The Body Is A Walking Anthology,
by Katherine Standefer
Silent Anatomies is Monica Ong’s first book, selected by Joy Harjo for the Kore Press 2014 First Book Award.
Ong is the daughter of a Chinese mother and father, who were born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Her grandparents fled Southern china to Manila during WW2.
Ong is a visual artist and writer whose work explores the socio-political rooms where art and literature converse. These poems find homes in unlikely environs of medicine bottles and x-ray light boxes; the hybrid architecture of the book reveals the depth of author’s investigation into the tension between American culture and the medicine/health beliefs and practices of immigrants.
Katherine Standefer: How did you come to this project?
Monica Ong: This project emerged from what began as an exploration of family history. I was already creating digital collages with found family images, exploring how design can weave narratives and images together. I began to find images of relatives who had conflicting stories constructed around them, in particular my mother’s eldest sister, who struggled with mental illness. This led to a field trip with my father to his workplace at the time, a mental health center in Illinois where he was an doctor of internal medicine.
In grad school, I travelled to China and the Philippines with my parents to interview my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and other family members, while gathering more images and visiting the places that frame their experiences. The more stories I witnessed, the more certain tensions became clear, particularly when it comes to deeply ingrained beliefs on how to cure the body, the metrics in which female bodies are evaluated, as well as the fictions and magical thinking that are used to interpret stories that get lost in translation or are disrupted by migration.
As a visual artist, my impulse is to take stories off the page and into an environment of things. Perhaps it’s that diasporic need to make these orally transmitted fragments into small monuments that offer an illusion of permanence? For a while I made poems on medicine bottles. It led to poems on x-ray light boxes and then inside of anatomical drawings. These art installations eventually became Silent Anatomies.
I’m really grateful for my fellow poets Wendy S. Walters and Randall Horton, who really said to me “You have a book here,” and encouraged me to envision the work as a manuscript. My studio approach to making work is very iterative, so of course there are several works that never made it into the book, either because the writing by itself didn’t hold up or because they were still in the phase of being loose studies and not quite as developed yet.
K.S. The combination of lush text and the “environment of things” you describe above is so rich in Silencing Anatomies. What are the craft challenges you encountered in making a work like this?
M.O. Each piece requires patience and the willingness to persist through many failed experiments before arriving at something that feels right. The challenge is always about finding adequate time—not only to read work that inspires me, to write and revise, but also to consider ways of challenging the conventions of reading, to design away from the expected, and to get my hands dirty with new materials and processes.
It was a challenge to translate gallery-specific installations into the architecture of a poetry book. There is a visual compression that takes place and a typographic logic needed to unify the book, to lead readers through it in a way natural to reading. It is natural for a body of art to have aesthetic shifts over time, and there is always that question of whether to document works exactly as they were, or to seek to “translate” the work into a more visually unified piece in and of itself. I had typographically-induced insomnia when wrestling with these questions, but working with Kore Press was amazing in terms of how they champion creative innovation and are so committed to supporting an author’s vision.
K.S. Sayantani DasGupta writes about narrative medicine as “the clinical and scholarly movement to honor the role of story in healthcare.” What do you think is the role of story in healthcare—or what should it be?
M.O. The first step in innovation and effective problem-solving is empathizing with the challenges and constraints of others. Understanding someone’s story allows us to park our assumptions at the door, to remain attentive to the unseen barriers that might affect outcomes, and to be vigilantly aware that there will be times when we don’t know what we don’t know, and therefore must be able to listen deeply and receive new perspectives.
I recently heard an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain (“Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology”) that recounted the troubling history of Dr. James Marion Sims, a 19th century physician who performed medical experimentation on African American slave women. His surgical experiments in gynecology subjected these women to excruciating pain and suffering without anesthesia. As historian Vanessa Gamble noted: “There was a belief at the time that black people did not feel pain in the same way. They were not vulnerable to pain, especially black women.”
This unsettling history highlights to me a persistent gap in empathy–that despite so many technical advances, beliefs can still prevent a person from fully recognizing pain of others.
K.S. In Silent Anatomies, you borrow as your canvas medical imaging technology and old prescription bottles—and you wonderfully subvert them by, for example, superimposing the outline of China on an ultrasound of a female fetus (“MISSING (X10 million”), or offering as a ‘treatment’ the “Yeong Mae’s Oral Whitening Rinse” (“Dynamic foaming action noticeably whitens speech“). What do you think is the value of subverting familiar images, forms, or technologies?
M.O. I see this as a space of close reading, of translation, of processing deeply uncomfortable questions, which parallels the way poetry seeks to make sense of the world. It felt like a natural “canvas” to examine the gaps of empathy afforded to some bodies and not others, as well as a place to negotiate the identity politics of my culturally complicated family. At the same time, I wanted to personalize an otherwise clinical visual language, to offer a reminder that a body is not just a body—not object, not specimen—but a walking anthology of stories that are simultaneously inherited, translated, edited, erased, and created moment by moment.
K.S. I love your idea of the body as “a walking anthology.” And this book seems to operate that way, containing many voices. Why did you choose to write out of the voices you did for this particular work?
M.O. As a writer of Chinese diaspora, I sought to complicate notions of a perceived monolithic sense of Chinese identity by reflecting the multiplicity of voices that are deeply embedded with Filipino, American and colonial influences. I think the multi-generational interview process in my research also helped me to better understand the range of beliefs and world views that often play into the inner conflict of being a child of immigrants who feels neither “here” nor “there,” who doesn’t want to lose one’s heritage, but is also essentially constructing a sense of identity on their own terms.
K.S. I found myself drawn to “Etymology of an Untranslated Cervix.” The epigraph—a quote from a doctor named Erin Cox—reads, “In Rufumbira, the local language here in Kisoro, there is no word for cervix, and the word vagina is a shameful, dirty word, rarely uttered.” The poem seems to be highlighting that when we cannot say the word, we cannot treat the condition (“The monster’s shadow, taller and hungrier than the monster itself”). Do you think this is equally true of social problems as health problems–that we have to be able to say the words before we can treat the condition?
M.O. I think shame is one of the most challenging barriers to effectively addressing both social and health problems. When we are pressured to attach shame to the words that describe women’s body parts, it becomes very difficult to have open conversations with women focused on preventive health education.
With regards to social issues, look at the great discomfort around discussing white supremacy and how it at times can feel like a social taboo to even bring it up around friends and family. If we don’t allow ourselves to even say the words, we will never arrive at constructive conversations that change the cultural trajectory. What I find powerful about poetry is the sheer courage of writers to speak about the things we have been shamed out of uttering. Poems are an attempt to break shame’s collective spell so that we can see each other.
K.S. The idea of the body as “dirty” repeats in “Yeong Mae’s Oral Whitening Rinse” and “Yeong Mae’s Whitening Solution.” Why do you circle back around to this in your work?
M.O. In the process of writing these poems and making them into visual pieces, they became an exhibit to myself of the binaries that we are taught to believe in: good/bad, pure/impure, white/dark, primary/other, etc. As a “tiger daughter” who consistently failed to fit in. I was always flawed according to this frame. Making this work allowed me to step back and recognize the shame traps that disempower us.
K.S. One of my roles at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine is reading reflective essays written by medical students. I see the concept of “fixing” surfacing in their work often—that “curing” means fixing problems of the body (which, in turn, makes death the ultimate failure). Much of Silent Anatomies gestures toward this idea of “fixing” the problems of the body—from skin color to accent, from hiding females to hiding the mentally ill. When is the idea of fixing the body problematic?
M.O. My hope is that raising these questions about cultural silences of the body shifts the conversation from “fixing” something perceived as “flawed” into considering how these perceptions of the body are defined and by whom, so that we can create healing spaces that are rooted in compassion. I’d like to help to untangle the shame and moral judgment that is often attached to health conditions.
K.S. When I work with writers who are crafting their stories of illness, we often talk about what it means to “heal” rather than “cure.” We define healing as a sort of coming into alignment with what is, fully inhabiting the experience of the body. How does the distinction between curing vs. healing echo in your work? How do you think about this?
M.O. One of the recurring themes that I often hear is the desire to be “seen,” for the sort of healing that acknowledges the social and cultural context of one’s physiological condition and that seeks to see the whole picture. I think “cure” implies the need to have a specific answer; “healing” is more about holding space for another to fully express their experience.
K.S. In late September and early October, you visited Tucson as part of Kore Press’s Unsilencing Anatomies project, which used your book to open conversation about the way our bodies become silenced. What was your experience in Tucson like?
M.O. One of the highlights for me was my visit to the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center and sharing this work among a multi-generational community, mostly elders. I’m the most comfortable and the most nervous when presenting among the Chinese community, because I understand the sensitivity of the topics I’m bringing forth and how difficult it is to talk about taboo health issues. At the same time, it really is important to me as an artist to make work that can create productive conversations about cultural silences in public health.
After reading selected works from Silent Anatomies, a long line gathered for the book signing. So many elders shared their stories with me, including secrets that they’d had to carry in silence. Some expressed a sense of relief that, finally, it was okay to talk about certain health issues out loud, whether mental health or domestic violence. I met one woman whose family referred to cancer as “the C-word,” characterizing it more like the flu. According to Dr. Howard Eng, who co-hosted the event with Kore Press, among the four major ethnic groups in Pima county, Asian-Americans have the lowest turnout when it comes to cancer screenings. (Dr. Eng recently retired from the faculty of the University of Arizona in Public Health and is working on an initiative to bring more health resources to Asian-American populations in Arizona.)
I feel grateful to Lisa Bowden of Kore Press who curated UnSilencing Anatomies in a way that crossed disciplines, communities, and boundaries across Tucson, with class visits, talks, and an amazing medical humanities health panel. I was also deeply inspired by the streetcar performance curated by TC Tolbert and Kristen Nelson that took us across Tucson to La Pilita in an experience that melded poetry, place, and the body together. It was exciting to take part in a reading with incredible, local, and beautifully radical poets at the La Pilita Museum in collaboration with Spoken Futures. In listening to my fellow readers, I felt more fire to continue to do battle against shame, deepening my commitment to building more bridges of empathy and inclusion.
Katherine E. Standefer writes about the body, consent, and medical technology from Tucson. Her essays appear in the The Best American Essays 2016; Beautiful Flesh: A Body of Essays; and How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader, as well as many literary journals. She teaches independent, intimate creative writing classes that help people explore their experiences of illness, sexuality, and trauma. She received her MFA from the University of Arizona, where she now teaches in a narrative medicine pilot project at the College of Medicine. Follow her @girlmakesfire or www.KatherineStandefer.com
Contributed by Katherine Standefer