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The City and the Writer: In Brooklyn with Tina Chang

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series / New York City 2011

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                    —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

1. Can you describe the mood of Brooklyn as you feel/see it?

I’ve lived here for a little over ten years now and I’ve seen Brooklyn evolve immensely in that time. Restaurants have sprouted, condominiums feel as if they’ve been constructed overnight, longtime residents have moved away, and a more affluent influx of residents have called this place their home. I would say that the mood of Brooklyn is reflected in the rest of the country. It’s a time of growth. It’s as if the soil is being turned and, for good and bad, there is inevitable change. I live in a part of Brooklyn where it feels like the residents have a lot though if you stop long enough to talk to anyone at length, you’ll realize their human struggle is like everyone else’s and it is the same American dream that drove them to move here. They all seek a good home in a safe neighborhood; they want to see their children attend school to get a great education; they want to be happy and they want to thrive. Right now Brooklyn is a place to dream of all of these things. Prospect Park can be your backyard, The Brooklyn Bridge can be your daily walkway, and you can take a water taxi to work every day if you desire.

2. What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

In 2001, my apartment in Brooklyn suffered a fire. At the time, I thought losing my home was the worst thing that could happen to me. I was temporarily staying with a friend in Manhattan when September 11th hit and that’s when I realized there were greater losses and that there were different types of homes that one could lose. I rode on the back of friend’s bicycle from Manhattan to Brooklyn and as I watched people walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, I never felt a sense of greater camaraderie between myself and those around me. I think everyone felt the same way and we were reminded, again, to love our city and to love each other without fail.

3. What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city? 

In our day to day routine, it’s easy to overlook all things beautiful. For me the most extraordinary part of Brooklyn is where land meets water. I have often walked to Red Hook to experience the point where it feels like the ground just drops away. Here, I watch the seagulls snatching food from one another, the boats bringing cargo to the dock, and listen to the wind rush through the abandoned buildings. You can take in a completely different scene at the edge of DUMBO, the edge of Williamsburg. In all cases, you can feel a sense of peace if you stand still long enough to let it in.

4. What writer(s) from here should we read?

There are so many Brooklyn poets one should read: Kimiko Hahn, Vijay Seshadri, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Brenda Shaughnessy, Patrick Rosal, Tyehimba Jess, Tracy K. Smith, Gregory Pardlo to name a few.

5. Is there a place here you return to often?

There is a small blue bridge on Union Street that I go to often. It holds a certain sentimental value because it’s the place my husband and I visit whenever we need to talk. I feel like many of our important life decisions have been discussed there over a bottle of wine as we watch the sun set.

6. Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I think everyone should visit Green-Wood Cemetery. There are notable residents there from Horace Greeley, the founder and editor of the New York Tribune, to artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat. They have a long calendar of events that celebrates the history of Brooklyn.

7. Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Coney Island, Brighton Beach, and Sunset Park are cities within themselves. I’ve gone to Coney Island for the bumper cars, Nathan’s franks, boardwalk dance parties, and endless people watching. I visit Brighton Beach for the incredible food: dumplings, bread, fish, salads, pies, beer. Sunset Park has the most delicious and affordable Chinese cuisine outside of Flushing in Queens. I go there for pork buns, noodles, and dim sum. Each of these places is its own little world holding its own culture, struggle, and history.

8. Where does passion live here?

Passion lives in the personal stories of each person who lives here. Ask any vendor, merchant, commuter for their story and an entire life unfurls before you. I think people need to take more time to know their neighbors and by neighbors I don’t only mean the people who reside in the apartment next door. When we stop to become fascinated by the person who sits across from us at a café or an elderly woman sitting on her front porch, we open ourselves up to narrative, compassion, and the network of feeling that keeps us all bound as human beings.

9. What is the title of one of your poems about the Brooklyn and what inspired it exactly?

My poem, “Commentary on Orange,” is inspired by both metaphor and place. In the poem, the speaker has just gone through a breakup from her love and she can’t understand why she might have once written a poem comparing separation to cleaving an orange with a knife. The metaphor of the orange travels through several places beginning in California and it ends in Brooklyn where her roommate calls to remind her to look out the window to catch the sunset. The young woman cleans and rinses her knife while craving a sweetness, an invisible sugar. When I was writing this poem I was trying to understand heartache and how it lingers no matter how far we travel from the heartache’s geographical origin. If my breakup occurs in California, does the pain go away now that I reside in Brooklyn? No matter the distance, the speaker realizes she can’t outrun her emotions.

10.  Inspired by Levi, “Outside Brooklyn does an outside exist?”

Absolutely. Brooklyn is inspiring to and inspired by other places outside of itself. A physical example might be the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch at Grand Army Plaza. The arch which is a memorial to John F. Kennedy, is inspired in part by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. On an emotional level, Brooklyn is home to so many writers and artists worldwide. People have traveled here to make their work, to be accepted, and to share their personal stories. It is for these reasons that I live and thrive here. I am a part of this human fabric, this special place that has such a rich local history while embracing the international residents that call it home.

Tina Chang was raised in New York City. Newly appointed Brooklyn Poet Laureate and the first woman given this position, she is the author of Half-Lit Houses (Four Way Books) and co-editor of the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond  (W.W. Norton, 2008).  Her poems have been published in American Poet,Indiana Review, McSweeney’s, The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Quarterly West, Sonora Review, among others.  She has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, Poets & Writers, and the Van Lier Foundation, among others. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and Hunter College. Her new book, Of Gods & Strangers, is forthcoming in 2011 from Four Way Books.   

NH’s Discovery of the Month: Brooklyn is everything from loud to silent, insane to brilliant. Home of some of the greatest contemporary writers; some of the coolest literary presses—Akashic Books ( and Ugly Duckling Presse; some of the finest literary centers—Cave Canem (, some of the oldest bookstores—Community Bookstore (the only remaining independent bookstore in Park Slope). It is a place that make’s people dream while they are dreaming.


New York City can’t be written about precisely. It is chaos that understands harmony. It’s a city that perplexes us and keeps inventing itself. Its voice is that of phantoms we can’t see but know are beside us. But what I love most about this city is, it asks questions incessantly.

So where do we place the music, the words? Literary New York City is endless. Every day a new writer finds a page. As for me, it keeps taking me back to Lorca’s Poet in New York.

Published Mar 21, 2011   Copyright 2011 Nathalie Handal

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