Contributor Spotlight:
Interview With Ellen Zhang

Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “The First Time My Father Made Molasses,” we were fascinated by the transformation of the molasses from a poignant memory to a homogenizing force. When writing the poem, how did you decide to make this surprising shift?

Ellen Zhang: When writing this poem, I was struck by the idea of how sugar canes are layered with flavor that results in the sweetness of sugar that we taste in everyday snacks and desserts. This thought is what instigated my research into the process of making and refining sugar. Through writing, I realized that this process was not unlike the one my parents went through. American is known as the “melting pot,” reminiscent of the way sugar is melted down to become a singular flavor. In recent times, it has been argued that this metaphor is no longer accurate; instead, the analogy is of America being a “salad bowl” where all diversity is celebrated and embraced. This idea is one I was grappling with as I wrote the poem, and it is one that I am continuing to explore.

RR: This piece portrays strong familial bonds, incorporating aspects of both Chinese and American culture. How do your own experiences with family and culture influence your work?

EZ: Family and culture plays a large role in the things I write about since they are so meaningful in shaping who I am today. Sometimes, I will be writing a poem on an unrelated topic and without realizing it specific experiences will crop up that are founded upon these ideas of heritage. As I grow older, I am understanding more the complicated ideas of love and sacrifice that allowed my parents to uproot themselves from another continent to America. Slowly and surely, I am cultivating a more nuanced lens of what the “American Dream” entails.

RR: The images in this poem are so vivid—including the taste, smell, and texture of the molasses. How do you approach creating these sensory images, and is there a specific sense that comes to you first?

EZ: This poem started with the taste and experience of tasting sugar cane for the first time. I couldn’t help but notice how the taste was more than just sweetness that was reminiscent of sugar itself; instead, there were layers of flavors that my tongue was experiencing for the first time. As I spoke these thoughts aloud, my parents laughed as they told me that sugar canes were a delicacy in their childhood where very little was sweet. From this, the images of my poem were produced and refined.

RR: Your bio mentions your experience as a medical student at Harvard. How has your career in medicine impacted your approach to writing? 

EZ: Medicine has really influenced my writing in terms of topics and ideas that I gravitate to that range from birth to death. During medical training, there are many weeks where I spend more time in the hospital than at home. So, my patient interactions, conversations, and relationships influence much of my thoughts that are then translated into paper. Meanwhile, writing has been a lens through which I first approached medicine since I have always been drawn to stories of others and that is a large reason why I decided to delve into this field.

RR: What is your favorite environment or location to write in?

EZ: I love to write at home with a cup of coffee or warm tea beside me as I look out the window. If I seek inspiration in those moments, I go to my trusty journal where I have jotted down phrases and ideas throughout my days. As I grow as a writer, I am beginning to value carving time out of my day to write intentionally. Even if I don’t know where the piece goes, it finds a way.

Ellen Zhang’s work appears in Issue 10.1 here.