My friends and I refer to K-Ming Chang as a beacon of Gen Z excellence, though it can be said that she has achieved excellence that transcends generational divides. Bestiary is Chang’s debut novel, written in college during the summer of her sophomore year and sold to One World while she was still an undergrad. Now twenty-two, she has a CV most writers three times her age will never achieve. Chang is widely published in literary magazines, a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and has a critically acclaimed poetry collection with Black Lawrence Press. Earlier this month, she made the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 list.
Genre-bending Bestiary is about three generations of women shaped by the mythology of their Taiwanese heritage, their queer desires, and their violent secrets. The book is a lyrical, sensorial gut-punch of storytelling full of inventive language and myth. Months before its release date, Bestiary was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize.
Although usually based in New York City, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic Chang is staying at her family home in Montebello, California, east of downtown Los Angeles. We conducted this interview via Zoom, where we spoke about writing that centers the body, the relationship between poetry and prose, and writing for a younger self.
The Rumpus: You’ve called Bestiary a coming-of-age story about coming home. How did the book come to be made? Which part of your brain did you pluck it out from?
K-Ming Chang: I was home for summer break during my sophomore year in college when I was writing Bestiary. Because I was home, I was very much immersed in the family dynamics I thought I had left behind. Writers say you need distance for you to write your experiences but for me it was returning to it and remembering what I had left behind, and what had been haunting me. That summer, while I was writing my novel, I was also taking summer classes at a local state school on Asian American history. Asian American histories are often focused on migration. As I was processing all this history, I was thinking about the ways in which my family processed history and how non-factual it was. My family has an irreverent view of history. Like, “I got this scar doing this,” and later I would find out during that time there was a war going on. It made me think about the ways in which those stories alchemized in me—really fabulist, wild stories that were often humorous, combined with all of this factual information from our history.
Rumpus: Your writing is filled with sensorial images often deemed disgusting; for example, images of someone eating toes, slurping shit, or sucking up someone else’s booger. What brings you to body horrors, and bodily emissions?
Chang: I like to balance what’s grotesque with what’s beautiful and tender. It’s so funny because I had no idea that I was doing anything transgressive, and then later I was told that actually, some of the writing is really gross. To me it’s so mundane and completely normal to talk about bodily functions. This is the way my family and friends talk. The ability to distance yourself from bodily functions is sometimes about class, and who decides what’s “clean.” I don’t like the idea of literature as transcending the body because the idea of mind over body is a Western construct.
My stories are stories that are completely embodied. They are stories that come through a mouth, and everything is tinged by being processed through the body. I wanted to center bodies, and the ways in which what we inherit is carried in our physical selves. This is true for trauma as well—this scar, this arthritis, these things that seem grotesque to people—are all things we literally carry in flesh. Like in Jenny Zhang’s collection Sour Heart—when the cockroaches are all over your leg, when you have to think about how you’re going to poop when your plumbing is really bad. All those things are immediate and urgent and yet also literary questions, although they may seem to someone else crass and gross.
Rumpus: The book is dedicated to MaMa. What is your relationship to your mother? How does that connect to your fascination with mother-daughter lineages?
Chang: I always tell people that my mother is kind of clairvoyant. She can sense what’s happening and what I’m doing. I was keeping the book a secret. I couldn’t believe it myself and I was worried that by saying it out loud I would make it disappear. Finally, my mom was like, “I know about the book. And you didn’t tell me about it so now I am calling you out because I can’t wait anymore.” She’s incredibly proud of me. Now she keeps being like, “Oh I have a great story for you; this should be a novel.” I can’t keep up, so I told her to write her own novel. In some ways how she raised me was a little unconventional in terms of a Chinese family. Over time, we started to see each other as people beyond our roles as daughter and mother. She has always been willing to share what her girlhood was like—things that made me understand her not just as a mother, but as a woman as well. I’m drawn to mother-daughter relationships in literature and I write about them because they’re so fascinating, so complex, and so full of mutual projection onto each other.
Rumpus: You are a poet first. If poetry and prose were your two lovers, do you prefer one over the other? Does one influence the other?
Chang: I love that you said lovers. I do feel like I spurned one a little bit. Poetry was my first love and I could only ever imagine myself writing poetry. Complete sentences, what? Never.
I’ve been writing since I was little. I would write terrible rhymes when I was nine or ten, and that continued all through high school and undergrad. But I never thought I would write a complete sentence. Actually, maybe the book shows that I am unable to write complete sentences. I have this intense urge to write narratives when I write poetry. And then when I write prose, I have an intense urge to avoid narratives. I guess with whatever genre I’m in, I have this squirminess and desire to escape and not be encaged by it.
I got to a point with my poetry where I wasn’t surprising myself anymore and could feel myself wanting to become increasingly narrative. I found myself writing ten-page poems, and well, that was a chapter. What I love about prose is because I have such little expectations for myself, to a certain point I didn’t care if I crashed and burned and as a result I was able to enjoy myself a lot more. And, I was surprising myself constantly. You know that saying that you should always feel like a beginner no matter what you do? I loved writing prose because I felt like a total amateur.
Rumpus: When you were writing the novel, were there any discarded characters, or fundamental changes you made as you wrote? Of all the darlings that you killed, what stands out?
Chang: It would take hours to describe how many characters I killed. Because I basically rewrote the entire novel multiple times. At one point it was 130,000 words, twice as long as it is now, because I just kept adding to it instead of doing my edits. My editors were like, “How about instead of an entirely new book, just edit what you already have?” So much got cut. There were a set of twin male cousins who were very prominent; I ended up cutting them because people told me my characters who are men are only interesting for the ways in which the women interacted with them. They were just narrative devices. Also, Bestiary initially began with the character of the grandfather, but I realized that the book was not about this patriarch but about all the women who surrounded him.
Rumpus: I’m sure that you enter rooms where often there is only one of you—as a young writer, a queer writer, an Asian American writer, an immigrant writer. It’s a rarefied space, and not for good reasons. How do you exist in these spaces? What assumptions do people make about you that you’ve had to dispel?
Chang: In some ways I’ve been lucky to avoid a lot of those spaces because of the community I’ve built for myself. But obviously undergrad and writing conferences are kind of out of your control in terms of who is there with you. In some ways I wish I were better at speaking up for myself and taking space. Because what happens is that I fade out, because I need to mentally check out for a second. Spaces like these force me to develop a good filter. I was in a workshop once where someone was like, “Wow, I’ve learned so much about your culture. Thank you for giving us this window into this exotic culture.” It was like they were sitting on their couch observing me on television. A culture of what? I was so confused. Sometimes people think that anything that doesn’t feature middle-class white people is anthropology or a sociological text on how “other” people live.
I don’t need to read about another European couple on the fritz, uncomfortably drinking wine in Paris. Ironically, for me, that kind of story is like being introduced to an exotic way of life. They’re eating cheese and they’re not lactose intolerant. They’re being passive aggressive in that very specific way. But at least I try to see its craft, whereas I think when some people encounter work from writers of color, they think they see an exotic culture and it stops being about the writing. I think this is because they don’t see themselves as being a part of a cultural context.
Ultimately, I had to learn how to pick my battles and know what deserves my energy and when it’s not worth it to fight certain people who just are there to exhaust and distract you. Sometimes, walking away from people who view your life as an exotic, sociological text is a form of resistance, and a way of preserving your self-worth.
Rumpus: Which is a great segue to my next question—who is this book written for?
Chang: Naturally all people that relate to the book — daughters, Chinese Americans, Taiwanese Americans, indigenous Taiwanese, mothers, queer girls.
But I also read that Maxine Hong Kingston profile in the New Yorker by Hua Hsu where Hong-Kingston said about her work, “I wrote it to give myself a grandfather who would love me as a girl.” When I read that I was so moved. I had never considered myself as an audience for my book, because what I love about writing and storytelling is the performative aspect, the idea that the work is for someone else. I never thought of a younger me reading this. But in a way, Bestiary is me giving my younger self a community and a kind of love that she didn’t find.
Rumpus: I read in Publishers Weekly about how you found your agent, Julia Kardon. This story is itself the stuff of myth. Can you weave the tale of your path to publication?
Chang: I finished a rough first draft of the novel the summer of my sophomore year. I wrote it in pieces because I was thinking about it as an essay collection rather than as a whole novel. When I was done, I googled, “New York City agent,” and “New York City agent diversity.” In fact, I looked at Wikihow to figure out how to query. I found a list of agents. I hand-wrote their email addresses in a notebook. I don’t even know why, perhaps like an incantation or something. Julia was either the first or second person I emailed. She responded within hours. I woke up late one morning, looked at my phone, and saw a missed call from a New York number. I thought, that’s strange, must be a spam call. Then I looked at my email and Julia had written, “I tried to call you.” I flipped out because, wow, of all days to wake up at 11 a.m.! We had a conversation and of course I was thrilled that Julia understood my work and all that, but when she said, “Well, I’m born in the year of the Tiger, too,” I was like, that’s it! Perhaps it was completely illogical, but it felt meant to be. It was the sign that I needed.
In fall of 2018 we sold Bestiary to One World. Because it was initially structured like a collection, the editorial process was messy. I really respect the editors who turned my mess into something real. I was still in my undergrad and had told no one about the book deal because I didn’t think it was real. I thought, how horrible would it be if this turned out to be an elaborate scam and then I would have to tell everyone I got scammed into thinking I have a book. Julia laughed at me because I told her, “Julia, what if everyone I talked to so far has been fake?” When I met everyone on the team in person, I was like, okay, everyone is real.
Rumpus: One grounding motif of Bestiary is eating, and not always the most appetizing things (such as toes). Why is eating important?
Chang: That’s true! In everything I write, someone is always eating something that isn’t meant to be eaten. I am interested in the idea of how the body processes things. Eating is literally the way in which the body processes, the idea of metabolizing something through your body—whether it is historical trauma or literal food. I’m also fascinated with the idea of appetite and hunger because I wanted to explore what it means to want something, especially as a woman, when desire can be seen as scary, monstrous, disgusting, or shameful.
Rumpus: Another motif in all your work is nature—water, soil, dirt, weather. Where does that come from?
Chang: That’s a huge influence of indigenous Taiwanese culture. I was afraid with this book that that would get completely erased. Daughter’s family is half Mainland Chinese and half Taiwanese, but not Han Taiwanese. She is half indigenous Taiwanese which is something that defines her relationship to land. The indigenous storytelling tradition is one of understanding land as a body, with agency, and water as being an animate thing and not just a resource or a thing to be crossed. Water can be a weapon or a life force that has its own thought. I was really interested in continuing to write in that tradition of indigeneity and understanding the land as having its own will, desire for revenge, and love.
Rumpus: What is your writing process?
Chang: I give myself arbitrary word counts or tasks just so I sit with the page. If I interact with the writing in any way it helps me feel like I’m alive. It keeps me in touch with some deeper aspect of myself. It’s almost like prayer, like for one moment I am situated and aware of myself and the things that are coursing through my life. I love the idea that writing is a practice because it doesn’t have any expectation of anything complete or coherent; you’re just practicing. I love the movie Grandmaster by Wong Kar-wai, and in it, the character of Ip Man is just doing his exercises every day to practice and keep himself in touch with his body. He’s not fighting anyone or trying to get anything.
Writing a bit, editing something, continuing in those motions—it centers me. I try to sit down every day, even if it’s just reading over a few lines or changing a few words.
Rumpus: Who are your mentors, inspiration, your community?
Chang: Marilyn Chin’s book, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. Maxine Hong Kingston. Jessica Hagedorn. Dorothy Allison. My professor Rattawut Lapcharoensap, who saw things in my stories that I could never have imagined. When I doubt myself, I think about how he was able to pull so many things out of my work. He works so hard for his students with time and feedback and that inspires me as a teacher, too.
Rumpus: You’ve begun teaching, and your students have become fans who follow you from class to class. You’ve designed your classes to be generative and subvert the traditional workshop. What is your teaching philosophy, and what are you trying to change?
Chang: My teaching philosophy is centered around the things I found helpful as a student. What has been the most helpful to me hasn’t necessarily been thirty people giving me feedback letters and everyone telling me what their interpretation of my story is, though that can be helpful for many people. It has been getting space to generate work, with exercises that say, You have never thought about doing this, but just experiment, write something new. Exercises that forced me to try new things.
The other thing I look for is community and finding people whom you feel an affinity for. My thought is always, what can I do to make this workshop as generative as possible and to steer it away from anything that would prevent someone from writing? That’s what people need. Space to create a possible idea, and to run with it. The thing that makes it worth it is when people tell me, “I have new pieces from your workshop.” That’s it, that’s all I care about. Just make new things! Lead with your own self!
Photograph of K-Ming Chang by Trina Quach.