I am humbled and honored to be here today to accept the 2023 Chowdhury Prize in Literature. I want to thank the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Kenyon College, the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation, and the jurors, all tremendous artists, educators, and literary citizens. I know how difficult it is to select just one person for an award like this, and to be that last person standing here in front of you is pretty overwhelming. I want to thank you for creating such an award and making the space for someone like me to receive it.
I grew up in a family where there were books everywhere, but they were either Chinese books, brown Encyclopedia Britannicas, or dictionaries. My parents were part of a wave of Taiwanese immigrants who came to America in the 1960s, mostly people with technical backgrounds. I never thought about this much until after my mother passed away, but I’m a bit in awe of the fact that she left China during the Civil War, and then left Taiwan in her early 20s. Before she made it to 25 years of age, she had already left two homelands to come here.
I’m grateful for the support of my late parents, obviously, but since literature wasn’t a part of my upbringing, it was actually other people—the teachers—who showed me that reading mattered, that there were other books beyond encyclopedias, and that poetry could change the world. I never imagined that I would be here today, standing in front of you, as a writer, as a poet, as a literary person.
I was a quiet kid who spent most of my childhood overwhelmed by the world and the people around me. Poetry became a way to make sense of a largely racist and misogynist landscape. From Mrs. Kilpula in first grade, who taught me what a poem was; to Mrs. Leinweber in high school, who used to prance around the room in her lacey shirts, pencil skirts, and ballet flats reciting Emily Dickinson; to Mr. Corcoran, who stood in front of the classroom in his tweed blazers and read us short stories—these teachers were the ones who taught me about poetry, about literature.
We are in a difficult time in this country, at this moment. I wonder if everyone before us has said the same thing, which makes me wonder if it’s not the moment that is difficult, but it’s us, human beings, who are difficult.
Because it is what I do, I believe that writing can change the world, can make a difference. It was Audre Lorde who said, “Poetry is not only a dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” I think poetry and writing aren’t just about memory, about our private and/or public pasts, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, but about mapping out the imagination of the future.
I hope to be able to continue to stand, humbled in front of language, at the foot of a large letter, looking up, unable to see what lies ahead, but having the conviction and hope to climb that letter to see the world widen into an imaginative future. I am excited to be able to lower myself to the ground, faced with the next giant letter, astonished to be climbing on the immediacy of language.
I’ll end here with another quote from Lorde: “Without community, there is no liberation.” I often say myself that community is my poetics. As writers, we aren’t alone, or isolated. We are more effective when we are a part of a community working together to make the change that this world so desperately always needs. I think writers and artists aren’t just writing books for our own egos, but we’re changing the imagination of the future, changing the narrative of our society, one word at a time.