T.K. Lê in Conversation with Muriel Leung, Author of Imagine Us, The Swarm

Happy publication day to Muriel Leung‘s Imagine Us, The SwarmFor the Nightboat Blog, Leung speaks with poet and prose writer T.K. Lê about collective imagining; illness, contagion and their racist historical specters; Asian American femme anger; and so much more.


T.K. Lê: You write about the ritual of the word “once,” how it signals the start of a story that is pinned to a finished past, and how that story is important enough to be remembered. Saying “once” implies you are in the future of this past story. You continually reveal the falsity in this linearity, showing instead how history lives in a person and echoes and tessellates in ways that can be insidious, dangerous, and sometimes even tender. There is no once, and yet there are many onces. Even when you declare at the opening of your book that you are not ready because it means writing into a future—it is already too late.

Muriel Leung: Saying “once” reminds me of the opening of a fairytale, a dream of something that happened in a faraway place. I begin with “once” in “This is to live several lives,” which is the essay-in-verse that opens the book, because it signals a kind of time travel within oneself, as you’ve said, of how history lives in a person. We are comprised of not just our singular knowledge of the world but the experiences of those who came before us, and we inherit their histories too. Even if we did not grow up with it, I do believe that we carry these histories in our bodies, and they become part of our cellular memory. So, yes, not just a singular once but many. If the “once” of fairytales are foreboding, then yes, the sordid details of one’s painful past and the cumulative traumas of those that came before us, stalk the forest of our bodily memory. “Once” does not mean you can change the past, but I do hope that in remembering the best way I can, to write it this way here, a different outcome for me can occur.


TL: I read the title, Imagine Us, The Swarm, in different ways. On the one hand, it sounds like an invitation to the reader to dream with you. It can also be a command, an imperative to discover the feeling of being part of the swarm.

ML: Imagine Us, The Swarm has seven sections that are somewhat sprawling and covers quite a range of topics from Asian American identity to racialized labor to gendered violence; it makes it hard to think of a title that encapsulates everything without reducing the book’s message or inadvertently directing the reader elsewhere. I fell in love with the sentiment, “Imagine us,” because so much of this book is about what can we do as a collective body, which defies the isolation that I often feel as a racialized and gendered body. I love that it be read as an invitation to dream, because I really do want that for us—to recognize that we are all part of a bigger picture. My vision of a better future includes not just me but my communities. I want us to envision what it would be like to be a swarm that fills the sky, more powerful together than apart.


TL: There’s a lot to say about form. The teeming periods that dot the initial pages feel like a buzzing, the revving of an engine, ellipses in which there are more words hanging in the air or held back from it. The layout of “A CAREFUL LIST OF ALL MY FAILURES” evokes a split/cleaved cell, with lines that subsequently spread in increased length. I am curious to know more about the use of brackets—sometimes they are filled, and sometimes they aren’t. When I came across them, I immediately thought of something like a chime, or a sound bowl, a vibrating emptiness, a sound filled with silence. It feels particularly true when you speak of the body as negative space, implied into form as a ghost, constituted by the things that surround it (e.g., “shimmering in a devastation that looked and felt like a human-sized hole”). I felt a kind of vindication when you declared yourself a windchime. Could you explain the use of brackets in your writing, and to form more generally?

ML: Yes, you’re pointing to different types of form I’ve used throughout the book from brackets to ellipses to line lengths. It is like you said, “a sound filled with silence,” more so for brackets and ellipses than varying line lengths. In “THIS IS TO LIVE SEVERAL LIVES” in particular, the brackets and ellipses punctuate the space of the page in such a way that they are not silence but a type of static, a crackling sound that is enough to disrupt an empty space, but not loud enough to form anything coherent on the surface. I think there’s so much about our personal memories and familial histories that will always remain private and internal, and they will always be hard to represent on the page, so I suppose the brackets and ellipses represent that which I cannot say aloud but which I and my family know to be true. There is a deep pressure to make one’s trauma legible, and I feel a certain way about the forced legibility of racialized and gendered trauma in particular. These punctuations offer a way for me to show what is there but also eliminate complete access to what lies beneath. What do I have to preserve? My right to my privacy, to guard my narrative or memory, to retain dignity for those I write about. There’s a lot there.

Funny enough, windchimes do appear in the last part of the book. 


TL: In contrast to the mounting acceleration of “THIS IS TO LIVE SEVERAL LIVES,” “THE PLURAL CIRCUITS OF TELL” declares its purpose at the very start. Here, you write about the stories, people, and cancerous cells that spark and migrate. Not only do you trace the origin of illness, but the way it blooms into contagion, intimately by way of your parents’ cancers, and then also pointing to the ways in which the U.S. creates the conditions and policies abroad that force migrations, and once those people arrive, treats those populations as contagion. And then forces them to live in unlivable conditions, which in turn has affected you intimately. You apply this to multiple contexts: Chinese Exclusion, Outbreak, and COVID-19. The themes resonate even more currently, with the escalation of white supremacist attacks on Asians and with the U.S’s continued military aid to Israel (funding an open-air concentration camp, forcing migration, and further perpetuating Islamaphobia).

The conversation you begin with this poetic essay reminds me of a chapter from Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides that focuses on SF Chinatown in the 19th century, when white anxiety over miscegenation had policies concerned with Chinese immigrants’ “contaminating” them with syphilis, leprosy, and opium addiction. This easily lent itself to policy that “[amplified] their pariah status and [justified] an embargo of care, affection, and affiliation.” In order to enforce these restrictive policies, rhetoric had to be built. Shah points to how white politicians, health officials, and media focused on bachelor societies, opium dens, and prostitution houses. Shah calls this “queer domesticity,” used to contrast with the respectable domesticity that white society was striving for—a middle-class nuclear family. Basically, SF white society exaggerated disease and then fenced it in, causing contagion.

ML: Thank you for adding that historical context! I think there’s so many nonwhite communities who’ve similarly experienced this affiliation with contagion and disease by white communities. The example of 19th century SF Chinatown is a good one to illustrate how these racist and xenophobic narratives dictate public health ordinances that ultimately reproduce disease and contagion within the very communities they ascribe them to. I love that there is a queer read on this too, which I assume in this case means that there is a sense of deviancy attached to being on the outside of what is publicly vetted as “healthy” or “clean.” And yet, in reading this history, we see how these narratives of “contamination” are weaponized to produce false connections between nonwhite communities and disease, to justify further control of these communities.

Thank you also for naming this connection between the domestic white supremacist violence against Asians in the U.S., the shootings in Atlanta being one of the most recent horrific incidents of this violence, and the militaristic ties the U.S. has with Israel, which is indeed Islamophobic as we’ve seen in the Israeli state’s most recent attacks against Palestinians, and which have been going on for quite some time. I think the point of “THE PLURAL CIRCUITS OF TELL” is that these racist and xenophobic ideas do transgress geopolitical lines, and they are far from localized. There is something immensely powerful in drawing these political connections across incidents and policies that have either gradually or forcefully altered the lines of marginalized communities, and in this case, I’m thinking specifically of Chinese Americans, what my family has endured, and the way these intertwined histories impact me.

I think what I hope comes across clearly in “THE PLURAL CIRCUITS OF TELL” is that our connection to history is much bigger than our singular self, and that this compels us to tap into what is happening not just domestically but also globally. As we see happening then. As we see happening now.


TL: I’d like to know more about rebellion and disruption in your writing. There is “I MARVEL AT THE NOISES A MORE PERFECT VENGEANCE MAKES,” a deep dive into Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The film becomes a way for you to give your grief an angry pulse, a place for you to speak more explicitly about patriarchy’s intergenerational damage. And because you talk about refusal, a “[disloyalty] to frame,” this poetic essay also becomes a place to talk specifically about how breaking linear time, the expectations of the body, and invoking ancestral femmes is distinctly queer.

ML: Tonally, “I MARVEL AT THE NOISES A MORE PERFECT VENGEANCE MAKES” is different from the other essays in verse in the rest of the book, huh? So much of this book is about a sadness type of grief, mourning what fails time after time, lamenting the physical deaths of people I love, lamenting the death of possibility and a future where trauma does not live. I want to give voice to something that often feels stigmatized, which is Asian American femme anger, and which I think is often considered illegible, so much so that when it appears, it is deemed extreme or incomprehensible.

As someone who tends towards depression over anger, I’ve been leaning more into anger these days, because I do believe that carrying that rage is inwardly destructive. I think of Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger,” which was the first piece of writing that helped me name the rage I felt about the way I’m treated in the world, how my body is exploited, the myriad of transgressions I encounter on the daily. Is it unfilial to talk about anger as an Asian femme? Yes. Is it necessary? Also, yes, and all the more reason so. I do believe that our survival requires us to stop absorbing the harms of patriarchal and racist and homophobic/transphobic structures, to stop blaming ourselves for what the system perpetuates. Our freedom requires our disloyalty to these systems. It requires a readiness for vengeance.


TL: I am also impressed by the ways in which you talk about harm and abuse without yoking it to detailed accounts. That, for me, is the labor of your care, for the humanity in your loved ones that survived, and for circumstances that in many ways were out of their control. And yet, it does not feel as if you are excusing anyone, explicitly naming “the violence of men / and the colonial rituals of their pasts” and the “soft impressions of many thumbs.”

ML: I really appreciate that, truly. I don’t want this book to retraumatize anyone who is reading it, and I have found that it doesn’t feel useful to give any more space to the perpetrators of violence in my life than they deserve. Just because I do not indict anyone specifically, I also don’t forgive them, and the ability to hold these multiple truths has been essential to my healing. I want to tell people about what I have learned, which is far from healed, but which I hope offers permission to hold close multiple feelings, which can sometimes feel contradictory: the will towards vengeance, to hold the perpetrators of violence in our lives accountable, compassion for oneself, compassion for those who did not have the tools to heal themselves before we came, the desire to heal oneself, the desire to model that healing for everyone else we love. All this can be true.