Justine Chan’s newly released poetry book, Should You Lose All Reason(s) braids Indigenous folk tales, music, family, the shifting nuances of home(s), and an urgent concern for our planet. I met Justine, fittingly, in a park in Bellevue on a gorgeous spring day.
Savita Krishnamoorthy: I’m really interested in how book covers, and book titles develop so, let’s start our conversation there. Why did you choose this book cover?
Justine Chan: The image comes from my evening program at Zion where we had to pick an image for a poster. After our presentation, we’d have to take our poster and put it in the next evening’s programs. I kept looking at images of coyotes online and I just really loved this postcard that was circulated in the 1940s, and we ordered this particular postcard from eBay and had it sent to the designer. It had the original writing on the back.
[Regarding] the title, I was thinking a lot about the epigraph by Joan Didion, about this network of stories that help the people in the story survive, that if they do not keep moving at night in the desert, they will lose all reason. So much of the book is about madness, the reason without the ‘s’, and so much is about reasons for why some things have happened, are happening, or will happen, or not. I felt that the title is a kind of hinge where you have to ask: What is the rest of it? I find that kind of ambiguity really interesting.
SK: The book is a narrative in triptych where you are unpacking multiple themes as an observer and an interlocutor on the zeitgeist of our time. Can you please elaborate on this?
JC: I feel like this is a book that I always wanted to write about family, grief, and dealing with disownment in my family, and that I’ve spent a lot of my 20s on the move, feeling like I’m trying to find my place. There are a lot of threads to the book. To not lose all my friends, to not lose the moments that I’m in. I believe the book captures a very millennial story. We thought we could follow our passion and there would be a spot for us. For me, it’s been a lot of trying to follow my passions, but there’s often no money in it — just scrambling, trying to survive. And then, at Zion National Park, I learned about the historical and ongoing extermination of so many coyotes and I saw that genocide mirroring the genocide of Indigenous people. Recognizing the history of many national parks as violently stolen Indigenous land, I needed to tie it all together.
SK: I want to continue with that and frame an intervention of the trauma of this loss of home — in the wild, in the desert, animal and indigenous peoples, and in the urban home, by comparing two verses:
On page 8: “Because, somewhere, nestled in the mountains, the only inland glaciers are melting and all you can do is look at the black-and-white pictures and ask where has it all gone,” which speaks to the ecological genocide.
On page 41: “In this city, white wealthy hipsters are moving into the Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhoods and calling it theirs. This is (what) our generation (wants), they must think.”
Can you unpack this, from your experience as a park ranger/observer and as someone who’s lived in multiple cities seeing/seen the effects of gentrification and the shifting mappings of cities?
JC: I love that you connected them and thought of them together. It is true that each place has its own sense of loss, of stories, and it is very much human-caused. In the cities, it has so much to do with capitalism and inequality, and I see it a lot here in Seattle. But in Chicago, I always think about a neighborhood that has always meant a lot to me called Wicker Park. In college, I was an intern in a theater there, and spent so much time there, and every other time I’m back in the city, I always go exploring there. [It used to be] a very quiet neighborhood and now it’s evolved to a very white, hipster space.
It’s a lot to see the demographic of the people changing and feel the loss. I also love and think about Pilsen, another neighborhood that is threatened constantly by gentrification. As a ranger, I am constantly thinking about climate change. On Mount Rainier, I was so close to the glaciers all the time, really seeing how they melted even in the time I was there. In this eco-grief, I was inspired to learn more and tried to present my evening program on glaciers and how Indigenous stories have been erased, tying those stories together.
SK: Going deeper into your observations in the second chapter, “In the City I Call.” I experienced this section, as an immigrant, to be a metaphor for belonging, roots, and an anchor to ground oneself in a space.
On page 41: “In the city, everyone I ever meet asks me if I’m going to go back. Back to the city I came from.”
In the places that you have lived in, what is home for you? Are you still searching for it, or do you carry it inside of you as a memory, or a moment in the present, a physical embodiment of this construct?
JC: I love that question! I wrote this book largely when I was [in my late twenties]. I am 33 now and I still feel very attached to everything in the book. Then in some ways I feel like I have matured a little bit, maybe I’m a different person. The way I think about love is that there can be multiple loves. You don’t have to put it all on one person. You can love multiple people at once, and it doesn’t have to be like there’s a scarcity to it. And I feel that way with this concept of home now.
So, I can think of Seattle [as] home because I have been here so long, and Chicago will always be home, and a lot of these other places like New York City and Zion feel like home too. It’s been magical to let go of having to always need to be in a place; it’s constricting, straining, on a place to insist it always be the same.
SK: Who are poets/writers you admire?
JC: Tommy Pico, francine j. harris, Sandra Cisneros, Ada Limón, Natalie Diaz, Lucie Brock-Broido, Brigit Kelly, Jorie Graham, Mary Ruefle, Allen Ginsburg, T.S. Eliot, John Keats. I recently read Sandra Simmonds’ Orlando [which] was super interesting. I admire the essays of Joan Didion, Jia Tolentino, Eula Biss, and the writing of Virginia Woolf.
SK: What do you wish for the reader to take away from Should You Lose All Reason(s)?
JC: I want them to feel soothed and less alone. My wish through writing the book was to feel less alone, and I wish now readers are thinking about trying to make these human connections. If they can make broader connections between their story and how it is tied to the larger story of what is happening with climate change and Indigenous rights, if they can recognize the land and how it’s been so important in nourishing [our spirits], that would be so good. I have been trying to do a land acknowledgment in each place that I have been on my book tour. I think it’s a good first step for people to start doing that learning, too, and taking care of the place that they are in.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.