Julia Cohen’s and Abby Hagler’s Original Obsessions

An Interview with Valerie Hsiung

Original Obsessions seeks to discover the origins of writerly curiosity — the gestation and development of these imaginings — focusing on early fixations that burrowed into an author’s psyche and that reappear in their current book. In this installment, Julia Cohen and Abby Hagler interview Valerie Hsiung, author of You & Me Forever.

Julia Cohen’s and Abby Hagler’s Original Obsessions

An Interview with Valerie Hsiung

Original Obsessions seeks to discover the origins of writerly curiosity — the gestation and development of these imaginings — focusing on early fixations that burrowed into an author’s psyche and that reappear in their current book. In this installment, Julia Cohen and Abby Hagler interview Valerie Hsiung, author of You & Me Forever.

IYou & Me Forever (Action Books, 2020), the silencings and silences of girlhood pulse just as loudly as the (c)overt conversations. Girlhood is a battlefield that keeps blowing up expected notions of safety, girlishness, and cultural fluency. This book captures both the vantage point of hiding under a table while adults make decisions above and what it feels like to sit at that very same table 25 years later with knives sharpened. But the reader won’t sit for long. The reader vaults through landscapes strung together with opened car doors and familiar grocery stores. The reader watches as abandoned language falls into ghosts. This collection does not offer a coming-of-age. It is worms at their most intricate work. It is language as escape artist; language as lawlessness; as the feral snarl of defense and defiance; and language like the fur of a dog brushing the back of your knee. 

Excerpt from You & Me Forever:

When I hear something moving inside
this home, I know it’s just a colony of ghosts
dismantling underneath to make room for
the roots of the tree which will die again
and again—for our translations— (15)


TS: Silence and safety have a complex relationship from the beginning of your collection. In some moments, silence enacts safety- a protective shield, maybe a cloak of invisibility. We see it clearly early on, “She? had to obscure what her truth was, especially as a child…” (18). In other moments, silence seems dangerous. It reminds the reader what’s forbidden to say and the isolation that comes from internalization of the unspoken. The narrator describes a young girl, “She knows what it is, she knows how, the knows why, she knows when, but she cannot speak in human words” (23). There is another layer of complication to silence when multiple languages are known: where and when they can be spoken/read and who has the authority to make that call. Yet safety is also linked to how language can comfort. On the second page “safe/ty” appears three times: “She chips away some cracked paint, acrylic dust. // You + Me Forever // It’s exactly that safety. Having someone else tell you that you’re safe- that your body is safe.” Here, physical safety only feels real when it’s verified by someone else through language. This book is filled both by a chorus of young girls as well as their muting. I’d love to hear more of your thinking on how silence functions in girlhood specifically. 

VH: There is something about the secrecy of girlhood that has trickled into much of my writing-imaginative space and it seems this is a secrecy that originates in what I perceive to be the ability for wayward girls to commune with ghosts and nature, to be frank about decay and the private parts of nature. My understanding of the ability for these lost children to commune frankly has to do, I think, with trauma and the experience of trauma that is specific to children of immigrants. I think the idea of girlhood’s silence in the lives of children of immigrants is impacted particularly when the language barrier is weighted by issues of class, race, historic beliefs in “dirtier” vs “cleaner” races, historic beliefs in biological differences between races… All of these inheritances of violence, together with the inheritances of gender-based violence, heap and heap into a language of its own where silence is very much, as you said, both protective and dangerous. Both vigil and omission. 

I think about the silences which are either violently co-opted by or simply complicit with a form of nostalgia, an idea of nameless and neutral girlhood experience, what this imposition of the idea that any nameless or neutral human experience could possibly be complete bears upon the lives of girls, especially the historically invisible ones in the imperialist hemisphere. Then, I think about the silences which are transformative because they are like yeasty pockets of air where half-feral, multilingual life is capable of thriving. Of course these most transformative silences begin from a dangerous and dirty place—they can generate, but often it takes a bit of painful detangling from fantasies of neutrality and namelessness. 

TS: Yes, the way in which adults control what languages are allowed to be spoken/read comes through strongly in this collection. I think of the lines, “[My mother] slams the book shut like it’s a car door on her fingers and screams: // WE DON’T READ THAT LANGUAGE / IN THIS HOUSE, OUR HOUSE…” (6-7). There are so many adults—whether they’re family members or strangers – who benefit from being complicit in the myth of girlhood neutrality and safety, particularly as you point out, girlhood belonging to children of immigrants. So where does relief come from? I love your phrase “the private parts of nature” for all of its meanings. I’m thinking about this in relation to your take on moments of transformative silence as “yeasty pockets of air.” Silence and nature co-mingle into something generative that pushes past merely surviving. Wolves and water recur in your book, sometimes together like, “Why is the water warm? I squat, I press my ear to the rock, I let the wolves lick me clean” (8). Was there a particular kind of nature you were drawn to as a child (lake, forest, mountain, etc)? How did being in that space capture/open/shift your imagination or give you room to explore safely? 

VH: Maybe more than any specific biome, the dog seems to have been a very significant and recurring figure of safety throughout my childhood psycho-imaginative world. But it was always quite a tenuous safety. The most important and lasting friendship in my childhood—was with our family dog. And then when I left school, at the very end of my adolescence, moved to a country whose language I did not yet know, my truest friends were the half-feral dogs on the farm I lived and worked on. I think because of that very first familial friendship, even if a part of myself ever felt non-legitimate because of whatever lack of fluency or command I had in the local language, I still felt some self-possession because I felt comfortable communicating with something beyond the human. When I would go into these unknown places, even if I did not really understand the local language, as long as I had “checked-in” with the dog, I always felt like I was somewhat safe. More fragile sometimes, more open, but ultimately more safe. It’s like this ease of listening or tuning in to the “uncivilized” language allowed this instinctual protection to take hold. I like that idea of silence and nature co-mingling into something generative—it is beyond surviving, it becomes almost a kind of supernatural force.

TS: This connection to dogs in particular is felt throughout the book. Canines serve almost as comfort blankets. On page 24 you evoke for the character, “She’ll never forget the smell of dog’s cheek or of a dog’s pad.” The reader is aware of the safety this provides and is also haunted by the need for it. This tension speaks to the inherent/perpetual crisis of ‘civilization’ introduced through words that are allowed to be spoken and ones that are not. Civilization’s paradox is that it is both constructed and inhabited by monsters in opposition to its ostensible goal of ridding the world of them. It seems that the process of girlhood is to civilize a girl. This book pushes against the need for civilization while also exploring what it means to desire mastery of the language of these restrictive structures. The speaker traces that desire, “She would go back to the language again. / One of the monsters languages— this was paramount. /…she would hatch a plan then to go back—rent or buy a shack— on the land of this language….so she would go and go and go—here—until she thought in this language—this language she was once afraid to speak…” (25). Where, in your adult life, after living in various languages, do you find new versions of uncivilized language (within or outside of spoken language)? What forms do they take?

VH: I find this inherent/perpetual crisis to be one of the most fascinating things about poetry to begin with… This place between the desire to master the language of the masters, or as you say, the language of restrictive structures… and then that understanding that any such mastery can only take you to your liberation if you trap it and bring it to grapple with all those uncivilized languages within you that the authoritarians have tried to control or erase. 

This idea of finding new versions of uncivilized language is really poignant to me… because I think that’s wrapped up in the whole idea of “new versions of poetry”… or maybe “new versions” isn’t the most specific way to put it… I think really what I mean is… versions of poetry that aren’t inherited versions of poetry, versions of poetry that aren’t just unexamined mimicry of some form of received knowledge… I think a lot of the writing that I find to be fully alive and not mere mimicry knows the weight of the task of needing to go into a territory of the non-Poetic… horizontally and vertically and…

Although I do think there’s something to be said about “mastery,” so called. I think there’s something to be said about having done the work in the way that a virtuoso instrumentalist does their work before they make their own version of their instrument. I think maybe a part of finding your own language means trapping that mastery in order to actually notice what’s strange in the obvious… to notice what’s extraordinary in the crude, in the plainspoken, in the unpolished. But it can’t be unpacked nonchalantly. 

So it’s kind of just one part to do the work of learning the language that wrote the laws of civilization. Because I feel there’s often a naivety that confuses whatever is made in the language of the civilized to be “the pinnacle” of all art… what some call “high art.” Maybe it is high art, I guess I don’t care for it beyond recognizing its capital. But the other part of the work is not letting this learning confuse you or seduce you by the high of it. The other part means not forgetting to notice what’s elegant about the most crude. I don’t know, think maybe trash reality TV. After all, at a certain point, isn’t all high art married to trash, isn’t all high art married to the language of reality TV? Or, maybe they are each other… the high art of barbarism and the barbarism of high art? I guess what I’m saying is I think these two things have much more in common with each other than they do with the countless uncatalogued languages of those who are every day practicing to speak in their own banished inner language… even though, yes, those who practice this un-catalogued (and uncatalogueable?) speaking must tune in to both of the above in order to actually listen to or distinguish their own innerness at all, to hear all the micro-notes inside of it… 

Anyway, I was just thinking how from the perspective of the writer, this idea of a daily practice of finding new versions of uncivilized language seems to be engaged with that notion of getting high from writing. Like, there’s the high of creation, of making something, which I know every writer and artists understands, you know, when you’re just in it and the words seem to be practically writing themselves. And then there’s the disorienting come-down I think, the come-down of stepping back and really thinking about what the words are actually doing. And I wonder whether that high of being in it goes back to that unexamined mimicry of goodness, wholeness, beauty. Like, maybe not every line is supposed to feel good, feel whole, feel beautiful… maybe there’s more to unpack there… 

And I think it’s this constant tightrope balancing that draws me into a lot of my favorite artists. They are aware of the master before them and they are aware that they need to check in constantly with their own inner grammar—wait, what do these words mean? Is this meaning what I’m even caring to say? Or is it just utterly beautiful and too complete that I myself am overtaken… I don’t think I want to read books so much that are just so beautiful, and I really don’t care for those poems or those lines from poems either which stand by themselves, you know, that pass themselves off to be complete. In fact, I think there’s something extremely insidious about such types of poetry. When a poem is actually  “whole” to me, that is to say not fake whole, it’s often super demanding and even if it does make me high incidentally, I feel that the purpose is never to actually seduce, I feel that the purpose is to unlock, and relock and unlock and relock, all of this laborious and process-oriented attention, and that is what makes me high incidentally. 

TS: To me, your book resonates as actually whole but not containable. I’m concurrently reading Inger Christensen’s The Condition of Secrecy and she writes about the poet Lu Chi (born 261 AD in China), who was obsessed with the nature of silk so much he wrote a book about it. Christensen reflects:

…Maybe Lu Chi never could write the word silk without thinking of the four 

thousand meters of thread inside every single cocoon….he saw silkworms 

by the thousands in the mulberry groves, transforming their small bites 

of mulberry leaves into cloaks of apparently infinite silk thread. Apparently 

infinite, or infinite? Maybe Lu Chi just told himself that the apparently infinite is what looks like infinity, if infinity could be seen. (30)

You & Me Forever does have an apparently infinite feel because it’s simultaneously unraveling and shape-shifting. I’m particularly intrigued by the style of writing that emerges in a few sections, which offers a series of single, isolated images which then later recombine and amalgamate into new, compound phrases. One example:

A factory feeling A public wailing inside

The letter exchanged between adulterous lovers in a grocery store aisle

A factory feeling A public wailing inside The letter exchanged between adulterous lovers in a grocery store aisle Hands delicately examining one another Host hostile (34)

It seems incantatory as it both creates and dissolves narrative. Can you speak to this writing process for you?

VH: When I first began writing those poems you mention, they were not amalgamating recombinations at all. The earlier versions were all essentially sequences of single isolations. And I think there was something about that finiteness, that settledness, that seemed wrong to me.

These poems have unraveled and shape-shifted throughout their course as “things in the world” and, in some ways, I think it’s been a grand failure to have ever put these things down on paper because it’s like denying their true nature—as unraveling and shapeshifting voices.

I’m just thinking now about the magnificent way you opened up this question to me—worm spit! And I’m thinking about Lu Chi, son of a military family (?), and his interior observations of nature—did he see himself as a part of nature, as speaking through nature, and not above or outside of it? I’ve always been drawn to that tragicomic interiority of Jin Dynasty (and other ancient Chinese) writing… The drunken loneliness of those separated by war, the loneliness of someone who feels something immense, uncontainable upon encountering silkworms biting away at mulberry leaves.

I went to a silk factory once… As a kid, we took a family trip to China in the early 90s, and I’ll never forget seeing the silkworms in their glass cages in the factory—yes, feasting on mulberry leaves and then cocooning away… I don’t know why, maybe because I was quite young, but I’ve misremembered some of what actually occurred. For many years, for some reason, I seem to have remembered seeing the individual worms hooked up to miniature looms that collected, in real-time, their threads of silk spit. But I don’t think, at least I’m not sure, that’s how it actually works. The more I revisit the memory, the less sure I am of what I saw.

But why I felt the need to go back to those poems when they consisted of single isolations, why I felt the need to recombine them, to gather up those isolations… I think it really was just about “transforming […] small bites […] into cloaks of apparently infinite silk thread.” Not to just lazily cut and paste Christensen’s words here, but that’s kind of it. In the earlier versions of these poems, the bites may well have been whole but they were also too much contained in a singular voice. The gatherings of their present state—as collected in YOU & ME FOREVER—are those isolated lines/bites (soundbites?) transformed into threaded cloaks. Like, maybe what is whole is simply that which concedes to always being incomplete, that which is an ongoing loom—between individual and environment.

So I guess it was the exact process of ongoingness that I said ok to. Because I think infinity means defiantly not building towards, not merely constructing towards, in order to be settled, but, instead, as you say, dissolving, allowing dissolve when dissolve is a part of going.

TS: Your idea of ongoingness is really lovely! I think this speaks to something about how your book seems to end, begins an acknowledgements section, but then the writing continues. It even switches font, modes. After the acknowledgements, you delve directly into Freud, where the speaker explains, “The—–(it, not id) of / writing is that it— / is an act that cares not for what we desire of it though our desiring / is the first word / out” (80). The dissolve, the not-aiming is possibly how to channel. Or how to get to the primal, basic part of the self without a gender construct or the construct of humanness (it). There is something that writing wants that is different than what we want from spoken or internal language or even ourselves. Enacting this “ongoing loom between individual and environment” feels like you’re laying out an encouraging philosophy of why write in the first place. 

For our final question, I want to pivot away from channeling and talk about presence. Throughout You & Me Forever and even in our email exchange, the use of the word “here” resonates with me. In the text, there are moments where it stands out like:

“We’ve waited here long enough, taken melatonin from a blind man’s cabinet…” (13)


“I have come to help you let go, if what you want is to open. For this I am here—here now for you. Open your mouth—to the violet.” (27)

Sometimes “here” indicates proximity to another person, sometimes it points to a specific location, and sometimes it gestures toward the text itself. In this conversation, I was struck by how you signed your first email to us with, “Here, Valerie.” With a book that identifies one of the main characters as “an escape artist” what does it mean to not be in the act of escape but to be “here”? 

VH: I think it has something to do with non-triumphant dedication… dedication in a state of total helplessness, dedication that recognizes this state of total helplessness, a dedication that’s almost futile. I think of the work of the escape artist as being a performance, and then I think about the word “here,” which, rather than being a representation, simply is. Here has past (we were here), it also has future (we may continue to be here, don’t know how long), but really, we are just helplessly here right now. A lot of my writing is concerned with the politics of performance, specifically poetic texts that perform in the present. The title of this book, YOU & ME FOREVER, functions as both performance and presence. It’s not a celebration. I’m thinking about a carving into a tree or into a park bench, a dire carving that proclaims itself out of helpless necessity, a private and transitory monument in a public space, a non-stately memorial.

And then I think how fitting that you brought up our initial email exchange… because while I feel so much “here” in the words YOU & ME FOREVER, I also have been thinking how its somewhat sibling words—“yours” and “ever”—two letter closings I get a lot in my inbox—don’t seem to contain much “here.” By that I mean, they seem almost uniformly triumphant in their dedication, they seem uniformly full of assurance. For the record, I’ve signed off “yours” and “ever” quite a lot over the years, but lately, I haven’t been able to feel aligned entirely with the pledge that these words seem to hold.

Maybe because I am suspicious of the beholdening, or I am suspicious of the pact, that those words seem to indicate. Because I worry that any profession of dedication without some hesitation may ultimately be just one movement away from vanishing. So, maybe it’s not genuine dedication at all. Because “here” is more open, because “here” exists in a state of constant fluctuation, because here is at home in its natural habitat of constant fluctuation, maybe it can more genuinely dedicate itself and not be so flippant or easily flipped. Here does not try to make a grand performative display, though it is generally aware of the nearest exit.

I’m really into this idea of writing wanting its own thing, as you said so wonderfully, apart from what we, the users of language, want. I think when I said “here” to you, I most immediately meant, like, I’m ready, or I’m alive still, or I’m ready to tell you what I know. Meanwhile “here” is itself determined to get at all of these other things, which I wasn’t even thinking about or completely aware of when I signed off, and yet upon which thinking more about make me question how I’ve let the word “here” be a source of comfort for me.