The PEN Pod: On Myths, Magic, and Intergenerational Narratives with K-Ming Chang
Author K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Her poems have been anthologized in Ink Knows No Borders, Best New Poets 2018, Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, and the 2019 Pushcart Prize Anthology. She has received fellowships or scholarships from Tin House, Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, Lambda Literary, and Kearny Street Workshop. She joins us today to talk about intergenerational narratives, the subversive powers of myth, and her debut novel, Bestiary, on sale today.
One of the things I really enjoyed reading about and taking in from the book was the fact that it takes place from these three different perspectives, which represent three generations of the Taiwanese American family that’s at the heart of the book—there’s a daughter, a mother, and a grandmother. Why did you feel it was important to write the story across these three generations of women? Was there one POV or another that felt easier or more fluid to write for you?
What a wonderful question. The reason why I knew instinctually that there would be multiple generations is, I guess, one of the questions that haunts the book is about intergenerational trauma, and what does it mean to intervene in your own lineage or revise it in some way, if that’s even possible, and what is inherited in this very bodily way as well. And I think that’s one of the central questions that the daughter is very curious about as well—like whether or not she’s capable of intervening in her lineage and rewriting her own history. I also think I wanted the three generations to be a little bit unconventional, in that they’re not as distinct. They’re fluid and porous with each other, in the voices and the vocabulary and the language that they use.
And so, I was really interested in this idea of like, “Oh these aren’t necessarily three very distinct generations.” I mean, obviously they are literally different generations, but there’s a kind of porousness and this feeling of accumulation—that they carry so much of each other, rather than this kind of more conventional idea of individuality and like each generation represents some kind of brand new break, or something like that. In terms of which POV felt the most fluid, I think the mother’s voice is something that felt so immediate to me and really, really urgent. And I think part of that is just—she’s a lot more action-oriented than the daughter, and her voice just contained a sense of movement and urgency, almost as if I was being swept in an undercurrent.
“One of the questions that haunts the book is about intergenerational trauma, and what does it mean to intervene in your own lineage or revise it in some way, if that’s even possible, and what is inherited in this very bodily way as well. And I think that’s one of the central questions that the daughter is very curious about as well—like whether or not she’s capable of intervening in her lineage and rewriting her own history.”
There are so many characters throughout that I really gravitated to, especially Ben, who I’m obsessed with. The book is also a queer coming-of-age story, as it details the daughter’s feelings for Ben. There were so many details about the relationship and about the character that I really loved, especially this line, which I underlined and highlighted and committed to memory—“Our teacher told us that grammar was the god of language, but Ben was her own deity.” What was it like to write a character like Ben, especially in relation to the other women and girls in the book? They all kind of defy the rules and hierarchies that they are expected to follow, but they do it in these subtler ways, whereas Ben is just like, “I’m not even going to try and subvert these. I’m writing my own entirely?”
I love that so much. I have so much affection and love for Ben, and I think you’re really right, in that she is kind of subversive and playful. I guess I was thinking too about archetypes of like, the trickster god, and the ways in which Ben herself is kind of like a trickster god—a little bit supernatural, a little bit strange. Well, maybe very strange. The daughter is struggling so much with this idea of passivity and intervention, and Ben is someone who’s very much like, “I’m going to intervene. I’m going to tell you what to do. This isn’t even my family. But I’m going to show you. Let’s try this, let’s do this.” And someone who is really playful with things like authority and, like you said, completely willing to reinvent her own language, and it’s not even really a question for her whether or not that’s even possible—it’s just embodied in the very way that she exists. And I love that you highlighted that line too, about language, because I think from the very moment, when she says her name is Ben and everyone is confused, like, “It’s a boy’s name, and what is it short for?” There’s already a kind of defiance at thi butch girl inventing her own language and just being entirely shameless in a lot of ways too, which I find really beautiful.
Myths and myth-making are so prevalent throughout the book. There’s another line in the book, in which the daughter says, “We didn’t blame our mother for her lies. We loved them into littler truths.” Throughout the book, many of the characters have a fascinating and multifaceted relationship to the notion of “truth.” What is it about myths—personal or sociocultural myths—that interests you as a writer?
I love that question so much. I can definitely endlessly talk about myth, because it’s so contradictory to me in a lot of ways, because so much of myths, legends, folktales, or fairy tales—oftentimes there’s a really clear “moral” that is embedded within them. There’s a sense of like, “This story is supposed to transmit to you our society’s idea of what a good woman is, or what a good mother is, or how you should behave.” And so, there is that instructive meaning attached to it, which feels like it’s a tool of how we enforce our ideas of morality and gender roles and things like that.
And then, on the other hand, there is so much that is inexplicable in myth. There’s so much magic and strangeness, and it doesn’t conform to conventional plot oftentimes—things turning into animals, or pumpkins. So at the same time that I felt like, “Oh wow, these stories are attempting to impart a moral,” there’s so much room within them for subversive potential and impossibility and inexplicability. And I thought that contrast was really interesting. Because myth is so tied to morality and messages and things like that, playing with them and subverting them, for me, became a way of redefining the possibilities of the world as well—the world of the characters, my own world. So it felt extra powerful to play with these stories in particular. I also think, in the book, these myths oftentimes have these truths embedded in them, but they’re very much told slant, and they evolve from generation to generation, but there are all those little kernels that I think Daughter herself is trying to digest and parse through and understand how it’s rooted within her own body. And it’s not just this kind of abstract thing. These myths are deeply embodied.
“There is so much that is inexplicable in myth. There’s so much magic and strangeness, and it doesn’t conform to conventional plot oftentimes—things turning into animals, or pumpkins. . . Because myth is so tied to morality and messages and things like that, playing with them and subverting them, for me, became a way of redefining the possibilities of the world as well—the world of the characters, my own world.”
In addition to being an incredibly accomplished fiction writer, you’re also a poet. I’d love to know if you find that the process of writing poetry is at all different for you, than the process of writing fiction. There are so many lines throughout the novel and in your short fiction too—the ways in which you describe certain images or feelings—that feel really visceral in the way poetry can be.
Thank you so much. I think it’s really beautiful that you see threads of poetry in the book as well. I don’t know if the process is necessarily different, but definitely no matter which I’m writing in—poetry or prose—I feel this idea to break out of it. So whenever I’m writing poetry and verse, sometimes I’m like, “Oh, I just really want to use some sentences and be really dense on the page.” And when I’m writing prose, sometimes I’m like, “Oh, I want to use line breaks.” And so, I don’t know, there’s a kind of restlessness in that whatever I’m doing, I really want to just flee in the other direction. I think that’s where some of the cross-pollination comes from. Another thing is that both, for me, are about accumulation—rather than progressing or thinking about plot, sometimes it’s just about starting with language, and accumulating language for a really long time, and letting it accrue on the page, and then thinking about the shape of it much, much later.
So full disclosure for our listeners—I’ve taken two workshops with you, and I can attest that in addition to being a magnificent writer, you’re also such an excellent and generous writing instructor. Your writing prompts alone I find so interesting and generative. In the classes I’ve taken with you, we’ve talked a lot about different writers and writing in traditions of both poetry and fiction, as well as hybrid forms. What other books or works of art were you immersed in, inspired by, or thinking about while you were writing the novel?
First, I want to say it’s such a joy and an honor to read your pieces that you generate from the prompts. I love seeing what directions you go in. It’s always so thrilling for me. In terms of other books, definitely things like Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin. I was like, “Oh, I know who’s going in my acknowledgements. Marilyn Chin, put her name down.” Writers like Helen Oyeyemi, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Also the title of that book—I remember being really shocked, because there’s a phrase that was passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me, that means what is not yours is not yours, in Chinese and Taiwanese, and I was so shocked. I was like, “Oh my god, how does Helen know that this is this intergenerational phrase that I’m haunted by?” The title itself is an inspiration for me.
“I don’t know if the process is necessarily different, but definitely no matter which I’m writing in—poetry or prose—I feel this idea to break out of it. So whenever I’m writing poetry and verse, sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, I just really want to use some sentences and be really dense on the page.’ And when I’m writing prose, sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, I want to use line breaks.’ And so, I don’t know, there’s a kind of restlessness in that whatever I’m doing, I really want to just flee in the other direction.”
Definitely writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Jessica Hagedorn too—The Gangster of Love and Dogeaters—so experimental and wild. She’s so formally innovative. And books like Justin Torres’s We the Animals as well. I’m thinking, like queer coming-of-age. Of course there’s Jenny Zhang, Sour Heart. We love some scatalogical language, bodily fluids. In terms of other art forms, there were some images in film that I was really haunted by. There’s a film called A Brighter Summer Day, and that movie—a lot of the landscape was really haunting to me, because it took place in an era of Taiwan that my mother grew up in, and I’d heard her describe it, and to kind of see it so viscerally was really haunting to me. I was like, “Wow, this feels like it’s plucked out of myth,” but it’s there, and it’s physical and embodied. Those are my main things that I was really immersed in.
Lastly, I’d love to know what you’re reading now in this extended period of lockdown. Are there specific books or texts that you’re excited by in this moment?
I just started a couple new things. I started Paradise by Toni Morrison. Within the first few pages, I’m already like—just, the language that she uses, my mind is just continually blown and blown. I probably need to read a page a day, because at this point I’m going to just run around screaming at the top of my lungs about how brilliant the language is. I need to pace myself and take a breath. I’m also reading a lot of books that I loved when I was like, 11 or 12. I decided to reread the whole Twilight saga for some reason. I was just like, I really want to go back to that really angsty, dramatic period of my life and delve into that whole psyche. I also just finished rereading a book called Water Ghosts by Shawna Yang Ryan, which is also so brilliant and reads, to me, like prose poetry.