Sometimes you read a book that is so different from anything you’ve ever read. K-Ming Chang’s new speculative novel Organ Meats sounded unlike anything I had ever read before. The book follows best friends Anita and Rainie, who are bound together by a red string and a linked bloodline with wild dogs. The book is wonderful and disorienting and a little bit unsettling in all of the best ways.
One of my goals is to read outside of the genres I typically read, and this book was a great start. Chang has created such a rich world full of horror, mythology, culture and love. I was lucky enough to sit down and have a chat with Chang about the origin of Organ Meats and how much she enjoys confusing readers with her work.
Sa’iyda: How did the idea for Organ Meats come to you?
K-Ming: It was a journey, definitely, with this book. It was kind of multiple points of inspiration that I then had to connect like a map because I thought I was writing several different things that ended up all being one patchwork thing. But it began initially with being really curious about this breed of dog called the Formosan Mountain Dog.
And when I was doing my initial research, the first source I looked up categorized this dog as being wild rather than being a domesticated dog, which to me was kind of like an oxymoron. I’m like, doesn’t dog mean domesticated? I didn’t know there were wild dogs that still existed. Wouldn’t that just be a wolf?
So contradictory, but that was really fascinating to me learning about the history of these dogs and how they’re kind of now bred with other domesticated species and you can adopt them but many of them come from the stray lineages and they used to hunt alongside Indigenous warriors in Taiwan.
That led me into this rabbit hole of history, but then also being really interested in this creature that is kind of hybrid. There’s so many points of origin, and when I was writing about the girls, I quickly realized their lineages were tied to these dogs. They were filled with a kind of wildness that I think was at odds with the lessons they’ve been taught about what it means to be a daughter, what it means to be a girl. I found that that tension was really fascinating and created this really interesting playground for them to explore their origins, explore what it means to kind of find home within each other.
I love the concept of this dog-human hybrid, but then it’s so specifically tied to womanhood and that experience. How did you make those connections?
What we consider natural versus unnatural is really fascinating to me. In the book, the two girls internalize these messages about, again, what it means to defer one’s own desires or sacrifice your own desires and that being the natural thing to do.
Effacing yourself, giving up yourself in a certain way, never centering your own desires or your own wants. It’s actually so deeply unnatural to learn those things, to believe those things, to be taught those things. And yet, there within the kind of context of the family structures they’re growing up in, it’s coded into how they’re raised and grooming.
It’s like, oh patriarchy is like a form of grooming. Compulsory heterosexuality is a form of grooming. So it’s all about that, and it’s so invisible within these structures. We don’t see it as something unnatural or grooming or predatory. So I wanted to play around with that and always make sure they had this imaginative self that was a refuge for them and the ways that imagination could be a form of trying to liberate themselves from that or trying to look at those things we consider, quote unquote, unnatural and find the origins of that within themselves.
Like you said, compulsory heterosexuality, denying of the urges, I was like, okay, wait, this dog hybrid womanhood, how does this make it sapphic? So did that just kind of come naturally within the story?How did you decide that was going to be an element as well?
I feel like in all of my work, queerness is oftentimes a form of freedom and a form of being able to make a choice or making visible the kinds of choices they have. I feel like if these two girls grew up in an environment where it’s like, oh, you have no choice and you have to learn to bear this condition in a certain condition of choicelessness in a way, or you have to learn to tolerate never realizing your own desires, then queerness is that force that disrupts that and brings them back to themselves and asks the question: What do you want?
That’s a very radical question in the context of the book and in the familial roles they’re learning. And so, I was interested in exploring those sapphic elements in a way that wasn’t necessarily like, oh, it’s something that creates conflict for the girls within the family. It actually in some ways brings them closer to the other women in their family, because the other women in the family are also kind of seeking ways to make choices and to find agency within their lives.
Rather than it being like this is something that makes me totally different from you, there is that sense of like, oh, because I’ve made that choice, I have kind of chosen a different path, but in some ways that sense of queerness and desire is this foundation that all the women in this family stand on. It’s something that kind of realizes, collectively realizes all of their desires.
I love the belief that queerness is freedom because I feel like that’s so true for so many people. I’d love to talk more about culture and how the culture of this family, the culture of the world they’re growing up in, affected the story, but also, as you did your research, how that cultural research formed and shaped what the book was to become.
There were multiple forms of research into dogs, into origin myths, into creation stories, and also thinking about land and water as containing life of its own rather than something that people just kind of enact their own agency upon.
That was definitely part of the research and kind of seeped into the writing of this book and in creating the very animated landscape of the book as well. I think a lot about what kind of stories are erased. What are the kinds of histories I hold so dearly but that in some ways have been either repressed or not given a space or are really not heard in my day to day life or in my public life?
A lot of the book is motivated by wanting to recover matrilineal storytelling — oral histories that are passed down in domestic spaces that aren’t really part of the quote unquote official record of history that we typically consider to be the only form of truth, right? So all forms of gossip and storytelling and voices of people kind of erased from our idea of a patriline. All of those elements were really, really important to me.
I think there is something so precious to the concept of matrilineal storytelling and how women are often the storytellers and those who keep the secrets or keep the things going, even though they’re often shut out. So I’d love to know a little bit more about how the interconnectedness of women and the almost feral quality of these dogs played together in your mind.
I kind of think of it as cascading generations, where each generation is attempting to in some way save the generation that came before it. There’s almost a sense of, like, it’s too late for me to save you or to do something that will completely change your life or the circumstances of your life, but I’m going to try anyway, right?
In some ways, there is a lot of utility in that, and I think there is an element of self-sacrifice to that that is destructive to the characters. But there’s also something incredibly beautiful about it. The commitment of these multiple generations to be accountable for each other. There’s such a deep beauty in this sense of, on one hand, you could consider it a burden, and I think in certain cases for the characters it can be, but on the other hand it’s this sense of responsibility, this sense of ownership in a way where it’s like, ‘I am a part of your life, I’m deeply woven into this history and therefore I feel the sense of responsibility.’ It’s a double-sided thing where it can be so incredibly beautiful and reparative and healing.
And then on the other hand, it can also be dangerous and full of peril. I think the girls are always on the edge of that, where there’s incredible danger in losing themselves and putting themselves in harm’s way, but then also there’s this possibility of choosing each other again and again, committing to each other in a way that is really beautiful and really intimate.
I think the dogs are a kind of collective voice. They’re like a Greek choruswitnessing all of this. I love this idea of this group, this pack of dogs that’s always adapting and mutating and appears as different things to different people and serves different purposes throughout the stories. The dogs become what the girls need them to be. It’s a little bit like a spiritual guardian and then also someone to remind them they are always part of a collective. As much as they are individuals, they’re always part of that bigger tapestry.
What was your favorite thing about writing this really lush world?
I feel like in some ways it is like being in a trance or casting a spell where I get to leave behind the self that I know — the person I am in day-to-day life that I’m very familiar with. All of those anxieties, all of those worries, all of those idiosyncrasies. I get to leave that behind and enter this deeper part of myself.
It’s being in a swimming pool and then the bottom drops. I don’t know, there’s this sense of accessing parts of myself I didn’t even know existed, or were possible, or wanted to say these things. I feel like that’s always such a miracle and such a joy to discover these depths and these desires to tell this story. That’s always a really joyous and pleasurable process of discovery getting to play into a lot of horror elements.
It was very planned that this book would be released in horror season, and hopefully we’ll find readers who enjoy and love that genre, because I just have such a love for the uncanny, the horrible, the monstrous, the abject. And I find that’s where I feel at home. I feel a sense of belonging among things that are terrifying and cause fear and cause chaos.There’s a child part of myself who’s like, Halloween’s my favorite holiday, who just feels such a deep sense of pleasure to get to be a part of this horror season, which I haven’t been before, which is exciting.
Sa’iyda: Last question. What is one thing you hope that readers take away from Organ Meats?
I love when readers are like, ‘I’m so confused and I don’t understand anything that’s going on’. Well, maybe love is a really strong word, but I always find it so interesting when readers are like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what to take away from this book.’ I’m like, that’s perfect. Not quite knowing, that is totally fine because I feel like oftentimes people go into a reading experience wanting to learn something or wanting to have this takeaway.
I remember a magazine once called something I’d written a full body experience. It can just be something that kind of embeds itself in your bones and your marrow and cascades over you. I’m perfectly happy with that. I feel like a lot of reading experiences that I love so much are not necessarily books that I’m really articulate about or quite grasp exactly what it is I’m leaving with, but the sensations of it and the place that it transported me to. It’s always so palpable and so tangible. So I hope that readers find a way to kind of enjoy the disorienting experience of it. And can feel in some ways that it’s brought them somewhere new or given them a form of language that they may not have had access to before. If it’s a book that can help you connect with yourself, that’s always exciting for me.
Organ Meats by K-Ming Chang is out now, and a review on Autostraddle is forthcoming.