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How poetry and freedom mix

Tammy Ho Lai Ming

It isn’t often one gets to do a sit-down interview under the spreading branches of an acacia tree, while sprawled on one’s trench coat over green, fragrant grass. But that’s how an interview with a poet can go.

Once journalist, poet and translator Tammy Ho Lai Ming was comfortable during a break in the International PEN meet at the De La Salle University (DLSU) campus in Malate, Manila, the conversation was comfortable, even as she tackled uncomfortable matters, such as the unpleasant things writers and journalists must face.

Soft-spoken and very demure, Tammy could very well come across as fragile. She is slight of frame and her face is delicate as a porcelain doll’s. But don’t let that fool you. Her serene voice has steel in it. Take, for example, how she spoke about her native language: “I am a Cantonese-speaker. Many people in Hong Kong are. But the mainland preference for Mandarin is slowly taking over. So I make it a point to continue speaking in Cantonese. We cannot let the language die.”

Tammy edits the quarterly Cha (Tea) literary magazine and serves as an executive committee member, chairs the Publicity Subcommittee, and is vice president of the local PEN chapter.

“Not all efforts to suppress free expression are obvious,” she said with a level, measured look in her dark eyes. “There was an effort to remove some children’s books with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) themes from the bookstores. This was because people who were offended by the material sought the removal of these books.”

She and the Hong Kong PEN condemned this, for this reason: “When a writer has to worry about whether or not to write about something, then there is a problem with free expression. What about the families that are LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer), what about the children who are part of these families who will benefit from reading those books and knowing that they are not alone in their experiences in such a family?”

Journalism and poetry, to Tammy, are “not contradictory. There are things that are best expressed in prose—as I do in the editorials I write for Cha. But the poem offers intensity and clarity, and this is what sometimes expresses my thoughts best. Journalism can also spur poetry—such as when the Umbrella Movement happened (in 2014). I wrote a poem about that which I felt was a more powerful way of expressing what that meant to me.”

The Umbrella Movement was a series of sit-down protests in Hong Kong from Sept. 26 to Dec. 15, 2014 against the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s election system. These reforms were seen by protesters as restrictive and as an effort by the Chinese Communist Party to pre-screen candidates for elective posts in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Hong Kong was handed back to China by the United Kingdom in 1997 and its relationship with the mainland is known as “one China, two systems.”

As editor of Cha, Tammy does not pull any punches. “I try to have at least two editions of the magazine carry work by writers from other countries,” she said, as a smile illuminated her face. “We’ve had a Philippines issue, with poetry and prose by your writers.”

For Tammy, expression is as much about bringing the world home to Hong Kong as it is to share what Hong Kong’s writers create with the world—and to provide the writers in her vineyard with a safe space in which to express themselves as freely as possible.

“Freedom is not just the big things,” she muses. “It is often the daily things, the small things, the details.” Sometimes, too, it is the very language you speak or write in.

Tammy finished her bachelor of arts with first-class honors at the University of Hong Kong, also finished her Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degree with a thesis that discusses the interrelation between literature and linguistics.

Under funding by the King’s International Partnership Scholarships (KIPS) and King’s College London Hong Kong Foundation, Tammy completed her PhD studies on neo-Victorian fiction at King’s College London.

Her story “Let Her Go” won the Third Prize in The Standard-RTHK Short Story Competition 2005 and her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times, the Forward Prize and the Best of the Net Anthology twice.

Her work has been translated into Chinese, Filipino, Italian, Japanese, German, Portuguese, Macedonian and Vietnamese, while her translations of other writers can be found in Chinese Literature Today, Drunken Boat, Pathlight, World Literature Today, among other places.

She has four books in the pipeline: The monograph “Neo-Victorian Cannibalism” (Palgrave) and a tome of essays titled “Contemplating Literature and Politics in Hong Kong, China and Elsewhere” (Springer), a book of stories titled “Her Name Upon the Strand” (Singapore, Delere Press), and a book of poetry, “Too Too Too Too” (Singapore, Math Paper Press). Her book “Hula Hooping” was published in Hong Kong in 2015 by the Chameleon Press.

 

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