Franny Choi's latest poetry finds hope for the future in our past apocalypses
Poet Franny Choi believes that, for marginalized people, the apocalypse already happened. And, in her latest poetry collection, she explores what it means to live in this unending dystopia.
"By the time the apocalypse began, the world had already ended. It ended every day for a century or two. It ended and another ending world spun in its place," Choi writes in "The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On."
In a conversation with Morning Edition's Leila Fadel, Choi talks about finding comfort in these apocalyptic times — and how the end of the world is sometimes just the end of the world, as we know it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On surviving the end of the world
My partner's Black and I'm Korean. And in in both of our our family lineages are are these enormous calamities in which our ancestors survived what seemed utterly unsurvivable. What is more dystopian than the transatlantic slave trade? What is more dystopian than the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which effectively ended Japanese colonial rule? And so remembering that the apocalypse, the world-ending calamities that seem always on the horizon, are those things that we had to survive in order to even get here.
Maybe it's a little morbid that that was comforting to me. ... I remember reading an essay by the writer Rebecca Solnit, who said it's actually easy to imagine the end of the world. What's hard is imagining that a world might actually go on after that terrible, unsurvivable thing, that some version of the world might continue. And so I've never been one to turn down the hard homework. So I said, okay, I will try. I will do my best.
On finding strength in the perseverance of others
To know that my being here is dependent on someone having made a life out of an impossible situation makes me feel like I too can survive the things that are thrown at me. But also, this is just part of what it means to be alive.
On the comfort of "not knowing"
I think that so often what we think of as the end of the world is actually just an end of a world that we know — something that closes and then makes room for the next thing, which might be more terrible or less terrible. But I think that what I find comfort in is the not knowing.
On the significance of ending her collection with "Protest Poem"
That's the poem that I wrote while sitting in my apartment and at the time in Northampton, Mass. This was 2020. We were locked in our apartment. It was the summer, and George Floyd had had been murdered maybe a few weeks before, and the protests in our city were kind of like, rocking the house.
The walls were shaking from the noise outside, and it was a physical experience to be in that moment of intense protest. And that was what I felt like. I couldn't even exactly hear the words of the chants that were being shouted. I could just feel the walls shaking here, the cheer that that followed each time a chant was repeated, and then feel the emotions of my body, every one of which were saying, "something must be done." Something has to change so that this grief and this rage have to go somewhere. And that was enough.
Just the sounds and the feelings were enough. Which is, I think, both beautiful and a little troubling, as somebody whose work is words — you know, that the words in some ways don't even really matter.
And so I think that I was ending the collection saying, okay, like all of this, all of these words, this is what I've been able to do. And then, if you're going to take something from it, maybe it would be wonderful if you took some of the language. It would be wonderful if you took some of the ideas. But if there's one thing you take away, I hope that it's this feeling of of going through grief and rage and then getting to experience, for the span of of one book, what something better might feel like.
This interview was conducted by Leila Fadel, produced by Julie Depenbrock and edited by Reena Advani.
The World Keeps Ending, and The World Goes On
Before the apocalypse, there was the apocalypse of boats:
boats of prisoners, boats cracking under sky-iron, boats making corpses
bloom like algae on the shore. Before the apocalypse, there was the apocalypse
of the bombed mosque. There was the apocalypse of the taxi driver warped
by flame. There was the apocalypse of the leaving, and the having left—
of my mother unsticking herself from her mother's grave as the plane
barreled down the runway. Before the apocalypse, there was the apocalypse
of planes. There was the apocalypse of pipelines legislating their way
through sacred water, and the apocalypse of the dogs. Before which was
the apocalypse of the dogs and the hoses. Before which, the apocalypse
of dogs and slave catchers whose faces glowed by lantern-light.
Before the apocalypse, the apocalypse of bees. The apocalypse of buses.
Border fence apocalypse. Coat hanger apocalypse. Apocalypse in
the textbooks' selective silences. There was the apocalypse of the settlement
and the soda machine; the apocalypse of the settlement and
the jars of scalps; there was the bedlam of the cannery; the radioactive rain;
the chairless martyr demanding a name. I was born from an apocalypse
and have come to tell you what I know—which is that the apocalypse began
when Columbus praised God and lowered his anchor. It began when a continent
was drawn into cutlets. It began when Kublai Khan told Marco, Begin
at the beginning. By the time the apocalypse began, the world had already
ended. It ended every day for a century or two. It ended, and another ending
world spun in its place. It ended, and we woke up and ordered Greek coffees,
drew the hot liquid through our teeth, as everywhere, the apocalypse rumbled,
the apocalypse remembered, our dear, beloved apocalypse—it drifted
slowly from the trees all around us, so loud we stopped hearing it.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.