Margaret Stawowy Interviews Tammy Ho Lai-Ming
Read Margaret's review of Hula Hooping by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming HERE.
Margaret Stawowy: It took fifteen years to put Hula Hooping together. What challenges did you face in preparing your manuscript?
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming: One of the biggest challenges was to cut the number of poems down to roughly 65. The result is still a ‘long collection’, as one reviewer remarks. Other considerations included balancing the different sections, avoiding repetition, and creating a reasonably coherent voice that is still clearly multifaceted out of poems that spanned over a decade. There were poems that I would like to include in the collection but were cut, such as a poem written during the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014, and I would like to see it and other excluded pieces collected some day.
MS: In comparison to many US poetry imprints, the design of your book is notably attractive and sophisticated. Did you have a hand in the book design? Tell us about Chameleon Press.
THL-M: I chose the picture on the cover, which is of a rusty doorknob on a coral-coloured wooden door, by the Singaporean poet Alvin Pang. I believe Alvin took the picture in Seoul.
After I decided to title the collection Hula Hooping, I began to brainstorm images that might be suitable for the cover. At first, I thought of a small Chinese girl hula hooping in a simple playground against the backdrop of tall public-housing buildings—the kind of environment I grew up in. But I didn’t want the collection to be too tied to this particular image, as many of the poems break free from childhood and child play. I then decided that something more suggestive would be better. Alvin’s photograph came to mind, as we have previously used it, differently oriented, as the cover of the “Ancient Asia” issue of Cha, a journal I co-edit.
Several reviewers of the collection have paid attention to the cover photograph as well, and I would like to quote Ricardo de Ungria, who wrote for Asiatic:
"On it, a well-worn circular iron door knocker hangs and rests like an empty eyeball, black paint peeling off to reveal layers of past coatings. The words “hula hooping” in white below it, and the author's name in black further below. The arc of thought connects the circle of the knocker with the unseen one of the hula hoop and sees, at a glance, the ironic conceits of stillness and motion, containment and freedom, silence and sound, suppression and play, and fatigue and energy at work. A visual coup de foudre, this interplay of opposites and conflicting forces and emotions, and this is what one finds between the covers of Hula Hooping."
The spiral motif in the book was by the American poet and graphic designer Ricky Garni. He specifically did it for the collection, for that I am very grateful. In the words of the Hong Kong poet Louise Ho, ‘Ricky Garni’s spiral design in the book is also nicely descriptive of each poem as dense centre and which hula hoops out to some target somewhere or like a top that spins to infinity.’
My publisher at Chameleon Press, Peter Gordon, gave me lots of freedom to participate in the design of the book. I told him the format dimensions and kind of paper I preferred, for example, and he took into consideration my suggestions.
Chameleon Press is an independent Hong Kong publisher specialising in poetry, literature and topical non-fiction. It is one of the very few English-language publishers in Hong Kong dedicated to such an endeavour. It has published an expanding series of Hong Kong poetry, and my collection is part of this series. Also, in 2014 and 2016, Chameleon Press has published poetry anthologies in commemoration of Octavio Paz and Cervantes respectively. I am happy to say that I was involved in both projects.
MS: You wrote some hard-hitting political poems in Hula Hooping. Even if Hong Kong is autonomous from Mainland China, do you feel any threat to yourself in having written these poems?
THL-M: I don’t think Hong Kong is autonomous from China at all, which is why many people in the city feel that our way of life, including freedom of expression, is sometimes unabashedly challenged. There is forceful China-fication going on in Hong Kong, from language and education to politics and censorship, and we seem to be fighting an increasingly difficult battle to safeguard the city from the encroaching influence of China. Still, it is a battle that many are still fighting, in open or secret unison, even in small increments. As for myself, I am not that worried. Although I write poems critical of the Hong Kong government and China and I co-edit a journal that publishes political pieces, I am not visible enough to draw attention. I am only one person trying to record what it is like to be caught in this particular moment in Hong Kong history, both through my own writing, often inadequate, and through publishing others’ work.
MS: You lived in a time when Hong Kong was a British colony. How did that effect your formative years? Did anything change for you when Britain handed over Hong Kong?
THL-M: I suppose growing up I did not necessarily feel that Hong Kong was a ‘British colony’. This fact affected me largely peripherally then, as I was more absorbed in growing up both in body and mind, playing, studying, and becoming—becoming a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a person. That said, because Hong Kong was a British colony, I was educated bilingually in school, learning Chinese and English. And this indeed has a huge impact on me. Without this early education, I wouldn’t be as comfortable using a second language, a borrowed tongue--The clouds methought would open and show riches—and now for worse or better my life is highly reliant on English. I read mostly books written in or translated into English, I edit an English-language literary journal, I write poetry in English, and I teach in English.
When Britain handed over Hong Kong, little changed for me in the immediate aftermath. But over the past years, there have been many changes, not just for me, but for the city as a whole. China looms large.
MS: You wrote some frank poems about family members. How do they react to these?
THL-M: My family members don’t use English that much so there is a comfortable linguistic distance to write about them in this adopted language. I can be more honest and allow myself to communicate sentiments that I don’t in Cantonese. We are just not very expressive of our emotions and feelings in the family. In poems about my father and my mother, I am more open to show my deep affection for them, and sometimes a kind of concerned guilt (I always want to be a better daughter), while in ‘real life’, I tend to be reticent, reserved. Indeed, these are adjectives—reticent, reserved—that define how I interact with most people in ‘real life’, the family extending to the social realm. You asked about how my family members react to poems about them, I am reminded of my sisters’ jokey response when they read a poem recounting an afternoon when I picked them up after school. In the poem I talk about the street snacks that I bought them, and my sisters, upon reading the poem, contested the food that I listed. Hula Hooping is a partial tribute to my sisters, as the title refers to an activity we did together when we were young. Now married with their own families, my sisters no longer live under the same roof as me. There will be less and less time than before for us to generate meaningful and vivid collective memories, memories that last a lifetime.
MS: Is there a question that you wish an interviewer would ask you? And what is your reply?
THL-M: ‘What is the one theme that you don’t think you write enough these days because of all sort of reasons and that you would really like to have the time to indulge yourself in writing for months and months without having to worry about sleep, or what your beloved family members, respectable elders, esteemed colleagues, casual readers, and students think about you?’ I would most likely leave this question unanswered and ask people to guess!
About Tammy Ho Lai-Ming
TAMMY HO LAI-MING is a founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. She has edited several volumes of poetry and short fiction published in Hong Kong, including Quixotica: Poems East of La Mancha (Chameleon, 2016), Desde Hong Kong: Poets in conversation with Octavio Paz (Chameleon, 2014), Love & Lust (Hong Kong Writers Circle / Inkstone Books, 2008) and Hong Kong U Writing: An Anthology (Department of English, University of Hong Kong, 2006). She is an Assistant Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, where she teaches poetics, fiction and modern drama. She received the Young Artist Award in Literary Arts 2015 from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Her short story collection Her Name Upon The Strand will be published by Delere Press in 2016.