Ong has a wealth of information on which to base her work and finds herself intensely involved in learning about her lineage, which brings together Chinese, Filipino and American cultural influences. Ong’s grandparents immigrated to the Philippines from Fujian, China, during World War II, and her parents were born and raised in the Philippines. “My father was a medical resident,” she recalls. “He moved to the U.S. in the early 1970s, and our family settled in Chicago. This is where my siblings and I were born and raised.”
Ong looks back at a deeply family-centric childhood. “My favorite memories are of my parents cooking chicken adobo, paksiw na pata (pig’s feet stew), leche flan and lumpia, to name a few,” she remembers. These everyday experiences in the past have become inspirations for her present-day creations.
She studied studio art as an undergraduate student at New York University and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in digital media from the Rhode Island School of Design. Ong currently serves as the user-experience designer at the Yale Digital Humanities Lab within the Yale University Library in New Haven, Connecticut. “At the DHLab, I specialize in user research, prototyping and design, with an experimental eye for telling stories through data visualization and information design,” she explains. It is with this analytical and technical approach to narrative that Ong meticulously developed Silent Anatomies.
There is a deep sense of intimacy and connection in her poetry collection. “I really investigate cultural silences that shape the medical-emotional landscape of family diaspora, extending from China to the Philippines and North America,” Ong says. The collection took root in graduate school during Ong’s travels in 2005 to China and the Philippines, where she conducted interviews with her grandmother and extended family.
“As an art student, I was still trying to grasp how to use a camera and learning to ask questions in a language I did not speak well. Still, I was engaged in a process of empathy, walking down the roads my father grew up on, watching my mother and grandmother care for my aunt and breathing the smell of herbs and old wood,” she tells me. For Ong, the important work began with intense listening and mastering the skill of observation.
Ong’s maternal aunt, Ah–Ching played a significant role in her integrating health care with poetry. “My aunt struggled with mental illness, and the stigma in the Chinese Filipino community of Manila made it difficult for her to be properly diagnosed and treated,” she observes. “Witnessing the decline of her health made me wonder: How might poetry bring attention to the cultural silences of the body? Silent Anatomies gave me the chance to have poetry readings in local-community centers and collaborate with public-health advocates to create conversation about taboo health subjects among the Asian Americans.”
Her creativity has been recognized. In the fall of 2016, Kore Press brought Silent Anatomies to Tucson, Arizona as a public digital installation curated along the city’s trolley line with pop-up exhibitions and poetry events. Ong was also a literary fellow with Kundiman, which seeks to create community, mentorship and space among Asian Americans exploring artistic expression and the challenges of the diaspora. Her work has been published in several journals, including the Waxwing Literary Journal, Lantern Review, Glassworks Magazine, Loaded Bicycle, Tidal Basin Review and Seneca Review. She has also been exhibiting her artwork nationally and internationally. Selected poetry installations from Silent Anatomies as well as her new series of experiments with poetry and astronomy will be featured at the Center for Book Arts in New York City from October 5—December 15, 2018.
Recently, Ong contributed visual art to a collaborative writing project, Asian American Tarot: A Mental Health Project, curated by the Asian American Literary Review. These tarot cards reimagine the archetypes of traditional arcana in order to “reveal the hidden contours of Asian American emotional, psychic, and spiritual lives, as well as the systems of violence that bear down upon them.”
For Monica Ong, art is “a process of playful experimentation.” She finds inspiration from the unlikeliest of places and is not afraid to fail. “Fail fast and fail often so that you can get those out of the way,” she advises. “You then begin to identify the ideas that are most interesting to you.”
The artist is also profoundly enamored of the world around her. “The richness of the stories I create come from face-to-face interactions with people outside of my comfort zone, from learning about technology and data science, as well as my fascination with medical texts, maps and astronomy,” she rhapsodizes.
Monica Ong’s work is outward-looking and deeply compassionate. With visual art and engaging poetry, she reminds us of the beauty and meaning of our everyday world, our familial history and shared humanity. And because of this, her art should be valued even more.
For forthcoming events, readings and further information, visit, www.monicaong.com.
The author of the article wishes to thank Glenview Television’s Yvonne Liu Wolf, host and producer of Off the Shelf: Monica Ong, for her assistance in the interview.
Serina Aidasani divides her time between New York and Chicago. She works in marketing communications and public relations.