Creating Consciousness Through the Alphabet: A Conversation with Chewy Hannah Yukon

July 23, 2019

Chewy Hannah Yukon is a hybrid multi-genre artist from Singapore. Her work investigates the inherent failure of articulation, both as a linguistic mechanism as well as a by-product of transmission. She explores, through mathematical explorations and cartographic data collection, the mind-thought-feeling triangulation of capitalism, post-colonial desire, and astrological synchronicity. Her recent film 42@location was screen in August 2017 at Haque Center of Acting and Creativity in Singapore and was also a recent recipient of the Graduate Engagement Fund from Pratt Institute where she recently received her MFA in Writing. A footnote in her ongoing manuscript Principels*of Geometry was recently published in Chaleur Magazine. Chewy was born in New Zealand. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York with her cat Micah. Check out her latest project at http://answersandquestionsproject.com/

This interview was originally published in The Southeast Review vol. 37.1.

Dorothy Chan: Hannah, it’s such a pleasure to interview you. Your work excites me, and I’m so excited to introduce your chapbook to the world! In your artist’s statement, you describe your chapbook: “Sigils, symbols, uncharted magic, alchemy through language, transformation through sifting perspectives, and a longing for a world that does not reflect the present static—these utterances have not only found their way into this body of work, ATOA: A Meditative Poem Through the Alphabet, but are also responsible for the tilt in the axis of my own life.” To start off, can you talk a bit about the process behind ATOA: how you created this alphabet, what this alphabet means, along with any other inspiration?

 

Chewy Hannah Yukon: HELLO! Thank you for introducing this work. And for giving this chapbook space to live in different spaces.

 

It was the Fall in 2016. I was reading an article that referenced a book— Witness to my Life: The Letters of Jean Paul Satre to Simone de Beauvoir 1926-1939. It was at the beginning of graduate school in New York and I believe I was also writing, or had started to write, my manuscript that would later become my thesis, Principles of Geometry. I started a letter to my best friend, who I missed a lot after moving away from Worcester, and I was thinking about how so much of our relationship reminded me about the relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre…I thought about all the letters I wrote and never sent.

 

I was working with a mentor at the time and he encouraged me to finish the series (it was called ABJAD then—which were the original letters of the Arab language which is where our modern letters come from) I was also working on another alphabet series The Garamond Series—which felt infinite because of how it became envisioned, that I needed to complete something. I had no idea what it was while I was making it—some sort of lubricant or something. I was reading and watching and uncovering things in my personal life that I hadn’t given or allocated space or time on before—I was writing into childhood, nationalism, trauma, sex and pedophilia (that sounds like a yummy title for something lol) and so I think I needed some kind of order and structure to catch what was bouncing off. The more I think about this, the more I feel like ATOA was a response to what this other piece of work was doing.

 

 

DC: I know that you’re also a film maker. What are your recent projects? How does your work as a film maker informs your poetry?

 

CHY: My recent project is the Answers and Questions project. This project is an offering for two people to engage with their histories and identities in moments of capital transactions as a form of resistance through the dwelling in personal narrative during the hours of “a work day”. They pick a question of their choosing from a deck of cards. Using personal narrative and the power of storytelling and sharing, the project has been able to break barriers put up by capitalism by breaking predetermined behavior tendencies. This project asks the two people to be present with the person on the other side of the cashier or register and to hold space as individuals, and not as cogs in the machine. This project has also been held in a closed room where people are invited to enter and spend time alone with themselves by answering from the same deck of cards, questions that prompts self reflection. In these versions of the project, participants are then invited to create their own questions for the deck of cards. Such questions include what is a childhood memory you have held onto? And what is your superpower? Documented audio or visual footage is then complied and archived on answersandquestionsproject.com.

 

Words and pictures convey different meaning like music and touch send different messages but can lead to the same thing. It all comes from the same place (right—where is that though?) but in different tones and temperatures etc. etc. accounting for the variation of experience. The things I see in the moment cannot be conveyed with words because words and language convey the past and future-present but not the moment the attempt at description already reduces the experience into something containable. Like “this is me describing this moment with language using the words that I know, possibly pulling from memories and experiences that I have either witnessed or imagined or am subconsciously drawing from…” In film, the description happens internally within the viewer/audience (which often happens in shared communal spaces—I am thinking specifically about cinema and the group experience of watching a moving image. Maybe language and film are both imperfect reflections of reality and they both pick up and drop off at certain points—able to convey a message that resonates in different chambers…the filmic essay hovers between both mediums which, in its combination of forms, works at dismantling the classical encounters with both language and image. But this has been done many times before by many other artists and filmmakers. Deleuze states that Christian Metz and Pier Paolo Pasolini (omg reading about his life is an experience!) “both of their application of a linguistic model always ends up showing that cinema is something different, and that if it’s a language, it’s an analogical one, a language of modulation which might lead one to think that applying a linguistic model is a detour that’s better avoided.” In Negotiations he also discusses this “question of verticality” and how so much of our visual world is determined by our vertical posture—I don’t know maybe that and reading Etel Adnan’s Arab Apocalypse contributed to the horizontality of the poems—maybe I was trying to subvert this notion of “verticality dominance” and it came out in through the orientation of a horizontal list.

 

 

DC: What are your current obsessions? These don’t have to be literary-related, but I am interested in obsessions that drive your writing and art.

 

CHY: My obsession right now is finding ways of deconstructing my experience with capitalism and desire. The past two years has been open life surgery. Maybe surgery isn’t the right word. But some deep excavation has taken place…like that scene where Mr. Gadet is looking for his arm in the dumpster. There is a statement that arose from the collective consciousness of women during the 1960s that has been attributed to Carol Hanisch—the phrase “the personal is the political”— where the investigation of self–self as arbitrary, self as god, self as participant, self as investigator—are categories that have come up as response to the realizations that arose with the manuscript—that were elements of my life that I had not considered before. Which probably swings back to my upbringing in Singapore and having grown up in a consciousness that does not value the individual experience—value might not be the right word—but there was definitely something lacking within my experience of self discovery—never having been encouraged to pursue my history or learn about anything in relation to self—the learning that I did do was in rehearsal and on stage. In many ways the desire to uncover, or sit with the self is what fuels my writing and art.

 

I am obsessed with separation, with leaving, and perhaps, arriving too somewhere. After leaving New Zealand when I was born and then Singapore after junior college, and then Worcester after grad school has created an induction wave of arrivals and departures that have pointed to (within myself) a possible yearning to belong, or a searching of what else is out there…or maybe it's also the idea of coming back, or coming in general. So maybe I am also obsessed with sex. I am obsessed with sex. Of having it, of having none of it. Where I have it, how it fits within the narrative (mine and Western imperialism’s version of narrative and the narrative that has been a by-product of Western epistemology that has (through violent colonialism) embedded itself within this larger historical framework of story-telling) and with whom do I have it with and why. (Fucking the white man is like fucking myself over???)

 

I was celibate in August to see what desire was doing to my decisions and it turns out that it had a lot to do with how I was treating myself (what people which meant how much time was I giving myself… So in a way I became obsessed with myself. Sounds narcissistic. Cue Alanis. But seriously, in the end so what if I was having these experiences…they were interacting within a bubble that still permeated around the confines of structure and so much of what governs my life feels like this wistful surge of nothing but at the same time creating order and meaning and witnessing this work effect people and their thoughts brings me back to the thing that started it all in the beginning…

 

I think on some basic level of survival that it inadvertently tied up into our relationship with capital— living or wanting to live becomes the obsession. Unless you have managed to rid yourself of all your personal belongings and declare yourself insane, would you have been able to (slightly) rid yourself of your illness—which coincidently, happens to be all of our illness. Capitalism has centered, rooted, and created its own life cycle that has leeched itself onto our morals, principles, and egos. In Waking Life the professor asks, how much of our actions are controlled by fear or laziness…I guess I spend time figuring out that question. And also learning about who I am when I am confronted with certain things. Like where I choose to live, who I choose to be intimate with and why, and making notes about how much of these very personal experiences are still mediated by capital and so much of how we are when we are with each other is also experienced through some sort of capitalistic encounter. (Experience as payment, payment as intimacy, intimacy as a manifestation of desire, desire created by capital…experience as payment…what is sex work…)

 

 

DC: One of my obsessions is the second poem of your manuscript: 

 

This one is perhaps my favorite. I think a lot about your sentences and lines, such as “Because the fetishization of Asian Women was unheard of, then. Because we are adults. Because Singapore,” and how these lines work with the opening: “Because I don’t know how to defend you. Because you are not an easy subject.”

 

And then comes the sentence: “Because Nobita Nobi and Doraemon are friends and Doraemon’s magical belly was a necessary imagination,” which not only delights me, because Doraemon is such a goodwill anime symbol of childhood in East Asia, but also in its seeming lightheartedness serves as a contrast to the discussions of gender dynamics, fetishization, etc. Can you talk a bit about why you included this reference? I can also see it come full circle, though, with the “Because Singapore” sentence, along with the ending “Because you are my blue circle.”

 

CHY: I think humor is powerful and a necessary tool when speaking or recalling traumatic memories. I think that it holds power in a way that momentarily places tension in harmony as energy for continuation and that elongates time for certain nerve endings to make sweet love. I don’t know. I think laughter preserves time. The breakdown is in the trying to understand what that is—an agreed upon relief or a natural healthy response to absurdity—laughter—what affects us is what we let affect us—resistance is in the moments when joy is applied as a lubricant—also culturally specific information places different readers in different capsules of space/time—the variation in landing also holds a message— I didn’t watch a lot of Doraemon when I was growing up. I just love the idea of a robotic cat with a magical belly pulling possibility out from the forth dimension—

 

There is a finality in the last statement that I am unsure about still. The idea of belonging is questionable—you are my—ownership—but internally the object-idea represented by the blue circle has changed and my relationship to that object has evolved into a positive (words trying to describe an experience of growth) placeà again (where is this?) this non-geographical location that has caught so much of this web.

 

 

DC: I’m so caught up in the quirk in language of your final poem,

 

 “Z, the infrequent user manual, why didn’t you stay for the answers? Z, take the North Pole for example, or your bedroom as undesirable / locations to get your heart broken. Z, markings are cleaner than double standards. Z, pulverize, there’s a word for you to snack on.”

 

In this quirk of language, we get the speaker’s truth: “Z, I hope you tell people that we broke up because of gentrification. Z, I can’t be all like, what are you doing in / my country because this isn’t mine and neither are you.” We seemingly end with the sentence, “Z, it’s okay I forgive you.”, but then we get the actual ending sentence which closes the collection, “Z circumvent.” I think about how “Z circumvent” takes us back in a round, back to the beginning of the collection and how the collection all ties together into one exploration of an alphabet. I’m wondering about the speaker’s fluctuation in tone throughout this collection—how did each letter of your alphabet influence tone or vice versa?

 

CHY: I didn’t write the series chronologically. Each alphabet held its own space and took on a tone of their own. That’s something that I am still unable to articulate—but maybe that means its unnecessary to—articulate, that is. Why G is grateful, or why E is enough—those decisions are all contingent upon the moment they were created, whatever energy was pulsating at the time, whatever was called into being in the moment, is. Was.

Time and mood are stamps on moments. Impossible to break up and analyze in retrospect…well not impossible I’m accounting for memory and its inaccuracy especially as an emotional reflector.  So Z in particular went through the heaviest edits because that letter came to represent a relationship that went through a pivotal shift and in many ways lead me to the beginning which was a return to something loving and confessional… feelings and emotions are there for a reason. As instinct. Each letter has a subconscious thread stringing it together. I really want to collaborate with a dancer and musician to explore movement as potion writing.

 

 

DC: In relation to my previous question, can you talk about various ways and orders the audience can read ATOA? Yes, we can go from first to last letter, but what are other variations you enjoy? I’m reminded of Julio Cortázar’s novel, Hopscotch and how the author provides various ways to read the text.

 

CHY: I will have to add that to my list! Thank you. The movement depends on how the reader relates to chronology and what their initial instincts are. Backwards and vowel/consonants are fun.

 

 

DC: What are you currently reading? What are you currently watching?

 

CHY: I am reading Michael Foucault’s The History of Sexuality vol. 1, Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, sections of Negotiations and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. In between, I read poems and articles about alternatives to plastic and food waste.

 

I haven’t watched anything in a while. The last show that I did watch consistently was the O.A and Sense 8. I did watch Ong Bak: The Muay Thai Warrior this summer. I named my family’s lor han fish after him. He died a month ago and wasn’t buried.

This Changes Everything by Naomi Kline has been a struggle to get through mostly because I am confronted with how much I don’t know.

 

 

DC: And in closing, Hannah, I’d like to pick a question from The Proust Questionnaire. I love the version that’s immortalized on Vanity Fair’s website. I’ll pick question 30: Who are your heroes in real life?

 

CHY: Aimee Nezhukumatathil, because she had the lights turned off in an auditorium to show us what joy looked like to her—a blue tutu that lit up from the inside. A skater from Arizona—(shoutout: @janthavy) dream girl come true right there!!! Cleo—this 11 year old I used to nanny...my family…Micah…whoever created Boba tea (this is still unknown and I want to sell everything now and go look for this person) Now I want to fill up a swimming pool with multicolored edible boba bubbles and make the Boba Tea Museum you know like the ice cream museum and their pool with plastic sprinkles. I am salty about that. I thought they were going to be edible sprinkles I thought that’s why they made you take your shoes off.

Speaking of shoes one time I went on this interview and the shoes I had on kept slipping off so right before the interview I bought these beautiful peach heels from Payless and they ate up my feet but on the way back waiting for the train I opened my wallet and I had like 24 band aids. I guess I am saying that I am also my hero sometimes.

 

 

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