The PEN Ten with Lisa Ko
In this week’s PEN Ten interview, we speak to 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction prizewinner Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers, forthcoming from Algonquin Books. Her fiction has appeared in Apogee Journal, Narrative, Copper Nickel, and the Brooklyn Review, and has been selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016, guest-edited by Junot Diaz.
The Bellwether Prize, which was established in 2000 by Barbara Kingsolver and is funded entirely by her, was created to promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. Ko was born in Queens, raised in New Jersey, and now lives in Brooklyn.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I wrote constantly throughout my childhood without showing anyone, stories with networks of fictional characters, writing the community I yearned for. I said I wanted to be a writer, but only to myself—writers were not people who looked like me, though I’d been seeing and processing the world through writing ever since I learned how. In high school I was lucky to have a couple encouraging teachers, and published several short stories, and in college, I wrote fiction to work out my own emerging identities. I was 20 when I did my first reading, at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and when I walked back into the audience I had the terrifying, heart-thumping thought that I could do this, I could be a writer, and oh shit, did I want to. I’ve been making a living writing and editing since my early 20s, but it’s been a long and difficult road for me to fully claim identity as a fiction writer.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
I have to go with the great Toni Morrison. But too much respect to steal—can we say “honor”?
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Keeping a daily journal (I’ve written down what I’ve done nearly every day of my life since I was five years old), migration stories, cults, mafias, cities, videos of obsolete technology, exurbia, Google mapping the past, gels, the story behind the story, lost New York, social histories, corporate and political mythmaking, subtext, hybrid words, narrative arcs, song arcs, food and music as vehicles for nostalgia. I’m obsessed with obsessiveness in general.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
Anything personal, even through fiction. I confront generations of fear and anxiety every damn time.
When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
I’m more intrigued by context: who is censoring, who is being censored, and why? What’s the motive, the power differential, the consequences? There’s censorship in terms of limiting individual speech, and then there’s censorship in terms of what stories—journalistic and otherwise—are reported and disseminated, how these stories are framed, and what and who remains invisible.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
I’m not into absolutes. But how’s this: to push toward honesty, in ourselves, in listening to others, and in what we put on the page.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
To document, reframe, raise questions, raise stakes. To bring readers into the emotional contexts of other points of view. And I don’t think it’s fallen out of fashion, it just looks a little different these days—less white, male, institution-based—which is great, necessary, and long overdue.
Where is your favorite place to write?
Anywhere the conditions are ideal: a window to look out of, a mug of caffeine, a cushiony chair, headphones or speakers with my noise of choice, and either complete privacy or total disregard. Preferably morning, with no internet access, after a decent night’s sleep.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
I’m doubtful that a book would have much impact. But for the sake of this question, let’s say Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and the poetry of Suheir Hammad.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Again, it goes back to power relationships, intent, and result. And in the age of the digital panopticon, the line has become increasingly blurred. Not just with the NSA, but in the way that corporate data collection is cloaked as market research, or as consumer/citizen protection—which only seems harmless if you’re under the illusion that corporate power is separate from state power. Because of our desires for community and connection, we participate freely, surveilling ourselves, giving permission for ourselves to be surveilled, in every text message, status update or check-in, every web page we visit. I’m doing it right now; you are too.