Magazine’s poetry column, Guggenheim fellow, YA novelist and children’s picture book author, as well as other hybrid work.  She’s also a mother, friend and tireless advocate for more representation within the literary world.

In the interview below, we discuss her influences, past and present projects, and how claiming ambition is still contested for a woman in the literary world.

“I have my own values and vision and I need to stick to them, even if it harms me personally,” said Victoria Chang. “Because change only comes with self-sacrifice and bravery.” (via Instagram / photo by Pat Cray @yungpainkiller)

Elline Lipkin: One of the first places we met was at a reading for your picture book Is Mommy? I love this book’s irreverence and that in it children ask questions which might not otherwise be spoken and hear answers (from their mothers) which might not otherwise be said.

I can’t help but frame this as a larger analogy. Do you see writing as a space that opens up what might not be allowed, particularly in the context of otherwise unspoken truths?

Victoria Chang: This is a great question. I oftentimes just write things, say things, or do things, and discover only later that the greater literary culture and/or culture at large find things I do or say or write odd, funny, subversive. I wonder about this sometimes because I think that maybe sometimes I am just different, in how I view the world, what I experienced, etc., and I used to think there was something wrong with me—but now I just accept my quirky brain and don’t apologize for its strangeness.

In the case of ‘Is Mommy?,’ I only discovered after it was published that there were some mothers who found the text offensive. I never once thought it was offensive because my own kids would say the bluntest things sometimes.

I see growing up as wonder-killing. Kids are the best because they aren’t afraid of wonder or of subversion or of truth. I’ve learned over the years just to write and however people will react, they will react. I can’t control their reactions and I would never want to.

A page from Is Mommy?, a picture book written by Victoria Chang and illustrated by Marla Frazee.

Lipkin: Your YA novel-in-verse Love, Love is about two teenage sisters—one who conceals her suffering from trichotillomania, and one who also cultivates a secret life.

In this book, I see another thread about truths that can’t be openly acknowledged. Do you see this theme of family secrecy, particularly for teenage girls, as an important one?

Chang: Yes! I think children, particularly teenage girls have a lot of secrets. As kids grow up, I’ve seen, at least with my own, a greater inner world, a world of secrets, their own thoughts, ideas of the world, etc. I suppose I am interested in these secrets that we all have and had as children because I grew up in a family with so many secrets!

Lipkin: I’ve heard you say that you won’t apologize for being prolific and that’s not a term negatively applied to male writers. (I wholeheartedly agree!) Can you elaborate? Is there still stigma attached to being an “ambitious” female poet, or obstacles that male counterparts are less likely to face?

Chang: I hardly read poetry or wrote poetry for the majority of my life. I would go five years or more without writing a word.

Now that my own kids are older, I have a little more time, and I no longer needed to commute 2.5 hours per day during the pandemic. I gained an enormous amount of time. So I wrote. I was also feeling creative. I won’t apologize for that. I feel so happy so why would I apologize?

If people are willing to release my work in the world, that’s great too. I’ll take it because all of this can be very difficult and BIPOC women can face so many challenges. I don’t question it, I just do it.

I was just watching the Yayoi Kusama documentary, ‘Infinity,’ and was thinking about how misogynist and racist the art world was during Kusama’s early years (and likely now too). As I was watching the things Kusama had to do to get attention for her work, any attention, it made me feel very angry. She was criticized for being attention-seeking. My email inbox is filled with attention-seeking men. But they never get criticized for it. So many double standards.

I’ve learned over the years just to write and however people will react, they will react. I can’t control their reactions and I would never want to.

Victoria Chang

Lipkin: In your poem “News of the Assassin” you write, “Each day, a woman’s thoughts die, / we pin them to a man’s mind.”

You worked a long time in the business world and are now in the literary world. So much seems to have progressed, yet there are double standards, sometimes the more fraught because they are buried. What double standards, however insidious, do you see holding women back in the literary realm?

Chang: I think there’s tremendous bias in the literary world. I have bias. You have bias. But unless we actually make an effort to track things, it’s hard to even see our own biases. I like to count, track, and then and mostly you’ll see that there are more men everywhere—VIDA has already done a lot of this tracking, but it’s everywhere. I have to work myself to include fewer men, and to include more women, nonbinary writers, more BIPOCs. Men just submit more, ask more, beg more, and some of them simply are more aggressive. If I’m working on a project, I need to push back and be brave and say, thanks, but no thanks, even if it means I will offend someone or burn a bridge. I have my own values and vision and I need to stick to them, even if it harms me personally. Because change only comes with self-sacrifice and bravery.

Lipkin: Virginia Woolf famously stated, “For we think back through our mothers if we are women.” Do you agree with this statement? Who are some of your literary mothers?

Chang: Virginia Woolf is one of my literary mothers. Her creativity, boundary pushing, and conviction inspire me! In fact, the artists that inspire me are usually those artists who have conviction about their own visions—the Gertrude Stein’s of the world, for example. The Yayoi Kusama’s of the world.

I was kind of amazed at how many men straight out copied Kusama’s creativity and took her ideas as their own, artists such as Warhol. That made me feel ill while watching. I think people who are always a little ahead or askew from the mainstream will attract mimics (and in our culture, the mimics usually get rewarded). It took Kusama, who was Japanese and a woman, her whole life to be recognized for her innovation and vision. All the men who copied her—white men, incidentally—were respected long before her.

I never really answered your question, but I admire all the women poets before me such as Jorie Graham, Anne Carson, Marilyn Chin, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, Marianne Moore, bell hooks, Adrianne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Bishop, HD, and I really could keep going…

My email inbox is filled with attention-seeking men. But they never get criticized for it. So many double standards.

Victoria Chang

Lipkin: You write to your daughters in Obit. Do you think gender expectations have progressed from when you were growing up? Or are things just different?

Chang: I sometimes feel very optimistic and think, how is it possible that Yayoi Kusama was treated the way she was and now look at me—I can write and exist in the literary world, but then I think about how many obstacles I had and have to overcome daily and then I begin to question how much progress we really have made. Also, when I see how the young boys treat my girls and other girls on social media, asking some of their classmates to send nude photos, etc., I think things haven’t changed at all.

Lipkin: Exploring modes of silence is central to your book Dear Memory, and is contextualized within the immigrant experience. Are there ways you perceive silence to be gendered as well?

Chang: Yes, absolutely. Some of my friends and I talk about how much more administrative work women in academia (particularly BIPOC women), for example, end up doing compared to some men, but none of us ever speak up about it. What are we afraid of? Everything.

I feel like as a woman in the literary world, I am constantly feeling afraid of being criticized or attacked. I just don’t see men having this anxiety if they are ever in public positions. I am constantly in fear of being targeted. I wonder why that is? It must have something to do with race and/or gender.

Lipkin: I’d love to know more about the ekphrastic project you’re currently working on. Why did you choose Agnes Martin as your subject? What resonances do you see in her work that struck a chord with your own vision?

Chang: This ekphrastic project (it’s done!) came about randomly. The MoMA asked me (thanks to Ada Limón) to pick any piece of art in their entire collection and write a poem. I spent a few days digging around their collection. When I’m given too much choice, I freeze. So I decided to pick an artist I already knew well—Agnes Martin, and I wrote a poem. Later, I read the poem aloud at a writer’s conference. I sat down, and had this stinging sensation on my body—I knew, based on what I was feeling, that I had more work to do with Agnes Martin’s work.

At that time, I was also going through a very deep and long depression and there was something about voicing the poem I had written, and about Martin’s grids that helped me get going. In this instance, I really felt like writing saved me! It sounds so hokey, but I felt genuine about this. Thus, I had no vision, I just needed to write my way through that depression—so some of the poems explore these issues. It helped me so much because it gave me something to focus on, and it only took me eight months to finish the manuscript because I did hardly anything else. It was so necessary and I feel so grateful to Martin and her writings and her visual art.

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Elline Lipkin is a poet, academic and nonfiction writer. Her first book of poems, The Errant Thread, was chosen by Eavan Boland for the Kore Press First Book Award. Her second book, Girls’ Studies, explores contemporary girlhood in the United States. Currently a research scholar with the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA, Elline also teaches poetry for Los Angeles Writing Classes. As a nonfiction writer, she has written about everything from being a feminist bride to female mentorship and influence within the literary world, as well as Barbie’s new body and “fauxpowerment.”