I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin— From “How I Got My Name”
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of "be," without the uncertain i-n-g
of "becoming. " Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated "Mei Ling" to "Marilyn. "
And nobody dared question
his initial impulse--for we all know
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic white woman
swollen with gin and Nembutal.”
Activist poet Marilyn Chin was born in Hong Kong in 1955, where her father ran a restaurant. As a child, Chin immigrated to the United States and was raised in Portland, Oregon. Chin received her B.A. in Chinese Literature from the University of Massachusetts (1977) and a M.F.A from the University of Iowa (1981). Chin is the author of three distinguished collections of poetry, including Dwarf Bamboo (Greenfield Review Press, 1987), The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty (Milkweed Editions, 1994), and more recently Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (Norton 2002). In the late 1970s, Chin was also a translator for the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where she co-translated The Selected Poems of Ai Qing with Eugene Eoyang. A widely-acclaimed and recognized poet and social activist, Chin has won numerous awards for her poetry, including two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Stegner Fellowship, the PEN/Josephine Miles Award, four Pushcart Prizes, a Fulbright Fellowship, and numerous residencies. In addition, Chin's work can be found in a variety of anthologies, including The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, The Norton Introduction to Poetry, The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, Unsettling America, The Open Boat, and The Best American Poetry of 1996. Her poetry was also featured in Bill Moyers's PBS series The Language of Life.
In her poetry, Chin artfully expresses ever-important social issues. As a young adult growing up in an era of great sociopolitical change, Chin was greatly influenced by activist poets such as Adrienne Rich and continues to stress the importance of an activist voice in her work: “I don't quite believe in art for art's sake. I believe there must be a higher order. What we write can change the world. That may sound a little idealistic but I feel it's very important that poetry make something happen” (Wagner 1).
Throughout her collections of poetry, Chin's passionate voice is distinct in her illumination of Asian-American sociopolitical concerns, notably that of bi-cultural identity and assimilation. In her poem “How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation” from The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty, Chin explores her father's desire to assimilate into American culture and her own sense of cultural loss as a “wayward pink baby.” In this poem, Chin recalls her father's infatuation with movie star Marilyn Monroe and the change of her name from Mei Ling to Marilyn. Here, Chin's name, symbolizing her self-identity, is quickly transformed. Moreover, the name Marilyn hauntingly recalls the sound of Mei Ling, leaving Chin holding onto two distinct and troubled worlds. Contrary to the conception of assimilation as a “melting pot,” Chin stresses the perpetual struggle and tension of assimilation as well as the tragic loss of one's culture, language, religion, and sense of self. Influenced by both traditional Chinese culture and contemporary American society, Chin offers the disconcerting relationship between these two worlds through her bold and didactic words. In the following excerpt from Chin's poem “A Chinaman's Chance,” a duality is evident in the movement from Plato and Socrates to Confucius:
If you were a Chinese born in America, who would you believe, Plato who
said what Socrates said
Or Confucius in his bawdy way:
so a male child is born to you I am happy, very very happy. "
The railroad killed your great-grandfather.
His arms here, his legs there. . .
How can we remake ourselves in his image?
In addition, Chin's dedication to feminist issues within the Asian American community is intensely voiced throughout her work, evident in poems such as “Homage to Diana Toy.” Chin's work exemplifies a complex intersectionality between race and gender. Similarly, poetic form and content intersect with the other in articulating Chin's concerns. Chin is fearless when experimenting with different styles and tones within a singular poem, further highlighting the juxtaposition of two cultural worlds. Currently, Chin co-directs the M.F.A. program at San Diego State University and continues to be an important voice in the Asian American community.
Modern American Poetry: Marilyn Chin
This page, compiled by Cary Nelson, has links to Chin's poems, as well as biographical and critical work about the author.
The Poetry Society
An essay by Chin: "What is American About American Poetry?"
Between the Lines: Asian-American Women's Poetry”
“Women Make Movies” spotlight on Chin.
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This page was researched and submitted by Jane Wong on 7/5/05.