Lily Hoang is the author of five books, as well as co-editor of the anthologies The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility & the Avant-Garde and 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Writers. In 2016, she published A Bestiary, her first collection of essays, in which Hoang takes an experimental approach to her work and writes in several genres.
With chapters that are organized around the signs of the Chinese zodiac, Hoang explores themes of family, belonging, loss, and female subjugation. Hoang dives into personal territory, such as the death of her sister, the distant and abusive relationships she herself has endured, and her doubts and reflections about the path her own life has taken. Her storytelling is woven together with fairy tales, such as a story of a man hunting the elusive white tiger that took his father from him, and the juxtapositions that ensue make these essays all the more powerful.
In September, I interviewed Hoang by email as she settled into her new position as Associate Professor of Literature, Creative Writing at UC San Diego. We discussed the importance of genre, the lessons of teaching, and her unusual revision story for A Bestiary.
The Rumpus: You have published several books, but A Bestiary is your first collection of essays, and it weaves autobiographical material with fairy tales, remembered dialogue, and speculations. Can you tell me about your experience writing a book in this form, and how it affected your approach to content?
Lily Hoang: I suppose the most honest answer about my process is also the least satisfying: this is the only way I know to write, or, at least, the hybrid form is what comes naturally to me. I didn’t necessarily intend to write a collection of essays, but it was the form that the book made of itself. And sometimes fairy tales are real enough to be true to me; therefore, they belong within the boundaries of the essay.
Rumpus: Did the form of the essay allow you to dive into material or themes that you have not been able to explore in other work, or look at ideas or subject matter you’ve written about previously in a different way?
Hoang: I like the way the essay makes my brain move. More than fiction, the essay—or my essays, at least—gives me permission to research and read and read and read. I like to saturate my brain with an idea and when I’ve reached max capacity, I start writing. It’s a frantic but intentional process. It’s fun!
Whereas I have written about myself before, writing in the form of the essay puts more “at stake.” Under the guise of fiction there is safety in the reader’s mistaking the first person narrator with me, but with nonfiction, there is no escape from experiences as distinctly mine. In that way, it’s as thrilling as it is tentative. I type carefully.
Rumpus: Some might say that A Bestiary transcends genre, in its blending of fairy tales, poetry, and memory within its essays. How do you define the genre of this book, if at all?
Hoang: I’m actually quite insistent that this is a book of essays. I think genre is important—I think categorizing A Bestiary as a book of essays is important—because I actively engage at the boundaries of genre. The essay as a form is necessarily experimental (essay comes from essai, meaning to trial, to experiment). More often than not, when reviewers, etc. talk about my book, they call it poetry. Others have called it fiction (that’s a bit further of a stretch!), but while writing this book, I was keenly aware of the parameters of nonfiction and how I can and do engage with the genre of the essay.
Rumpus: How do you approach the discussion of genre within the writing workshops you teach?
Hoang: I take a fairly conservative stance on genre within the workshop, especially in the undergraduate workshop. We read traditional realist short stories and canonized nonfiction (depending on genre). Or, at least, this is what we read for the bulk of the workshop. Only towards the end do I introduce more innovative forms. I think it’s absolutely crucial that students understand the craft components before they begin to challenge them, and my students seem to appreciate this approach.
I spent this last summer in South Africa, where I taught a graduate workshop at Rhodes University. The MA in Creative Writing program there follows the “tradition” of American experimental fiction. My students were better versed in what’s happening in US contemporary lit than I am. It was very impressive, and yet—and yet—their education (students do not need an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing or Literature or English; they do not, in fact, need an undergraduate degree at all as pre-requisite to admission into this program) used experimentation as its base. The problem was that the students could only reproduce or imitate what’s happening on this side of the Atlantic. They’re working within a distinctly American tradition/avant-garde, but without the knowledge or experience or history that launched and landed us into this current and specific brand of experimentation. So my workshop taught them canon and craft, but much more importantly, I interrogated their experimentation: in what ways does American experimentation translate into South African—or even African—experimentation? How does South African history and literary tradition mirror American history and literary tradition that might make our various forms and methods of experimentation analogous or transferrable? It was essential to learn about traditional forms of genre, within both American and South African traditions—and arguably British, too—in order to recognize the holes, the tiny abysses to puncture and rip, to make new.
Rumpus: What was your own knowledge of South African literary tradition before teaching this workshop?
Hoang: I knew absolutely nothing about African and South African lit. I have this thing about travel though: I don’t like to know anything—especially visually—about the space. I want to walk out of the airport and feel the place. I want the rush. I want absorption. I was once working on a PhD in Geography (nothing science-based, don’t be impressed. I was studying Human Geography, focusing on the geography of imagination), so place and space mean a lot to me. I try not to let imagined space influence its placeness. That being said, it’s also possible that I’m lazy, just another ignorant American.
In many ways, I learned all the things in South Africa. The country is powerful. After Apartheid and all that acute pain, their art is revelatory.
Rumpus: Do you see your experience teaching a writing workshop to students in South Africa affecting your own writing process moving forward?
Hoang: I learned so much from my students, but more than anything else, they impacted my writing because they are in my writing. My students are within me, and I can only hope I had such influence to return to them.
Rumpus: Can you explain some ways your teaching has affected your writing directly?
Hoang: It’s funny: I published four books before I started teaching at an MFA program (at New Mexico State), but I didn’t really know what I was doing. Teaching in an MFA program forced me to learn “craft” so that I could teach it. I was forced to learn “domestic realism” so that I could teach it. Simple things like dialogue/scene or world building, I had to learn all that. It was never taught to me. I started my writing career as a die-hard indie writer, ignoring all those old white boy craft things, but it turns out they’re actually quite useful skills. To break one must learn, first. I know not everyone believes in that kind of pedagogy, but I think I learned things the hard way—the most circuitous road possible—and I don’t want my students to learn from my mistakes because I am competent enough to teach them. Now I teach at a very “experimental” program. UC San Diego doesn’t even recognize the genre divide. I’m eager to see how my pedagogy and teaching methods will change in this kind of open environment—and I can only imagine inspiration. When people ask me what I teach, I tell them that I inspire creativity, and that’s a very prized privilege.
Rumpus: The linked essay format of A Bestiary has been compared to books such as Maggie Nelson‘s Bluets. Were you reading anything in particular that informed or inspired your own work as you wrote A Bestiary?
Hoang: I am a huge fan of Maggie Nelson’s work, and I—like so many others—have been massively influenced by her writing. We are always influenced by the books we read; that information is always stored somewhere. While writing, though, I tend only to read philosophy and cultural theory, mostly for research but also mostly for pleasure. I did a lot of research for this book, but any aesthetic influence was something that had lodged itself—logged itself—as potential. And during the writing process, these potentials are held akin to a hand full of tarot cards—or divinatory I Ching sticks—and the most correct form shows itself and returns to me: a revelation.
Rumpus: How do you know when you have done enough research? Does this process continue throughout the writing of the book?
Hoang: I absolutely love research. I love to read, especially outside of creative works. Research—especially for creative nonfiction—is one of my favorite things to do. I want to take in all the information, and when I reach saturation, when I reach a first line, then I can stop reading. Once I understand the form of each specific essay, then I can start writing.
Rumpus: How much of the structure of A Bestiary did you have in mind as you started working on it? What was the drafting and revision process like?
Hoang: I knew fairly quickly that this was a book of essays and that each essay would contain an animal of the Chinese zodiac. The animal itself is not always apparent, nor is it the core of the essay. The animal was a simple constraint for me to better understand and maximize the form.
The revision process is a better story, though. I finished the first draft of A Bestiary in Spring 2015. That summer, I flew to Port Townsend, WA, to read the manuscript to Rikki Ducornet. She kindly and astutely told me that my book was self-serving and self-pitying, that no one wants to read 250 pages of me whining about my life. A couple weeks later, CSU Poetry Center wrote to congratulate me because Wayne Koestenbaum had chosen my manuscript to win their first nonfiction book contest. Imagine my surprise! Imagine my despair! I couldn’t—simply couldn’t—publish this manuscript after Rikki’s critique. So I wrote to the publisher and asked if she would take a revision. When she said I could, I started rewriting and quickly. She gave me six weeks to deliver the manuscript to her—and so we have the version of A Bestiary that is in print today.
Rumpus: Did Rikki have any response to the manuscript she critiqued as “self-serving” then being the winner of a book prize? I noticed that her name appears in the published version of A Bestiary—I assume she was added into the manuscript during your post-award revisions?
Hoang: I didn’t tell Rikki about winning the prize until after I had completed my revision. I wanted to have a manuscript I felt proud about—one that understood and enacted her wise critiques—before I wrote to her again.
Rikki appeared in the published version of A Bestiary because the book that won the prize is totally different from the book I first wrote, and Rikki was a vortex of real talk that made me more honest, with each sentence, for each line, one each page, I forced myself to be honest without pitying myself along the way.
Rumpus: Can you tell me about the title of this book? I’m especially interested in this because you ended up with a tattoo on your arm that is inspired by the cover design: a rat perched on the “O” of your last name.
Hoang: As a working draft, I called this book Zodiac, but as I neared completion of the first iteration of this book, I knew that Zodiac was too obvious and easy and cliché, plus such a title would make the book seem like a biography of a serial killer or something. Instead, I landed on A Bestiary, after trying out Menagerie—which was wrong for obvious reasons. I think the bestiary is a playmate of the menagerie: it’s all about the animals, their captivity and display.
The rat was the designer’s brilliant idea. When I went to go read at CSU, I went with my amazing publisher Caryl Pagel to get a tattoo, and my little rat seemed like the right thing to do. Caryl calls him my Power Rat. He’s got a cute little butt and he’s crawling right into the O on my arm, and where is he going? Nowhere good, that’s for sure. That little guy is about to make some mischief!
Rumpus: What surprised you the most in the writing of A Bestiary? What has surprised you, if anything, in its reception?
Hoang: I was most surprised about the revision process. I’m generally pretty attached to my words, and although my revision process is in general grueling and tedious (I retype the entire manuscript), with A Bestiary, I was more ruthless: I cut my favorite essays, I cut a thirty-five-page essay down to one paragraph, and, most importantly, I did my best to hold myself accountable to all my whining.
I was also most surprised about the form that each essay took. In the first draft of A Bestiary, all the essays were lyric and long, as lyric essays need to be. But as I revised, each essay started to look different. I guess I figured out how to transfer all my “fiction” skills to the existing rubric of the “nonfiction essay” to elasticize both forms. Bestiaries contain both real and imagined creatures; my bestiary contains both real and imagined forms. I remain inside genre by disrupting everything else around it.
I was also most surprised about reader reception. Because this is nonfiction, when I meet readers, they are shy to reveal that they’ve read the book. It’s only after many painful minutes of anxiety-filled small talk that they reveal that, yes, they’ve read my book. We shake hands, again, and they look at me with empathy because they know me, they’ve read my book. They know my secrets—to me, they are still only strangers, but to them, I am someone they know intimately. I want to tell them that even nonfiction is curated. I choose what is in the book. I choose what they know about me. I want them to know there’s still more Lily that didn’t make it into print. Instead, I tell them an anecdote or two about the challenges of writing this book, and then we hug because now we are friends—but I still keep my secrets, this real Lily.
Photograph provided courtesy of author.