Q&A with Xiaole Zhan

A square, greyscale photo of Xiaole Zhan is placed against a banner. The banner displays a close-up section of the TSR #32: TENACITY cover by Rebecca Stewart, featuring intricate illustrations overlaid with shades of blue and teal. In their photo, Xiaole is shown from the chest up. They wear a short-sleeved, dark-coloured button-up top, and their hair is tied back from their face, parted in the centre. They wear round glasses, and look straight to camera. On the left side of the banner, the words ‘Issue #32: Tenacity, an interview with Xiaole Zhan’ are displayed.

Xiaole Zhan is a Chinese–New Zealand writer and composer. Their work explores themes of the body, race, memory, and the intersection between language and music. They are the winner of the 2023 Kill Your Darlings Non-Fiction Prize and the 2023 Landfall Young Writers’ Essay Competition.

Thanks for talking to TSR! We were so excited to publish your piece in #32: TENACITY. One of the first things that caught our team’s eye while reading ‘Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome’ was the virtuosic use of enjambment, with all its inherent tensions. It allows for so much mutability of meaning and carries devastating humour. Do these shifts develop as you write, or do you begin with these hinging moments and build around them?

Thank you so much for making a home for ‘Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome’! I was so drawn to the call-out theme for #32: TENACITY. As a musician who’s sung in choirs for many years, I think a lot about the word ‘tenacity’ sharing a root with the word ‘tenor’, both coming from ‘tenere’: ‘to hold’. I’m so drawn to abstract words being rooted etymologically to something bodily—a tenor being someone who holds the melody; a tenacious person being someone who holds. 

I really love this phrase that you’ve used: ‘mutability of meaning’. I think there are so many echoes and associations within words themselves contributing to this mutability. I’m not quite sure whether there’s a planned or chronological process I have for meaning and enjambment when writing, but I do wonder if I’m getting better and better at recognising when an enjambment or an image ‘works’. I think this might have to do with a sense of the ‘chemistry’ of words, this slightly chilling sense that images can be fatalistically bound to one another… and often I stumble upon these combinations accidentally or in experimentation. 

So I guess I write a lot more through ‘recognition’ rather than premeditation. I try many line breaks and images and phrases, and recognise there is more magic and more violence in certain configurations than others. Maybe it’s a bit like never being able to predict when the surface tension of a glass of water will break and overflow but gradually getting better at feeling when you’re closer and closer to that breaking point. For lines that ‘work’, I’m reminded of a line from ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ which describes the pattern upon the wallpaper and how the ‘uncertain curves… suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions…’ I’m attracted to violent turns in meaning that perhaps have this element of self-destruction, or the sound of necks snapping. Otherwise, I think a lot about Magritte’s Elective Affinities (a term borrowed from archaic science), which Annie Dillard notes was applicable too for writing; how certain images belong to one another. Magritte writes:

One night, I woke up in a room in which a cage with a bird sleeping in it
 had been placed. A magnificent error caused me to see an egg in the cage, instead of the vanished bird. I then grasped a new and astonishing poetic secret, for the shock which I experienced had been provoked precisely by the affinity of two objects—the cage and the egg—to each other, whereas previously this shock had been caused by my bringing together two objects that were unrelated.

Besides writing, you’re also deeply involved in music, both playing and composing. Have these passions grown up together? How do you feel your experience with shaping musical sound has influenced your use of written and spoken language? 

Thank you for taking the time to explore a bit of my musical practice too! I’ve always thought of writing and music-making as continuous and interrelated. Poetry is a kind of sound art. Words as sonic units behave as music does. Words as units of meaning—particularly in poetry—also behave as music does. The way poetry moves through association and fluid internal logic is musical. I also think a lot about what Virginia Woolf wrote to Ethel Smyth while writing The Waves: ‘I am writing to a rhythm and not to a plot.’ I’ve always found beginnings, middles, and endings for any piece of writing more intuitive when I think of it in terms of rhythm and texture and musical tension. 

And I think what particularly excites me about words as units of meaning is that anything in the world can be a part of your palette. If you see a glimpse of fabric that enchants you or a sound that haunts you or a colour that is uncanny in a way that feels important, you can take these glimpses with you wherever you go. It’s a thrilling sort of kleptomania. Words are always yours to keep. It’s the same thing that excites me about electronic and recorded sound—any sound you can record, capture, or plunder from the world is yours to keep and yours to place upon a canvas. 

A last thought (though there are always too many thoughts!) about words and music is something that fellow Naarm-based Chinese–New Zealand poet Wen-Juenn Lee shared in a writing workshop last year from a video of Li-Young Lee speaking (at about 6:40 in the video) before a reading of his poem ‘Braiding’:

… if you look at the poem like that, see the line breaks; that’s a score, like a musical score for the human voice, but because it is a musical score for the human voice, and all voice is performed with the exhaled breath, all voice is possible because of the dying breath. So it’s a score for your own dying.

I’ve done a lot of unpublished writing recently thinking about poetry as a musical score, as well as my experience of quite severe childhood asthma. The word asthma (with its mutable meanings) comes from the Greek ‘azein’ meaning ‘breathe hard’. However, Ancient Roman doctors more often referred to asthma by its nickname, ‘rehearsing death’—those who are asthmatic gasp as if constantly at one’s last breath before the body finally performs what it has for so long rehearsed. Of course there’s also the echo of death in the word ‘rehearse’ (re-hearse) which seems itself a kind of uncanny elective affinity.

As we enter a new year on this strange and wonderful earth, what’s currently fuelling your creativity? Is there a particular project you’re excited about? 

I feel a lot more self-assured in my creative practice going into this year, which is quite significant for me. I feel more conviction in my work as well as my identity as a practising artist. I started my degree in music composition in 2020 when Covid hit, and felt a lot of fear and uncertainty about what it meant to move forward as an artist, both economically as well as personally. I think most people who go on to become creatives don’t have the privilege of growing up believing their work matters or can matter in increasingly hostile economic and political realities. Of course, I’m still situating myself within this reality and balancing what it means to have a viable practice, but I’m starting to feel less shame and guilt about protecting and working for the space and time needed for my creative practice to grow. I’m also accepting that this time and this space isn’t necessarily always going to be productive, or progress in linear ways. I think it takes a lot of rewiring to gradually convince yourself that your practice isn’t an indulgence or a luxury, but something that is as important for your nervous system as it is for your sense of self. I do wish that artists didn’t need to constantly be fighting for and working for and protecting their time and space, but to be able to say to myself, this time and this space is something worth protecting, and worth fighting and working for is monumental for me in and of itself. 

Of course, I’m always grateful for opportunities that allow me time and space for my work. I’m the 2024 New North Emerging Artist, for which I’m being commissioned to write a new 30-minute composition. I’m planning to set a collection of poems for narrator, electronics, percussion, and violin, exploring themes of chronic illness. I’m looking forward to being mentored as part of this opportunity by Naarm pianist Danaë Killian, whose work weaving poetry and solo piano performance I find mesmerising and inspiring. 

I’m also currently working on a new co-composed work with colleagues from my composition cohort called comma means breathe, which features live instrumentalists as well as samples of voice recordings, in which university students speak to themes of hope and dread. This project is supported by a Peter McPhee Community Engagement Grant and by the 2024 New Music Studio program, with a debut date of Wednesday 24 April at Hanson Dyer Hall. This concert is free to attend and you can grab a ticket here

Otherwise, feel free to follow my upcoming projects on Instagram @xiaole.zhan!

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