Queer Asian Reads: The whimsy, love and pain in Chen Chen’s poetry

A drawing of a mango and tomato.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

Poet Chen Chen doesn’t just play with words. He throws them up in the air, rolls around in them and then plants them in the soil. He luxuriates in language. 

His debut poetry collection, “When I Grow Up I want to be a List of Further Possibilities” (2017), is split into three sections, with poems ranging from the everyday — visiting the Syracuse Zoo — to the irreverent — Chen’s relationship to religion — and the deeply personal — Chen’s family, boyfriend and experience of queerness. 

However, when I was first introduced to the book, I was suspicious. 

Last Valentine’s Day, Honnold Mudd Library had a “Blind Date with a Book” display featuring books wrapped in brown paper labeled with what was supposed to be a mysterious and enticing theme. 

I chose a book labeled something like “Immigrant Experience” or “Generational Trauma.” I was skeptical –– did I really need more of that? 

Thank goodness for the librarians. I was hooked after reading the very first poem. 

Called “Self Portrait As So Much Potential,” the poem begins: “Dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango / As friendly as a tomato.” 

I can’t convey the delight that these words brought me when I first read them. Chen uses simple images to convey a childlike enchantment with the ordinary –– he made me think about these everyday fruits differently. He’s right –– mangoes are fearless! Tomatoes really are friendly! 

And yet, behind these deceptively simple lines is a sense of longing, as Chen dreams of being different, being more than he is. 

Near the end of the same poem, Chen writes: “I am not the heterosexual neat freak my mother raised me to be. / I am a gay sipper, & my mother has placed what’s left of her hope on my brothers … They will be better than mangoes, my brothers.” 

Here, Chen writes with an awareness that his queerness means he is not the child his mother had expected, or maybe even wanted. This last line takes on a bittersweet longing –– he wishes he could be like his brothers, even as he also acknowledges that he will never be. 

Many of the poems in “When I Grow Up” are like this –– they contain wonder and wit alongside a deep sense of sadness or bittersweetness. 

This contrast is what hit me so hard about Chen’s work. Reading his poems was an intensely emotional experience. Often, I’d laugh out loud at his quirky and silly turns of phrase. 

For example, he describes the sound of the sea as “a sort of sensual moo.” Or, in the poem “I’m Not a Religious Person But,” Chen considers his relationship to God, writing: “My mother said she is / pretty sure she had sex with my father so I can’t be some new / Asian Jesus.”

Chen’s facility with words thrilled me. But as I kept reading, I found myself on the verge of tears as he asked deep, vulnerable questions about his relationship to Chineseness, queerness and his parents. 

One poem exemplifies this complexity particularly well. 

“First Light,”reflects on Chen and his family’s flight from China when he was three. Chen writes this poem because he lacks memory of China, which he describes as his “vast invented country, / my dream before I knew the word ‘dream.’”

However, in the poem, this lack of memory becomes a space of imagination and adventure, as he fills in the gaps with dramatic cliches from kung fu movies. 

For example, Chen writes: “I like to say we left at first light/with Chairman Mao himself chasing us in a police car / my father fighting him off with firecrackers … I like to say we left at first light, / we had to, my parents had been unmasked as the famous/kung fu crime-fighting couple of the Southern provinces.” 

Many of these images are clichéd stereotypes from Chinese and American pop culture. But by inserting his own family into them, Chen both makes fun of these clichés while also giving them new meaning as stories he can claim for himself. 

I relate to this poem because my own memories and ideas of China are largely mediated through America; other than my father’s stories, what I knew of China growing up was what I learned in American public school or through American media.

I mourn this loss, but the campy ridiculousness of the imagery in the first half of “First Light” showed me how spaces of loss are also spaces of playful possibility. 

Then, the poem takes a turn, as Chen describes the night when he was 13 that his mother slapped him for being gay and his father told him to get out of the house. 

“I cried & ran, threw myself into night. / Then returned at first light,” Chen writes. 

By repeating the phrase “first light,” Chen relates his flight from the house to his parent’s flight from China. Although this is a moment of emotional and physical violence for him, it also opens up more empathy for his parents, as the poem goes on to discuss the hardships that leaving China brought on his parents’ relationship to their own families. 

Unlike in kung fu movies, there are no clear bad guys and good guys in Chen’s writing. His poems capture the messy overlap between his parents’ pain and his own. 

But the sadness that I felt reading “When I Grow Up” is inextricable from the joy. This is the power of Chen’s writing –– to read it is to experience the best and worst parts of being alive. 

Reia Li PO ’24 really likes mangoes, but her favorite fruit (other than her friends) is any kind of berry. She especially likes blackberries. 

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