When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen – Book Review

I have really been enjoying poetry lately. Chalk it up to the fact that I am currently writing my own poetry book, or that I have had many experiences last year and the best way for me to process it is via poetry—reading and writing alike. Whatever the reason, I am very grateful for my dive into this genre. It has exposed me to phenomenal authors who really know how to capture a lot of the struggles that I have had in my life, particularly as a Queer person of colour, and I think I have finally found one of the best collections that I have read in that regard.

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen is a short collection of poems that is written by a gay Chinese author. It won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and has received numerous recognition for being a ferocious voice in the modern world.


I had never heard of this book until I discovered it during the GoodReads 2017 Book Awards. It was one of the nominees for Best Poetry of the Year, and I am positively flabbergasted that it did not win.

My favourite quality of the whole collection is the voice. Chen Chen’s voice is fierce, unfiltered, sensuous, impolitic, eccentric, and extremely vital as he shares his experiences with growing up in a conservative family home as someone who is gay, his memories of China, the first time he kissed a boy, his love for his partner, the harsh bitterness of living in America as a foreigner.

Being a person of colour in a country where you are constantly reminded of being different, and where your differences are used as a bastard sword to cut you down, there were many times when I was moved to tears by the words that Chen had written. I could see a part of myself reflected in a simple string of words and my heart would ache with both joy and sadness. Joy that there was someone else out there who understand the agony of alienation so intimately, and sadness that someone else knew how devastatingly harmful and frustrating that feeling is.

His poems about being gay and finally coming out to his mother were also very close to home for me. The raw power of the homophobic responses he received from his family were sensationally honest and a profound critique, of not only how homophobia is viewed within conservative Asian family circles, but also of the normative in society as a whole regarding Queer culture. It peels off all the protective layers to bring the flaws of the world into the light without fear.

His most evocative works are those that discuss how it felt to be shoved into a small box labelled “Other” and how it would reveal itself whenever he had a crush on a white boy, or was questioned about only writing about his diverse identity. This is something that marginalised people are always faced with every single day, yet when we question the harm it does, and the validity of how “right” it truly is, the wall of that box rises far up above our heads in order to conceal it, and our concerns, inside.

whoa–that’s what it felt like, 17, kissing a boy for the first time.
Can’t forget it. Can’t forget when my mother found out & said,
This would never have happened if we hadn’t come to this country.
But it would’ve happened, every bit as dizzy, lost, back in China.
It didn’t happen because America, dirty Americans. It was me,
my need. My father said,
You have to change, but I couldn’t, can’t

give you up, boys & heat, scruff & sweet. Can’t get over you. Trying to get
over what my writer friend said.

All you write about is being gay or Chinese.
Wish I had thought to say to him,
All you write about is being white

or an asshole. Wish I had said, No, I already write about everything–
& everything is salt, noise, struggle, hair, carrying, kisses, leaving, myth, popcorn,

mothers, bad habits, questions.”

Nonetheless, not all of his poems are emotionally intense concerning pain and sadness. There are poems of love and romance, where he describes the moments he felt sexual attraction to another person, and everything that goes with it—exhilaration, excitement, confidence, yearning—with precision and unapologetic openness, which makes the act of sex feel natural and lovely.

Overall, I wholeheartedly loved When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. I only wish that this was available to me when I was growing up, in those awkward and brutal years of pre-teen to early twenties. The impact that it had on my now, while I am 30, could not compare to how it would have helped me as an individual faced with frightening identity crises as an adolescent. This book is brilliant. Magnificent. Everything that modern poetry should be. Perfection.

5 possibilities outta 5!

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