‘Rediscovering Self, Race, and Class Through Cultural Translation’: An Interview with Will Harris by Jennifer Wong
In this exclusive extract from Wasafiri 111: Translating Lives, Jennifer Wong interviews fellow poet Will Harris on his debut collection RENDANG, and the craft, experiences, and ideas that went into writing it.
Published in the Bloodaxe anthology Ten: Poets of the New Generation, Will Harris has been featured in Poetry International and in ES Magazine as part of the ‘new guard’ of London poets. His debut pamphlet, All This Is Implied (HappenStance, 2017), was joint winner of the London Review Bookshop Pamphlet of the Year award and shortlisted for the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award. His essay Mixed-Race Superman (Peninsula Press, 2018 and Melville House, 2019) was shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize. RENDANG (Granta and Wesleyan University Press, 2020) – his first poetry collection – was a Poetry Book Society Choice, shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize, and winner of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
In RENDANG, Harris explores the liminality of race through an intriguing, experimental process of cultural translation. Combining humour, philosophical pondering, and experimentation with narrative, he exposes the artificiality of social and racial stereotypes. From prawn toast to a Chinese magician, to the search for a white jumper, Harris’s poetry reminds us of the ludicrous roots of racism, as he captures with sensitivity and wit the complex and incongruous feelings of people from hyphenated or marginalised identities.
Jennifer Wong: It is a great pleasure to find out more about your writing today. I read with much admiration the wonderful repertoire of poems in RENDANG — from prose poems such as ‘Glass Case’, to lineation experiments, to long poem sequences. It is such a rich, playful, and multi-layered collection.
Will Harris: I’m glad if it comes across as playful. I like the idea of texts being playful because play involves other people, or it mitigates against a more linear model of authorial self-seriousness. The poems I liked reading most when I started writing were all kind of playful and baggy, sometimes silly. I loved the New York School poets, for example — people like John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Bernadette Mayer. Their work gave me room to move around in, to build things in. I felt part of it.
I love the idea of having space to move and play inside a poem. In RENDANG, you use such varied poetic forms as structures to build within, playing with – or against – linearity. Would you say experimentation plays a role here?
I don’t know what it would mean to write without experimentation! Maybe it would demand a certainty or conviction that I can’t imagine having. Linearity is interesting … it brings to mind the straight rod (or raised finger) of the left-hand margin, as opposed to the spiky, free-wheeling, OTT [over the top] right-hand margin — like that outmoded model of lateralised brain function, or the superego vs the ego. Maybe you can never fully dispel the internalised authority of the left-hand margin. But at least by writing into the jaggedness of the right-hand margin, you can undermine yourself enough to gain the temporary illusion of freedom.
I’d love to hear more about that physical process of writing RENDANG and how the book came together. How long had you been working on these poems? Did you have specific aims in mind for your first full collection, or any themes that you wanted to draw out?
Because it’s my first book, it includes a lot of poems I wrote – or began writing – several years ago, some when I was a teenager. But most of the writing came in the years just before the book came out. Rachael, my editor, gave me the confidence to push my work harder. She was amazing at shaping the book, helping me to see the poems from the outside and work out how to even think of them as a book.
I don’t know if I had any specific aims, other than to understand what I’d been feeling, why I’d been feeling that way for so long. Looking at it too self-consciously is strange — or maybe it’s that it’s painful and pretty shame-inducing. I was obsessed with writing, yet scared of it. I’ve noticed some things come up again and again, but I can only see that now.
Thinking about motifs that reappear, I’m interested to hear about the collection’s titular poem, ‘RENDANG’ — a longer, almost irreverent poem. First, could you tell me why you chose ‘RENDANG’ as the name for this poem — and the collection? What were you hoping to explore?
Rendang is a spicy, coconutty South-East Asian beef curry, sometimes associated with the part of Sumatra that my family is from. My mum would often smuggle back packets of the sauce when she went home. So it’s this signifier – smuggled across borders – of another country that’s both in me (of me?) and entirely separate, both familiar and foreign. That’s what it symbolises, but it’s also a completely ridiculous thing to name a poetry collection — it would be like an English writer calling their book Fish & Chips. So it really started as a joke — I was imagining potential responses to my work from white readers, questions about my ‘exotic’ ‘roots’, expectations that I perform my otherness, that I offer some kind of ‘insight’ into a distant land. Food has always been a convenient way to essentialise people — I mean, it fosters the illusion that other cultures can literally be consumed. In some ways, the closeness you feel to an author when you ‘consume’ their work is also illusory. All you’re reading are words, scarred and patterned and splattered by the trace of a million different small and large inter- and intra-cultural differences.
The poem called ‘RENDANG’ began with trying to tell several stories at once. Firstly, it’s about me and my friend Yathu — our families and their arrivals in London. Secondly, it’s about a trip I made to Chicago when I was hosted by a total stranger called Hayley. The narrative sort of spirals and loops, taking in other mini-instances of hosting. I wanted to write about kindness, mainly, about where we feel most comfortable or estranged, and how those places can sometimes overlap. I also wanted to work out how time functions in a poem. I tried to overlay a strong sense of lyric time – fragmented, highly pressurised – over a slower, more sequential narrative. That dual tempo felt important in trying to understand – in writing – certain aspects of my mum’s and Yathu’s mum’s experiences immigrating to this country…
Jennifer Wong was born and grew up in Hong Kong and is the author of several poetry collections, including Goldfish. Her latest collection, 回家 Letters Home, has been named the PBS Wild Card Choice by the Poetry Book Society. She teaches creative writing at Poetry School, Oxford Brookes, and City Lit.
Cover photo courtesy of the author.
Edited by Farhaana Arefin and Malachi McIntosh, Wasafiri 111: Translating Lives considers translation as a practice and as a metaphor for all creative writing. With fiction from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Chinmay Sharma, a conversation with Will Harris, a special selection of life writing curated by Nina Mingya Powles and Stacey Teague, poetry from Hu Xudong, Jane Wong, and more, it’s an issue that delves into the heart of what translation means for the writer, translator, and reader.