On Hypervigilance and Hope: An Interview with Edward Gunawan by May-Li Khoe


Photo by Ivy Chen


Meeting anyone for the first time risks being awkward, especially after more than a year of pandemic lockdown. Meeting someone for the first time when you share a background of an historically unacknowledged genocide is another matter altogether. Will we raise the topic? What side of it was their family on? How did they survive? Is that why they’re here, or…? One doesn’t want to assume, but it also feels a little early to ask right after learning somebody’s name – even if one’s own mind has raced to turn over their name for clues and already wondered whether they’re doing the same with yours.


Ed and I first met at a living-room gathering of creative writing students. He was sitting cross-legged in a pool of autumn light streaming through the bay window. With an enthusiastic “You’re both Indonesian! You need to meet!” a classmate flitted away, leaving us facing each other, holding our smiles, nodding characteristically Indonesian nods, and spinning the stems of our wine glasses with our fingertips. Indonesians make up a minuscule fraction of the U.S. population, far less than 1%. It’s rare we find each other by chance.


Unbeknownst to me at the time, Ed was already entrenched in a creative journey woven with the red threads of our shared Chinese Indonesian history. His chapbook, The Way Back, pulls this legacy into the light alongside queerness and migration, language and loss, hope and defiance. It’s a collection of prose and poetry wrought with the nimbility of someone who constantly traverses many worlds at once.


That day last fall, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves doubled over our laps with laughter. I asked Ed whether he ever finds himself paranoid or overly watchful because of our history. A little flushed by this point, he shook his palm in the air and said, “The hypervigilance? Say no more! Say no more!” From within another wave of laughter, I sensed shared tears tucked under the inner corners of our eyes.


Over the last year, I’ve had the immense joy and good fortune of getting to know Ed, trading links and finding inspiration in how he moves in the world as the generous artist, educator, and organizer that he is. In September, we had a chance to chat about his journey from filmmaker to writer, The Way Back, and straddling the tension between hypervigilance and candor.

– May-Li Khoe


May-Li

I understand your first passion for storytelling was born in theater, and you’ve had a prolific career in film as producer, writer, actor, and director. What inspired you to focus on writing and how did you arrive at the decision to go for it?


Ed

I realized a few years ago that I was missing and craving more intimacy. In my creative work and in my life overall. I’ve always loved that space of deep vulnerability, of direct and unmediated interiority found in books, be it prose or poem. This, I feel, is so unique to the medium. I mean, I was working in film for over 15 years. And it’s very communal, very collaborative. As much as I love that process too, I knew I had to make a deliberate choice in creating that space for myself, to invite more of what I value into my life.


M

I remember you mentioning that poetry wasn’t your initial genre when you entered the MFA program. Were you surprised by your journey into poetry? What drew you in?


E

Yes, I applied as a CNF writer. And oh man, I think I surprised myself the most when I started to write and read poetry seriously.


I knew I was going to explore all the different genres once I entered the program. I’d never studied creative writing previously, save for the string of workshops I took prior to applying, and I could feel my hunger and curiosity to learn them all.


I’ve always loved reading poetry, ever since I was a teenager. Which is my way of saying: I never thought I’d write it. My love for the form really was rekindled during the pandemic, right before I started the program. In those early months, when there was so much uncertainty and nothing seemed to make sense, I found a lot of solace and nourishment in poems.


I began to absent-mindedly scribble and jot down a few words or lines here and there. To me, they were more like reminders of ideas or possible entryways into essays. It was also around the same time that I experimented with integrating my cinematic practice and familiarity with the visual language into my literary work, which led me to creating video essays… and then, cine-poems.


M

Ahh I remember when you sent me a link to Driving With the Top Down, right after we met. So good!


E

Thank you! Looking at it now, I can see that I was drawn to the polyphonic fragmentation that is inherent to the genre of poetry. It spoke to my own pluralistic lived experience. Once I began my deep-dive, I was also really excited and inspired to discover all these great works by poets writing of and from their very specific multi-intersectional backgrounds. Poetry is very transnational too. There are many, many more translations of poems into English, for example, than of other genres. I really like that.


M

That’s so cool, I would not have expected that at all!


E

It’s thrilling for me that it’s common, not the exception! As an international or transnational person, in this way poetry makes me feel more welcome and safe to enter. I don’t feel so weird and I don’t feel so different.


M

Was it scary at first to share this form? You were sharing your poems for the first time after entering the program, right?


E

Oh, it was so nerve wracking because it was the form I was least familiar with two or three years ago when I started. I did start sharing my poetry with my cohort in classes that were multi-genre, though, so I felt a bit more held. One of the first classes I took at SF State was Border-Crossing Narratives with May-lee Chai. We were reading and sharing different genres, and I just quietly slipped in my poetry when turning in my assignments. People weren't dismissive or anything… so I thought, “Ohhhh, okay, I guess this is fine?” (laughs) That gave me the permission to continue on.


M

And look where you are now!


E

I’m still developing for sure. But it sure feels wild to be standing where I am now.


I also want to share that the positive responses and community support I received once I shared my poetry more publicly were extremely influential in my formation. I think it would be disingenuous for me not to acknowledge that. ‘Cause yes, as writers, I know that we are encouraged to develop our own internal compass and not rely on external validation, to do what we do or to keep doing what we do… Which I wholly agree with, and to be clear, I see these things more like encouragement rather than motivations.


All the same, straight-up, the early readers who saw something in my work, before I even did, made a huge impact on my confidence. Which contributed to shifts in how I saw myself and my work. So a big shout-out to them, and those who encourage and support others especially in those very vulnerable early phases of their literary paths.


M

I agree with this so deeply. It’s amazing how powerful it is when someone sees something in your work, or in your potential, or in you, before you do. The best kind of powerful. Blessings to everyone who has done that, who does that, who will do that for others. We see you and we’re so grateful!


Speaking of which, do you have advice for other potential unexpected poets?


E

Is this for you?


M and E

(both laugh)


E

I consider myself a baby poet. So, take this with a grain of salt. I’d say: Read. A lot. Because there are a lot of different kinds of poetry. Then if you like something, own it. As in, own that you like it!


Writing in general has all these different levels of “prestige” and poetry is that way too. It can seem like the more esoteric it is, the “better.” There’s stuff I try so hard to understand and I still don’t get it. Not just basic meaning, but it can feel emotionally inaccessible too. Maybe in the future this will change as I dive even deeper, but right now there are things I like and they may not be the most “prestigious.” But somehow, I found my groove this way.


In the beginning, I was really hesitant. Like – how can I even write poems if I don’t even understand some of them? Maybe I have to be more experimental? Am I too prose-y? Too narrative? Do I need to get weirder? (laughs) I’m not knocking the more esoteric forms but maybe that’s not my style, for now. I had to come around to owning this for myself and just go forward with what I think is right for me.


Other folks who are interested but hesitant may have the same trepidation. Find the form or style you like and go from there. Of course we’ll all continue to learn and grow, and the form you don’t gravitate toward now, you might in the future. But start from somewhere, now.


M

Per your advice to read a lot: what are some of your favorite translated poems or poets that were part of your journey into poetry? Anyone people may not have heard of (aka not Neruda)?


(both laugh)


E

I recommend Yi Lei. She is a poet from China whose work has been translated by Tracy K. Smith. And M. Aan Mansyur, from Indonesia.


M

Are there differences you notice besides more obvious geographic or cultural ones while reading poetry from other countries? Like form or subject matter that’s universal but tends to stay untouched in English?


E

I’m quite Westernized, I went to college and did graduate studies in the US. It’s always surprising and refreshing to see how my complicit thinking can be challenged by other perspectives. I’m always glad and grateful to be confronted with this when reading translated work. I’m like… oh! Yeah. It’s easy to see certain things as the norm or standard – those things that are just around us – when actually they’re not. And shouldn’t be.


M

Wild. I guess it’s one of those things we get some dose of from being immigrants. But then it has to become a conscious effort to continue breaking out of the dominant thinking patterns in the water around us.


E

Exactly!


M

Would you say there are other artists - of any medium - who may be lesser known to a US audience that influence your work? And would you consider yourself in close touch with other Chinese Indonesian artists? Is there a community or a dialogue happening internationally?


E

I think I’m most familiar with filmmakers to be honest because of my previous work experience. And am still learning about the writers in Indonesia.

In terms of Chinese Indonesian artists in general, FX Harsono is a person I’ve always admired. This is a performance art video that really affected me a lot. In the piece, he’s writing out his Chinese name and the rainwater keeps washing it away. It speaks to that experience of his identity being erased because of the oppressive history in Indonesia. His work has really informed mine.

M

Remember when we met that first time, how we laughed (and maybe cried) about the paranoia and hypervigilance we’ve internalized as Chinese Indonesians? In some way it feels at odds with putting out so much intimate information about ourselves as artists. How do you navigate that?

E

Yes, I remember that meeting so well. It was such a special moment because of how we immediately recognized in each other our shared experience as part of the Chinese Indonesian diaspora. Even though we’ve lived in different places, and led very different lives. Yet we carry around these socio-historical and intergenerational traumas that continue to affect us so deeply. And for me, growing up in Asia as a queer person further contributes to this state.

The first poem in the collection “The Question Next Time,” I feel exemplifies that manifestation of pervasive fear and constant hypervigilance in my own life.

The thing is, and I can only speak for myself, these modes of being have proven to be very effective survival tools. Which is why, perhaps, many folks who have experienced marginalization or displacement can become so adept at them.

In my case, because I’m already expecting the worst in every situation, I know that I’m extremely prepared for anything that can go wrong. But it’s also isolating and exhausting, and subsequently damaging. Being so anxious and paranoid all the time didn’t allow me to trust and to be myself — fully and authentically — even when I’m by myself. Much less, show myself. Which, of course, gets in the way of meaningfully connecting with others.

And this is the big challenge I struggle with in my own work. Especially since my writing is so personal. I had to learn, and am continuing to learn, the dance of negotiating and balancing this desire to share honestly while setting healthy boundaries so I don’t feel like I’m compromising or betraying myself.

I’m more aware of this toward the latter part of the process, not when I’m starting something new or generating. The editing or revision process takes on a more spiritual and therapeutic dimension for me when I try to resolve the typical questions that any writer would face: What is unnecessary and can be streamlined or taken out? Where do I need to dig deeper and expand? I try to remind myself of my values and intentions in those times. Then, I let go.

M

This might be kind of a funny question, but… in that moment of first meeting or deciding to work with me on this stuff, were there questions that arose about trust that wouldn’t have arisen if we didn’t have a shared background?

E

Hmm. I think the shared experience or shared background gives us a shared language and that makes me more apt to approach you for collaboration or to work together.

M

So special!

E

It’s not so much about trust… though that might have a lot to do with it. But for me there are a lot of things I don’t have to explain to you and you don’t have to explain to me, and that familiarity is helpful. A short-hand. In literature… and non-fiction specifically I feel like I have to explain so many things. It’s nice to not need to do that. Somebody else already gets it. And we can move directly into the heart of the matter rather than the preamble.

(both laugh)

M

It was interesting to read the chapbook from that standpoint. When I got to the explanations in the endnotes, I felt curious what that read-through is like for someone who doesn’t already have the sociopolitical historic context.


E

Oh, the endnotes! Yes, thank you for bringing this up. I love reading endnotes in general. Natalie Diaz writes amazing endnotes, and I learned a lot from her. Her endnotes are like breadcrumbs she’s giving to her readers. People can follow up and learn more if they want to. In the same way, I took a lot of care in doing my endnotes. It is super important to me. It’s not throwaway background information. It’s all necessary and really important information that supports and contextualizes the poems… and me as a poet.

I like that you said it explains or alerts people because a lot of this information is not commonplace and not everyone knows it. I felt great responsibility in sharing it.

M

I’m really glad you did!


So… I also love how you play with form and genre within “Insufferable Joy.” You illuminate so many facets of an experience, and it’s playful, profound, laden with craft and a tiny bit of a flex. Can you say more about why or how you’re drawn to genre melding, and share any other artists who inspire you?


E

Thank you for bringing this piece up. I’d never intended it to be any kind of flex at all though! (laughs) But I can see what you mean… in that it is very aware of the expectations and maybe even formulas that are built into all the different genres and forms listed in the piece. It’s more instinctive than a meticulous construction from the get-go, a sort-of condensation of my experience and education in those forms.


And as you’ve noted earlier, I come from all these different artistic backgrounds. Which may explain why, even in the literary arts, I’m very drawn to genre-crossing and genre-melding. I simply can’t help it (laughs).


M

(laughs) I feel this BIG TIME.


E

Yeah, you have such a diverse work experience and artistic practice yourself! I think this is why we get along so well (laughs).


So, given my background in film, I sometimes don’t even realize that I’m borrowing or adapting all these narrative or storytelling elements from the cinematic arts. But I am somewhat more consciously-aware of incorporating CNF strategies: mainly, the distillation of specific personal experiences into something that can resonate more broadly with others.


In literature, Claudia Rankine is someone I admire greatly. I’d always turn to her work for guidance and inspiration. And there is a long long list of people who have influenced me in many different specific ways. I do want to share one film reference though, because I am forever changed after watching it. Which is: Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied. It’s a personal documentary that contains so many different styles and forms: spoken-word, theater and dance and performing arts, and storytelling. It is a seminal classic, and a masterclass on how to engage in multi-intersectionality discourse without negating the self and community.


M

Can you say more about what you mean by multi-intersectionality?


E

As in, folks who live on multiple criss-crossing intersections of identity. For me, queer Asian immigrant. Specifically post-colonial Indonesia, and of Chinese heritage. An ethnic minority in my country of origin. Then, a buddhist who was born and raised in the most populous Muslim country in the world, educated in Christian missionary schools… for folks like us, it’s only natural then to possess “contradictory allegiances” to these various cultures and communities we are a part of, which can create many tensions and increase the likelihood of self-erasure or -flattening to “fit in” to the simplified, more homogenous definitions or “categories” available.


M

Right, yes. I think it’s important that people understand that concept. Still so much flattening out there, or reduction to a single hyphen. Reality is far messier than that for so many of us, and even more so for the generations that follow ours.


“Sign Post” was such a great choice as a closing poem for this collection. Such a powerful move to end with acknowledgement of a fight that’s continued on by others. What advice would you share about solidarity, having found and cultivated it across so many spectra of differences?


E

I’m so glad to hear this! This piece actually came out of an in-class writing exercise (shout-out to the “Kinship & Community” cohorts and teacher Carolina de Robertis). And when I was compiling my manuscript, I knew early on that this piece would be where I’d want to land. I think it’s important and fitting for me to end on this note. We talked a little bit earlier on how I can be looking out for danger most of the time, which can translate into this “fear” of other people around us. So I needed to remind myself that yes, we’re all part of this continuum of struggle, and that there is also support and solidarity in the company of others amongst us.




May-Li Khoe is a quatricultural, twice-immigrant, artist-designer-educator-writer who blends creation with cultural practices, critical consciousness, and glitter. She’s served, among other things, as a VP of Design, a co-founder of companies, an inventor of foundational human-computer interactions, a DJ, a musician, and recently a co-creator of a music and dance toy called Boogie Loops for the new Playdate game platform. Her work has been published in The Ana, Transfer Magazine, Umber Magazine, and The HTML Review. Currently earning her MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, she lives in San Francisco with her partner and house plants (maylikhoe.com).