Bestiary tells the stories of generations of teenage Taiwanese girls in the United States and on the island, and how neither place feels like home. A week before the novel was published in October, the National Book Foundation named author K-Ming Chang one of 2020’s five under 35, a fiction writer “whose debut work promises to leave a lasting impression on the literary landscape.” I was able to Zoom with Chang that same week. Bestiary is full of portals between generations and between worlds. Chang's book so assured me, as a queer Taiwanese — who is also metaphor-inclined — that I have a place in the world as a person and as a writer. My hope is that by the time this conversation reaches you, we might again have the possibility calling here our home.
Brian Lin: Thank you so much for writing this novel. In re-reading it while doing my own writing, I noticed myself taking more risks in my own language because of how free your writing feels. Because your sentences do so much, do you have your own rubric for when a sentence is good enough for you?
K-Ming Chang: First of all, thank you so much for saying that. That's so beautiful. And that's exactly what I wanted and envisioned in my wildest dreams when I was writing this book. And also thank you for saying that it felt very free. The process of writing it was very freeing for me in terms of language. I look back at it now and I'm like, Wow, I went so overboard, but I'm also really thrilled that I went that overboard because I don't think it's something that I could ever recapture again, and I miss that feeling. I'm so grateful for that person, that writer I was when I was writing it.
In terms of a rubric, it's what I was saying about being really excessive with language and not necessarily judging myself too harshly on the logic of the sentence and not thinking too much of, Oh, does this make sense? Obviously, I want things to make sense, but I let myself be surrounded in the pleasure of language and the pleasure of the sentence, the sound, the rhythm. It was this non-utilitarian way of using language that I think felt really freeing for me.
Bestiary was the first prose project I'd ever taken on. Before that, I had probably written really trashy short stories and fan fiction in middle school. I still feel like a beginner, and I always want to feel like a beginner. But especially then, I had no vision for myself, and so it was just play. It was just play the whole time. And then later, in the editorial process, that's when a more critical lens and I came into play.
BL: That almost sounds ideal: to not have expectations. And now, with this most recent honor — to be named “5 under 35.” How are you processing that? How are you holding the recognition?
KMC: Who chose me was Justin Torres. We the Animals was the first queer novel I ever read. I read it in eighth or ninth grade, when it came out. So I was 13, 14, when I read it. I don't know how to express the immensity of this moment. To be chosen by someone whose book I read when I was 13. It's absolutely mind-blowing. So I'm trying to bask in how poetic that is. It makes me think of that younger self who I think would have really loved a book like Bestiary. And I was writing for that younger self because the narrator is also 13. So I think focusing on that rather than like, Oh, it’s the National Book Foundation, has been really helpful for me. I can be so overjoyed for that younger self, and I don't have to think about me now.
BL: Bestiary is obsessed with holes, the porousness of boundaries and specifically the slipperiness in defining what's human and what’s animal. What feels most at stake for you?
KMC: What’s at stake is almost the possibility of a future. I think a lot about what it means to be able to imagine yourself and queerness as an act of imagination as well. I was really interested in giving space to something that doesn't really feel possible all the time in my day-to-day life, which are these strange, surreal boundaries. There's constantly slippage between generations, between bodies and histories and countries and a collapse of a lot of those concepts and things. It’s the creation of something else that's beyond survival.
For the third generation of the book, I think of the question that Daughter is asking as well: Now I'm carrying all of these things, what can I do? What future is possible for me and for the people I love? Is it possible to intervene in the past? This question of whether or not it's possible to change something that made you. Those are the big questions.
BL: This is the first novel that's really made me think about what it means to be Taiwanese. The centuries of colonial trauma that's in here, all the animal motifs — it could have gone very Orientalist, right? How did you choose how much explanation to do?
KMC: During the editorial process, there was the question of should you add more backstory about what exactly is happening here? And I was using the footnotes but trying to use it in a playful way, in a way that was like, You think you're going to get an explanation here, but actually it's just going to confuse you more. In the footnotes, all the names are redacted. Chiang Kai Shek’s name is redacted.
I wanted to be playful with that on purpose and also show how redacted the histories are as well. They're never quite coherent. They never arrive in their sociological or academic state, like On this day, this happened. It never comes to you in that authoritative way. It always comes very fractured: through embodied experience, lived experience. Like the grandfather figure who has a lot of war trauma. And the daughter never learns the full shape of that but can see the ways that it continually recurs and the way that he behaves and responds to the world.
The Western gaze is really good at turning everything into a sociological or anthropological or academic text. And wanting to learn something in that very Orientalist way, the way Edward Said says: the Orient as something to be known. Like it's an object to be understood. And I'm like, You will not understand what is happening.
The layers of colonial trauma, that meant a lot to me too. There's a perception of Taiwanese-ness that, as someone who’s Taiwanese American, I can fetishize a lot too. Taiwan's this democracy. It’s this cute country, like boba and amazing trains. I'm like, Yes, but who brought those trains? I want to subvert that idea that really romanticizes Taiwan. It is great, but great for who? It's the same question I asked about this country too. America is great for whom?
Especially writing about these characters with indigenous backgrounds — and who were receiving these waves of colonization in ways that certain other, maybe Han Taiwanese, people, weren't experiencing — was really important to me as well.
BL: The way that the novel engages with indigeneity. What you're saying about the Western gaze. The passage about darkness and light that makes us think of darkness not as absence but as presence. It seems like you're making your own language for talking about race and racism. Does that seem accurate to you? What is that project for you?
KMC: I'm so glad you brought up that passage because that was actually the passage that I kept deleting and putting back.
I really, really wanted to give space for thinking about indigeneity, Taiwanese indigeneity and how that plays in America. I think colorism in Taiwan feeds into white supremacy really naturally, and I was really interested in the ways that their understanding of their indigeneity in America becomes a form of resistance too. That refusal, that double refusal to assimilate, both in Taiwan and in America. That’s something that would have been erased otherwise completely in their identity. You are now Taiwanese American. Therefore, you're named by that country when they don't really feel any particular loyalty to Taiwan as a nation-state either.
I was really interested in thinking about how they're [Taiwanese Americans] not indigenous to the United States, and so now they are also settlers and colonizers. How do you hold those things to be true: of being displaced from a country in part because you are indigenous to that country and then becoming settlers and colonizers in this new country?
That lecture that the mother gives is in part: I don't want you to internalize this light-dark, colorist idea because that's not what we come from. And in fact, we’ve been the victims of that system. But now we're here, and we can kind of harness that system.
Those conversations are absent from literature. I was thinking of drawing from this light-dark understanding in Taiwan and subverting that in a way that can subvert America's white supremacy too.
BL: I'm thinking about all the liminality between human and animal, about Daughter’s ambivalent relationship to her tiger-ness and her tail and how it's both a weapon and a leash. Can you talk about how much you were able to make of each animal-ness?
KMC: I was thinking a lot about all of those myths, usually Chinese myths, where women are secretly animals, and then their husbands find out. And then they're like, Screw you for secretly being a snake. The way that anyone who was kind of transgressive in society was actually an animal secretly.
I'm born in the year of the tiger. Daughters born in this year are notoriously hard to marry off, very temperamental or in general really negative. Then the flip side to that: a son who's born in the year of the dragon is the best luck you could have. My mom even showed me birth rates in China for years of the tiger versus years of the dragon. They go down in the year of the tiger, and they go up in the year of the dragon.
I wanted to purposely take this symbol of this wild woman who's very transgressive and play with that. It made me really upset and sad whenever I would I would hear all these stories from my mom about these women possessed by animals and how they were punished for it and that they couldn't show their true forms. I was like, Oh, this is kind of such a metaphor. This is so allegorical. But also, let's literally harness that. Let’s literally have these human-animal transformations and see it as a source of strength and not just a shame.
BL: Homophobia seems like a non-issue in the novel. The tension is a lot more about the fraught-ness of mother-daughter relationships. Could you talk about how you chose to engage with or avoid certain kinds of queer tropes?
KMC: Queerness itself isn't the conflict in the story. This book is a fantasy. I want to imagine something and not have it be like, Oh, would this be realistic? I was like, Let's shed all of that. I want to imagine them beyond conflict and, like what you were saying, certain tropes. Not that I don't think those stories are important because I think they are and definitely more relevant to my life than this story, but I purposely didn't want it to be a source of shame.
The thing that I really wanted to write about was this idea that queerness is what saves her and also gives her a possible path out of intergenerational trauma. Here are all these women who have had to marry for utilitarian purposes, for mobility, as very young women. Those marriages destroyed them in little ways and big ways too — and that is not going to be you. I really needed to write that story.
Her future with Ben forced her to think outside of the trajectories of her mother's life and her grandmother's life. I don't think Mother would disapprove of that. There’s a point in the book where she literally says, I'm so glad that you won't marry a man and leave this family for that purpose. And it's pretty clear why! She's not had a good time with compulsory heterosexuality. None of the women in this book have had a good time with compulsory heterosexuality. Why would they then force that on her? It’s possible for them to imagine something else for her too.
BL: The conventions of “literary fiction” are obviously limiting. Maybe both for you and your characters, imagination and fantasy are ways to survive and ways to exert agency. Are there any norms of literary fiction that you resist the most?
KMC: There were so many things. I was like, I'm going to write realism because that's what you have to do. This idea that in order to write magical realism or more fantastical things, you have to first master realism, whatever that means. And also, people always say: ground the reader, ground the reader, ground the reader. I was like, But I kind of want to do the opposite. I kind of want to really disorient the reader. I find life very disorienting. I was like, Let’s have that.
Finding power in strangeness — that’s something that you can do in fantasy, in a lot of very non-realistic things. The thing that should make you feel really ashamed or want to hide is actually the thing that gives you the most pleasure. At heart, I'm just like, Superpowers for you all. I just want to give everyone a superpower and have them create their own cosmos.
I think there's something reparative about imagination and about diverging from realism. With this book, I struggled a lot too because I want to portray a lot of trauma and violence, but I don't want to just re-traumatize, you know, and deepen the wound. I also wanted to be reparative or healing in some way and pleasurable in some way too. There has to be pleasure somewhere.
If I wanted to really write something that is really realistic and really “literary,” the three different generations would be very distinct. The daughter would be speaking like a 12-year-old. Then the mother would be speaking in a completely different register and the grandmother in a completely different register.
All three of them have a very shared vocabulary. They all collapse and blend together and are porous, and that's purposeful. One of the questions that my editor asked me was, Do you want them to be literally three different people with different perspectives, or are they all a little bit meta and overlapping? And I was like, Oh, do I have to necessarily choose?
They are three distinct, literal people, but they also are weirdly resonant with each other and taking on each other's voices. There is a porousness between the three generations. And that's all very true to lived experience for me.
BL: After having edited this novel, do you have best practices for editors who might often insist on orienting readers or a consistent point of view?
KMC: I have to say: Both editors that I worked with were absolutely amazing. Everything that anyone has ever mentioned about loving in the book has come out of edits. The holes came in an edit in a later draft. This book was really written in edits.
I'm lucky too. I had editors who understood implicitly the things that were really important to the book. Like the fact that queerness is not really a problem in a more typical way and the fact that it's multi-generational and that the voices are all shuffled up. That it has an unconventional form.
On a language level, I'm very attached to sentences and certain orders and rhythms, and I asked myself one question throughout the whole process: If this were to be cut out or changed, and I was holding that final book in my hands, would I be happy? That was the only thing that guided it.
What matters most is when the person just understands the heart of the piece, and then I give total trust. Once I know that that person has an understanding of what it means on a really deep level, I'm willing to negotiate on anything or change anything. It’s that trust. It’s a relationship that's built on trust.
BL: This novel feels so fully formed and full of self-knowledge about what it is and what it refuses to be. It is also your debut novel! Are there particular ways in which you want your writing to grow?
KMC: I would love to learn how to not write in the first person. That would be really wonderful. I think third-person would be great for me if I could learn how to write it.
Even on a language level, I think wanting to always push and surprise myself. I never want to feel like, Oh, this is my aesthetic, and I know what I'm writing. Being predictable in what I'm writing about, it panics me a little bit. At the same time, I also don't want to be so self-conscious about it either, because I know there are certain things and styles that I’ll always return to.
Also, having a healthier relationship to my writing. I think something I feel — that I think a lot of writers feel as well — is being really harsh on myself for not producing in a very specific way. Or wanting to apologize for everything I've ever written. To other people, it comes across as humility, but for me, I refuse to let myself take pleasure in having finished or done something or even being in the process of something, and I'm just like, I need to calm down. Allow myself to feel pride or feel ownership over it and not feel apologetic over it, which is something I want to grow towards: not apologizing so much for being.
BL: What’s something you love unconditionally about Bestiary?
KMC: Oh wow, this is a question that I needed and didn’t know I needed.
How girl-centric it is — is something that I love unconditionally about it. How focused it is on these young women, these girls. And how much I am invested in their lives and want to imagine their futures. That’s something that I'm really proud of: writing these very young women.