Writing as Construction of the Self: Talking with Matthew Salesses
My friend and fellow adoptee Nicole Chung introduced me to Matthew Salesses years ago when I was putting together a panel on adoptees and writing. Adoptees like us—united by shared experiences influenced by culture, race, and gender—write ourselves into existence. We write about the duality of living between cultures, and how that affects notions of self and identity.
In Salesses’s latest novel, Disappear Dopplegänger Disappear, protagonist Matt Kim is floating around like an apparition untethered to anything, it seems, until he meets “other Matt” through his girlfriend Yumi, whose own doppelgänger is dating a better version of himself. Which Matt is the true Matt? What does existence mean when you’re living in the parallel universes of wanting to disappear but also wanting to be seen? The novel underscores the surrealism of being Asian American and living in a country bound to its white supremacist roots.
Matthew Salesses is the bestselling author of the novel The Hundred-Year Flood. Forthcoming in 2021 are a craft book, Craft in the Real World, and a collection of essays, Own Story. His previous books include I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying; Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity; and The Last Repatriate. Matthew was adopted from Korea. In 2015, BuzzFeed named him one of 32 Essential Asian American Writers.
I was delighted to talk to Matt about Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, the paradox of writing about identity, the myths that so heavily factor into adoptee origin stories, and more.
The Rumpus: You describe the novel as being the most Asian American thing you’ve ever written. How did you come to write it? When did the novel begin to first form in your mind?
Matthew Salesses: I started writing the novel the winter after my first kid was born. Her birth stirred up a lot of adoption trauma, and I wasn’t dealing with it well. I thought my family would be better off without me, and I also knew this thought made no sense—especially since it would just be repeating my trauma on my children—but I couldn’t stop thinking it. The Hundred-Year Flood had just been roundly rejected with a number of notes that said, “I love the writing, but I don’t know how to sell it.” I decided that I would have to start over, and write something plottier, so I made a rule that at each opportunity, I would make happen whatever I least expected. What I ended up doing, though, was just making a ton of shit disappear and then reappear later. That was apparently what I didn’t expect.
I revise a lot, so I had years and dozens of drafts to think about what those disappearances meant. Much of the work was trying to figure out why and for whom I was writing. That’s where the Asian American part comes in—who is my ideal audience and what do I think a novel can do in the world, for them, for us? This novel is my answer, for now.
Rumpus: I hear you. The birth of my first son is the reason I went in search of my birth mother. In your Catapult column, Love and Silence––which everyone should read––you write: “Like any human being, I grew up in a reality constructed of language. People were always telling me what reality was supposed to be, even if it didn’t match my lived experience. In an attempt to be real, to exist in a shared reality, I learned other people’s interpretations of it.” You write deeply about this in Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, too, so I’m curious to know what your language of adoption and of being Asian American is? Do you make a list, as I do, of words that allow you to describe the spectrum of your experience? Is that even possible?
Salesses: You know the Audre Lorde quote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”? I think about that a lot in the context of making art, and what it means when we’re writing and speaking and making meaning with a language (and an aesthetic sensibility!) inscribed with classism, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, capitalism, etc. Even how English grammar prioritizes subject and action over object and description (read: observation)––the idea that writers shouldn’t use adjectives or write a “passive” sentence!––is an expression of what is important and how to write the world, how to see it. I’m always going to be writing in English, so what do I do? Thankfully, the language is constantly changing, since grammar is a made-up way of excluding people from the institution of language. My favorite way to change the language, to call it into question, is through puns and plays on words. Some of language’s most important work is the work of revealing our making of culture to us so that we can make it better.
What I mean is, take the word adoptee, which my computer insists is not a word and which adoptees use because they don’t want to say “adopted person,” which makes the adoptee an object instead of a subject. Either way, it’s still an acknowledgment of being acted upon. Adopter, adoptee. I find it difficult to use much of the language around adoption, since so much of it is a disappearance—one of my students wrote a play last semester with an entire scene questioning the insistence on relinquishment versus abandoned or given up. One of the adoption terms I hate most is “Gotcha Day,” which some adoptive parents celebrate on the anniversary of the day they adopted their child, but which brings to mind a trick or a capture.
Asian Americans have contributed a lot to the way Americans use and are used by the language—just one example is the case, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. Thind, a Southeast Asian man, argued that he should be eligible for citizenship because he was literally Caucasian. The judge agreed, and had to admit that Caucasian is just a made-up way of saying not him, but anyway that’s what it meant so he couldn’t become a citizen.
Rumpus: Your writing is so fucking smart, and laugh-out-loud funny. Lines like “[she] colonized reality with her imagination,” “The other you is your most dangerous predator,” “I had nothing to fear, but fear myself,” and “Existence was futile,” made me laugh out loud and also stop and think because they’re fine sentences loaded with a multiplicity of meaning. They remind me of reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Can you talk about using humor to comment on the cultural aspects of adoption, racism, and our white supremacist history, among other things?
Salesses: I like what people call “bad” jokes, “dad” jokes. What’s supposedly bad, I take it, is that there is a lag while you think for a moment about how the joke works and it is the thinking that makes it funny (or unfunny, depending on your perspective). In that moment, you hear the multiple meanings inscribed in the language and how the joke is playing with them. I also think humor points out just how ridiculous certain things are about America. Humor depends on our cultural expectations—in order to get the joke, Why did the chicken cross the road?, you first have to know that a joke should upset expectations and then that To get to the other side is an upending of expectations. To find a bad joke funny, you have to laugh at the part you play in making and maintaining culture.
Rumpus: I try to avoid classification in general because I feel it can be restrictive, but perhaps it is also freeing. I’m not entirely sure what autofiction is, per se, but I am interested in the dialogue around it and kept thinking your book felt like it because you are an omniscient Matt in this book in many ways. Is that a fair idea? How did you see your self––not yourself, please note––fitting into the narrative? Also, what do you make of that careful distinction of your self versus yourself?
Salesses: I’m no fan of the “autofiction” label, since in the US “autofiction” has historically been the forced domain of writers of color, especially women of color, the lane they have to write in if they want their books to sell in a very white publishing industry. Asian American literature is rife with examples of this—The Woman Warrior, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, is a novel; America Is in the Heart, which was marketed as autobiography, is a novel. The industry has been willing to pay for the story of a person of color as long as it can sell the author, put her identity on sale.
I wrote myself into my novel not because of that, but because I wanted to show that I have skin in the game. This is personal. These ideas are keeping me alive. Plus, if I was going to write about doppelgängers, I had to face the fact that writing is always a way of constructing the self.
Rumpus: There’s a tension between reality and duality, which I understand completely as an adoptee myself, and in your writing you use disembodiment and passive voice in ingenious ways. Very early in the book––within the first twenty pages––Matt describes his hands at a moment of anxiety; “They rubbed together like two newborn animals.” Later, Matt begins to cry: “Liquid was coming out of me now, maybe that’s why I felt so empty.” I imagine you using index cards with character traits to keep up with their duality, complexity, and paradox. What did it look like to plot these complex characters for this book?
Salesses: I wanted to try something I had seen working in Murakami novels and others, how the protagonist has a very particular view of reality, a kind of life philosophy, which all of the other characters think is outrageous. I wanted other characters to ask Matt, “What is wrong with you?” That’s a major question in Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear and was a question for me, writing it. Is something wrong about Matt or about the world or about the way he sees the world or about the way the world sees him, etc? It’s complicated.
I have a craft book coming out in 2021, and in it, I write about the characterization of context, that the character’s world is a hugely important part of who they are, maybe the most important part. We know this, as adoptees. What if I had lived the life I was born into, or what if I was adopted into a richer or poorer family, or a family that wasn’t white, etc.? I’d be a very different person. I’m also fond of the idea, from philosopher Jonathan Lear, of a “good-enough world,” that ideally the world we live in should both resist enough of our desires and satisfy enough of them, and this is essential to our development as social beings. For so many people, the world is not good enough. This fact affects us in ways that mean you and I share some character traits that I don’t share with people who aren’t adopted. Not the fact of adoption, but the world of it. The ways in which the world is good enough or not good enough for a particular person says much about the possibilities within which a person lives. You can’t separate that from the usual ways we’re told to characterize: what a character wants, how badly she wants it, what her family is like, whom she loves, who loves or hates her, etc. Matt understands that he is not in control of what his world looks like. I don’t know; I don’t believe in free will.
Rumpus: I am so interested in how you wrestle with the many forms of invisibility in this book; as an adoptee, an Asian American, a doppelgänger, a husband, a boyfriend etc. Dialogue like: “If I wanted to be real, I could not experience what was not real” and “I hear you. I see you” is powerful when set to a character who is neither fully heard nor seen and who is being rendered invisible by gas lighting, being Asian American, being an adoptee, and the added magical fact that he’s actually disappearing.
Salesses: For a while now, I’ve been thinking about silence’s role in protest. Many people seem to think silence is always bad, but it can be and is a strategy of its own, a strategy mostly employed—of course—by people who have had to learn how to be silent in ways that can still be productive for them. The value we put on speaking up, on being heard and seen, can become a way of disapproving of the margins of the margins. Likewise, I don’t think appearance is always good and disappearance is always bad. The value of visibility depends on how we are visible and to whom and why. There must be some value to disappearance as well. Some kinds of visibility seem more like erasures to me. We talk about hypervisibility. Maybe we have to disappear from being visible in certain ways in order to see ourselves better.
Rumpus: There are portions in the book that are letters to and from various characters and their doppelgängers. There’s Yumi (whose very name infers duality: You/Me) and she has a double. There’s Matt and his doppelgänger and then there are Dear You and Dear Me (the letters are signed by Other You). Can you let us in on how you developed this technique to create a form of understanding for the reader of what it feels like to be “othered?”
Salessses: These letters are written by Sandra to her doppelgänger, Yumi. It was important to me that there be a way of seeing the world of the novel that wasn’t just Matt’s. There’s another story going on between this other set of doppelgängers, but it can be hard to see it because Matt is so much in his own head. Sandra and Yumi have developed this lovely friendship based around protest and activism and better understanding the world and their places in it.
Rumpus: There was a time in my life where I felt I wanted to jump into the air and disappear. I figured no one would notice I was gone because I felt so invisible for many reasons. Have you ever actually wanted to disappear, too?
Salesses: I had to write once to the prompt: start an essay with the sentence “I was invisible once” and include only things that are absolutely true. I wrote about adoption, of course, and about glass floors and my fear of heights, and about a doll my parents gave me once that was a life-sized version of me (no shit). I think we’ve all wanted to disappear sometimes, especially if our visibility is already a disappearance. I guess that’s what I was trying to say before.
Photograph of Matthew Salesses by Grace Salesses.