Jennifer S. Cheng on Knowing Something Beautiful
Jennifer S. Cheng received her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa and her BA in English from Brown University. She has a ranking system for her favorite kinds of eggs (crystal, steamed, thousand-year, poached, over-medium, scrambled), and she can be found in the ether at jenniferscheng.com.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
In terms of writing, I struggle, as I’m sure many writers do, with confidence, with being brave, with feeling like I can or should carve out a space in which to exist. I guess that really goes beyond writing. It makes it difficult to chase after things or feel like I deserve them. There is the struggle to give my body authority and ownership.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
As I grow older, I am starting to think it’s less about legitimizing oneself through some socially constructed notion of success and more about the process of breathing. I recently watched the film Gravity three times because I kept having a strangely emotional, bodily reaction to it, and there are specific reasons for this, but at some point in the film I thought: I just want to hold some earth in my hands. That’s really sentimental and cheesy, I don’t care. I want to know something beautiful, and maybe that’s enough.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Maru the cat! He dives into boxes.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
Here’s this: “Bewilderment” by Fanny Howe. A little more: My week in the wilderness consists at various moments of lying down in the thicket, in order to be Unlocatable, and excavating the earth’s layers, in order to find myself closer to bones.
What’s wrong with society today?
I think that in the age of curated information and social media and groupthink, we forget that truth more often than not is complex and nuanced. We forget to further complicate our views. People’s politics can become alarmingly reflexive and categorical… We’re probably all (myself included) a little too self-righteous.
What is your fondest memory?
I’m not sure about fondest, but I do love the memory of riding in the backseat of the car at night with my siblings, looking out the window at the dark shadows, the road coasting silently beneath us… feeling so utterly safe with my father driving up front and my mother asleep next to him.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Another discovery I’ve made in the past couple years as I’ve immersed myself more fully in a culture somewhat different than my own (I grew up in a pretty insular immigrant Asian American community) is how little the dominant culture really understands of marginal experiences. I don’t mean this in an ungrateful or aggressive way, but it continues to be surprising to recognize that, although broad concepts of difference are understood, the smaller subtextual things, like subtleties of conversation rhythm, coded rhetoric and maneuverings, inherited ways of navigating, these are still often hidden and unknown. The weight of these things is hidden, too. This isn’t so much something wrong with society as it is a hole that I have observed.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
In her latest book of essays, Marilynne Robinson says, “A language is a grand collaboration, a collective art form… which we preserve, modify, cull, enlarge as we pass through our lives.” (That feels like an answer.)
What are you working on right now?
I just finished putting together a chapbook-length manuscript called Letters to Mao, a collection of epistolary prose poems that evoke the feeling of sleep and water and dream in order to represent the immersive yet nebulous experience of an immigrant home, and the interaction of personal history, family history, and History. In the meantime I have also been working on various poems related to house, home-building, mythological re-tellings, and iterative forms.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
This is probably not what you’re asking, but I’m going to answer anyway: If I could live my life over again, and if I could give myself skills I do not currently possess, I would supplement my writing with work in either botany or carpentry. Those are two of the sexiest professions to me. But to answer this question slightly more directly (there are connections, I think): I recently read an essay in which the nonfiction editor of Black Warrior Review describes her favorite pieces as those that “explore and utilize ritual… In building worlds & atmospheres or moods & voices… in repetition, in incantation.”
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
More compassionate and meaningful dialogue between the tech community, the art community, and the underprivileged communities of the city. The greater these tensions escalate, the wider the gap between groups, the farther we move away from meaningful, productive action. I come from a position of privilege, so I cannot speak to all the complexities of these experiences, but I can say that in both tech and art circles, there are significant blind spots, and this makes real conversation all the more urgent.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
Did you know that when there is a solar eclipse, it changes the shape of the shadows? Everything looks like little moons.