Interview with Low Residency Creative Writing Summer 2022 Guest Artist K-Ming Chang

June 08, 2022

Justin: You are such an accomplished teacher and writer. More than that, your writing is distinct and experimental and sure of itself, all at once—it also oozes a wisdom that feels centuries old. Can you tell me the story of how you came to write? When (and perhaps why) did you start? What keeps you coming back to it?

K-Ming: Thank you for such kind words! I think I'm still scared of the authority that a teacher can have, but I always remember that I learn more from my students than they could ever learn from me, and that it feels most rewarding and generative when it's a communal process of play and exploration.

I've always loved storytelling and grew up surrounded by stories, even if they weren't in the form of books—I grew up surrounded by gossip, rumors, oral histories, monologues, and myths, both humorous and divine. Some of my first memories of being utterly entranced by storytelling are when my mother would turn to me while we were sitting on a bus or walking somewhere and say, "let's talk story!" And she would tell me her versions of myth and folklore. I love that those forms didn't really have any ownership assigned to them in a formal way. They were collective stories written across generations and revised in memory, and I think that's what made it so exciting and participatory.

The first story I ever wrote was actually a tabloid article about my third or fourth grade class! I remember seeing gossip magazines on the tables of hair salons and in grocery stores and being so absorbed by them, so I came home and wrote articles about my classmates on notebook paper. I wrote about crushes, playground scandals, my predictions of the future. I remember there were a lot of love triangles! It was a way of having a secret life, and I remember tucking that article under the mattress and never showing anyone. Writing became a way for me to express desire and joy and despair. It was a space of imagination and fantasy. Gossip and rumors and other forms of communal stories became my first inspiration and allowed for invention and playfulness. 

Even now, I find myself returning time and time again to collectively-owned stories, like myth and folklore and communal memory. Those stories contain fluidity and invite us to subvert their boundaries. Those are the narratives that feel most alive to me.

Justin: So much of your work in Bestiary plays with a half-distortion of reality. You weave together the ordinary and the fantastic so masterfully, I’m curious if you might describe your relationship with the “Magical Realism” genre? 

More specifically—your discussion of your protagonist's mother’s compulsive lying was particularly intriguing to me. You wrote, “We didn’t blame our mother for her lies: We loved them into littler truths. For instance, she was not the last granddaughter of a Tayal chief but descended from lower-ranked warriors, born with a shark’s tooth under her tongue” (37). These littler truths you describe, this middle ground between the unreal and the real—is this where the thrust of your writing comes from? If not, how does this observation on your mother contribute to your writing?

K-Ming: That's such a great question! I didn't know what exactly I was doing or trying to do in Bestiary, and only later did I discover the terms fabulism and mythorealism. I recently read an essay by Yan Lianke that describes mythorealism as "surpassing reality," and that's something that resonates very strongly with me. I'm deeply interested in exaggeration and maximalism in language and imagery, specifically how it can allow us surpass what we believe is possible. I'm also interested in contrasts, and how the extremes of magical vs. mundane, disgust vs. desire, repulsion vs. attraction, and the sacred vs. the profane can be seen as entwined rather than oppositional. I think queer literature taught me that these boundaries are porous, that shame and desire can be one and the same, and that all of these "opposites" are actually inextricable. What I love about myth and fable is that they're often both crass and beautiful or divine, and I love the idea that we can move fluidly and combine the two in our language.

And thank you for citing that line from Bestiary! It's one of the moments in the book where the characters really came alive for me. This observation on the character's mother acted as a kind of meta commentary on the nature of the book itself, and how the idea of truth is continually subverted and reinvented throughout the narrative. We tend to think that magic is the opposite of reality, but the books and stories I love most are the ones that unravel the very concept of a singular or stable truth. I think that moment in the book is when the narrator embraces subjectivity and myth-making as a form of building oneself.

Justin: Who are your biggest influences (literary or otherwise)? How have they shaped you into the writer you’ve become?  

K-Ming: So many! Recently I've been most interested in reading fiction in translation, and some recent favorites that have lingered and influenced what I've been working on are books like The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin, The skin is the elastic sheath that surrounds the entire body by Bjorn Rasmussen, and Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy. These books have taught me so much about condensed forms and emotional intensity, as well as how language can be both abstract and embodied. I think I've always been afraid to be cerebral or philosophical in my writing, because I was afraid it would be too disorienting or not grounded enough for the reader. But these books reminded me that the space of imagination and thought is as powerful on the page as action or plot.

Bestiary by K-Ming Chang

K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice novel BESTIARY (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2021, her chapbook BONE HOUSE was published by Bull City Press. Her short story collection, GODS OF WANT, is forthcoming from One World, as well as a novel titled ORGAN MEATS. She lives in California.