shanghai is hungry for babies
the city grey under grey
white hairs, concrete, glass and fog
everyone’s talking about the pm2.5
everyone is old and getting older
my paternal-older-girlcousin’s mother-in-law
(even chinese doesn’t have one word for that)
gives us red pocket money even though
we’re 25 and 30. the australian government
gives two-year visas now, so they can visit
while fit to travel but she worries
they’re the dutiful parents
of the one-child generation
for the one after that
my obstetrician grandma
reminisces about my birth
i don’t know if she’ll ever
shanghai is hungry for babies
and i’m another barren daughter
another loose end
and end of the line
i don’t change my name for marriage
but i’ll change it for almost
i come home with more words
for a city cluttered with language
keen to hear a small
Left in Lia’s wake – interview with Lia Incognita
Both Lia’s grandfathers were Chinese teachers and a love of literature ran in the family – as a toddler her mother taught her how to recite Chinese poems.
“I still remember fragments of the one about the moon over the bed*. But then as English became my primary language my relationship to literature became more solitary, at least within my family.”
In her mid-teens, poets on the page that inspired her were Catullus, Sappho, Dylan Thomas and E. E. Cummings. In Year 11, she met the late Australian poet, Dorothy Porter, and was reading Adrienne Rich. Around that time, she saw more contemporary Australian poets like Emilie Zoey Baker, alicia sometimes, Adam Ford and feminist comic performance duo Sista She.
“So I managed to find queer poets and living local poets pretty early on. Then at uni, I started seeking out more literature by Indigenous and people of colour writers; decolonial, postcolonial and diasporic literature. I was reading Ntozake Shange, Lisa Bellear, Romaine Moreton, and watching Def Poetry Jam on YouTube.”
Lia started performing poetry around 2007 and around Melbourne relished in seeing poets like Maxine Clarke and Alia Gabres. During that time she was reading Christopher Logue and Anne Carson.
“These days I do tend to read more contemporary or at least 20th Century writing than anything else but otherwise I read and draw inspiration from a really broad range of styles and themes. I’m also pretty conscious of veering into appropriation, particularly in the way that slam poetry draws on Black artistic heritage. So this is one way of looking at the influences that have lead me to my work, another way would be to look at everything that’s happened to me over the course of my life. There are some questions that have sat at the core of a lot of my work, questions around responsibility, culture and politics, but I think my focus shifts all the time, there’s always a new anxiety or a new excitement that I have to pick at with words.”
A lot of Lia’s writing has an anti-racist orientation. “It speaks to a hunger for solidarity between people of colour, so then of course my subjectivity is present in the work. But I think probably my experiences of racialisation, of migration, of cultural negotiations are present in most of my work, though it might be less obvious in a poem about love and fisting than in a personal essay about language and appropriation. I think I bring all of me to my writing whether it’s explicit or implicit, all my experiences and all my imagination, “ says Lia.
This hunger for solidarity also led her to co-producing and performing in a grassroots people of colour only event called PoC (People of Colour) the Mic which was held in Sydney and Melbourne. Furthermore, Lia’s recent past includes performing burlesque. In 2008, together with Rai and Loretta, Lia founded a queer, anti-racist cabaret troupe called the Ladies of Colour Agency. (I interviewed them for a Peril issue “Watch out for LOCA – they can incite a riot!”.) In terms of what motivates her art practice, for Lia, it’s quite straightforward – “I just say what I need to say”.
“Sometimes I can’t really separate my art practice from life and communication, especially in terms of blogging and personal essays. Often an email to a friend or a chat transcript or a series of status messages become the draft for a blog post or an article. Poems need a bit more of their own space to grow but the seed is usually still the same, just a phrase or a thought that I want to take a little further. Sometimes I write to a particular theme or topic, like if I’ve been invited to perform at a particular event.
For the Peril Map project, Lia has contributed a poem called “Grey City”.
“Grey City” is a poem in which the theme of land is a bit more obvious, because it’s a return to a literal place. But it’s also about all the places we carry within us: “another barren daughter/ prodigal returner/ another loose end/ and end of the line” points to everything I have inherited that I might not pass on. And that speaks to a queer and feminist deviation as well as a diasporic one.” When I first read “Grey City”, I thought of all the parents I’d heard of who express disappointment about their children not bearing them grandchildren. I ask Lia if there’s disappointment in her poem, in which Lia replies, “I don’t think it’s disappointment so much as an acknowledgement that I don’t bring back what I left with, nothing ever just replenishes.”
Peril is also really lucky to have Lia on board as a regular blogger. Her Peril blog posts have been quoted in the digital version of the Sunday Age and recently an academic friend told me that her post “Racism and attraction: yellow fever, pity fucks and he’s just not that into you” has been cited and used in lectures at La Trobe University. Lia has also been told that her work on Peril has been discussed in class at high school, and in tutes at Monash and Melbourne universities.
Currently Lia is excitedly exploring the world of radio as a co-presenter on 3CR 855AM’s queer show – Queering the Air which airs Sunday afternoons. She has embarked on a number of projects like a “Gaysia” special focussed on LGBTIQ Asia and its connections with queer communities in Australia.
Needless to say, whatever Lia attempts, I’m sure there’ll always be a trail of discussion and conversation left in her wake.
* Lia googled the poem, and found it on the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding website. The poem that she refers to is the first one.
– interviewed by Lian Low