K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the New York Times Editors’ Choice novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her short story collection, Resident Aliens, is forthcoming from One World. More of her work can be found at kmingchang.com.
Ha Duong: Would you like to start with some background about your debut novel, Bestiary, and how you started writing it?
K-Ming Chang: The book is about three generations of Taiwanese-American women and the youngest generation is a girl who grows a tiger tail overnight. She has to excavate her family history in order to understand the root of the tail. And I would say the process of writing it was very fragmented—I was writing it more in sections and imagining it more as a collection rather than as a cohesive whole. So I feel like a lot of the story actually emerged through the editorial process and through revision, rather than through the initial drafting process, which was more playful, experimental. I wasn’t really thinking about the form of it. I was just thinking about all of these different legends and myths and folklore to play off of. But they were more like episodes than a whole novel or a manuscript.
HD: That really makes sense as I think about it now—as the myths unravel in the story, there’s a feeling that all these stories overlap and intermingle, as well as different truths and characters. Depending on the myth, they all find a lineage. For the characters, sometimes their origin is a crab, and other times it’s something else. There’s no straightforward way of ascertaining truth in the Western sense, and to aim for complete, total knowledge is beside the point. While I was reading, there was a point where I was obsessed with figuring out what actually happened, only to realize it didn’t matter. Was this intentional? How did you think about not falling into that logic?
KC: Yeah, that was all really intentional. I loved what you were saying about how it’s kind of different from the Western mode of storytelling and the idea of a singular truth, which I think is really in spirit with the book. It’s about oral storytelling, and I think in the tradition of oral stories, things are just so much more fluid, and there isn’t a singular, fixed version. That it can change from generation to generation, or mouth to mouth, body to body. And there is this flexibility that I think I wanted to preserve even though this book is a text, which is antithetical to oral storytelling traditions.
I liked that you mentioned origins, because I do think this is a book about origin myths and queers the idea of the origin myth as well. It gives a lineage to something that we typically think of as having no lineage. All these conflicting stories, I hope, purposefully avoid or subvert this idea that there is an authoritative, canonical narrative. And I think that the stories the family tells are often in contrast to a very specific narrative, like the government’s story about what has happened, or a country’s “official” narrative about what has happened. These shifting myths that are usually marginalized are actually centered here and counteract that idea that there’s an official account of history.
HD: Touching on that last bit about subverting the singular story of the nation-state—in our current political climate, I feel it’s very easy to desire this cohesive identity. This story traverses different times and spaces because it’s an intergenerational story; it’s not based in just one single place that’s known as a country per se. In a time when nation-states and borders are one of the most common ways of demarcating identity, how does this relate to your understanding of land and migration?
KC: That’s such a beautiful and perfect question for this book because I think in a lot of the origin stories, they’re about finding alternative forms of belonging or alternative forms of allegiance. Think about, for example, the gay pirate story—which was really fun to write—and about how the Pirate King himself is someone who was exiled from Hong Kong because he’s indigenous, and that he was considered not “fit for land” and not allowed to transgress the boundaries and exist on land. So the sea is his only refuge. He’s exiled to water. Similarly, the great-grandfather figure is someone who’s indigenous to Taiwan and has also been expelled from land in a very literal way, and they find their own belonging on the sea, away from countries in this queer love story as well, in this queer lineage. I really wanted that to be part of an origin story because it’s almost like [the protagonist’s] lineage is something that comes from the transgression of borders and nation-states. It comes from being forced to find belonging or safety outside of nations. And it is really tied to the characters’ indigeneity and Taiwanese indigeneity as well. Even in the story of the grandmother and the river, who’s a woman, I’m thinking of the idea of land being a body and not just a passive thing to be conquered and renamed and taken control of as it has been in various colonial histories and by the different people who have claimed the land.
I don’t want to romanticize this idea that there’s some kind of beautiful, romanticized past to the homeland because I think that gets really aestheticized. I was really interested in how we resurrect the body of the land and the river. In contrast, the river and land have been maimed—carved up—in a certain way. I think all those things are really tied to the characters’ indigeneity as well.
HD: There’s a bit about pirating that occurs before the pirate myth—about pirating tapes—and this act of watching someone watch something that, in its pirated form, depicts others watching the “thing itself.” Daughter [the protagonist] mentions that what they’re watching isn’t the tape or “thing” itself, but their mother watching the tape. Could you unpack that?
KC: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I was thinking of taking that section out of the book originally, and then put it back last minute, so I’m glad it has this kind of value in the text as well. I love that kind of meta interpretation. I grew up with a ton of pirated DVDs, and my favorite part—in retrospect, because at the time, I was irritated—were the really strange moments where someone stands up in the audience, or where there’s shadows and applause, or you can hear people because it’s being pirated in a theater. Those parts now make me laugh so hard and I love that meta quality of watching the audience watch the film and that’s the way you’re encountering the story, filtered through another context. And it’s not just watching the movie itself, but it’s also seeing this strange migration process of the movie being pirated and then being smuggled here, and now I’m watching this smuggled contraband. All these different layers. I also love how rebellious it is to pirate something—there’s something so subversive about pirating the content and putting it in this completely different context and making it accessible to people that maybe the people who made the film weren’t thinking of. In this scene, Daughter is saying that she’s watching her mother watch the movie. So there’s an extra layer—she’s watching her mother watch the pirated film and in the pirated film there’s an audience watching the film itself. That was really fun to play with, because I feel Bestiary is a story about storytelling. Every story has its context. It’ll be like, “Oh, my grandma told me this story, but she’s wrong, and I was sick, and here’s the whole context, here’s the whole backstory.” And those layers of context really point to how subjective stories are and how based on those environments they are—that there’s no objective thing, which returns to our initial question as well. I was also thinking that it’s so intimate, whom you’re watching at that moment as well. It’s so revealing.
HD: In a different interview, you described the process of receiving these stories and myths. This made me think about pirating in relation to how you receive stories, as well. As stories were relayed to you by your different family members, did you see the same layered quality pirating has in the different stories they borrowed from or previously heard, and then subsequently retold and translated to you? Did this bear on the way they told their stories, how these stories were initiated, and how you understand myth-making?
KC: Yeah, completely. I love that you mention that because I felt that way too—the stories I heard were often subverted versions, and the versions were all really different, which I think is also true of pirated content. Names are changed and things are translated to purposefully try to avoid smuggling laws. The stories that I heard had a quality of not wanting to be traceable in a way. Every single time I’ve heard an oral story, details would be changed, whether on accident or on purpose, and there was so much fluidity and there wasn’t a reverence for an official version. I think that is part of the pirating theme, which I’m so glad you brought up because it’s really important to me in the book as well. And thinking about myth-making, too—I love the idea of there being some original kernel of fact, but then something has been woven around it so completely that it’s morphed into its own monster and beast, which I think is really true of the stories that I heard growing up as well. There’s such a flack around, “Oh, that’s a rip-off” or “that’s a copycat,” but oftentimes to transcribe something or re-render something is also a process of transformation and is something really generative and not necessarily derivative, which is something that I really love about repeating. Oral stories, by necessity, are repetitive. In order for it to exist, it has to be retold, and the retelling is the substance. It’s that process of copying that is so important and so transformative—like alchemy.
HD: Since a lot of this book was inspired by events and storytelling methods that you had learned from your family, what was it like translating these oral stories into a written book?
KC: I think these stories, after I’ve heard them so much, are kind of in my body. Whenever I write, they come up even when I don’t want them to. When I sat down and thought about what to write, they kept peeking out. It ended up manifesting in my writing in really strange ways that I just didn’t expect. I feel like they’re all in my subconscious, even when I try to avoid them. It’s almost like being hijacked a little. These intrusive stories that are so full of life and humor and dark humor, and I can’t keep away from them.
I felt a kind of freedom to not necessarily have to conform to a version because I’d heard so many varied versions, and that was really liberating. Everything in the book was a result of some transforming, changing. Not necessarily transcribing in a very straightforward way because I think that’s impossible, especially for oral stories, but to use language in a way that can animate them in unexpected or surprising ways for me.
Sometimes people tell me, “I’m afraid to write about a certain myth or family history because I don’t know how to do it,” and I’m like, sometimes it’s better to think about it through the filter of transformation, of, “What do you want to change about this story? What do you wish you could change?” And that’s what ended up being the process for me.
HD: Going back to the idea of trying to embody things in this story, there are holes everywhere in Bestiary—they’re in bodies, in homes, in between stories, and in the text itself, in the form of omissions and gaps in language, and they were the most visceral way in which language became embodied. To quote you, “as ways of being entered and left.”
The way we think about language traditionally is very one-to-one, but by making everything all about holes, I felt that there was no way of filling these gaps. Why was it important for the story to be porous, but also for bodies and language to be that way?
KC: I really love this question. I think for me, when I’m thinking about the holes, they felt very mouthlike—what would it mean to give everything a mouth? What would the landscape, the river, speak? Typically, in our lives, we think of holes with this very passive connotation. To make a hole in something, to break something, that kind of thing. In relation to bodies, I was thinking more of what you were saying with porousness. Holes that are alive, that are muscular—kind of in a gross way—that are very multidirectional, that emit things and transmit things and also eat and consume. To give everything a liveness, to make everything really animated, and for language to have holes as well. In the Grandmother’s section, I wanted the holes to not feel necessarily like total blankness, like things have been taken away, but that the absences actually add something as well—that the spaces are living and breathing, too.
HD: For Daughter, there’s a hole she has where a tail grows out, and there are moments where she’s able to control her tail and there’s others where she loses control. In one instance, the tail is used as a weapon to protect herself and her loved ones, but also, in equal measure, her tail can mistranslate and produce harm. What did you want to convey with this ambiguous relationship to her tail?
KC: There’s always a double-sidedness to the tail: Can she control it, or is it something that’s controlling her? And then there’s the other question of it being a double-edged sword. It’s something that connects her to her grandmother, but also makes her feel like a predator. It makes her feel extremely dangerous. I purposefully wanted it to be a double-sided inheritance because I think that’s very true to what she’s experienced, in that she has inherited so much love and tenderness, but also this capacity to perpetuate violence. If she severs herself from her lineage, she doesn’t know whether or not that’s possible or if she even wants that. Love and violence feel so entwined that it’s almost like they coexist for her. She has to always carry and embody both. The tail is really representative of that—it’s predatory, but it’s also her weapon at the same time. There was an alternative version I had written where she does decide, “Oh, I want to just sever myself from this, distance myself from this inheritance, from this tail,” and I actually ended up rewriting that ending multiple times because I realized I wanted it to be a bit messy and ambiguous, and for her to always live with that duality and never be quite sure whether she’s in charge of her body or in control. Is it intergenerational trauma that’s coursing through her body? How much control does she have over her future? All of those questions are really purposefully unresolved, but originally, I wanted it to be really neat and clean. I realized that wasn’t right and just didn’t feel real.
HD: Ben [Daughter’s friend and eventual love interest] and Daughter have this relationship where some revelations and trauma can only be unearthed when they’re together. You mentioned earlier how the queering of narratives can lead to transformation; given that this story subverts that idea of progression itself, how would you characterize the transformation that happens when Ben and Daughter are fully in their relationship?
KC: Things gain momentum when Ben and Daughter are together. I almost think of it as a mystery novel. Things unlock for them when they’re together. I wanted to feel grounded in their lives but also make it a little bit supernatural, because I found it really fun to make them feel a little godlike when they do things together, like communicating with the holes in this deified way. I think you’re right in that, rather than progression, it’s almost like an eruption that happens when they’re together. The holes literally spit and bubble. That explosive energy happens when they’re together. I didn’t want to have it be the trope of things being disastrous when they’re together, like something really terrible must happen. I wanted to think about what adventures are available to them, too. They have fun with things, like with Ben’s annotations of the letters which are really not serious and very irreverent. I wanted to think of their relationship as pure possibility.
HD: Those annotations made me feel like the reader was in conversation with Daughter, Ben, and the book itself, and also obviously in dialogue with the grandmother. As a book that’s translating oral storytelling, I thought that was really important in terms of animating the communal part of language into printed matter. There are moments where the reader is let in but also shut out. There are parts where the reader can’t really enter—for example, the letters from the grandmother—but then it’s possible to enter the story through annotations and other sections. How did you think through putting in those annotations closer to the end of the book, and what that meant as relationships progressed and the characters came to understand their inheritances through conversation with others?
KC: I really love that you said you could enter the letters through the annotations, because I had that in mind too—of thinking about ownership over a story or a narrative or a text in the ways that Ben and Daughter communicate about the letters in the margins. It’s a form of shared ownership—that this narrative is also theirs, as much as it is the grandmother’s.
Later on in the book, I wanted to know if it was possible to have conversations with people who are gone, with the past, with things that we’re told are really fixed but I think are actually completely not. There isn’t this separation between past and present and future. I think that their conversations, their dialogues are really like that. They’re not in observance of how dialogue should be. They’re trying to communicate with someone who isn’t listening, who isn’t reading those annotations. They’re communicating with texts that are of the past. It’s almost like the annotations resurrect on the page as well, and it gives them an opportunity to intervene or embody in a different way.
HD: Different parts of the book mention naming a lot, and notably, none of the characters in the family have names. There’s an unresolved nature to a lot of the things that don’t get named—not just the characters, but also the occurrences. Naming can be a violence, but there’s also an importance to it. What’s your perspective on naming things, and giving words and language to events in history or shared experiences?
KC: That’s really true that naming can be a violence; one of the epigraphs of the book is, “The name of the river is what it says,” and I was thinking about how so many place names contain violence because they’re remnants of colonialism, and how naming something is a power dynamic—who gets to name something? That is really indicative of power.
I think that their namelessness—at first—wasn’t purposeful, but I realized that that was because proper names weren’t that significant to me and my family. We called everyone by their role or their relation to us, rather than by a proper name. I remember being with my grandmother and hearing her call out mei mei, which means little sister, and then my mom would answer. I would get confused, because I would be like, “Wait, that’s my name!” Then I realized that it’s not a name—it’s a role. And my mother has been me. That was when I was thinking that my mother has been me, where I am now—that’s so strange. When I was a kid, that was an awakening for me. It was really disorienting, but I also felt very tethered to her in that moment—that we had shared a name, that we had shared a role, which is being the youngest daughter of the family.
In the book, it can get confusing for a lot of people because at certain points, the grandmother character is the mother, and so she’ll be called Ma instead of Ama and all these different things, but to me that felt really important, because there’s a fluidity to naming and the lack of names. That felt very true to my lived experience. Rather than focusing on individuality, it’s often a focus on “What is the context of our relationship?” and calling someone by their relationship to you. I’m just really interested in seeing how that would work in a text that’s so much about repetition and cyclical generations. Generational trauma is all about repeating and repeating and repeating. The way that they’re named and call and consider themselves is repeated across generations by the same name, the same word, the same vocabulary.
HD: Is that the only possibility for changing a “name,” especially a shared one? By sharing names but also making them fluid? It’s cyclical, but by using that same name across generations—by constantly repeating it—that repetition makes space for the possibility of intervention.
KC: Totally. The book is asking the question of whether or not it’s possible to end cycles of violence. They [the characters] carry names that have been repeated and not changed across generations, but then what kind of change is possible? Or is it possible to give something a new context?
It relates to the tail, because as the daughter is being called the littlest sister, the youngest daughter, she realizes that it connects her to her mother, but also in being connected to her mother, she’s connected to her mother’s trauma and what she’s endured as a daughter. So at the same time, it’s a positive affinity and connection and a reminder of intergenerational trauma—double-edged, like the tail. The daughter is also trying to find a language and vocabulary for her own future that will be different or that will be transformed in some way.
HD: When you were writing the story, how did you figure out how to inject a sense of play? A lot of immigrant stories can seem a bit like “trauma porn,” so I’m curious how you managed to instill that in the entire book even though these are obviously really heavy topics. Play and possibility permeate throughout. Why was that sense of play so important to you, and how did you fit it in?
KC: I really wanted to avoid that kind of trauma porn and self-seriousness that can come out. There are so many really serious immigration narratives that I love and resonate with, but I wanted to do something that felt—again, I keep on saying transformation—that didn’t necessarily feel like it was trying to conform to a kind of realism that I think we know or we’re told is important. I wanted it to feel a little bit wild and disorientating and to resist that gaze, of like, “Oh, this is something to learn from or something to understand in this very flat way.” It’s totally okay if you understand absolutely nothing, if you don’t even know what they’re talking about—that’s fine. Specificities are important, but I wanted it to feel like a process of alchemy. That there’s so much potential and that potential is also hard-earned at the same time.
I feel like I naturally gravitate toward wanting to subvert the kinds of reality that are really tied to colonialism, too. What do we validate as real? Why can’t this tail be real? Why can’t all of these things be as real? Who has the authority to say those things? And how do I give agency to these characters? The playfulness also comes from all of the oral stories I heard, which were always full of humor. In my family, humor is always how people enter stories, how people communicate, share love, and talk about trauma. So I have to have those elements in there too.