Born Mei Ling Chin, 14 January 1955, Hong Kong
Daughter of George and Rose Chin; married Charles Moore, 1993
Poet and professor Marilyn Chin was born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon. She received a B.A. in Chinese American Literature from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1977 and worked as a translator and editor in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa from 1978 to 1982. She earned her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1981 and was coeditor of the Iowa Review in 1984. Chin taught in the creative writing department at San Diego State University from 1988 to 1996, when she became a professor of English and Asian American studies. Chin is the director of San Diego State's Hugh C. Hyde Living Writer Series, which brings respected authors to the university to discuss their works. She has been a visiting professor at several other California universities.
Since graduating from the University of Massachusetts, Chin has translated or edited several volumes of Asian poetry and prose, including Devil's Wind: A Thousand Steps or More by Gozo Yoshimasu (1980), Selected Poems of Ai Qing (1982), Writing from the World (1985), and Dissident Song: A Contemporary Asian American Anthology (1991). Chin's own writings have appeared in anthologies like Two Hundred Contemporary Poets (1981) and Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Poets (1984). She has also contributed to periodicals, including Yellow Silk, Massachusetts Review, and Ms. Among her awards are National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1984 and 1991 and a Yaddo Writer's Colony fellowship from 1990 to 1994.
Chin's first volume of original poetry, Dwarf Bamboo, was published in 1987 to critical praise. Like much of her writing, the poems in Dwarf Bamboo focus on what it means to be a first-generation Asian American ("I'm Ten, Have Lots of Friends, and Don't Care") and the subjugation of Asian women in a male-dominated society ("Homage to Diana Toy"). The latter is a friend institutionalized in a mental hospital to whom Chin writes: "Remember, what they deny you won't hurt you. /What they spare you, you must make shine, /so shine, shine, shine…." Other verses comment on the cultural stereotypes of Asian Americans or, as in "Chinaman's Chance," the difficulty in integrating both American and Chinese cultures:
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?
Cultural assimilation is a particularly strong theme in Chin's second work, The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty (1994), a collection of prose and verse. Among the pieces in this work is "How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation," in which Chin writes of her restaurant-owner father's obsession with Western culture and mores. Her father became so enamored of film star Marilyn Monroe that he changed his daughter's name from Mei Ling to Marilyn. Chin recalls her name change to that of "some tragic white woman /swollen with gin and Nembutal" with a mixture of bitterness and sorrow.
Chin's ability with language is revealed in other verses, which are by turns funny, earthy, and bleak, but always clever in their use of spare imagery and symbolism. Chin made the following comments on her writing in an interview for Contemporary Women Poets: "I believe that my work is daring, both technically and thematically…. My work is seeped with the themes and travails of exile, loss and assimilation. What is the loss of country if it were not the loss of self?" In discussing the compulsion to write, she also explained that "you know you're a poet when you can't live without it."
Wang, L. L., and H. Y. Zhao, Chinese American Poetry: An Anthology (1991).
CANR (1999). CWP (1997). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
—LEAH J. SPARKS