A Conversation with Yaya Yao

Chris: First off, thanks for taking the time to talk with me! Now that we’re both no longer in Toronto, I’m so glad we’re still able to connect in some way across continents in order to talk about your recently released collection of poetry, Flesh, Tongue. I just finished re-reading it and when I closed the book, I thought a bit about the title, which, to me, highlights the bodily, material, and visceral. Do you see the viscerality of the title push against or work with the very language-based themes of your poems?


Yaya: I wonder about what we inherit through the flesh, the genetic legacy, and the conscious ways we try to connect to that inheritance. In 2008 I was a participant in one cycle of the “Personal Legacy Project,” a creative process led by the Backforward Collective, an amazing group of artists.  Through the process, each participant chose an ancestor and explored a connection to an ancestor in a very embodied way. There was an element of research, of recording everything you could learn about your ancestor, but the most compelling part of the process for me was the attempt to learn through inviting the ancestor into your physical.  When we work on learning our ancestral language as a way to access ancestral knowledge, even if we’re displaced or somehow disconnected from our roots, by learning their tongues we’re able to connect in some way. What lives in the flesh, what lives in the blood? What is taught, what is inherent, and how does that overlap with ancestry?

I’m a bit obsessed with this question, as a queer, non-biological mom. The last poem in the collection is for Heiwa. What is the role of intention in shaping our legacies? He and I are not biologically related, but of course the connection, ancestry, and legacy that we share is undeniable.