Collage of photos depicting, from left to right, Jenny Liou's headshot, the book cover for "Muscle Memory," and Shin Yu Pai's headshot.

Poet and Former Cage Fighter Jenny Liou Talks About Her Debut Book ‘Muscle Memory’

by Amanda Ong

As a poet and former cage fighter, Jenny Liou has a unique perspective on violence, both in the ring and out of it. On Wednesday, Dec. 7, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., Seattle Public Library (SPL) will host a discussion between award-winning poet and writer Shin Yu Pai and Liou about her debut collection of poetry Muscle Memory. The collection brings together Liou’s time in the MMA cage with her Chinese American family’s history, as she reflects on violence in the cage and generationally.

Liou fell in love with the sport and competed for years, though she retired from cage fighting in 2017 when she became a mother. Through cage fighting, Liou observed violence through her own body, an experience that led her to ponder the greater effects of violence in her family history. Liou’s family was part of the Chinese diaspora that fled China when the communist government came into power during the Chinese Civil War (1945–1949) and ensuing Cultural Revolution.

“So many Chinese Americans were disrupted by the Cultural Revolution in one way, shape, or form. And in some ways, it feels like whatever happens in our own lives is going to pale in comparison to what happened to our parents and grandparents,” Liou said. “One of the challenges of the book was to try to maintain that historical scope, the violence of that kind of war becomes almost unimaginable even if our parents lived through it, and also to make room for the kinds of violence that are happening right now. In particular, the kinds of violence that are being inflicted upon Asian American women right now.”

Liou is an English professor at Pierce College in Puyallup. Her father was born in China, but as the People’s Republic of China came into power, a time of widespread persecution, famine, and massacres, their family left. Liou’s father grew up in Taiwan before immigrating to the United States. He was a fan of martial arts and introduced her to jujitsu growing up in Idaho. Though Liou stopped training in her teens, as a grad student in literature she found herself wanting to return to it as a way to reconnect with her body. After a streak of successful competitions, Liou’s coach asked her to spar in the cage. 

Cage fighting, or mixed martial arts (MMA) is a notoriously brutal, no-holds-barred approach to fighting. Having quickly grown in popularity since its introduction in the 1990s, it is primed to overtake boxing as a popular, high-profile sport. MMA fighters train in multiple fighting styles including boxing, grappling, and a variety of martial arts. 

“I would rush out of training to go teach a class at UC Irvine,” Liou said. “My students were like, looking at me in this weird way throughout the class, but no one said a word. Then I got home and looked in the mirror, and I had double black eyes.”

But writing, cage fighting, and Chinese American identity have much larger, entwining implications in Liou’s life that she explores in her poetry. Both of Liou’s practices reflect an identity built in resilience. 

“You don’t show your fear, you don’t show your pain, you just stand, stand in the crucible and do the best you can in that moment, without ever complaining, without ever giving up, without ever stepping back, without ever questioning anything. And so that was how I lived,” Liou said. “The very personality traits that we idealize in athletes do not necessarily leave us well-suited to life outside of the cage. But I think this was compounded by being an Asian American woman. People think you will be quiet, you will be submissive, you will be all of these things. When I felt like standing up for myself, the way that I showed my toughness was by being even more silent, by staying even longer.”

More than anything, through its verses, Muscle Memory communicates the grounding, the distance, and the intimacy contained within the diaspora. Cage fighting is the foundation of the collection, but it is a stand-in for the physicality of the lasting impact of violence passed down through generations, and the physicality of family love and connection. 

“In Muscle Memory, there’s these poems where I am gardening with my dad, and oftentimes gardening the Chinese vegetables that he likes to grow in Moscow, Idaho,” Liou said. “Martial arts is another one of those areas where we’ve been able to have this physical practice that we share, and at the same time, we’re sharing stories. So even if these topics feel superficially distant from each other, I actually think they’re very much interwoven, they go hand in hand. They’re projects about the way our embodied practices relate to storytelling and help us grapple with our family histories.”

See Jenny Liou and Shin Yu Pai in conversation on Dec. 7, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Central Library at 1000 Fourth Ave. Registration is required, and available on the library’s Eventbrite.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Poet and former MMA cage fighter Jenny Liou (left) will talk with writer, poet, and artist Shin Yu Pai about her new book of poetry, “Muscle Memory,” on Dec. 7. (Image courtesy of The Seattle Public Library.)

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