In Remembrance: Justin Chin
Author: Victoria Brownworth
December 29, 2015
In his poem “Grave,” Justin Chin wrote:
I used to have this theory about how
much life a human body could hold.
It all had to do with the number
of heartbeats. Each human is assigned a number
determined by an unknown power cascading
over the dark waters of the unformed Earth.
For some, it was a magnificently high number,
seen only in Richie Rich comics, and for others,
it was frightfully low, like twenty-six.
No bargaining, no coupons,
no White Flower Day sale, no specials. Once
you hit your number, you croak.
On Christmas Eve Day, Chin’s family disconnected the life-support keeping him alive. His heartbeats had ceased on their own December 18th, when he was discovered in his San Francisco apartment. He had suffered a massive stroke. He was only 46.
Throughout 2015 I have written more than a dozen tributes to lesbian and gay writers who have died. Most died in their 80s, as is seemly.
A stroke at 46 is unseemly.
Justin Chin silent is unseemly.
In “Persona 71,” Chin wrote: “O. Look at all we have lost, all of us.Look at what we lose.”
We lose voices. And when we lose voices, we lose the strength of numbers. Some voices are like bearing walls: they hold us up. They connect us to each other by articulating what is often so inarticulable: That we don’t all sound alike. That men and women, white people and people of color, straight people and LGBT people, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and trans persons do not sound the same. We are not homogenous. We do not come from the same place. We do not speak the same language–or rather, those of us from marginalized and oppressed places speak two languages: the language of the master, which we have been taught and have internalized and which we must often rail against, and the language of our own people, which is what sustains us, what gives us strength, what tempers our rage, calms our fears, bolsters our courage.
Chin writes in “History of Geography”: “They want to distill me, take the queer sky out of my body.”
This is what happens to our voices when we die–if people can, they take the part that is queer out of us. If people can, they take us out of the context of who we were and who we should remain. If people can, they obliterate the very marks we made in the world before our passing.
When Wilfred Owen died his family burned all his poetry. His gay, brutal, sensual poetry of the war and the battlements and the foxholes with other men in love and sensuality and mud and blood and his love for Siegfried Sassoon. (As I wrote here) This happens to us: Our letters disappear. Our uncollected work disappears. We are an evolving culture that is still unrecognized in the straight world, despite the tolerant and the allied and in that context, in that world subversive voices can disappear.
Justin Chin is dead.
He must not disappear.
Someone collect all of Justin Chin’s work now and put it in one place for posterity, for memory, for the fierceness of a voice that should still be reading from beyond the grave, mixing, as his friend Kirk Read said, “milk and his own blood” to make us sit up, listen hard, catch the words that pulse above the pounding of our own hearts.
Last week I saw Alexander Chee’s tweet on my Twitter feed. It was succinct: “Very sad news about Justin Chin,” with a link to a short piece saying Chin was on life support. I was stunned. A massive stroke at 46? Lying on the floor of his apartment, dying? I tweeted Chee, he tweeted back. We were both in that shocked space. “Too young,” Chee said. “Too soon,” I replied.
The staccato of grief not-yet-realized.
And yet there it was: the sudden ending of a life. The snuffing out of the words, along with the breath. He was still on life-support, but we all know what that means: get the family together, decide about organ donation, say good-bye, let go.
Justin Chin was a writer’s writer. For those of us who love poetry (I understand not everyone does, although I do not understand why not everyone does), Chin was always there–he was prolific, he was funny, he was outrageous, he was somber, he was serious, he was lighthearted, he was vital.
He was so vital.
Chin could finish a poem or leave it open to interpretation, which was its own ending. He was always trying something new, something different, something that caught your eye and lured you in like a shiny object to a magpie and then you were there, reading, unable to stop because the words were always smooth and tactile–so easy to touch and feel and roll around on your tongue as you repeated them.
I discovered Chin after his first collection, Bite Hard, was published in 1997 by San Francisco’s Manic D Press. He described the collection as an exploration of his concomitant identities: “an Asian, a gay man, an artist, and a lover.”
The book is provocative and slap-you-in-the-face sharp and takes no prisoners. The “rice queens” who pursued Chin, the straight white culture that turned its back on him, the two cultures–three, maybe four–that he straddled. It’s all there.
Compelling you and daring you.
Bite Hard is the first of his poetry collections, which include Harmless Medicine, 98 Wounds and Gutted. Gutted won the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award for Poetry and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Chin’s prose collections–part memoir, as well as fiction and criticism–include Mongrel: Essays, Diatribes, & Pranks, Burden of Ashes and Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms.
Chin was born in Malaysia in 1969, but lived most of his early life Singapore before attending the University of Hawaii, Manoa, to which he described himself as having been “shipped off.”
It was in Singapore, where he was educated in the “British colonial system” that he developed his love of poetry and the prose–in English literature. According to the Poetry Foundation, in 1991, Chin transferred to San Francisco State University’s journalism program and began writing poetry, essays, fiction, and spoken word performance pieces. In 1995 and 1996, Chin joined the San Francisco National Poetry Slam team.
In the literary world of San Francisco as well as in the gay lit world, Chin was a fixture. He wrote of himself that in the 90s he “led a double life as performance artist: created and presented seven full-length solo works here, there and where ever. Packed up those cookies in 2002, (with occasional relapses) and the documents, scripts, and what-heck from that period was published in ‘Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms (Suspect Thoughts Press, 2005). Continues to produce text/visual Book-based performance work. Book 2 is an on-going project where discarded or abandoned books found on the streets & other public places are remade, remodeled, & reworked into artists books.”
He didn’t get to that next book, which is maddening for us now, but he was still always writing and performing. And living. And critiquing. In an interview with Gerry Gomez Pearlberg for Frigate ’zine, Chin said, “Every work of art that works as art is a critique.”
Chin never stopped critiquing.
Zamora Linmark, another Bay Area writer and friend of Chin’s who frequently watched his performances, wrote of Bite Hard, “[Chin] plugs the stage microphone into the page and lyrically blasts the heart of our fears, rage, and import-export nightmarish dreams.”
Linmark is not wrong: You can hear Chin in his poetry. It’s that vivid, that palpable.
Another friend, writer Kirk Read, was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle saying, “[Chin] helped enliven the poetry scenes of the Paradise Lounge and the spoken-word and performance art collective Sister Spit as well as the open mics of Kvetsh and Smack Dab.” He was also, Read said, a “highly respected” presence at the Out/Write National Lesbian and Gay Writers Conference and at Litquake, the annual Bay Area literary festival.
“He was a solo performance artist who could mix his blood with milk and make the audience cry,” Read said.”He was a soft-spoken visionary who could go on a rant about generations of gay men dying and then toss in a completely inane pop culture reference and have it all make sense. … He brought gravity and levity to the microphone.”
Chin’s poetry was the language of queer people/gay men. Chin’s poetry held the language of people of color, of his life as an Asian man. Chin’s poetry was the access code that took his readers, entre nous, to the places we knew as home. Some of his work was discomfiting to read, some was incredibly alluring. The fact of that dichotomy was exactly what he wanted: pull you in, change it up, take you out of that comfort zone and more importantly, that complacency zone.
What was always so engaging about Chin was how he took the complex and made it accessible. It wasn’t just the relentless pop-culture references and excoriation and juxtaposition–it was that Chin always actually had something to say. These weren’t just words to talk. These were words to say, to underscore, to demand, to punctuate, to illumine, to let you in on the joke, to reveal the truth.
In his interview with Gomez Pearlberg, Chin explains,
I think the greatest gift that poetry and literature and art make for me, is to work my mind out to think and to make the connections between things—between issues and ideas. So much of public thought in the U.S. via the media is disconnected. We are taught and encouraged to read and find out how what we read relates to us—it’s the Oprah Book Club Syndrome, where every book, no matter what, can relate to your specific set of problems somehow. But the real work is finding empathy with something that has nothing to do with you directly.
It’s something to consider when reading Chin’s work. It’s difficult in places. The sexuality (Chin had an affinity for scat that’s not everyone’s fetish), the politics (he was a thorough believer in the personal as political and his work is layered with activist commentary), the rage at being typecast as foreign/exotic/Other (it’s different being marginalized for being white queer than for being an Asian gay man).
But how can we resist that language with which he describes all these experiences?
Chin was a performer as well as a poet. A friend of Chin’s, Lambda winning writer Trebor Healey, told KQED in San Francisco, that Chin “had a meteoric career, where he got well-known very quickly. He was someone who performed his writing very well and at that time, poetry was shifting into that spoken word, slam stuff that was heavy on the performance.”
Healy added, “But he was really good at both. I still see him as a writer primarily.”
His friend Felice Picano said after reading Mongrel, “Chin is so terrific in live performance that I was afraid his prose couldn’t live up to my expectations. I was wrong. Mongrel is a ferocious, challenging, funny, deadpan, moving and yes, it opened up a new reality to me. Chin is the Gonzo-Montaigne of our post-Foucault, post-Brady Bunch generation.”
Chin himself says of the line between performance art and poetry and his performance of his poetry:
A lot of the poems in Harmless Medicine are performative. Some are like conceptual art pieces, in that they function as ideas and mind-things more than paper-things. Each art form bleeds into the other and informs the other somewhat. I don’t think there ever is a pure product. There might be, but not in my world.
There is a long history of performance poetry, tracing its lineage from the oral tradition, troubadours, folk songs, native chants and all that. I don’t think what I do is performance poetry per se. In performance poetry, or “spoken word,” as they call it these days, the primary method of disseminating the work is oral/aural—CDs and tape recordings. I pay a lot of attention to the sound of my work. I take great care in the language and the musicality of the language. I enjoy doing readings. But that does not make me necessarily a performance poet. More like a reading whore.
When someone calls me a performance poet or spoken-word artist, it’s usually not done with neutrality. It’s as if they’re saying, ‘the poor boy just cannot write, but he speak so good and fun-fun.’ Performance poetry does get a bad rap these days. Always has—how many bad beat-poet jokes have we seen before? Mainly because there is a lot of bad crap out there—manipulative, easy, fake plastic earnest. Not to say that there isn’t a lot of printed crap, but the performance stuff is more immediate, easier to mock and ridicule than having to actually take the time out to read something before mocking it. But there is some really amazing work out there as there has always been in the history of it.
In Harmless Medicine Chin takes on Big Pharma in “Surrealist Bookmark” with characteristic bite:
Directions for use:
1. Find the line in the book where you have stopped reading. Place bookmark elsewhere in the book.
2. Place bookmark in a stranger’s book.
3. Go to a hospital and leave bookmark in a patient’s book. You may also leave bookmark at a public pay phone in the facility.4. Place bookmark in a book that has yet to be written.
May cause reader to lose place in book. Extreme disorientation may occur. Loss of connective thoughts and lucid speech akin to dementia may set in. Do not operate pasta makers. Do not mix with herbal remedies. May cause liver damage, kidney stones, cerebral hemorrhage and ulcers. May cause extreme euphoria. May cause false increase in self-esteem. Peripheral nerve damage occurred in 21 percent of test subjects who used a placebo bookmark. Some users report hallucinations of Parisian cafes. Visions of God, Buddha, Vishnu, Jacqueline Susann and Donald Duck may occur in a small percentage of users. Cheese, curry, and spring rolls may never taste the same for some users.
If any of these reactions occur, discontinue use. Remove bookmark and place it in a moist, calm, dark, quiet place until side effects subside.
In their review of Chin’s Mongrel, Publishers Weekly noted,
At his most flippant, Chin is downright charming. In a piece titled “Don’t Ask Isadora, Ask Me,” he advises: “never serve semen with fish or seafood.” He’s also engaging when he turns unexpectedly sentimental—as he does in remembering his grandmother’s meatballs. Even when Chin lapses into straight journalism, as in his description of the pay scales for boys in Bangkok sex clubs, the book is still endearing.
The breadth of his frames of reference. The scope of his interests. The way he fused these things together. The oh-so-subtly-clever final line of his poem “The Fisting Bottom,” Chin ends, “Rosebud/was never the name of my sled.”
An inside joke no straight person will ever get.
Chin’s friend Beth Lisick wrote about him on Facebook, saying,
Justin is my Kathy Acker, my John Waters, my Sandra Bernhard. A person so sharp and transgressive that he can be scary or intimidating, except the way he embraces his own sensitivity also allows him to be cuddly and sweet and so incredibly funny it’s beyond. A rare soul displaying true vulnerability, doing the most interesting thing a human can do: constantly showing us how complicated and multifaceted we are through art.
Chin was funny. Really funny. That humor laced everything–the solemnity could shatter in an instant. But he was not a humor writer. And yet, there’s this, “Chain Letter,” from Mongrel:
Dear Friend of Literature:
Enclosed is a very good book. In fact, it is more than supergood. It is fucking brilliant. Please take the time out to read the book and recommend it to eight others. If you do not wish to read the book or find that you cannot finish it for whatever reason (book too long, too verbose, failing eyesight, leprosy, etc.), please give the book to someone else who will appreciate it and also recommend it to eight others. PLEASE DO NOT IGNORE THIS LETTER. Aloysious Wong, of Hoboken, heeded it and now his first novel, I Don’t Know What Race I Am (I’m So Confused), is currently being shopped around at A MAJOR NEW YORK PUBLISHER with film rights in the works. On the other hand, Geri-Ann Shimizu, of Honolulu, chose to ignore this letter and, to date, her only publishing credit is her poem “Flip Flops at Sandy Beach,” published in the spring 1998 issue of Bamboo Canyon. It was on the left side of a Juli-Anna Shibata Lee-Nelson poem and so only four people read it. The fifthreader, Geri-Ann’s babe, Scott Nishimoto-Newman, only made it halfway through because he couldn’t understand it. Catherina Sung, of White Christmas Valley Canyon, received this chain and chose to ignore it and her second book, Memories of Sewing and Cooking with My Mother, went unnoticed. She later remembered the chain and passed it on and her third book, A Sewing and Cooking Girlhood, is currently #11 at the Waimea Barnes and Noble bestest-seller list. Her neighbor also carried on the chain and her dog had beautiful puppies. M Prince, of Twenty Nine Palms, California, broke the chain and he developed several canker sores while reading the new John Grisham best-seller and could not enjoy the book. You get the picture. Please do not break the chain. We want only good things to happen to you. THIS IS NOT A JOKE. Do it now and good things will befall you.
In “Good Grief” Chin wrote:
Grief is accurate. Grief is not accurate.
Do you want to know the facts or do you want the details?
Here’s what you will need. Listen carefully.
Something for when you need help seeing the things close
at hand and the things far at hand.
Trebor Healey went to visit him at the hospital where Chin’s mother, brother and former partner had gathered at his bedside, his family having flown in from Singapore. Healy said, “He wasn’t conscious and wouldn’t respond, but I still felt he was there.”
The facts are, Justin Chin died too soon. The details are, he left us words–so many words, though likely not enough–yet those, we hope, will see us through the anguish of his passing.
Read was quoted in the SF Weekly, “Justin Chin is an important writer. I want him to be studied and remembered and read and adored for generations to come. As I was in the room with all the tubes and wires and him leaving, on a certain level it felt profound. But Justin would have made a catty joke about the divorce of Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon.”
Gravity and levity.
That is the legacy of Justin Chin.
Go read him now. Don’t break the chain.
Beth Lisick and Michelle Tea are planning a memorial reading for Chin at the San Francisco Public Library’s Koret Auditorium on Jan. 31.
Some of Chin’s performances are available on YouTube like this, “The Glitters”:
Photo: Justin Chin
Photo Credit: R. E. Morrison