The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #155: Bonnie Chau
All Roads Lead to Blood, a collection of short stories, is author Bonnie Chau’s debut and the winner of the 2040 Books’s inaugural multicultural Awards Program.
Though a collection of short stories coming from a small press and written by an Asian-American author might seem like it wouldn’t go far in the literary world, All Roads Lead to Blood left the gate at full speed—selling out three print runs, packing bookstores on both coasts during an expansive author tour, and now entering early talks for a possible film adaptation. The book received rave reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal, and was selected as a “must read” for fall by BuzzFeed, Coil Magazine, Asian American Writers Workshop, Heavy Feather Review, and Sinkhole.
The book is a strange and magical text, where one can expect the unexpected. The female protagonists of these tales are cosmopolitan, sexual, childish, beginning and ending relationships, and at times, laugh-out-loud hilarious. Chau has a keen eye for finding the strange in the mundane, and what is more strange than being a woman alive today?
Originally from Southern California, which inspires her writing, Chau currently lives in New York City. She is a Kundiman fellow and works at an independent bookstore in Brooklyn in addition to serving as assistant web editor at Poets & Writers. Chau spoke with me over email about her debut collection, the language of sex, and the ghost in the text.
The Rumpus: What struck me immediately about All Roads Lead to Blood was how raw you portray female sexuality. Often, it is characterized as either some kind of mystery or just overtly pornographic. But your characters are flipping the view: women are shown in the throes of delicious and disturbing desire, but all of it reads as natural—like yes, I understand this, even when your character in “The Closing Doors” was objectifying Manhattan as a cock. What drew you to write so honestly about what can still be considered taboo?
Bonnie Chau: I think it’s a bunch of things, maybe just a perfect storm. I’m a pretty contrarian person by nature; I think it has to do with a generally faulty notion I have about striking some sort of balance in the universe, doing my part to even out things by way of disagreeing or subverting, so if something’s being relegated, I’m like, oh what’s that doing there? And while I feel very much a product of my milieu, a sheltered upbringing in Irvine, in conservative Orange County, and aware of conventional taboos around sexuality, I think that I was also so lucky to have had parents who ensured a childhood and adolescence spent wandering around museums looking at art, studying art and art history, and watching international movies, many of them European. My parents probably rented every movie in the foreign films section of Blockbuster during an, I don’t know, eight-year window, and the movie theater near UC Irvine used to play art house/foreign/independent films for the most part, too. Probably a lot of my exposure to weirder, more subversive stuff at an earlier age was through art and film, and not really through literature. But through that exposure, you know, I knew that there was other stuff out there.
There’s always the thought that there’s more, there’s something else, something more than this. In my twenties I spent a couple of years living in France, and traveling and working, and meeting and befriending people from different places, and those experiences and relationships also contributed to me learning about how Americans were viewed: as Puritans. I mean I knew about this stereotype, but I don’t think I’d really thought about it much. There’s a part of me that likes to agree with this, because I never felt like I fit in, really, as an American and I grew up in these conformist suburbs, so back then, to be able to point out something not that cool about being American was kind of gratifying and new. Also thinking about how American films in particular are so permissive when it comes to depicting violence, and so restrictive with sex. I think because I often felt excluded or not really a part of things when I was younger, I have a lot of issues about being snobby or elitist. It’s something I think about and fight against all the time. And one reason we’re advised to avoid writing about sex seems to be because when it comes to sex and popular entertainment or cultural forms, somehow it’s like our only two reference points are porn and “trashy romance” novels. And I’m kind of like, well, one, there can be more nuanced conversations about those, and two, there’s got to be more than that, or if not, I guess I should work on writing some.
I think when I first started writing about sex, it wasn’t something I talked about as much, and so to begin articulating it, and writing stories about it, and creating language for it and around it, was a pretty exciting and daunting thing, this idea of applying myself and my use of language to a subject I hadn’t previously spent a lot of time thinking about in terms of language and words and vocabulary and narrativizing. Because sex can be such a mess, so amorphous, or confusing, or wordless, because elements of it can seem to be secret or mysterious as you mentioned, that was motivation for me to apply new language to it, to experiment with unexpected phrasing or descriptors, to venture into surrealism or the fantastic. A lot of my writing about sex—most of my writing, period, really—is about figuring something out, the process of that, the process of change and transformation, so I’m into the idea that this impetus might carry over also in how the writing is read: as a natural process of discovery, of unfolding. I’m also driven by the responses I get from people who have read these stories or heard me read at events. I love that writing about sex, sexuality, desire, can be all these things: arousing, funny, visceral, disturbing, painful, uncomfortable, startling, beautiful, weird, that it can evoke feelings of sympathy or empathy, awkwardness, embarrassment, camaraderie. Oftentimes I feel that my short stories are inadequately story-like, at least in a very narrowly defined, conventional sense but when I read some of them, especially the crowd-pleasing ones that describe perhaps some, as you say, “delicious and disturbing” sex, right there in front of a live and responsive audience, I feel a bit better, like oh yes, somehow this is about storytelling, somehow of course this is—however improbably—a story.
Rumpus: I think I see what you mean about your stories being inadequately story-like, though I think it’s because they resist the way we’re taught stories should be told: beginning, middle, end, where by the time you’re at the last sentence everything is wrapped up nice and neat. Your stories aren’t wrapped up nice and neat; they prod. The supernatural elements, in turn, also resist the neat characterization of a this-is-that metaphor, like the jellyfish in the sink in “Medusa Jellyfish.” These are the kinds of stories you read and know that the writer explicitly trusts the reader’s ability to make sense of everything. When setting down to write these stories, do you have any concerns that your reader might misinterpret a story’s meaning? Or is there power in that?
Chau: I suppose it’s trust that there’s something valuable in testing that tension between writer and text and reader. Trust, and, well I don’t really think of it so much as having power, as it is a hope that it might be generative, of a new text, a ghost text. Like I’m writing one story. The reader who reads my story is reading another story. And somewhere in the middle is this parallel universe ghost of a story, a different one that inhabits the space between me and each reader, maybe even a different one each time it’s read or re-read.
I know that, as a reader, I do love writing that allows space between each of those nodes: writer and text, text and reader, writer and reader. I find that the space can be scary but also valuable. That said, it also happens all the time that I seek out books that are not like that, that I’m not in the mood for something like that, or I find that those books take a longer time to read, or a different kind of attentiveness, which in a particular moment I might not be able to give, might not have the right kind of energy for it. So while I enjoy writing stories that aren’t wrapped up nice and neat, that, to your point, prod, that might resist a direct or quick or clean understanding, I do also try to balance that with a directness, a bluntness, when I can. I don’t really know how to do it, how to have my writing be many things, have it be straightforward and fun or funny and profound, have it be both accessible and oblique, but I keep those in mind, and I try as much as feels natural to me.
I think I’ve gotten used to the fact that there’s probably always going to be a reader who might not get the story, most likely a whole bunch of readers. If one person feels a sense of understanding, a resonance, I’m pretty happy. We come across things all the time that we understand, that we don’t even register, maybe, because we understand it. Sometimes more interesting things happen, in thinking, when we don’t understand. When I wrote “Medusa Jellyfish,” the jellyfish just came out. Just like how it did in the story, out of nowhere, out of a sink faucet, apropos of nothing. But, I don’t believe it’s really apropos of nothing, in my story. Even though I couldn’t really articulate it. It’s an alien appearance, an elephant that appears in the room that is kind of monstrous, some sort of strange creature à la Lynch or Cronenberg or Kafka maybe. But beautiful. A manifestation of the emotions in the story, a kind of horror and fear and hope that comes with the transformation of a relationship.
Rumpus: Your writing reflects that ghost text, absolutely. What you said reminds me of both your first story, “Monstrosity,” where your protagonist is split into two people after an intense sexual encounter—you, and the Chinese you—and your last story, “The History of Your Very Body,” where the experiences of a fierce huntress and a girl with eczema are paralleled. Two people in both, but the same person, boiled down. What draws you to create these sorts of characters, these women who contain some sort of physical and/or emotional split?
Chau: I think some of that draw comes from always having the desire to be something else, someone else, to be more. I don’t know how much of this is just part of my personality or character, and how much of it has to do with positionality and my experiences in our society: growing up as a girl, being a woman, being a Chinese-American person, being multilingual, these feelings of not being in precisely the right place, not being the right person, not being exactly one thing or the other. I mean we’re all so many things right? I’ve always liked the idea of being able to do many things. Like no, I am not just a writer. No, I am not just a good, obedient Asian daughter. No, I am not just some shy, quiet girl. No, I am not just some upper-middle-class cliché from the OC. No, I am not just this total slob who’s always wearing cut-off jean shorts and ratty tank tops and sandals.
I really prize that moment where I might be able to surprise someone who may have underestimated me, or pigeon-holed me: like yes, look, this right here is also me, you don’t know me, you don’t know what else I can do, who else I can be, you have no fucking idea! Also I’m a Pisces, so I’m always indecisive and conflicted, and my moon is in Virgo, which is the polar opposite of Pisces, so it’s just a lot of contradictions going in all different directions.
Rumpus: In a previous interview, you stated you were working on a novel. From a craft perspective, do you have a different approach for writing a novel than you do for writing a short story?
Chau: Ha! Maybe ask me that in six months! I started this novel my second year of grad school, maybe three or four years ago. I’d never written anything but short stories or short prose pieces, some poetry maybe, but never anything on the longer side. And I wasn’t setting out to write a novel, but as I worked on this… thing, it just became clear that it was a larger and longer project, that it felt more expansive, there was more there. But I had no idea what I was doing, really, and ended up writing about a hundred pages of it which was my thesis, and then not working on it much the last few years. Now I’m picking it back up, but I still don’t know how to do it. I don’t do any planning or outlining with my short stories, or anything particularly organizational before or even along the way, and while that seemed to work with shorter pieces, I’m not so sure it’s working that well with this novel. So I’ve tried to just work on it in pieces, chipping at it a little bit here or there, and also have tried making more notes and doing things like lists and chronologies. We’ll see. Right now it’s this monstrous google doc that’s maybe a hundred fifty pages, and when I’m working on it, I make the font really small so I don’t have to scroll as much. It’s a total mess!
Rumpus: It surprises me to hear that you don’t plan or outline your short fiction, given how the stories are so image heavy and clearly drawn. How do you go about crafting your stories, then?
Chau: It’s a pretty intuitive process. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time not really talking about it, or skirting around it, because it can feel like intuition is in direct opposition to craft, and maybe there’s something not quite legitimate about this collage-like process. Especially in fiction workshops, it’s like we can spend hours talking about craft, but I’ve never spent hours talking about writing that relies heavily on instincts or the subconscious will. I usually start with writing just scenes, vignettes, bits and pieces that revolve around particularly persistent memories or images. And accumulate them, and build upon them, layer by layer. I suppose elements of craft enter the picture mostly when I get to the step of reading through these accumulations and threading them together, noticing recurring themes or motifs, envisioning some sort of shape or arc, and rearranging them in a way that adheres to some sort of internal, emotional logic.