Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Mok Zining
By Yeow Kai Chai
The curious case of Mok Zining's debut book: is The Orchid Folios a poetry collection, a documentary novella, or, aptly for a cross-genre contemplation about a heavily cultivated flower, that problematised word, a "hybrid"?
Such is the enigmatic beauty of Mok's work. Released last year in the midst of the pandemic, its interweaving of lyric verse, journalistic research, and fiction revolving around a florist feels rightly evolutionary, and at times tentative (in the best sense of the word), with plenty of negative space for one to ponder and wander.
It has its beginnings in 2016 when she wrote several poems for an undergraduate class at Northwestern University in Chicago, but the book began to take its form in early 2019 in the second semester of her creative writing programme at the University of Minnesota.
"to keep/arrangements open/for associations," she writes in 'Floristry Basics: Trimming', which makes for a guiding ethos for her epistemological mission. The awareness of movement, of spaces, is not surprising, especially when you consider that she's also a dancer.
In her bio ("ever so slightly" updated, she points out), she confesses a preoccupation with "random things: orchids, arabesques, sand." In fact, her next book, intriguingly, will be about sand, and its role in reclamation and construction.
Clearly, hers is a fresh voice which seeks to clarify, and unearth underlying truth(s), infinitesimal they may appear. Her essays have appeared in, or are forthcoming from, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Cincinnati Review, and The Rumpus, among others.
Currently shanghaied in Singapore but still busy working towards an MFA in creative writing at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches writing, she takes time off to answer our Proust Questionnaire.
1. What are you reading right now?
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
4. Name one living writer and one dead writer you most identify with, and tell us why.
I guess I identify more with books than with their authors. Maggie Nelson's The Red Parts, for example, is nothing like Bluets, although it is also a very good book.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
6. What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
7. What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy or an action thriller to watch, which would you go for?
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
I am not a huge fan of words used to encapsulate big concepts. The way that it's been used, the word "hybridity" has become quite slippery.
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three items: plié, stigma, flips.
The wasp lands in a plié and the labellum flips
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
15. If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
16. In 'Identity Theft', an essay posted on The Rumpus, you spoke about your place in America as a "cultural alien" in the weeks leading up to the 2016 US presidential election; and the spectre of cultural appropriation in the choice of subjects to write about. In The Orchid Folios and elsewhere, have such contemporaneous developments limited, steered and/or deepened your creative pursuits?
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?