An interview with Caroline M. Mar from The Write Stuff series:
Caroline Mei-Lin Mar is the great-granddaughter of a railroad laborer and the author of Special Education (Texas Review Press) and the forthcoming Dream of the Lake (Bull City Press). A high school health educator in San Francisco, she is doing her best to keep her gentrifying hometown queer and creative. Carrie is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, an alumna of VONA, and a member of Rabble Collective. She has been granted residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Ragdale, and is a member of the board of Friends of Writers.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
“I’m a high school health and wellness teacher… oh and also a poet!” Sometimes I forget the second part is part of a “doing” because it feels separate from the capitalist practice of labor as purpose. And when I say “health and wellness” and folks look confused, I add, “So like… sex, drugs, & rock ‘n’ roll. Except instead of rock ‘n’ roll I mean self-care and how to be a healthy human.”
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
I’ve always struggled with anxiety and depression, and in my thirties added chronic pain to that list. Holding myself together – mentally, physically – has been something I’ve been learning and relearning since I was a child. Being a person is often difficult. Being an extremely sensitive person who thinks about how difficult being a person is for everyone is also a kind of struggle.
What’s been most important to your writing: education, or the real world? Why?
History, which is something of both. My history, others’ histories, the world’s history, untold histories, imagined histories…
If you could give advice to your 15 year old self, what would it be?
Stop being so hard on yourself. Or on others, or the world. Life is really messy and being a human is often difficult and painful, especially right now. What you’re feeling is normal, you are okay the way you are, and you can make space for the joy and not just your mistakes. I really, really wish I had known about restorative justice as a teenager because I was so angry at so many folks – including me – and didn’t know how to do any kind of repair work around that yet.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her/their story?
I’d say I have some ancestors I’m obsessed with – two, specifically. One of them, Mar Dun, was a railroad laborer (like so many Chinese men of his era) on the CPRR side of the transcontinental railroad in the late 1800s. He was my father’s father’s father. My father’s mother’s father’s father was also in the US around the same time, but we don’t know what he was doing for work – his family was better off financially, so it’s possible he wasn’t a laborer, but so many men from that part of China (Guangzhou) were doing that kind of work. My current manuscript-in-progress centers on a poem about these two ancestors, imagining and writing my way into what they might have experienced, particularly imagining a world in which they are part of my queer legacy and imagining them loving each other during the years of Chinese Exclusion and the “bachelor society,” when Chinese community in America was so intensely male. And the railroad also obsesses me, particularly given its location so close to a place where I spend a lot of my time/have a home: Lake Tahoe. This poem became about them, about Tahoe, about language, identity, all of that, and now it’s the central poem of a whole book manuscript in which I obsess about all that these two ghosts raised for me/inside of me.
What’s wrong with society today?
Um… how much time y’all got?
Where do you go to find sanctuary?
Books. And anywhere with a window that looks out on plants.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
The housing crisis. We need truly affordable housing so folks can stay here/aren’t pushed out, and so that no one has to be unhoused or living in conditions that aren’t conducive to their safety or well-being. I was born and raised in the Bay, and have the privilege to be able to stay thanks to decisions made two generations ago when it was more affordable, and I want that to be accessible to our whole community. I’m not interested in living in a one-industry town, or a city that’s an extension of a frat house, or any of the other things that gentrification keeps trying to do to us.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Cute shoes, good food, a fancy beverage (alcoholic or not), and some dancing. Although I think my best “nights” on the town are at Mango @ El Rio, which means the dancing part is done and I’m in my jammies scarfing down a burrito by 8pm!
What are some of your favorite smells?
Basement, hands down #1 of all time. That damp, musty smell of a space that doesn’t get a lot of light or air, a space that holds all the magical things and secret treasures, a space of wood and earth. Ugh, I love that smell. I wish my house had a basement!
If you could live in your ideal society, what would your average day be like?
Honestly, I feel lucky to say it would probably look a lot like what it looks like now – doing queer and BIPOC-centered wellness work with youth, writing poems, eating yummy food, spending time with people I love… probably it would be like my life now but we’d get rid of white supremacist capitalism and the heteropatriarchy. And I’d have more than one dog.