Winner of the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize, Imagine Us, The Swarm offers seven powerful texts that form a constellation of voices, forms, and approaches to loneliness, silence, and death.
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WINNER of the 2022 Four Quartets Prize!
2022 LAMBDA LITERARY AWARDS FINALIST!
Following the death of the poet’s father, Imagine Us, The Swarm contemplates vengeance, eschews forgiveness, and cultivates a desire for healing beyond the reaches of this present life. In this collection of essays in verse, Leung reconciles a familial history of violence and generational trauma across intersections of Asian American, queer, and gendered experiences. Moving between the past and the present, Leung imbues memories with something new to alter time and design a different future.
“Muriel Leung’s powerful new collection renders visible the liminal space of the Asian American, an occupied territory in which every silence, every potentiality, hums with the white noise of other people’s imaginings. Leung’s innovative poetics implicate the reader in the challenge of forming a post-immigrant self, caught between the competing imperatives of authenticity and assimilation: ‘And I am not even legible to myself. Cannot even English my way out.’ To hear a new lyric voice emerge from the swarm is thrilling and inutterably moving.”
“‘To write a book is to write into the future,’ Muriel Leung writes of her own fear. But Leung is a writer-explorer unafraid to roam, pillage, mourn, or debate; and Imagine Us, The Swarm is the journey of its own migration, from the ashes of the past to a possible future; both honoring and questioning histories felt, researched, unearthed, corrected. With thoughtful intention and insistent curiosity, and the stylistic fearlessness of Layli Long Soldier and Chelsea Minnis, Imagine Us, The Swarm is, above all, an invitation―to imagine, which is to remember, which is to see; which is, ‘to be at once [colony] and [alone].’ Traversing the pages of this work―its lines and underlines and overlines, its white space and connective tissues and mutability; its wisdom and consideration of everything from zygotes to mothers, to bees and the cost of effort and generational legacies of immigrant families―I am reminded of Adrienne Rich’s great epic, Diving into the Wreck; of the uncomfortable and essential pilgrimage into oneself, the voyage to save oneself by knowing oneself, and to imagine living through, as Leung writes, ‘an efforted alive.’”
“Muriel Leung’s Imagine Us, The Swarm offers seven powerful texts that form constellation of voices, forms, and approaches to confront loneliness, silence, and death. In a varied range of physical and poetic shapes and typography, Leung creates a lyric informed by theory, autobiography, and essay. One finds in the margins of this book deep dimensional portals of thought that resonate wildly. Wise and inventive, this book leads one deep into psychic regions oft unplumbed. Its rigors are complex and yet a reader feels nothing so much as invited in, and the rewards are plentiful and profound.”
Perhaps the diaspora’s years and years of movement eventually lend themselves to loss. Leung points to this the same way in which she points to the pain of labor and the American work ethic. Where within this endless movement does one come to learn of oneself?
That’s the question Imagine Us, The Swarm asks. And as much as the book contends with inter-generational and collective trauma, Leung wants us to remember that its lessons come from a place of strength: “Part of repair is we tend to our past but also listen to those who are showing us the way,” she says.
Which is what brings us back to the swarm.
Formally inventive yet nodding to history; disjunctive yet connected; cerebral yet full of heart; swarm-like yet individual; Leung’s book is a marvel of innovative writing toward imagination.
This poem begins with ‘suppose,’ which unleashes a speculative imagination through which the speaker reawakens a dead father. The word ‘suppose’ gives the poem permission to unharness itself from the real and attach itself to the surreal. It captures the speaker’s grief through the fantastic and the humorous — the father is imagined to be running laps around the hospital bed.
Through its innovative and galvanizing hybridity, Imagine Us, The Swarm turns us toward a tender reckoning with the precariousness of history and its humming laborers.
Leung is not in the business of quibbling about genre nor in the habit of swimming too close to the genre wall. This book is a testament to plunges. This book is about sinking and rising, as most elegies are—sinking and rising again.
Leung’s expert control over the material—her eye for striking imagery and ear for keen linguistic music—keeps the book grounded and each page urgent and engaging. Anyone could pick up this book and find themselves swept away by its stories, sights, sounds, and insights.
Leung articulates grief prismed by the politics of labor and race, reclaiming who can center loss and value the “arduous labor of some effortlessly seeming toil.” If we are going to labor, let it be to point to our own belonging as a fact, so large, so frequently repeated, that it cannot be overlooked.
Alongside the haunting, tenderness and longing in every line—the book is an embodiment of how love alters. Just as Leung builds radical, queer community everywhere she goes, this book dreams for the collective, ending with a swarm of resistance filling the sky.
The pieces in Imagine Us, the Swarm render intimate moments of pain and loss, but also embolden readers to plot out alternatives. “Suppose there is an end to our suffering,” Leung asks as she considers what can come from rewriting legacies of trauma. Through reckoning with history, the bold possibilities of what may follow soon emerge.
In Imagine Us, The Swarm, Muriel Leung takes risks experimenting with non-traditional literary resources to show us the challenges faced by an immigrant family and alienation felt in the swarm. By doing so she deconstructs the myth of the successful immigrant, brings attention to the emotional baggage we carry in our journey, and delights the readers with exquisite poetic language.
The structural accomplishments in this collection are quite stunning, as she [Leung] utilizes a variety of lyric shapes and forms, long lines and fragments, to put together a book-length suite on loss and love, family and story, and what might be possible to learn from all that has come before. This is a remarkable book.
JL: To begin, please tell me about the inspiration that guided you to create the cover art.
ML: When I first imagined the cover for Imagine Us, The Swarm, I knew I wanted to feature the faces of the women in my family. The book very much is an exploration of my own relationship to gender, race, and resiliency, lessons which I learned from women in my family, from witnessing the strength of other Asian American women and femmes. I had envisioned silhouettes since I wanted the faces to be recognizably Asian though not my family members’ exact likeness so that another Asian person looking at the cover would see someone who might resemble them or their family.
Lambda: When did you realize you had to write Imagine Us, The Swarm?
Muriel: I don’t think I set out to write a book at all. Imagine Us, The Swarm started as an essay that had to be disassembled. I wanted to write about grief, my father’s death and the impact of China’s Cultural Revolution on his life, racialized labor, the inevitable failure of the model minority myth, the inheritance of trauma, and the process of writing as a type of labor too. It was a bloated essay that became more of its true self when I broke it apart, and something new emerged from the white space, the ellipses, the brackets, and the fragments of the text.
Click here to read the full interview in Lambda Literary!
Click here to read an excerpt from Imagine Us, The Swarm in Literary Hub!
Muriel Leung: “I wanted to write about grief, racialized labor, Asian American identity, mental health, the inevitable failure of the model minority myth, sexual trauma, forgiveness, queer love and desire, believing women and femmes, believing that even the roughest parts of our history are capable of repair, ghosts, our ancestors as celestial bodies, love that feels like the collapsing of the solar system as we know it, my father, my mother, cancer, remission, celllular life, wishfulness, hope, survival, death, beginning.”
Click here to read an interview between Muriel Leung and Helene Achanzar!
Given the context of our community’s continued struggle for justice, and in light of our theme this season (Asian American futures), this collection is one we can’t wait to read.
Muriel Leung’s latest book, Imagine Us, The Swarm is now out with Nightboat Books! In this edition of Sticky Fingers, Editor in Chief Dorothy Chan talks with Leung about this stunning collection.
Click here to read the full interview!
Like the scout bee who has been tasked with flying out alone to discover a new shelter for her lineage, this speaker now calls “every woman and femme” to join with her in the collective work of survival. “I will never write another elegy again,” she proclaims, renouncing the crowded hive of griefs and histories that have filled the book. Instead, she looks forward to an existence she doesn’t yet know but trusts they will find.
Sometimes collections extend outside of themselves, sometimes they spin and redirect back again into the reader, like light refracting off of all our hidden parts. Imagine Us, The Swarm was a collection I saw ricochet between the hearts of really great readers.
With a skilled hand, Leung crafts exquisite hybrid shapes—beautiful balancing acts of language and form… Imagine Us, The Swarm writes fearlessly and honestly, calling a new future into existence with every word.
Through vivid, sensorial descriptions; visual mastery of space on the page; and evocation of sound through typography, Leung models how poetry—ever a sonic, performative mode of literature—is evolving, challenging the constraints of the page.
Muriel Leung is the author of Imagine Us, The Swarm (Nightboat Books), Bone Confetti (Noemi Press), and Images Seen to Images Felt (Antenna) in collaboration with artist Kristine Thompson. A …