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Grief is a kindness: A conversation with Mandy Tu on her debut chapbook, “Monsoon Daughter”

The poet and UW-Madison MFA student celebrates the book’s release at a May 28 virtual reading.
The cover of Mandy Tu’s chapbook, "Monsoon Daughter," showing a drawing of a crocodile and flowers on a green background, is set next to a headshot of the author.
The cover of Mandy Tu’s chapbook, “Monsoon Daughter,” showing a drawing of a crocodile and flowers on a green background, is set next to a headshot of the author.

The poet and UW-Madison MFA student celebrates the book’s release at a May 28 virtual reading.

To read Mandy Tu‘s debut chapbook Monsoon Daughter is to bend worlds. Influenced by both the Burmese folktales of her childhood and an education steeped in British literary tradition, Tu cultivates a potent third space in which grief, loss, and childlike wonder all coexist for the larger project of self-processing. 

Undergirding many of Tu’s poems is the quiet inquiry of “what if?” What would her life have been like had her father been a different man, had her culture not been slowly kneaded out of her, had the majority of her life not been lived in exile from her home country of Burma (also sometimes referred to as Myanmar during the interview below)? In verse both hypnotic and biting, Tu wrestles with the realities in front of her and the versions of her life that have slipped away. With a voice that is at times lyrical and guiding, and at others sobered with both yearning and spite, Tu provides ample entry points into the emotions that are often most difficult for us to access. By normalizing grief as the center point from which she sees the world—for her pasts, both real and imagined, and her futures, whether wholly actualized or not—Tu offers us a new way of looking at loss, anchored in healing and hope.

With her first year as a poetry MFA student at UW-Madison culminating in an already widely celebrated first chabook (whose pre-sale has already sold out), and a second one set to come out later this year, Tu proves that she is prolific and multi-faceted. Tu will celebrate the release of Monsoon Daughter at a May 28 virtual reading hosted by the chapbook’s publisher, Thirty West, which will also feature Tu and two other writers, Lucy Zhang and Alison Lubar. Tu spoke with Tone Madison recently about this delightful, clear-eyed debut.

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Tone Madison: I was wondering if we could start with a little bit of background about you and your writing and how you ended up in Madison.

Mandy Tu: So I started writing poetry seriously in 2009, so two years before that I got obsessed with the Lord Of The Rings and I was convinced I was going to be the next Tolkien, so I was writing a lot of fiction. But then I made a switch to poetry in part because we had a poetry class at my high school and one of the main things we had to do was to write a poem for our exams, and it was kind of a way for me to figure out what I wanted to say and cultivating my own voice, especially because I come from a Southeast Asian household under a military regime and it wasn’t the best place for a young girl to be growing up and trying to figure out what she wanted to do in the world. 

So poetry was a way of trying to figure that out for myself. I was involved a little bit with the poetry scene in Perth, Australia, where I did my bachelor’s but not too deeply, then went back to Burma, co-founded the Yangon Literary Magazine and did that for a year. It was great because it was during a time where we had moved to a civilian government [before the country’s 2021 military coup] and the literary arts was kind of flourishing, or starting to flourish. [It] was starting to find its own footing, and it was exciting to be a part of that scene because it wasn’t something I’d known growing up or something that I’d seen happening in Yangon. So we did that then I went to Sewanee, was involved with The Mountain Goat Journal which was the literary journal that we had, and kept writing, took a bunch of workshops across the board in playwriting, fiction, and poetry, and applied to the MFA in Wisconsin and got in, and now I’m here.

Tone Madison: I think that’s so awesome, especially back in Burma, to be able to cultivate something where you don’t know what that looks like and having the free reign to do that, and I know you’re doing similar work now which we’ll talk about a little bit later. In regards to Tolkien, that makes a lot of sense, thinking about how you lean towards the fantastical particularly in this chapbook and call in mythical creatures and a general sense of the otherworldly. I guess I just wanted to hear what you think that allows you to do in terms of exploring different emotions and feelings. 

Mandy Tu: It’s definitely interesting because I had to unlearn a lot of things to get to this point. Mainly because Lord Of The Rings was my starting point, but I was always interested in fairytales. But I never gave much thought to the Burmese folktales because I went to a British curriculum based school, so a lot of it was like, “Let’s deal with the Western canon, and let’s write from the Western canon.” A lot of my early work had the elves, and the gnomes, and the pixies and all of that stuff that didn’t make sense for where I was, but that was all I knew so that’s what I was writing. It took many years… I think it took me going back to Burma and actually writing alongside Burmese writers. Khin Maung who was the co-founder of the Yangon Literary Magazine was instrumental to me writing towards Burma instead of writing away from it, which is what I was doing a lot of. And I think now, my immediate go-to is, “what’s the Burmese folktale, what’s the folktale that I grew up with that I can inhabit?” Because this is a space that I haven’t personally inhabited for a long time. 

It’s interesting coming back to those because I grew up speaking English and I grew up with a lot of these Romantic poets and all of that. In a way it’s a way of reclaiming that Burmese identity, y’know, calling in the crocodile, which is the folktale that my parents would tell me growing up. In terms of what it allows me to do, I think it allows me to imagine something bigger and, I hate the concept of universality because I don’t think it exists, but I think on some level it does help to expand out my experience to a larger context. It’s not up to me to decide which context is the larger one.

Tone Madison: I think it’s so interesting what you said about writing towards Burma instead of away from it. I think that experience that you were talking about of receiving the British context of folktales is something that a lot of writers of colors go through. I’m thinking about the TedTalk that Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche had about writing about snow even though there’s no snow where she grew up in Nigeria and being like, “Why am I doing this?” and thinking about how we’re told to be writers and how we’re told to tell stories. And so I think my next question ties into that a bit, thinking about the fact that you also write a lot from the perspective of youth. So thinking about this interconnectivity between folktales and youth and childhood, I was interested in that particular lens for you. hat do you think it gives us in terms of being able to process our past traumas or even our current world that we’re in, and why is that kind of appealing to you?

Mandy Tu: That’s an interesting way of putting it—I haven’t thought about it like that. The way I see this chap, it’s a testament to my childhood. Which is also again, something that I’ve been processing over the span of many years. I think it allows me to access what I thought I had lost or things that I hadn’t thought of as pertaining to what we might imagine great literature to be, especially again within the context of the Western canon. And I didn’t realize that writing about my own experiences from a very specific context was possible. A lot of the poems were written at [my undergraduate university] Sewanee, most of them. I think there’s something to be said about being away from the country to be able to write about the things that happened in the country. So it’s a very specific kind of privilege that I have and there’s a lot of trauma that’s riddled with those memories and trying to look back and discern what that did for me. 

Tone Madison: I think there’s a parallel distance of being away from Burma and writing about it, and being away from your childhood and being able to look at it differently.

Mandy Tu: A lot of it is looking back and memorializing what happened so that there can be a moving forward, almost. I’m very glad that this chap is my first because I think it needed to be the way I entered the “literary world.” Because I think it is representative of who I am as a person and really speaks to a lot of aspects of my personhood and how I came to be as a poet and a writer. 

Tone Madison: I’m glad that you brought up the fact that it’s your first chap and the fact that there’s a bit of distance from the pieces. I’m curious about how you approached the project and how you approached putting it together, and how you think it’s emblematic of you as a writer.

Mandy Tu: This project kind of came together because I knew I wanted to try and put together a chap. I knew that there were poems that I had written that followed the similar Burmese childhood type theme and I was like, “This could potentially work as a chapbook.” But I think one of the reasons why this chap means a lot to me is because my father passed away July 2021 and without that I wouldn’t have written “Monsoon Daughter Tries Narrative Therapy,” which takes up a lot of the book. And without that event and without the poem that came after, I don’t think this chap would exist in this iteration. To make narrative sense, my father had to die for this chap to exist. It got picked up in early December [of 2021]. I don’t think this chap would exist if my father were still living. That’s kind of the weird sense that I have. 

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Tone Madison: I think it’s so interesting how he’s kind of the narrative center but also at the margins. It’s really interesting and particular how he inhabits both of those spaces. In light of thinking about the real-life events that shaped the trajectory of this chapbook and its last iteration, there’s obviously a big element of grief in your book. I’m thinking about moments and pieces that display grief loudly, which feels like what’s happening in “Monsoon Daughter Tries Narrative Therapy,” but there’s also quieter manifestations like “Almond Cake” and “Processing.” For example, I was really struck by how “Almond Cake” ends with the lines: “He carries them close on cloudy days / In another life, my father stays,” which feels both confessional and resigned. I’m curious to hear your perspective on grief and why we write about it and how we write about it.

Mandy Tu: Yeah. So, a lot of life is grief. That’s kind of what I’ve realized. I’ve gone to a lot of therapy for this in terms of thinking about the world through [the] lens of loss and how sometimes you or your body might be grieving things that you didn’t realize you were grieving. Every decision that we make in our lives, we’re gaining something, but there’s also loss. And so you’re always kind of grieving what could’ve been. In that sense I was also grieving my father long before he was dead. So I was grieving perhaps that relationship we could’ve had, because when I was writing these poems I wasn’t really talking to him as much. I knew he was there, but it wasn’t a relationship I was actively cultivating. Especially “Processing” was a lot of that pre-processing and imagining that eventual death and thinking about, “How will I actually grieve this man who I had a fairly good relationship with growing up but it kind of dissipated?” 

So now it’s kind of the lens through which I see the world. If I’m feeling some sort of way about something and I don’t necessarily understand why, I’m just like, “What am I grieving right now? What’s something that I thought was going to happen that isn’t happening and how is my body figuring that out?” And sometimes—and it’s happened before—there’s sort of that expected grief. So even when the things that you want to go your way do go your way, sometimes I feel like I’ve pre-processed that loss. So even when it comes in that I have the thing that was going to go wrong didn’t quite go wrong, I still end up grieving because I was convinced that it was going to go wrong. It’s not the best way to move through this world, but it’s currently working for me. It does get exhausting sometimes, but I think it’s better than suppressing all of those emotions. 

Tone Madison: I think that even if it’s not the “best” way, I think it’s a kind way to move through the world, being kind to yourself and your body and your heart and asking them things. And what you were saying about processing in particular, I think a lot of the time we think death is the ultimate grief or the ultimate loss and we don’t think about everything before it or within it or after it. I think it’s very evident that there were losses and there were griefs that weren’t your father’s death that also affected you. 

To switch gears a little bit, I know that the terms empire and exile are both very much salient in the book and in conversation with each other. Particularly in “Postcolonial Song,” the speaker seems to be embodying empire in different ways in literature and the loss of native language. So can you talk a little bit about empire and its manifestations in your everyday life, and how you kind of negotiate living in exile from your home country? 

Mandy Tu: Empire has kind of been present in my life since the very very beginning. It was the way I entered poetry, because I would go to my grandfather’s house and he would have these little poetry books that were all Western canon and British poetry, so my brother and I would take turns reading to him from these poetry books and eventually we’d memorize them purely from the fact of having to read them over and over. So that’s how I entered language and entered poetry and growing up. The emphasis on my parents’ side was that the kids were going to go to an English school because that’s the only way out of here and that’s the only route for success. So they didn’t really pay attention to the Burmese [literary traditions], which is where the lack comes from, because now I’m just constantly mourning that loss.

On the “plus side,” I’m fluent. I have native fluency in English, and that has helped me keep writing and keep going with the poetry or whatever fiction I write and has allowed me to move through spaces more easily than I know fellow international students do. It’s always interesting to me because they’re always wanting to improve their English. But for me, I always want more fluency in my native tongue. But it’s a weird kind of balancing act. In that way, I think now that I’ve had time to sit and think about it, with doing work with the Yangon Literary Magazine and trying to do some work now with the revolution, the evidence of the epistemic violence that has occurred… it runs deep. And it’s something that I keep trying to reconcile with. 

It’s funny because I never thought it was something I was ever going to have to reconcile with. But there are consequences to the decisions that we make and the decisions that are made on behalf of us that I’m still trying to figure out where I place. And there’s one position now where you’re still Burmese whether or not you speak the language. But it’s still embarrassing, I guess. So in many ways, I can’t downplay the privilege that empire has given me in terms of fluency and knowledge and cultural capital to move through the world in this way. But a part of me is always wondering what would have happened if this weren’t the case. And the answer isn’t a good one either way. 

Tone Madison: I think in terms of epistemic violence, it’s interesting to see what people are working towards given the things that they were told to aspire to. And that always holds a lot of tension, as you’ve articulated. I know that the idea of exile really shines through in “Coming Home,” which ends with this really haunting last idea of Burma being a “glimmering land / at first sight and never again.” I was curious if you could talk a little bit about the bridging work that writing does of closing that distance.

Mandy Tu: That’s an interesting question because that’s what it does for me, I can definitely say that. Poetry and writing helps me feel closer to the home in my head that I’ve built up over the years over the home itself. The further you are away from the country, you’re just like, “Oh, I’ll just romanticize that part of my life there.” Because I didn’t have the same kind of fluency in Burmese, or knowing where to go or how to do it, it was very limiting. So poetry does help me bridge that gap to kind of thinking about my own heritage and cultural identity in a new way or in a way that’s new to me. It’s been interesting to be writing work about the revolution itself, because I’m always cognizant of the fact that I’m writing from a place that’s not there. 

So I’m bearing witness to all of these atrocities that are happening, but I’m doing it from a safe place in Madison, what I call a space of relative privilege and safety. But what’s been surprising is that now and again I’ll post a few poems on Instagram about the revolution and you’ll have a bunch of Burmese people resonating with it, which is not something I expected, weirdly enough. I’m always kind of afraid that I’ll come off as a fraud and that someone somewhere is like, “What right does this person have to be writing when she’s not in the country?” But part of this revolution is you just can’t be fighting [from inside] the country and expect victory, you can’t just be fighting outside the country and expect victory. It has to be everyone. It’s been interesting to kind of have to confront the Burmese side of myself from a place as someone who is publishing. To be one of the few Burmese people who are publishing in a larger U.S./Western space. So you kind of have to deal with that representative power and I’m always thinking, “Well, how am I representing people?” And I can’t just think about representing myself even though that’s my default, right. It’s a weird tension there.

Tone Madison: And I think that the guilt that that garners is something that a lot of writers in the diaspora, writing in exile, grapple with a lot. And even that pressure of having to represent more than yourself is a product of the way Western audiences and Western readers consume our work. But I think that the fact that so many people are resonating with your writing is also showing the intimacy of it, right? Obviously different forms of resistance that aren’t just fighting in the country. Which brings me to a related question about the Yuzana Workshops Series that you started earlier this year. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it is and how it came into fruition and how you see poetry as a political tool.

Mandy Tu: Oh god, big question. So the Yuzana Workshops began around the anniversary of the military coup. Because I spent a year thinking about my role in this revolution, and I don’t have thick enough skin to wander into an activist space and I wanted to take my privilege, which is being at an MFA program in the U.S. and learning everything that I’ve been learning, and using that to help people back home. And one of the most effective ways is by donating to people who need things. Mutual Aid Myanmar has been there from day one, and so the setup of the Yuzana Workshops is that when you sign up, you donate a $10 minimum to Mutual Aid Myanmar. Recently we’ve expanded outwards to what’s happening in Ukraine, Afghanistan, or a mutual aid org of your choice. 

So it’s $10 or more to attend this fun, generative poetry workshop where we talk about complicity and position ourselves as writers. Most of us are in the diaspora, and our responsibility to the cause back home. Our tagline is, “You don’t have to have ever seen a poem to come to this.” It’s just kind of a space to create work that speaks to who you are as a person and how you are dealing with everything that’s happening in the world. Because the world is effectively burning, and there are terrible things happening at any given moment. So how do you retain some kind of hope or optimism or courage, even, to stand in the face of this burning world and do something about it? 

And poetry as a political tool. Burmese poetry has always been revolutionary in nature and [is] this legacy that I thought I was going to escape but somehow didn’t. It’s played a big role in the revolutions we’ve had in the past and they’ve been finding poets in the country, they’ve been burning them, they’ve been imprisoning them. When you think of it, I come from a long line of Burmese poets—I am part of that legacy, which is wild to think about because when I was back in Burma in 2016, 2017, before this coup, in that little middle space where things were starting to be okay, the main chorus was, “We’re not just revolutionaries. We’re not just people fighting against oppression. We’re not just this. We are so much more.” And you had young poets writing about love and fun things like family matters. Things that are “more universal.” But all of that kind of fell to the wayside when this coup happened. And poetry has consistently been part of this revolution. There’s a poet, Maung Saungkha, who is basically running his own little fighting force in Burma right now. It’s part of the fight and I feel like we have a responsibility to keep writing about it and the Yuzana Workshops has been a way to get more people in community.

Tone Madison: I think that notion of having that space for people to feel joy or grief or whatever it is is inherently political, and has that feminist echo of “the personal is political,” right. I think we do tend to romanticize resilience and think that that’s the only thing subaltern people can do, so I think it’s political in its own right even if you’re not on the front lines. In relation to that, thinking about holding that space to write poetry that isn’t just literally or outwardly political, I’m thinking about the softer topics you are exploring in the chap. Something that really shined forth for me is this idea of “wrong femininity” or “bad femininity,” particularly in relation to other people’s desires and expectations. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and how it relates to the figure of the monsoon daughter and what it means to take up space in that way.

Mandy Tu: My mother is the most unruly feminist you will ever meet. She will not call herself a feminist, but that is what she is, even though she’s not using that same kind of language. She’s probably the strangest person I know, because she survived 14 years of marriage with my father who was abusive. And so she went through this time where she was just angry a lot, and looking back, that was trauma. She was trying to process her trauma and this was the way she was doing it. I’m sure part of it was repressing and some of it was, “I haven’t been heard in a long time so I’m going to use my voice now.” It was a little traumatizing to us as kids, but it was necessary for her, and I think now she’s gotten to a point where she’s better across the board. 

And so I went the other way, I think, because she was being loud I said, “no, I’m going to go back inward.” For a while there, I didn’t have an opinion [and] couldn’t find an opinion within myself. I had no thoughts. So when I started writing, it was kind of a way to figure out what the heck I thought and what it is I wanted to say. I was a very quiet kid. And that’s what you were expected to be, especially in a Burmese household. It was like, “You’re quiet, you’re a woman, you go off in a corner, stay there. No words from you, thank you.” Part of it was kind of relearning how to take up space again because I didn’t want to take up space. I just wanted to not be there most of the time, and that was in tension with the type 3 enneagram version of me. I was trying to overachieve a lot, and it’s hard to be overachieving or achieving things at all and wanting to be part of that spotlight and at the same time being like, “Don’t look at me.” So writing in a way became a way to meld those two parts of my personality together. 

For a long time poetry was about survival. And I think what’s happened with it right now is that it’s no longer that, so it’s confusing and terrifying. At the end of the day, my mom and I regained our voices in different ways and it does mean that sometimes she won’t read my poetry. She doesn’t like to read my poetry sometimes, especially when it’s about her, and that’s the other thing, right? I started writing about my father long before I started writing about my mother. I didn’t think that was a point that I could enter into until it was. And now, in some of the poems, she’s more of like an archetype of a mother instead of my [actual] mother, so it’s interesting how that all works and is on display in the chap.

Tone Madison: It’s interesting to see how it almost comes full circle, trying to take up space in a way you weren’t taught to or expected to and thinking about those spaces literature-wise that you’ve been able to carve out with no blueprint and forging ahead with it takes a lot of strength. And seeing how those relationships with other people, with yourself, and your writing evolve. I guess just to close things off I was curious to hear about, now that it’s out in the world, your hopes for Monsoon Daughter, or any new projects that you’re excited about or what you see for yourself in the near future?

Mandy Tu: I’m very grateful that Monsoon Daughter is out in the world. I’m very grateful that it’s my first chap. I’m very grateful that it’s these poems that are going to represent me as my first foray into the chapbook world. And I think it’s because it’s so personal, a lot of these poems are very much… I’m not necessarily saying anything. I’m just saying, “I had grief and I was processing this throughout my life and here is a testament to that.” So I guess my hope for it is that it keeps going and that people keep stumbling upon it. I really hope it also finds its way into the hands of some Burmese writer who reads it and is like, “I can write about this too.” In some ways, I’ve become the person I needed when I was younger. I didn’t know anyone else who did it. So I hope it does that for some young lost lonely Burmese or Southeast girl who’s just flailing through the world, like, “What do I do? I have all of these words inside of me, how do I deal with them? How do I make them larger than myself?” 

So in terms of new projects, I have [the chapbook] Unsprung coming out with Newfound in the fall which is an exciting, exciting time and also terrifying. Those poems are the ones that are about Burma and the revolution right now and me yelling at the United Nations. I think it’ll be really cool. I think it’s fitting that it’s the second one to come out, because I really needed Monsoon Daughter to be the first one. I also have another manuscript that’s been going around at some submission places. It hasn’t been picked up yet but I’m hoping it will. It’s called The Glass Girl Chronicles. It’s about my time as a student leader of color at a predominantly white institution, but it has a fantastical lens. And after that gets picked up, I’m done with chapbooks for now. I’m working on my larger thesis, which is going to be called Savage. So right now I’m working on a bunch of response poems to Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay” as part of Leila Chatti’s workshop class. I’m hoping those poems will extend outward to the larger thesis. 

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