Interview with Mea Andrews
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “Why I need a son,” we were particularly struck by the lines, “How could she have known family transplanted women / like organs, love congenital heart failure?” What was the inspiration for such a surprising metaphor?
Mea Andrews: When getting married in China, I was not ready for how immersed I would be in the cultural tradition of marriage. I learned things that made me feel welcomed, awkward, loved, and uncomfortable. One of the uncomfortable things that was continually mentioned was how women were destined to be someone else’s family. There was this historical account being shared of how the men carry the family forward and the women were very much like branches that would attach to another tree and snap off from the original.
It was the woman’s destiny and I found it so contradictory to my idea of ‘family’ that the stories I heard sat heavy with me for some time.
RR: We love how the final lines of the poem shift away from the focus on the speaker’s pregnancy, which adds different perspectives to the conversation on the experience of motherhood. How do you approach a turn in a poem, leaving enough space open for multiple layers of understanding?
MA: Turns are something I think any writer is always working on. Sometimes they come a bit more naturally earlier on in a poem, but typically I find that, for me at least, the last two to four lines are where I like my turns. If a turn happens sooner than this, I try to look back and see where I can expand my work. This is not to say that I think there is a definite line count where a poem should shift, it’s just where I like to be in my writing.
For this poem, there was a lot of revision. I wanted to make sure that the speaker was not the oldest sister-in-law, which is where I actually started arranging my thoughts after a day of reflecting on the lives of those closest to me.
RR: How has your experience teaching language in China impacted your use of multilingualism in your own writing?
MA: Languages are a way of connection and knowing even bits of other languages opens up your ability to connect with people and their culture and experiences. I think it is similar to how teaching English as a second or foreign language opens up those learners to new ideas; by using other languages in my writing I can open my writing up to a larger audience as well. Plus, there are some words that need no translation or the translation is cumbersome. It’s also easy to forget that English is a thief language; English has taken on many loan words in its evolution.
RR: You mention in your bio often feeling as though you are “stuck thick like a four wheeler in the Blue Ridge Mountains, somewhere between two cultures.” How does this poem reflect that cultural conflict and your feelings as you attempt to navigate it?
MA: This is a hard question. There were a few cultural differences I found myself working around when I wrote this poem: the changing trend in China to families wanting girls but still many of the older generation wanting boys, learning about people close to me being raised by other families and/or family members so their parents could keep trying for a boy ‘legally’ and without much financial strain since boys are needed to ‘pass on the family name,’ marriage as a woman leaving her birth family and joining her husband’s family, and then at the same time I was meeting quite a few older women who were staying in rather horrible marriages.
These situations and events are so juxtaposed to my life and upbringing that I often have to take my time when approaching or hearing something, as my knee-jerk reaction might be to answer in a very American way, without thinking of the culture I am currently in.
RR: Have you discovered any favorite contemporary writers from China in your time living there?
MA: Absolutely! I am currently working through Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men and The Woman Warrior. There is also some science fiction I have on my reading list for this year, including The Dark Forest by CiXin Liu and Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan. For poetry, I am fond of Jenny Xie’s works, particularly her collection Eye Level.
Mea Andrews’ work appears in Issue 9.2 here.