Interview with K-Ming Chang
I remember looking up at the ceiling of my grandmother's house in Montebello and seeing masking tape stuck to the leaks in the ceiling, and it's an image I think about often: the impossibility of keeping things out.
A few weeks ago, our Editor-in-Chief Sarah Lao had the opportunity to conduct a quick interview with ISSUE I Contributor K-Ming Chang. Read her pieces "Drought Goddess" and "Wet Dream" in ISSUE I here, and learn more about her inspirations, the prevailing role of water in her work, the process of writing her debut novel BESTIARY, and more.
K-MING CHANG is a Kundiman fellow and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her debut novel BESTIARY is forthcoming from One World/Random House on September 8, 2020. More of her work can be found at www.kmingchang.com, and Bestiary can be preordered here.
SL: Hi K-Ming! Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. You’re a huge inspiration to me and a lot of the writers I know, so I was wondering, who are your favorite writers?
KMC: Thank you so much for reading my work! I'm really honored and excited to be corresponding with you all. I have many, many favorite writers, so it's hard to name them all, but some of my biggest inspirations are Marilyn Chin, Jessica Hagedorn, Maxine Hong Kingston, Helen Oyeyemi, Chen Chen, Larissa Lai, Vievee Francis, Justin Torres, Venita Blackburn, T Kira Madden, Dorothy Allison, Natalie Diaz, and Jacqueline Woodson—and so, so many more. I admire all these writers for their innovative language and forms, and for the mythic and intimate feeling of their storytelling.
SL: Water plays a large role in both “Drought Goddess” and “Wet dream”—along with other symbols like mirrors and animals—it seems to reoccur a lot in many of your stories. Could you explain what draws you to these images? Do their meanings shift between works, or is there some sort of fixed significance certain motifs have in your life?
KMC: I love writing about water! It always manages to find its way into my writing—in “Drought Goddess” particularly, I thought a lot about the prevalence of drought in California and the visibility of thirst everywhere. My family immigrated from a place of constant rain to a place of permanent drought, and I'm fascinated and preoccupied by these two contrasting landscapes and the shift from abundance and ripeness to dryness and extreme thirst (not that two places represent a binary or polarity but that the movement between extremes often propels me to write). I associate water with the body, as something that we require to survive but that also has the capacity to destroy and take away. I remember looking up at the ceiling of my grandmother's house in Montebello and seeing masking tape stuck to the leaks in the ceiling, and it's an image I think about often: the impossibility of keeping things out. In stories like “Wet Dream” and in a lot of my writing, I'm drawn to the image of leaking, of water as haunting or withheld truth. For me, the setting of a drought dramatizes the characters' constant sense of need and thirst—in both these stories, queer desire manifests as literal thirst or leakage.
SL: How autobiographical is most of your work? Even though the settings are often fantastical, it still feels highly personal. To that end, I’m also curious how you balance the mythical with almost jarringly modern references like Ranch 99 and Clip-art in “Drought Goddess.”
KMC: My fiction isn't autobiographical in a literal or factual way, but the settings of the stories and the voices of the characters are drawn from different parts of my life and imagination and from my own experiences or oral histories. My identities and desires definitely shape those of my characters. I'm glad that my work feels personal along with fantastical—I hope that they feel grounded while at the same time exploring wild possibilities. For me, the mixture of mundane and magical felt somewhat natural or inescapable—in a lot of stories that I was told growing up, strangeness and ghosts coexisted with daily life. Family stories often have the same quality of myth in that they morph and distort into almost supernatural retellings, and I wanted to balance that myth-like memory with contemporary reality and show how they're completely intertwined—often, the myths passed down to us are a reflection or product of historical trauma or a desire to rewrite the past and therefore have agency over the present and future.
SL: Congratulations on your debut novel, BESTIARY! Can you tell us a bit about it? What did the process look like? How long did it take you to write, and what was the hardest part about writing it?
KMC: Thank you so much! BESTIARY follows three generations of Taiwanese American women, at the center of which is Daughter, who grows a tiger tail overnight and realizes that it connects her to a story her mother told her about a child-eating tiger spirit. She begins to dig (literally) into her family history in order to understand the origins of her tail, while at the same time she is falling in love and coming to terms with what she's inherited. My process for this book was kind of a non-process! I began by writing memoir pieces—completely unconnected—and fabulism kept creeping in. I was inspired by Maxine Hong Kingston's subversive storytelling and wondered if it was possible to confront intergenerational trauma in a way that's slanted and strange and that offers the possibility of healing or change. It took only about three months to write (the fastest I've ever written!) and the hardest part was form—I had no idea how to write a novel or a long-form project, and I still doubt whether or not it's a novel, but I'm praying that it is!
SL: What misconceptions do people have about your work?
KMC: I'm not completely sure! I'm lucky and very grateful to those who have reached out to me about my work—they are so generous and kind and insightful and inspiring, and I'm always blown away. I think maybe one misconception I had about my own work for a while is that I thought I had to choose between writing about queerness or writing about family—it was by reading more and leaning into my own obsessions that I learned it was possible to write about both at the same time.
SL: As a fairly young but experienced writer yourself, what piece of advice do you have for younger writers just starting out?
KMC: I definitely feel like I give terrible advice (please disregard this if it doesn't feel true or helpful to you!) but one thing that has really buoyed me, and that has been the most lasting and beautiful part of being in this community, is all the relationships I've formed with other young writers. We've seen each other grow and we've cheered each other on, and those are the things that feel like they last and that push me to not only be a better, more responsible writer, but how to champion others as well, and how to give credit to all the writers who have made our own work possible. It was actively reaching out and making connections with other writers and sustaining those relationships that helped me continue to write and grow. I try to give myself the advice of focusing on building a supportive community that makes all our creative work sustainable.
SL: Finally, what question do you wish we or any interviewer would ask you?
KMC: I'm not sure! Your questions are so wonderful and thorough. Thank you for reading my work with such a generous and careful eye. I think that I'm always eager to talk about how queerness, class, and gender play out in my writing. I think I'm slowly starting to become more and more brave in grappling with all of these, and in “Drought Goddess,” for example, I tried leaning into the voice of someone who has internalized homophobia and who looks at the girl she's attracted to with a sense of both desire and disdain. Someone who wants to separate herself and who simultaneously wants intimacy. Similarly, Split Lip Magazine recently published (and nurtured!) a flash piece of mine with a young narrator who does and believes things that are a bit repulsive to me, and who is deeply un-self-aware but who moves toward reverence and confession, if not compassion. I also had the great privilege of being in a fiction class taught by the incredible Elaine Castillo, and she told our class to lean into doubt as a source of creativity rather than as something holding us back, and so I'm always trying to remember that and keep treading into uncertainty.
This interview has been lightly edited for concision and to fit our style guide.