Conversations with Contributors: Rachel Heng

 Rachel Heng, author of Suicide Club (Henry Holt & Co., 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Three .
Rachel Heng, author of Suicide Club (Henry Holt & Co., 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Three . 

Rachel Heng’s debut novel Suicide Club will be published on July 10, 2018, by Henry Holt, Macmillan (US) and Sceptre, Hachette (UK). Suicide Club will also be translated into six languages. Rachel’s short stories have appeared in The OffingPrairie Schooner, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. Her fiction has won Prairie Schooner’s Jane Geske Award, was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has been recommended by the Huffington Post. Rachel graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Comparative Literature & Society. She is currently a James A. Michener Fellow at UT Austin’s Michener Center for Writers, pursuing her MFA in Fiction and Screenwriting.

Alana Mohamed: Suicide Club, aside from being a pleasure to read, can also be very funny. A lot of that comes from the contradictions of wellness culture. I wanted to start by asking for your definition wellness culture. How do you see that as relating to the Ministry’s lingo?

Rachel Heng: I don’t know if I have a definition, per se. Thank you for appreciating the humor. It’s weird, I always have this conversation with my husband, and he asks me when I’m going to write something funny, and I’m like, “I think I am writing stuff that’s funny!” He’s like, “That’s not funny.” We have very different ideas of what constitutes funny.

I think the book definitely deals with the absurdity of some of this controlled, sanitized existence. It’s not like I think everyone should be unhealthy, or not take care of their bodies, but I do think wellness culture in overdrive has a comic element to it. What the latest super food is and what the latest hot exercise is, because the previous one was not as good; the short attention span we have for products and treatments and how it’s always about fads and the next new thing. I tried to get that into the book as well.

AM: I was fascinated by the language the Ministry employs. “Life-loving” vs. “antisact,” the coded language of their Directives. Where did you pull that language from, and were there any real-life things you were influenced by?

RH: I was working in the corporate world at the time and I’ve always been fascinated by corporate lingo. Have you read Station Eleven (by Emily St. John Mandel)? There’s this moment in it—it’s about this post apocalyptic world, and people are escaping this flu—and there’s this moment where there’s a bunch of executives sitting around, looking at their emails, and they’re sort of speaking in their corporate lingo, but also realizing that they talk that way. I remember when I read it, I thought I had never read anything like that before, but it spoke so well to my daily life and what was going on in my head. Even reading government websites and newspapers, you see the euphemisms for things and the way that language can hide so much. It encodes so much inequality and violence, and just the ways in which we talk ourselves into things as a society, by calling them certain things.

A more extreme example is if you look at the kind of documents that were deployed in WWII, or anything like that. Any kind of war documents, any propaganda. I recently read Solmaz Sharif’s collection Look, which is based on, I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s the American military dictionary. What she does is she writes poems around the definitions of different terms in the military dictionary to try and do that precisely and shake that language out of its formal, supposedly value-free terms that actually encode so much violence. And how do we think about the ways in which we use language to hide that?

All of the directives, the names of programs, the numbers, all of that to me was something I had fun with, but also is something I think about a lot in our daily lives as well.

AM: I started to wonder about what happens to institutional memory when people get to live for so long. How does that function in a world shaped by government double-speak? How do people preserve that knowledge? Do they get to? The relationship between Lea and Kaito seems to point to the importance of that.

RH: Institutional memory and collective memory as a society was really interesting to me. I’m someone who’s a hoarder and really obsessed with losing things, as you might be able to tell from reading the book. But I’ll keep receipts and tickets and all those types of things. And because of my deep fear of loss—and death, but loss generally—my reaction to that has always been to preserve and keep memories. I write journals, I write stories. That’s why I write so much, it’s a recording exercise. What was really interesting to me was in this world where people essentially no longer fear loss—because they no longer fear death, because they can live forever—what that does to memory and the conscious preservation of stuff. What I came to, unconsciously, because it’s not like I had a thesis I was putting into the book, but unconsciously something that emerged was this day-to-day self-obsession. There’s this weirdly long-term thinking, while still being very much in the present, because it’s kind of about preserving one’s self and maintaining this ritual of wellness and health, but also never really reflecting on it. So in a way the absence of death leaves them in a suspended state of immortality, and that suspension is also the suspension of collective memory.

AH: I got the sense of a claustrophobic world, but you go to lengths to point out that this obsession with immortality, the way it’s institutionalized in people’s lives, is not a global thing yet. It seems to be based mostly in New York, so why did you choose New York for the setting of this novel, and what makes New York so integral to the lives of the Suicide Club that they couldn’t leave?

RH: I was living in the U.K. when I wrote this book. It seemed natural at the time that it would be set in New York, and upon reflection I think it’s because I associate that kind of drastic inequality with the U.S. In many ways it’s because of the lack of social safety net, the fact that health insurance is so expensive, while in the U.K. you have this universal healthcare system, which, despite its flaws, provides free health care. No matter what happens you are going to be able to see a doctor, you are going to be able to have surgery or get treatment for cancer. You’re never going to be out on the streets because you can’t afford these things, which to me seems like a very sensible thing to do and I’ve never understood that about the U.S.

I’m from Singapore, and while there isn’t the same level of universal health care, there are subsidies and government hospitals and so on. The fact that in America there isn’t that kind of government subsidized health care, or a social safety net more generally, always struck me as deeply fascinating—like, this incredibly rich country that just doesn’t do that. And I’m not an economist, but I feel, intuitively, that America can afford these things since so many other developed countries can afford them.

I was thinking about the implications of that sort of deep inequality, and New York seemed to embody that. It’s a city of such extremes, of claustrophobia in many ways, but also housing the mega-rich with people who are really poor and what that means to have all those contradictions in one place.

AM: There’s a moment when you write about Kaito having to carry his son, who’s supposed to be younger or healthier, 30 blocks to the hospital because he’s ailing. It’s so powerful, because it’s such a reversal. I was wondering what’s at stake when these norms have shifted, or when we view health as an investment as opposed to a general good?

RH: There’s another great book by Michael Sandel called What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Markets. I really love that book. He writes about the market-ization of sectors like health care, and what he argues is that when you put something into a free market, you are changing the way we think of that public good, regardless of whether it results in more economic efficiency, because now it’s regarded as a commodity. One example he gives is people trying to get more blood donations. They started paying people a fee to donate their blood in order to increase the rate of blood donation. And what happened, actually, is the rate of blood donations dropped. Because people started to regard it as, “Oh, this is something I get money for,” and you start thinking about how you value that. And you’re like, “Oh, well I’m only earning $10 from this—is it really worth it to go all the way there for $10?” Whereas previously, you would donate blood out of altruism and because you wanted to. It wasn’t to earn anything. By making that a financial product and something people could make money off of, it changed the way we view it as human beings. And taken to the logical extreme, thinking about, as you say, the investment in other people’s health, that seems very terrifying to me. Just having a financial interest in other people’s life spans. It changes the way we regard humanity and other people in society, and it is very scary and dystopian.

AM: There are so many wide-ranging effects of that. Part of what struck me as sad about the novel is that Lea has all these deep-seated issues with rage and violent tendencies. There’s this whole system structured to encourage her to keep that locked away, as opposed to getting treatment. As readers, who are we supposed to sympathize with here?

RH: The dystopias that I’m most interested in are the ones in which we don’t know who’s at fault. You have this feeling of helplessness and you wonder, “How did we get to this point?” Because in real life, it’s never that straight forward. In a dystopia where you have the oppressed and the oppressor, you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. But I think in life, so often everyone is propagating these systems and these harmful structures of power, so what I wanted to do in the book was create exactly that type of situation where you can’t tell who you are supposed to sympathize with.

Lea has kind of bought into this system. She is not the most likeable character and has a lot of flaws. But at the same time, you do sympathize with her because she’s just a human being caught up in this society, who has a sad and dysfunctional relationship with her dad. At the same time, she wants to prolong his life so she can spend time with him, but she also recognizes his wishes as a human being.

And thank you for pointing that out, because its something I think about a lot. People ask me, “Why is she so dislikable,” and I’m like, “Because I didn’t just want to write someone who’s likeable, and have the system against her!” To me, it’s an easy answer. It’s like, “Oh, okay. The problem is the system.” I wanted her to be invested in it and also accountable for propagating the very system that harms her.

AM: You do a great job of following Lea down this rabbit hole, essentially because she has this complicated relationship with her father. With Anja, she’s already suffered significant enough loss to become disillusioned with the entire system when we meet her. I know that she’s from a foreign country with socialized medicine. Do you think that changes the way she views the system that’s cropped up in America?

RH: In the book, Anja’s from Sweden, and when she left, they didn’t have the same system in place as the U.S. But at the point we meet her in the book, the rest of the world has gone the same way as the U.S., but is just a few steps behind. So she doesn’t really have an exit option anymore. I think she is more disillusioned with it. She wasn’t even born into it. Her mother became obsessed with this American way of life, and Anja went along with that. Eventually she got sucked in and then stuck in the situation she’s in today. I would say she’s definitely bought into it less, and that accounts for her role in the Suicide Club. She feels like she has to do something but doesn’t know quite what to do, and that’s her way of taking action.

AM: Anja and Lea’s relationship seems so interdependent and I feel like part of that is because they are both artists surviving in an artless world. I was wondering if you could talk about the ways art keeps people connected in dystopias; or, what is art’s role in this kind of mind-controlling society?

RH: I recently re-read A Brave New World, which was a book that I loved when I was a teenager, and I realized just how much I unconsciously borrowed from it. [Laughs] The absence of art in that world was definitely a big aspect of it. In A Brave New World, art is banned, music is banned, and all they listen to is this synthetic, really calming stuff that’s meant to keep people happy and floaty, but not really thinking about stuff or having deep, compassionate emotions. So I think that was the inspiration for [my dystopia]. And similarly, in the [Suicide Club’s] world, art is outlawed and certain types of music aren’t allowed. The kind of music that they listen to in office buildings and so on is triangles and birds and wind songs, sort of spa music. Because art is dangerous in many ways. Making art and consuming art is the stuff that unsettles people and jolts them to action, and that’s not what the society wants.

AM: I wanted to talk about the Suicide Club itself for a moment. It’s such a weird indulgence in richness and levity, but it also uses such grim language to extol their mission (“They leave us no choice”). I was struck by that tension. Do you think that tone is necessary in the world that they’re dealing with, or is it a choice they’re making?

RH: Because of the title of the book, people have asked me about mental health issues, and I didn’t write this book about mental health issues. The people in the book are not
depressed. It’s very divorced from the broader conversation around suicide. Suicide in the context of this novel is very much the terrible and logical conclusion to the world I have set up— one of a sanitized existence. Immortality is almost becoming the norm, and mandatory, and people are almost unable to die natural deaths. So in a way, it’s two polar opposites, both of which are horrible and, ultimately, Lea doesn’t choose either one. That grimness, I didn’t want to shy away from it. I felt like if I was going to include it, it had to be what it was. It was better to include it with all of its grim depictions within this highly sanitized world, so you do see the two polar opposites and so that you can see Lea being torn between them. The decadence is the counterweight to this sort of sanitized, sterile, immortal existence.

AM: I wanted to ask, because we’ve been talking about dystopias you’ve been influenced by, what, in your mind, makes a good dystopia?

RH: I like dystopias where you get a sense that it’s pervasive and everyone is accountable to it and it’s not just one party. It’s complex and holds people accountable. I think that’s why I love the Hulu remake of The Handmaid’s Tale, seeing it from the Commander’s perspective and from the Commander’s wife’s perspective. What’s really interesting is, seeing that, you almost understand where they’re coming from. It’s not just that you are the good guys and these are the bad guys. You can still tell that some people are more morally aligned than others, but at the same time, they are human beings. They’re not just dismissed as evil anomalies. You can see how society actually got there. Those are the types of dystopias that I really love. They feel realistic and even more inevitable in some ways.

I always feel like my favorite dystopias have at their heart a utopia that’s failed. That’s always really fascinating to me. You can say, “Oh, what if the world was this terrible place?” but the thing is, that feels like an action movie. But if you say, “This world is terrible, but you can understand why they got there,” that’s different. I think the most heartbreaking dystopias are the ones where you see why the people are convinced into doing what they’re doing. In A Brave New World, when the commander in chief is like, “Well, everyone’s happy now! What’s wrong with that?” that to me is so terrifying, because it seems like it could happen so easily. And it’s so heartbreaking, because people are just trying to do their best and things sort of spiral out of control.

AH: I don’t want to ask about the future, since we’ve already talked so much about the future. I wanted to ask, in writing Suicide Club, what have you learned about your writing and your attachment to certain themes. Going forward, has writing the book encouraged you to explore other themes further?

RH: It made me realize just how obsessed with death I am. [Laughs] I always knew that I guess, but writing an entire book about it, I was like, “Oh, I should probably see someone about this.” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these kinds of things, which probably helped the book. I think those themes will always be present in my work, because even in my short fiction, implicitly, there is some theme of loss or the passage of time and aging, and it’s still popping up but in different ways. I’m working on another book right now, not dystopian, it’s kind of realist and historical. I already see similar themes starting to creep in. As a writer there are certain things that you’re preoccupied with, and they haunt your writing all of your life. For me, it might be aging and loss. [Laughs]

Before I wrote this book, I was always worried that I wasn’t doing it the right way, or that I wasn’t planning well, or the outlining was really all over the place and it wasn’t proceeding logically. It was so messy and so much trial and error. At the time, I thought this meant I was doing something wrong and that it wasn’t going to be a book, that I was never going to find the story. But now, after having gone through that, the many rounds of edits, the cutting of hundreds of thousands of words, I’m realizing that is my process. Which is, on one hand, depressing and stressful, but at the same time it’s quite reassuring. Even as I start this new book and feel that this is hopeless, I know from my experience writing Suicide Club that even if it feels that way, it can still turn out to be a cohesive piece of work that I’m happy with.

Alana Mohamed

Alana Mohamed is a freelance writer and librarian based in Queens, NY. Her criticism and essays have appeared in the Village Voice, BuzzFeed and Mental Floss. Her fiction has most recently appeared in wildness and BULL Magazine. She is the founder of Anxiety Dream Zine and previously edited fiction and essays for the Coalition Zine. She writes about books, history, and culture, and tweets about everything else @alanamhmd.

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