By Nina Coomes, Guest Interviewer.
Franny Choi is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) and the forthcoming Soft Science (Alice James Books, 2019), as well as a chapbook, Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). She has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and the Helen Zell Writers Program. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, the New England Review, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman fellow, Senior News Editor at Hyphen Magazine, co-host of the podcast VS, and member of the Dark Noise Collective.
Interviewer's Note: In 1910, Japan began a long history of imperialism in Korea that persists today in ways both explicit and subtle. As a Japanese writer interviewing Franny about Death By Sex Machine, this interview is necessarily contextualized by the role of Japan as colonizer and eraser of violent history, specifically towards Korea.
Nina Coomes: Congratulations on the publication of Death by Sex Machine! Thank you so, so very much for writing this book. I know I’ll be thinking about it for a really long time, and I know I’ll be listening to the Spotify playlist that accompanies it even longer.
First, can you tell me a little bit about how you chose to title the chapbook? One of my favorite experiences while reading your book on the Boston bus lines was watching the person across the aisle from me spelling out the cover text—Dea-th-By-Sex-Mac-hine—and then watching how their faces would shift, changing into curiosity or horror or barely-suppressed laughter. It’s an arresting title and an equally arresting image (illustrated by Gel Jamlang) taken from a line in your poem "Kyoko_Inquires." Why this line? What did you want to convey to your reader?
Franny Choi: I think the reaction you describe (some combination of curiosity, horror, and giggles) is pretty much the ideal for how I hoped a reader would respond to the title—and I love the idea that the surprise comes out of the need to look a little closer. I really cherish that (hopefully brief!) moment of not understanding that makes someone say, “Wait, what? What is this?” and then want to keep investigating.
As for the title Death by Sex Machine, I think it’s a little capsule of some of the things going on in the project: the strange consequences of gender and sexuality that come out of our relationships with machines, humanity’s fear of its own inventions (including race and gender), the violence of being made into a tool for pleasure, the pleasures possible in language. And I hoped the double resonance of “death by chocolate” (capitalism making women eat things) and “sex machine” (James Brown making liberatory joy through art) would translate into something that feels lively and complicated and also fun to say. It’s a funny thing, though, to have a book with the word “sex” in the title. It puts some distance between me and younger students, my mom, the generally squeamish, etc.
The Turing Test is a test constructed by Alan Turing in 1950 that asked the question, “Can machines think?” But the test constructed that question in such a way that, basically, a human and a machine are in conversation—if the human can’t reliably distinguish that it is talking to a machine, the machine passes the test. You use the Turing Test frequently in this book, playing it against concepts such as love and weight. What do you think it means for machines to pass the Turing test? Are your poems the communications of machines that pass or fail?
FC: I think in many ways, people of color, immigrants, women, queer/trans people (and so on) are always trying to pass the Turing Test—to fool people into thinking we’re human, or at least indistinguishable from humans. I grew up thinking it was one of my greatest strengths to not have a Korean accent; I even remember studying the speech patterns of other Korean-American kids so I wouldn’t sound like them. I have a tendency now, too, to slightly adopt the accent of whatever region of the U.S. I’m in, as a subtle way of communicating, “I’m from here, I’m like you” (read: “I’m not like them”). Recently, I watched a video I’d taken of an incident of police brutality at a protest and felt this huge wave of shame because I heard myself pronounce “th” like “d” as I was shouting at the cop—at the latent bit of foreignness my voice betrayed in that moment of crisis, when my guard was down.
Of course, the project of passing as human is much vaster and deeper than accents. People who have historically been denied humanity are constantly taking tests to prove they experience the full range of human experience, not to mention all of the formal tests that allow or deny them access to resources, status, mobility, etc. Poems are technologies of consciousness; and so yes, maybe these poems are machines I use to—without the presence of my physical body—try to convince someone that there’s a person here.
Why did you choose to use Chi from Chobits and Kyoko from Ex Machina as the sister voices or sister experiences in your text? Sisterhood, daughterhood and motherhood—relationships centered on womanhood (or perhaps non-manhood) feature prominently. Why do you think these relationships emerged in your poetry, especially in the context of machines, which some might say have no family or familial relationship? Why are they important?
FC: Donna Haraway, in “A Cyborg Manifesto,” talks about cyborg relationships as occurring along lines of affinity rather than biological kinship. There’s plenty to say about how this plays against Haraway as a white woman writing, in much of the essay, about women of color consciousness—how saying “never mind my identity, it’s my politics that matter”—is nothing new when it comes to white women waltzing into rooms that women of color built. But. Yes, calling someone “sister” is naming a line of solidarity, and of course it’s maybe the queerest thing to make family outside of traditional kin relationships.
I think, also, that calling Kyoko “sister” is a way to name that moment of excitement and anxiety I feel when seeing an API woman on a Western screen. The stakes of representation are high; there are so many ways to fuck up. But I can’t help but love the API femmes I see on screen, no matter how troubling they are—there are too few of us not to. Maybe something that’s not super obvious to some readers is that the two figures I’ve called into conversation are both Japanese women, and as someone with roots in a country that was colonized by Japan for 35 years, there are stakes to identifying with Chi and Kyoko. So the relationship between the book’s speaker and these figures isn’t uncomplicated—but of course, sisterhood never is.
“Chi_Conjugations” employs an experimentation that reminded me of Pussy Monster in that I think you beautifully use experimental forms to give readers a hidden or larger truth. “@FannyChoir” is another such poem, where you process tweets sent to you through multiple languages in Google Translate. What was the experience of writing “@FannyChoir”? Did it feel triumphant—to rearrange the words of others that seemed like they had origins in hate? In the multi-translation and mistranslation, did you find anything that surprised you?
FC: I’m not sure if it felt triumphant, though that was maybe the hope. What it felt like was this: over a period of a few days, a wave of trolls tweeted terrible things at me. (This happened when something I said about whiteness showed up on a white supremacist website and, it turned out later, in a slideshow for a lecture by Richard Spencer. Weird times.) And I was surprised at how put-out I was, considering I pretty much spend all day reading and writing and thinking about how racist, sexist violence operates. You know, you learn to survive in very Ravenclaw ways, reading articles, writing triumphant poems, etc., and then you spend a day trying not to look at your phone while strangers call you a gook and threaten to rape you for hours. Initially, I was totally fascinated by all the violent tweets; I was obsessed and really wanted to play with that language. But after a while, I found I couldn’t do it without feeling really, really awful. Feeding those tweets into Google Translate was an attempt to break the language, to make it uncanny and funny, to make a way to engage with it without being wrecked in the process. Honestly, I’m not sure if it worked. These days, I can read that poem aloud without being dropped back into the panic of that day; and I hope, moreover, that the language is so garbled that I can read it aloud without triggering anyone else.But it doesn’t always feel great, and it doesn’t escape me that a part of my book is still a preserved space for those voices to live.
“Turing Test_Weight” is a poem that physically made me feel like someone knocked the breath out of me. The way you set up the poem, the way the interrogator’s question lands (“what is….your country of origin”)—it brought the semi-sci-fi hypotheticals of the entire chapbook sharply into focus. In particular, I’m thinking about the Turing Test and learning English (or any other normative language) as a second language, and the different signals we give to try to pass societal interrogations meant to determine worthiness. In a parallel fashion, I think your poem “Choi Jeong Min” and its questions about naming are also related. How do you see immigranthood intersecting with the themes of your book?
FC: I think foreignness is one of the many things that can place a person in the uncanny valley—that horror/humor of perceived emulation of humanity. I know that in some ways, no matter how perfect my English is, no matter how I sound on the phone, no matter how annoyingly good my grammar is, I’ll always be seen as someone doing, at best, an extraordinarily good job at emulating a native speaker. But I think it’s a beautiful gift to have grown up with the understanding that all English is broken; all English is breakable. I have no respect for the sanctity of English. Neither do Chi and Kyoko, and I think knowing that allowed me to write their voices with a kind of wildness that I might not have otherwise. I remember someone describing Gertrude Stein as writing poetry “as if she had never read any.” That’s the kind of brand-new-ness that I wanted their voices to have—the wild disrespect of someone who’s always been an outsider to the rules of a thing. The project is, of course, about the pain of being relegated to the outside, but for me, it’s just as much about the wisdom and the pleasure that come with it.
And I’ll leave you with this last question: throughout the book, there were many words that appeared more often than not—mouth, fish, ghost, stink, slug, please. Please in particular stood out to me, because, while your chapbook’s primary cyborg speaker is constantly having things taken from her, she is also exhibiting a hunger that in some instances is depicted as uncontrollable and monstrous, and in others tender-hearted and sorrowful (“sometimes / when the sidewalk opens my knee / i think / please / please let me remember this”). Please, then, takes on many tones. In that same vein, what do you think the cyborg ultimately wants? What do you want for this book? What do you want for your writing more broadly—for yourself as both artist and human, now, and in the future?
FC: There’s a poem in the full-length book called “What a Cyborg Wants,” and the first line is “What a cyborg wants is to work perfectly.” Which of course isn’t all the way right, but maybe that’s part of it, at least: to be a thing that happens the way it’s supposed to. Oof, what a dream.
As for the rest of your questions: oh, I don’t know. But I think about that line by Hannah Sanghee Park: “the layers / comprising me are, reductively, soft / hard, soft.” About what it might look like to live and write with that knowledge. Today, I asked a question at a Q&A with the poet Robin Coste Lewis—a roundtable with only about twenty people in the room—and something in her answer opened up a little part of me, and to my total horror, I started weeping. Just staring back at her, wearing probably my butchest flannel, and fully weeping, not able to stop. And though it was totally embarrassing, maybe that’s all I’m trying to make, really—a little aperture of softness. A room where the hard rules and histories that made us are on equal footing with the things only tenderness can teach.
Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer, performer, producer and artist. She was born in Nagoya, raised in Chicago, and currently resides in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, The Collapsar, EATER, and The Margins, among other places. She is a 2018 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow.
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