On a recent chilly San Francisco day, I zoomed with Mimi Lok, the author of Last of Her Name (Kaya 2019). Her collection of short stories had gripped me with its nuanced portraits of Hong Kong, London and California. Their evocative flavors tingled my senses. Her characters were so intimately written that they felt familiar, like long lost relatives. Her writing is so lyrical and careful that after finishing each story, I felt like I had finished a poem or awakened from a dream.
Lok is the cofounder and executive director of Voice of Witness, an organization that amplifies marginalized voices as part of its mission to promote justice. As we discussed her work and her collection, it was remarkable to see how well they blended. Both illuminate the situations of marginalized individuals and express a quiet empathy with lost souls, momentarily or permanently unmoored. One of her characters is a mother whose wartime experiences in China and Hong Kong compel her to take drastic measures to protect her daughter, who is violated by a classmate. Another unmoored soul is a young professional, Yi, who is grieving the loss of her grandmother by angst-texting someone in her contacts list named Dave — but it’s unclear whether it’s the right Dave. On Dave’s side, the messages stimulate a temptation to cheat on his partner. Their cross-purposes in communication are a poignant reminder of how alienating and anonymous our global culture has become — even while texting each other directly, we aren’t often on the same page/screen. Lok told me, however, that she wrote the characters with optimism in their fleeting contact: “What I like about Yi is that she is so unfiltered. She follows her id. But she follows her sense of justice as well. She ends up getting something positive out of her odd correspondence with Dave, without necessarily knowing whether he was the right or wrong Dave, without being privy to all of that fantasy. She gets her happy ending despite it all, and in the meantime, Dave is left to embark on his marriage with Mayling.”
More evidence of near social collisions: another character is a grandmother who breaks into a house, lives in a bedroom closet there and proceeds to maintain the entire house when the owner, a young man, goes to work. The owner then attributes the improved upkeep of his residence to his actual housekeeper. While Lok says it is rare when she draws upon real life to generate a story, the Granny Ng of this story is based on a homeless woman in Japan who was discovered living in a man’s closet. Lok says, “It gets people’s attention because the premise is so extreme. Why would someone do something like that? Extreme circumstances get people to do extreme things, whether it’s living in someone’s closet or crossing a desert to try and get to a country that is not particularly hospitable to you. With every story I write I try to shake people out of their comfort zone, lovingly.”
Lok elegantly delineates the quandaries of people who quietly carry the loads of caretaking almost to the point of obsession, who make an art out of being selfless. Her characters find dignity and purpose in abject situations. In one story a young woman, Wai Lan, is faced with engaging in prostitution or losing her home. Both Wai Lan and her roommate Ga Ling have transformed their apartment into a gambling house upon the request of Ga Ling’s boyfriend, who supplies the clients. Ga Ling also engages in prostitution — also at the behest of the unappealing boyfriend — and later asks Wai Lan to do the same. After acquiesing, Wai Lan eventually decides to leave and lose her home but regain her dignity. In another story, the recurring character Mayling redefines boundaries with her brother Nelson, who fails to respect the burden of family that she has shouldered without any of his help. Lok says, “For me, the crucial part of that story is when Mayling decides not to tell or punish him about everything she and her parents had gone through. She decides that he’s not worthy of that, and he wouldn’t give it the respect and gravity it deserves. It’s a moment of grace and acceptance for her.” But characters have different sides, and new facets are presented to us when characters appear in other stories.
As Lok’s collection of characters reveals, one dominant recurrence is the presence of female protagonists. While Lok was not consciously creating this trope, she and her editor Sunyoung Lee identified it after the book was finished: “We think about the lives our mothers had and their mothers had; it’s luck and circumstance that allows us to have the lives we have now. The idea that periods of time have privileges and the constraints has been informed by my work at my nonprofit — just because you were born in a particular body at a particular time, you’re not any better than anyone else around you.” Lok’s mother was one of the earliest storytellers in her life, recounting her formative experiences of rural poverty in Hong Kong and China. Lok points out that her mother’s situation stood in sharp contrast to her male counterparts, particularly regarding access to education and the right to inherit assets. “My mum didn’t tell stories just about herself; she always mentioned someone else, like someone next to the village or one or two hills over.”
Lok’s own life was driven by adventurous choices. She was born and raised in England and moved to Hong Kong to teach at Maryknoll Convent School. She came to San Francisco to complete an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. “It was such a luxury to spend every waking moment thinking, talking or doing writing. But after I finished and my thesis was a story collection, I sent it around to a bunch of agents and I got roundly rejected. Most were nice and encouraging and said it had promise but didn’t want to take it. So I decided I wasn’t a writer, and I should get a job.”
A year later, one of her professors, Peter Orner, asked her to join a team conducting interviews and researching for Underground America, an oral history project. The interviewees were undocumented immigrants in the United States, and the resulting book was to be published by McSweeney's and Voice of Witness, an imprint of McSweeney’s. Lok interviewed Chinese immigrants across the country. “There were about a dozen of us, scrambling, trying to get to different interviews around the country,” she says. “Today, the mission is amplifying voices impacted by and fighting against injustice — focusing on the carceral system as well as immigration and displacement, and we have a book series and the education program.” Lok became Voice of Witness’s director at the end of 2008 in the midst of the recession, a challenging time for nonprofit funding. The program not only survived but flourished. Voice of Witness is now working on their 25th book and bringing their oral history methodology to classrooms.
Lok mentions two of Voice of Witness’s recent releases. One is about Puerto Ricans' experiences during Hurricane Maria. The other is about refugees from the globe — including Syria, Bosnia and Afghanistan — settling in Blacksburg, Virginia, which Lok says is “one of the most diverse places in the United States.” While she and her team do not want to present Blacksburg as a utopia, she says that it is “revealing itself as something of a futurist possibility for how the rest of America can welcome, include, embrace and value refugees and immigrants.”
I feel like I’m dreaming again, but Lok is telling me about a reality. Maybe if we amplify the voices of writers like Mimi Lok, utopia will get a little bit closer.