K-Ming Chang is a writer of poetry, novels, flash fiction, and everything in between. Her first book, a novel about queer mythologies and desire in three generations of Taiwanese American women called Bestiary, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. It was also named one of the best books of the year by NPR, Kirkus Reviews, and The New York Public Library, as well as a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Chang’s playful and visceral writing has been building up to a body of work that is funny and surreal — and for and about queer Asian and Asian American people.
Her newest book is Gods of Want, a nine-headed phoenix gracing the cover. This is her debut short story collection, which she describes as a triptych, composed of three sections: “Mothers,” “Myths,” and “Moths.” If you go to Chang’s website, she impressively has dozens and dozens of prose pieces, both short stories and flash fiction, published everywhere from McSweeney’s to Lithub to Autostraddle. I was so intrigued by how many stories she had to tell through different forms that I had to take her generative flash fiction class through Kundiman. What I found most wonderful about her as a teacher was her encouragement to students to be more open and permissive to ourselves as writers.
I was ecstatic to talk to Chang about playing with language, obsessing over things, and being horny readers from a young age. During our interview, I heard her lovely pet birds chirping in the background (birds are one of her obsessions as a writer, as she is currently at work on more stories and another novel, in which she promises to deliver more bird content.)
Buchwald: I’m so happy to be doing this Autostraddle interview with you. My first question is taken from an interview Kamala Puligandla did with Patrick Cottrell: As an intro to our queer readers, what are your big three? And I’ve also read that you refer to yourself as “futch” — I’m interested in how these parts of you bleed into your work?
Chang: I’m a Pisces sun, Gemini moon, and Scorpio rising. There’s a lot of Scorpio energy around me; I have a lot of Scorpios in my family, so I find it interesting that I may present as a Scorpio.
I love that question about futch identity. It’s one of those things I was internally gatekeeping for myself. I was really interested in reinventing narratives of girlhood and being playful in writing about femininity and masculinity. When I was in college, somebody said to me, “Oh, you have a very futch energy,” and I loved the playfulness of that invented word. The idea that there is something that you can’t quite pin down about futchness. I just find that that is really conducive to me approaching my writing with a sense of playfulness.
Buchwald: This is such a good introduction to this collection, which is divided into three sections: “Mothers,” “Myths,” and “Moths.” I’d love to hear you talk about how you organized it and the recurring use of “M” words.
Chang: I didn’t have an organization for the book. And it was really difficult for me to find the shape and form of it. I didn’t even know what stories were going to be inside of it, but I realized that I love to return to language and to the micro level of language because I find that the language tells me everything. The sentence tells me everything. If I have no plot, no character, no structure, no form, no theme, all of those things are what I’m struggling with: really big macro aspects of a story. The language always tells me and reveals all. I find that if I just return to the words, the minutiae, the most tiny elements, it can show me all of the really big things that I’m wondering about.
So the M words really leapt out at me. And then I ended up with the three words that form the triptych of the book. This is another example of when I play with language, it’s almost smarter than me and more aware than I am and more revealing than I could ever be when I’m thinking about the story. There’s something about language that is beyond my mind and imagination, and it just ends up revealing all.
Buchwald: It really is a triptych. I could just see it as these three beautiful panels and all the scenes from each story filling up each one.
These stories have appeared in many different publications, and I was surprised to learn that a lot of them, including ones that have already been published, have been reworked. Can you speak more about your editing process?
Chang: Half the stories are published, and half the stories are unpublished. I didn’t plan it — I just ended up thinking about which stories still felt alive for me. There was something about the stories that either troubled me or thrilled me that made me want to return to them, even if they had been published. I let that be a compass in choosing stories. And I try not to think about, if a story’s already published, does that mean I can’t rework it? Or does it mean that it’s already done for me emotionally? I tried to think, “Oh, why do I feel myself constantly revisiting this? What is my subconscious trying to get me to revisit or return to?” So with those stories that had already been published, I found that it was either one of two things: Either I didn’t want to touch anything because in its form, it just felt like it wanted to be in this collection and be neighbors with these other stories, or I did a really dramatic and drastic rewrite, where the endings and characters changed, and everything about it felt really different. There was no in between. It was either my instincts really wanted to preserve or to destroy. I guess it’s very mythical. Everything is either creation or destruction. There are some stories that I wanted to fossilize in this form versus stories that I thought, “Okay, time to destroy everything about it, let it all out, and begin again.”
Buchwald: That’s so great that you bring up that dichotomy of creation and destruction. Another dichotomy I recognized was that of consumption and expulsion.
Chang: I think I’m always playing with some form of the dichotomy, like that of repulsion and attraction, or disgust and desire, which is very queer — being repulsed by something and then also attracted to it and how those two things co-exist. And how desire and want is also accompanied by doubt or uncertainty or shame. All of those things being of one element to me feels like a very queer impulse. Things like consumption and expelling, I’m really interested in how dichotomies are actually not dichotomies and breaking down the boundaries of those. I find that the language for two opposite things are the same. The desire to really lean into something because it’s really gross and because it is so beautiful and perfect. I really love when those moments can overlap.
For consumption and expulsion, to me, it’s all about this process of digestion. I’m really interested in the metabolism of memory and the metabolism of experience — what it means to consume something as a desire to possess something. But because of the nature of our bodies and the porousness of ourselves, you can never really hold onto anything or keep something as it is. Everything is a process of bodily transformation for the characters in this book. I’m really interested in consumption as transformation, because if it’s got to go in one end, it’s got to come out the other end as something different. It has to metabolize.
There’s something kind of poetic about that very basic bodily process of transforming one thing into another. I really wanted to explore what the transformational possibilities of consuming and expelling something are.
I’m really interested in the metabolism of memory and the metabolism of experience — what it means to consume something as a desire to possess something.
Buchwald: There’s also this very prevalent theme of the cycle, specifically the cyclical experiences of memory. Can you speak more about the cyclical nature of your work?
Chang: I do treat my storytelling as a circling in a way. I find that formally and structurally, I’m most interested in stories that end where they begin. The way that I usually find endings to my stories is by looking at the beginning. It’s usually a sense of accumulating language from the beginning that has transformed and then feeds back into the beginning. And it’s this kind of never-ending loop. I’m interested in the cyclical nature of memory and inherited stories, ones that are told intergenerationally or within communities again, and again and again. And I find that all myths are naturally repetitive because they’ve been told so many times. The very nature of myth and folklore is that it’s meant to be repeated over and over again, in different contexts. Because of that, I find that repetition is transformative, rather than something that is static. I’m interested in what it means for a family to have a mythology that it obsessively repeats. And what is being metabolized every time those stories are repeated or cycled through. And what it means to inherit something that is cyclical and to choose what to repeat and what to change. Being cyclical also implies that maybe there isn’t a lot of agency within that, that you’re on this wheel, but I’m really interested in which elements of choice present themselves within that cyclical tally. What do people choose to carry from these very cyclical, passed down stories?
Buchwald: The use of scatalogical humor is apparent in this collection. You’ve talked about Jenny Zhang and Ottessa Moshfegh influencing your work — who else is generating work with that element that influences you?
Chang: Jenny Zhang is a huge inspiration for me. I think the way that she writes with a certain kind of maximalism is so inspiring. I took a Catapult class about coming-of-age stories with her a few years back, and I was so in awe of her generosity and her kindness, and the way she presented storytelling. It was so playful. It was just such a magical experience. Her writing about the scatological, the body, the humor of her work, the love, violence, humor, and sadness, all of it — it taught me that there could be writing that encompasses everything, and it didn’t feel like it had to neatly separate out. It was allowed to be a soup of a being and that was so freeing to me.
A lot of oral storytelling definitely inspired that, because there’s just so much of the scatological and the gross and a lot of mythological traditions. I think just the nature of, oh, what does it mean to build a body? And there’s so much that’s really profane about myth as much as it is sacred. And I just, I loved that so much. I was like, wow, myth is full of incest, pooping, and misbehaving and all of these very unspeakable things. And yet, there’s so much reverence and beauty in that world and it just expanded what I thought was possible and storytelling.
Buchwald: This collection also has great flash. I took your generative flash fiction workshop last year through Kundiman, and you shared these great prompts, some original and some passed down from other teachers. I’d love to know what prompts you give yourself as a writer.
Chang: I typically don’t write prompts for myself, but I do take prompts from other people. I find that if I give myself a limitation, I don’t treat myself very seriously and don’t listen to myself, but I find that I can respect the authority of someone else’s prompts or limitations that are given to me. I really enjoy writing with limitations, because I find that it ends up freeing your mind in other directions, and it kind of forces you to write out of your element. I really need that — to go back to my own element. In order to find myself in my own obsessions, I have to first delve into a realm that I think is really far away and then I end up finding my way back. It’s like a homing pigeon kind of metaphor — where you train a homing pigeon, you release it, and it ends up finding its way back. I’ve had that problem of feeling let go really far away from your home, and then you end up flying back in a certain way. And it always feels like this new journey, and it feels exciting and reinvigorating.
Buchwald: You write poetry and longer form fiction. What is your history with flash fiction? And how do you discern which medium to tell a story? Do you just let it follow you, or do you follow it?
Chang: I’m so thrilled that you asked this question, because flash fiction is my favorite form of all the forms, which I know is a bold statement. I think it’s funny that I started writing flash only after my novel and my collection were fully drafted and finished. I didn’t really know that flash was a possibility. I did write my first novel in vignettes, and I wrote a lot of my short stories in chunks of flash, but I was always thinking, “If I write something that’s 500 or 1,000 words, it has to be stitched into something else, or I have to let some other project cannibalize it.”
What I thought about flash that was so freeing was allowing the work to be its own world. Flash really allows things to be mysterious, and it doesn’t have to make sense the same way that we expect a novel or short story to make sense. I feel like we allow for the inexplicable pity or intentional incompleteness of flash to exist as it is allowed to be flawed. I know a lot of people will say the opposite. I think a lot of people would say about flash, “The shorter the form, the more perfect it has to be.” They’ll say a short story has to be more perfect than a novel because in a novel you can waste words. And then flash has to be even more perfect than a short story because you really can’t waste words. I completely don’t approach flash fiction in that way; I approach flash as being inherently allowing of mystery and messiness. I think we’re really pressured to write towards perfection in a certain way, but I’m like, “Keep the ambiguity! Keep the inexplicable! Keep the fact that it doesn’t fully make sense!” I think there can be something really beautiful about that.
Buchwald: There’s a huge gap in horny queer fiction by Asian women that your work fulfills. This is obviously a book about desire — it’s in the title. I’ve been excited to hear you speak more about queer Asian desire in your writing.
Chang: Oh my God, I feel like you’re opening the floodgates, because I’ve been waiting for someone to notice that almost every single story in this book has a sex scene! I love the genre of romance. I was the kid who would read the book only for the sex scenes. I was like, “Oh, God, I have to go through 900 pages of lore and character development, but I just want to get to the sex scenes!” I was so impatient! I would sometimes only read them and then go back and try to read the 900 pages of lore, but then go back and read the sex scenes anyway. I just find such pleasure and joy in the physicality of these characters and playing with the intimacy on the page. I’m finally getting to write the sex scenes of my dreams — some really weird, some really tender, and others in between. What’s really fun about writing sex scenes is that it never really feels like you’re getting it wrong, because the language around sex and romance is so inherited, and we have so many internalized cliches and turns of phrases that we all know. It does feel like you’re just waiting in this new territory. I thought, “Oh, why not? Why not write about this? Why not attempt to write about this?” Once you diverge from that script, it’s kind of like the sky or sea opening up. There’s just so much to play around with and try.
As a writer, I’m like, “okay, so when do I get them together?” Because as a writer, I explicitly think: “Now for the fun part.” I think that this is probably something inherited from queerness and queer literature — expanding the definition of sex. From romance novels, I learned a very specific definition of what a sex scene is. I was really interested in making a scene of eating as a sex scene, a scene of two people sitting together on a bus as a sex scene. I wanted to rewrite the idea of what it could be, because I think our literary definitions of sex are so limited and narrow and not that much fun. And not that true to life either.
There are also a lot of material desires, like the story about the girl in the dollar store, and that really visceral, teeth-on-edge desire for, like, a keychain. That’s something else I’m interested in – the desire for objects. There’s a lot of desire for connection, to communicate the incommunicable. Throughout the book, there’s a sense that all of these desires, whether they’re bodily, hunger, thirst or spiritual desires are all inseparable from each other in that they become in this world of desire for these characters. I didn’t want the desires of the brain and body to be separate. I was interested in combining and enmeshing those things. I wanted there to be no separation.
I’m finally getting to write the sex scenes of my dreams — some really weird, some really tender, and others in between.
Buchwald: Who are other writers who write about queer sex and inspire you?
Chang: With women’s desires or sexuality, it’s something withheld from you. I found as a kid that, besides romance novels, it was really difficult for me to find things that I thought was actually coming from this place of women’s desires, because there’s this constant impulse from society to dissociate that sense from you or prevent it from expressing itself. What was a real revelation for me was reading Trash by Dorothy Alison, because it’s this book that has erotica next to stories about family, next to stories that break form, next to explorations of trauma. It was this feeling of everything — that it could encompass this entire galaxy of desire, pain, fear, and love. Speaking of not having reverence for genres and really blurring the idea of what can belong in a book together, that is what that book is for me.
Buchwald: What would you want readers, specifically ones who are also writers to take away from this collection?
Chang: I’m really interested in thinking about a queer matriarchy within these families and what it means to recover these matrilineal stories that have been warped or destroyed or told that they were unimportant. Every time I write, it sort of feels like an excavation. I always hope that readers can have their own excavations as they’re reading. It feels like I’m giving someone a shovel and am saying: “You can dig too and it’s okay. You’ll surface somewhere really interesting or generative or beautiful.”