Conversations with Wong May

A Bad Girl's Book of Animals

“It is 1969. A 25-year-old Wong May has just published her first book of poems with Harcourt, Brace & World, a major New York press. I still find it hard to fully appreciate the conventions her book defied just by existing. According to a bibliography of ‘Asian American’ poetry, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals made Wong May one of only twenty or so people of Asian descent at that point to have had solo-authored books of poetry published in the US. This book, and Wong May’s unusual literary career, emerged from her remarkable relationship with the English language, one which began in Singapore.

Wong May was born in Chongqing in 1944, moving to Singapore with her mother Wang Mei-Chuang in 1950. Growing up in a literary Chinese-speaking household and attending Chinese-medium schools until Senior High, Wong May enrolled in preparatory courses at the University of Singapore designed to ease the Chinese-educated into the University’s Anglophone paradigm. Providentially, my father in-law was her classmate in these courses and recalls she was “very good at poetry already”, his memory in tune with critic Angus Whitehead’s observation of her “belated, but rapid mastery of English”. As a schoolgirl “with very little English”, she had chanced upon T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday”, its Lady of silences leaving her “entranced”.

Wong May ended up majoring in English Literature, writing and publishing early poems which were considered significant enough to be mentioned by fledgling efforts to contrive a canon of ‘Malayan’ poetry. David Ormerod, a West Indian literary academic who had taught at the University of Malaya, said:

She seems to have discovered, quite unselfconsciously, a style of considerable power for which I can think of no precise precedent or parallel, and which results in artifacts of great formal beauty.


Excerpt from Foreword of A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals by Tse Hao Guang

Dear Reader,

So many years have passed between Wong May's first email to me and the reissue of her first poetry book, A Bad Girl's Book of Animals by Ethos Books. She is an intensely private person, often ignoring my impertinent questions about her life and influences: for her, it is the poetry that's important, not the poet. We therefore corresponded on and off, our conversations wilting and revivifying, filled with both dead ends and digressions. After giving it some thought, I felt it would be best to share snippets of my emails to or about her, mostly leaving out her replies to honour this privacy. Here is me sharing as honestly as I can about how this book came to be:
Wed, 18 Jun 2014
Hi! Your publisher must have passed you my email:)
...I'm writing to say how much I appreciate your voice, and to express my disappointment at you not being read or known more in Singapore. A bit about myself--I'm still pretty young...
Tue, 27 Oct 2015
Dear Wong May,
I'm writing again to say that I'm very pleased to be involved in a project...We believe that you have been unfairly overlooked in Singapore, and the essay/project in general hopes, in part, to raise the profile of good poetry here...
Fri, 14 Apr 2017
Dear Harcourt,
I write regarding the rights to three poetry books...Wong May will help as much as she can to recollect or dig up details around the agreements. [Harcourt returned rights to Wong May gratis]
Thu, 25 May 2017
Dear Wong May,
This might be a silly question, but are you a Singapore citizen or permanent resident? I'm almost certain you are not but it was a question put to me by...
Wed, 4 Apr 2018
Dear Wong May,
...I very much hope you'll be able to meet me, even if just for an afternoon, when I'm in Dublin! I planned the trip to meet...There are so many questions I have about your work and your poetics that I would love to learn about...[we did not meet]
Sun, 26 May 2019
Hi Wong May,
So good to hear from you! I have been very well, am in the midst of a few life changes (preparing to get married ha)...
I've been working on my own writing and have almost completed a manuscript of poetry. If you're interested, I could send it to you! Would be very curious to know what you think of it...
Sat, 13 Jun 2020
Hi Wong May, wondering if you ever got the Axe oil:)... [she did!]
Thu, 6 May 2021
Hi [Ethos],
...please find a (hastily-written, but entirely passionate) pitch for the Wong May book project...

Eight years nearly to the day we first spoke, Wong May said:
Thu, 16 Jun 2022
Yes, of course Arin, you are free to re-issue my first book.
I am very moved that Ethos & Hao Guang will take on this project, it will assuage my homesickness for Singapore—“In my beginning is my end” (Eliot, Four Quartets).

I for one hope that this story hasn't ended. Her two other early books remain inaccessible to most of us. More importantly, I hope to have many more conversations with Wong May, whose silences have taught me more than even her strange and brilliant words.

Hao Guang,
Editor of A Bad Girl's Book of Animals.


To receive more thoughtfully-penned weekly letters freshly delivered to your mailbox, subscribe to Attunement here: