I first met Gina Chung at a going-away party for a mutual writer friend. In a warm back room, during the final days of summer, I wedged myself into a small circle and caught the final bits of something Chung said. She paused to clue me into their conversation. I was struck by her kindness and easy generosity, the way she openly shared her writing routine and practices with a group of old friends and new acquaintances. Months later, I heard about her debut novel, Sea Change (Vintage). The book sucked me into its effervescent, marbled world and ultimately buoyed my spirit, just like its author had at that summer party.
Sea Change follows Ro, an Asian American woman who is floating into her thirties on her own. Partly struggling, partly aimless, Ro is estranged from her mother, and grieving her father, who disappeared on a sea exhibition a decade earlier. Ro’s only companion is a Giant Pacific octopus, Dolores, the last remaining link to her father. As Dolores is about to be sold to a private investor, Ro has to reframe her understanding of past and present to make sense of her new world. Chung’s prose bubbles with delectable humor and metaphors, burrows into hard truths, and sets out to explore uncharted emotional ranges.
Chung is the recipient of the 2021 Center for Fiction Emerging Writer Fellowship and a number of literary awards, including a 2023 Pushcart Prize. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, Literary Hub, Catapult, Electric Literature, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, and the Rumpus, among others. She has a forthcoming short story collection, Green Frog (Vintage, 2024).
I spoke with Chung about Sea Change over Zoom a few weeks before her book launch. We talked about the role of silence and the unsaid in Asian American families, humor’s proximity to grief, subverting conventionality in character tropes, and how to take care of oneself in service of one’s art.
The Rumpus: I noticed that a lot of your work, Sea Change and a number of your short stories, often features the natural world. What drew you to ocean life and sea creatures as subjects and counterpoints to the characters in your novel?
Gina Chung: I’ve always loved writing about the natural world and thinking about animals that live in different ecosystems than us because it reminds me that we as human beings are also animals. I think we often forget that about ourselves; it’s really easy for us to see ourselves as being somehow apart from or above nature when in actuality we are very much a part of it. Whereas humans can and often do lie about what we need, animals can’t hide or be dishonest about their needs. Thinking about animals and what they need to survive and thrive inspires me as a writer to also try to be more honest on the page.
Rumpus: Within the characters’ environment, money is an oceanic force, capitalism as much a precondition to existence in the novel as it is in current modern life. With our protagonist, Ro, it seems there are few things that she can do in opposition to these forces, but she actively defies, withdraws from, and avoids this system in her own ways. Can withdrawal and avoidance be a form of agency?
Chung: In a lot of ways, withdrawing from or avoiding a decision can seem like a way to surrender one’s agency in a situation, but at the same time—my therapist and I always talk about this—not making a choice is still kind of making a choice as well. For Ro, avoidance is a huge part of how she navigates her day-to-day life because she’s been hurt and carries a lot of pain. That makes her feel afraid to engage directly with things that might hurt her or that she might be in disagreement with. When it comes to the impending sale of Dolores, it is one area where, even if she’s not consciously doing anything to fight back against the sale, she feels a direct kind of no in response. I wanted that to be an inciting incident for the book, too, because it gets her to understand how much this octopus means to her and how much she stands to lose if she were to lose this one point of connection.
Rumpus: This inciting incident also pits her against her best friend, Yoonhee. I was fascinated by their relationship. They grew up together with similar backgrounds but end up in very different positions at the aquarium and have different levels of motivation to rise the ranks. Why was it important for you to juxtapose their ambition and upward mobility?
Chung: I loved the idea of, as you said, pitting them a little bit against each other with this development that happens in their workplace. I wanted Yoonhee to feel like a character who has genuinely been a part of Ro’s life for a long time. They’ve seen each other through different ups and downs and phases of life since childhood. I’m always fascinated by the topic of friendship, in particular, old friendship. What does it mean to have old friends who have been with you for many years and who have been witness to all the different past selves that you’ve inhabited? It’s such a gift, but it can also be such a challenge because when you are friends with someone for that long, you both start to feel a little bit of ownership over past versions of one another. People change and grow over time. Friends can grow apart. They can also come back together.
I wanted Yoonhee to feel a bit like a foil to Ro but be a real person herself, too, as someone who has such a completely different outlook in life. She’s someone who is pretty straightforward, knows what she wants, and doesn’t hesitate to go after it. Just because she tends to be more conventional doesn’t mean that she’s a flat or two-dimensional character. I also wanted to examine what happens in a person’s life when they get to a certain age and feel like, “Oh, my gosh! Everyone is leaving me behind.” Because they’re so close, Ro can’t help but look at Yoonhee and feel, even if she doesn’t necessarily want the same things that Yoonhee wants, that she should want them and that she’s nowhere near getting them.
Rumpus: Craft-wise, how do you write someone who might fall into some of these tropes but also honor their individuality?
Chung: One thing I wanted was to have them interacting and bickering over small things—the way you do with siblings, old friends, or anyone you’ve known for years—and just see the ways in which they are both able to call each other out. That’s what really felt like the core of Yoonhee to me, this person who deeply cares about her friend. Sometimes there’s no other way of expressing it than, “Why are you this way?” in this exasperated but also deeply loving way. I also wanted to show, with the flashback sections of earlier versions of themselves, how vulnerable Yoonhee is. Just because she seems to have her life together doesn’t mean she doesn’t experience pain or doubt or fear.
Rumpus: Through flashbacks, the book alternates a lot between the past and present. How did you kind of conceive of this structure? I felt very taken care of as a reader to get into the story in this way.
Chung: I’m so glad to hear that. I love an alternating structure in a book, and there are so many books that do this amazingly well. One that was particularly close to my heart at the time of writing was Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things, which is also a later-in-life coming-of-age story, against a backdrop of family dysfunction that shows how she’s gotten to this point in her life. In that book, those scenes from the main character’s childhood and upbringing really helped me as a reader anchor the choices she was making in the present day. I wanted to do something similar with Ro: give the reader a vivid picture of not only who this person is today and how she is navigating the world but also what has led her to this point, including her parents’ choices. In those past sections, I especially wanted to excavate who Ro’s father was, since he’s not around in the present day of the novel. I wanted to give the reader a chance to get to know who he was and what he meant to Ro.
Rumpus: As you mentioned, the men in Ro’s life, her father and also her ex-boyfriend, are a bit more phantom than flesh. They are bigger figures in her head through her memories than they are in the present. They exist through their absences. What did you want to portray about absences and the stories we conjure about the people who are no longer in our lives?
Chung: You’re so right in saying that a person’s absence, once they’re no longer in our lives, can almost become stronger than their presence was back when they were around. There’s a kind of danger in that, since the person who is mourning might get caught up in imagining that things were better than they actually were with that person. Maybe they think that in losing that person, they’ve lost some irretrievable part of themselves too. With Ro, the book starts off with her having gone through this breakup with her boyfriend, who is leaving her for a privately funded mission to colonize Mars. As anyone who has ever been through a breakup knows, the things that you didn’t quite appreciate about that person when you were together seem to come back in full relief when they’re no longer in your life. That’s what she’s going through, in the process of mourning that relationship, and also the loss of her father, who was hugely influential in how she sees the world. Her father introduced her to this love for animals that they both share, and he encouraged her to be curious about the world. His absence is so clearly felt throughout her later adulthood. I wanted to show just how searing that kind of loss can be and how in the process of mourning someone, whether it’s because you broke up with them or because they’re literally gone and you will never be able to connect with them again, the mourning is never linear. Of course, it’s not that we shouldn’t remember or grieve the ones we’ve lost, but I wanted to explore what can happen if you get too caught up in that mourning.
Rumpus: I feel like silence, too, is more of a presence than an absence, in the way it pervades relationships between family, friends, and romantic partners in the novel. Silence feels particularly pertinent in my own Asian American community, especially in how it persists in the first generation and is continuing to manifest in other ways in future generations. What roles did you hope for silence to inhabit for the characters in the book?
Chung: I feel that so deeply. The silences of ancestors, the silences of our parents and grandparents, as well as the silences that we inherit as children of immigrants. It’s hard to ask folks about the past because there’s a lot of pain within those memories. It’s definitely something that I’ve noticed a lot in my own family. In many Asian and Asian American families, there’s an acute awareness of what it would cost for the other person to relive their story just by telling it. That’s something I’m always thinking about and living with. I don’t want to perpetuate the trope of the silent, sad Asian American family either, but I do think that silence exists for a good reason, and a lot of those reasons are bound up in pain and trauma. With Ro, I think we see it most with her mother because she and her mother have never been able to talk about things like her father’s disappearance. They’ve never really been able to process what they’ve both experienced and been through. In writing Ro, I wanted to investigate what it would be like to grow up with that silence and not even know how to broach it with your mom, your friends, or even yourself. Ro doesn’t have the language to name any of the feelings that she’s grown up experiencing.
Rumpus: One of my favorite passages in the novel is: “I used to wonder if we would take better care of our bodies if our skin was transparent, if every little thing we did and said and ate was observable. If every hurtful or careless thing we ever said to one another manifested itself visually in the body.” It’s interesting how everyone has their own version or perception of self-care, especially when we consider the juxtaposition between what we think we need and what others think we need. Could we talk about your intention with writing about self-care?
Chung: Ro is not very good at taking care of herself throughout most of the book. I think taking care of yourself—and I mean real care, not just the commodified ideas of self-care that we’re all sold nowadays—is actually very difficult, and it’s a practice. As someone who also struggles at times to take care of myself, I wanted to explore a character who has never really learned how to do this, and this is something I feel like I haven’t really seen much of in contemporary literature when it comes to portrayals of Asian American women and women of color. There is a sort of larger cultural moment right now around what I’ve seen some people refer to as “the disaster woman trope,” but I feel like those characters are almost always white women, and their meltdowns are still usually played for laughs. But I wanted to show what it would look like to have a character who is so afraid of everyone leaving her behind that she can’t help but leave herself in all these ways, whether it’s by drinking way too much and driving home afterward or avoiding important conversations with the people in her life that she loves. I wanted to show all the small and big ways that we as humans abandon ourselves when we’ve been abandoned many times before.
At the same time, I did notice throughout the course of writing the novel that whenever I put Ro in the position of having to take care of someone else, she was actually not bad at it, much to her surprise. It’s sometimes hard and uncomfortable for her, but she’s able to stay present in those moments in ways that she can’t always be for herself. I wanted to show how she is able to learn how to do those things and, in time, show up for herself too.
Rumpus: As someone who balances full-time employment with writing, do you have self-care practices that help you continue creating art?
Chung: I’m very used to thinking of myself as a brain in a jar. I don’t always remember to consider my bodily needs, especially when things get really busy or when I’m in the middle of an engrossing project. I’ve had to remind myself over the years to slow down when I need to and to take care of the container through which I experience the world.
My main tip is to listen to your body as much as you can. Take breaks and sleep when you need to. I’m someone who can easily ignore all my body’s warning signs and just keep going until the point of exhaustion. It’s just not worth it most of the time. There’s no need to flagellate yourself in the name of your art, and the wellspring of your creativity can’t be replenished if you don’t rest, no matter how guilty you might feel for not getting down a certain number of words per day. I’m still learning how to be gentle with myself in doing this. Now, whenever I feel like all the creativity is gone and I’ve lost it for good, I’ve at least learned to believe that’s not true. It’s my lizard brain panicking. I know it will come back. The only way you can care for your art is to care for yourself.
Rumpus: I laughed throughout the book, sometimes out loud, but it surprised me because some of my laughter was near moments of strife or grief. To what extent does humor and absurdity color your understanding of grief? How can humor be a tool in explaining grief, if at all?
Chung: Humor is so important to me, both as a writer and as a human being. Humor oftentimes hinges around this element of surprise. There’s this idea that writing about grief or difficult experiences can’t be funny or that it’s one note. So much of life isn’t like that, though. There have been times in my life where I’m going through heavy situations, but that doesn’t mean I don’t laugh if I see something surprising or ridiculous. Even in moments of my own despondency, I sometimes laugh at myself because of how dramatic I know I’m being. I think it’s important to be able to do that because otherwise life can be overwhelmingly difficult, and having those moments where you’re either laughing at yourself or at the situation is healthy and also lifesaving in a way. In terms of writing, I think funny scenes can sharpen the emotional quality of the sad ones, and vice versa. It’s like in cooking, where you have complementary but contrasting flavors, they heighten each other.
Author photo by S.M. Sukardi