Writer Jenna Le’s story “Capitale de la Douleur” was featured in Issue #3 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed her about her writing, and her answers are below. Find out more about Jenna at poets.nyq.org.
What is your relationship to Queens?
I once lived in Flushing, Queens. I rented a studio apartment on the first floor of a two-story house on Cherry Avenue. My memories of that time period are grass-green and strewn with bruise-blue petals, reflecting the fact that all the avenues in that genteel neighborhood are named after flowering trees: Ash, Beech, Cherry, Dahlia…an alphabet of blossom-fresh names that ended in the sweet-smelling arpeggio of Poppy, Quince, Rose. It was my first apartment. I was as green as the grass of the pincushion-sized front lawn I commanded from my window. The building was old, with sweat-dark wood-paneled walls and senilely sloping floors. When my Manhattanite friends snubbed me for living in such a “dowdy,” “unfashionable” place, I would console myself by thinking that one must surely accrue a certain prestige from living in such a venerable old building. The neighborhood, too, was venerable: hadn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald, the most canonical of canonized American authors, immortalized it in The Great Gatsby as “the Valley of Ashes”? It was while I lived here that, insecure and wobbly-legged as I was, I began my career as a physician working a few streets away at Flushing Hospital. Thus, it was in Queens that I had my first encounter with death. In Queens, I learned that the difference between a warm-fleshed, living human being and a dew-cold corpse can be only a matter of minutes, really nothing at all.
How would you describe the writing you do?
Although I occasionally feel inspired to write short stories (sometimes heavily autobiographical, sometimes totally fantastical), most of my writing takes the form of poetry. A lot of sonnets and other “closed” verse forms. My poems are usually small, minutely embroidered. I endorse the theory that there are two major lineages of poets: there are those who write big sprawling epic poems like Homer and Walt Whitman, and then there are those who write condensed pocket-sized lyrics like Sappho and Emily Dickinson. I have spent my years as a writer trying to earn a place in the second lineage. I write about themes that energize me: when I was young, this was almost exclusively romantic love, but now that I am older, my interests encompass science, folklore, familial relationships, ethnic identity, the second-generation Vietnamese-American experience, and other things.
How did you come to writing?
I was a voracious reader as a child. My heroines at the age of 12 were the Bronte sisters, especially Charlotte. I grew up in a household consisting of some very strong personalities, and I began writing in my teens as a way to exert my own personality. It was a way to carve out an acre of ground for myself. Through writing, I could voice my own values, my devotion to freedom and egalitarianism, my tender feelings toward old tradition-encrusted things, and other aspects of my psyche that I was only just beginning to be aware of.
What inspires you?
I am overrun by tendrils of laziness, so I am inspired by people who work hard. I am always trying to become more kind, so I am inspired by people who are kind. I am inspired by people who wage battle on behalf of goodness and kindness. I am skeptical of people who wage battle on behalf of beauty. I like ugliness. I am inspired by the wisdom of animals. I am inspired by dead writers like Marina Tsvetaeva and Janet Frame, and by living writers like Eduardo Corral and Ocean Vuong.
What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
Queens is one of the most, if not the single most, ethnically diverse and linguistically diverse areas of its size in America. It is only natural that such a place would give birth to a vibrant literature. Queens isn’t weighed down (yet) by the fogs of self-conscious artsiness that sit heavily on the roofs of Brooklyn. People in Queens are focused on life, not on fashion. Hopefully, things will stay that way.
And, finally, my favorite question: What should I be asking you that I didn’t?
Hmm, you could ask me what I’m reading right now. I’m reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time. It’s really engrossing!
Also, the “Third Fridays, Queens Writers Series (TFQW)” will read at Enigma Bookstore in Astoria on August 15th at 6:30. The format includes both featured readers and an open mike. All Queens writers are welcome. Mark your calendars!