Rarely is birth silent for anyone involved. Silence, instead, is a learned phenomena. Unlearning silence can become its own birth, as it seems in Kai Cheng Thom’s debut poetry collection a place called No Homeland, opening with, “diaspora babies, we are born of pregnant pauses.” Pausing for readers to meet her at this natal location of identity and origin, Thom finds traces of her voice scattered across a map of a place she’s constantly retracing.
It’s a fitting thematic follow-up to her chapbook Giving Birth to Yourself: Poems for Combat, while being defiantly distinct from her 2016 novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girls’ Confabulous Memoir. Thom, writer-cum-performance artist-cum-therapist talked with The Rumpus about her debut poetry collection, and being born hungry.
The Rumpus: This is your debut collection of poems, following last year’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girls’ Confabulous Memoir. What was the overlap like between writing these projects?
Kai Cheng Thom: I wrote most of Fierce Femmes in two weeks, during an artist residency in Halifax in 2014. I edited the novel over the rest of that year. I’ve been writing a place called No Homeland over the better part of the past ten years, and the poems in the final publication range from a decade to just a few months old. My novel was a sort of lightning-strike happy accident. I never even really intended to submit it to publishers, while this book of poetry has been an intentional work of slow growth and struggle. While they both certainly contain certain similarities in aesthetic and voice, a place called No Homeland is in some ways a much deeper glimpse into who I am as a writer and as a person.
Rumpus: In the poem “hunger p(h)antoum” you write, “hormone therapy makes me hungry! i am a (trans) woman out to taste the world.” How does hunger influence your work as a writer, performance artist, and mental health advocate?
Thom: I have been hungry all my life. Hunger is the base drive, the truest voice, the foundation upon which survival is built. My ancestors came to this country, colonized Indigenous land, because of famine. My family grew out of hunger and poverty. It permeated all of my parents’ stories about their childhoods. My hunger is the child of theirs—one in a lineage of hungry ghosts stretching across the ocean’s belly. All my work is hunger’s voice, telling its story.
Rumpus: Hunger as survival’s foundation makes me think about how you write against fetishizing survival. In which contexts have you recognized that as a pattern?
Thom: That particular poem [“queer tribe”] was written in reaction to a tendency I have noticed in the queer community, as well as the political left in general, to venerate the concepts of survival and survivorhood, often at the expense of critically interrogating the means by which that survival is achieved. In particular, intra-community violence, competition for resources, abandoning or exiling those with the greatest needs. Survivorhood as an identity seems to be a commodity that we are eager to claim, perhaps because it comes with the connotation of being the moral high ground. In third wave feminism, there has been a push to replace the word ”victim” with ”survivor” when referring to those who have experienced abuse. I actually don’t really see much difference in the way that those terms are used in activist or queer communities. They both reduce the person in question to a single idea that often fails to express the full complexity of what it means to live through violence. As most survivors of abuse and oppression find out, we have to do terrible things and make awful choices in order to survive violence. We have to leave people behind. I don’t want to just survive; I want to thrive. I want to flourish and grow.
Rumpus: From “book fetish”—“i am researching my own survival. my thesis is my life.” You write of discovering queer poetry at sixteen. Who were some of your initial discoveries?
Thom: Named in the poem itself—Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, June Jordan, Amber Dawn, Audre Lorde. There were others, too. Larissa Lai, Andy Quan, Lydia Kwa, d’bi young anitafrika, Chrystos. All queer poets of color, all inspirations and change-makers for those of us who are and were younger, wanting to write and to dream.
Rumpus: In your poem “inside voice” you write of silence being “a many-faceted prison that gleamed like a dead crystal star with your voice trapped inside.” How’s your outside voice these days?
Thom: Being a performance artist and therapist, I do a lot of talking, performing, and generally working with the public. In some ways, speaking out loud and being the advocate has become very comfortable. In specific, intimate spaces I find that I still become my inner child, so meek and quiet, so coiled up in shame in order to survive. Going to the doctor, for example, is still something that renders me silent, which I suppose speaks to the fraught historic dynamic between trans people and the medical establishment. With relationship partners as well, I often lose my voice. I am survivor of abuse, and sometimes it’s hard to know which came first, the silence or the abuse.
Rumpus: What helps you get your voice back when you lose it?
Thom: Rage. Euphoria. Injustice. All the primal emotions.
Rumpus: Do you write poems with a physical audience in mind?
Thom: Yes! I write most of my poems for me. I imagine myself as the physical audience, because generally, I am writing in the things I need to hear that no one else can tell me.
Rumpus: The book courses with sanguinary imagery: “i used to think blood was so beautiful,” from “queer tribe.” Blood persists as a symbol of ancestry, currency, and sacrifice in your work. How bloody do these poems feel to you?
Thom: Very. All my poems are written in blood. I am surrounded by violence and by loss, partially because of who I am (a trans woman of color), partially because of what I have chosen to be (an artist and social worker), and largely because of the times we live in (if you don’t see the blood in the streets, then you’re not paying attention). My work is steeped in it. I often think about whose blood each poem is written in—who has paid a price so that this story, this book, so that I, can exist.
Rumpus: That helps create a lineage, also a responsibility. How often does that responsibility feel cumbersome and how often is it galvanizing?
Thom: I don’t find it cumbersome in the sense of being a burden. If responsibility causes me to write more slowly and thoughtfully, to think more about integrity, then this is a gift, because it is so easy to lose sight of one’s integrity in the first place. It’s galvanizing all the time, because it lets me know that I am not writing alone.
Rumpus: I first encountered your work, funnily, via a Sarah Schulman tweet where she shared your quote, “love and care might mean… even after they reject you… reaching out, and failing, and then reaching out again and again.” Would you elaborate on this approach as a boon, and also on its limits?
Thom: That quote comes from a piece about refusing to give up on trying to connect with suicidal trans girls. It comes out of a political paradigm in which elements of the activist left have become so preoccupied with the idea of individual agency. As a therapist and trans woman, I find this offensive because it feeds into a culture of disposability, in which we let trans women die by suicide, because we conceptualize them as dispensable. The message that the ”pro-agency” stance on suicide sends is that the suicidal are not worth saving. My opinion [is] that relationships and interdependence are essential to the survival and the flourishing of queer communities. We must take it upon ourselves to work toward healing even the very difficult conflicts, instead of resorting to the bullying and ostracization that are the first recourse of so many small communities. I would hate for that quote to be taken out of context as a justification for, say, intimate partner harassment.
Rumpus: Can you talk about the cross-pollination of your professions, or how being a mental health therapist informs a poem like “trauma is not sacred”?
Thom: I think about this a lot. The way I explain it to friends is that being a writer/performance poet and being a therapist are two halves of the same thing. Writing and performing are about storytelling. Being a therapist is about story-listening. Both are about connection across difference, narrative, and time. Both are about finding a pathway into the soul of another human being. Both demand great integrity, which to be honest, I struggle with sometimes. A bad storyteller or a bad therapist can do a lot of damage in this world. In my best moments, I heal others by telling my story, and by listening to others’ stories, I heal myself.
Author photograph © Jackson Ezra.